Dear Dr. Hurd: I’m writing in response to your Daily Dose of Reason column, ‘America in Reverse.’ (3/22/12) I have to say that reading that article is painful for me because I had to move back in with my mother after losing my job. I’ve been working odd jobs ever since, which pays very little. I had been on my own for many years. I loved it. I prided myself in taking responsibility for my life. I was very successful at it too. But these past two and a half years have been trying for me. Sometimes I sit and think that I may be stuck here forever. I know I am not responsible for losing my job. In fact, my layoff is directly related to the financial collapse. I worked in investment real estate for a major corporation.
My mother and I are both struggling, since she lost her job also. My question to you is, how can one maintain a positive outlook when our culture/society is making it increasingly difficult for rational, competent people to function? Because of my layoff I’ve decided to pursue a new career, and have started a small direct selling business. It’s not easy, and sometimes I think that things will not improve since I’m not making a lot of money. What tips do you have to keep optimistic in a hostile culture?
Dr. Hurd’s Reply:
First, focus on the ‘micro’ level and not the ‘macro’ level. In other words, don’t think exclusively about the culture right now. Don’t think only about the stupid people in power doing incredibly stupid and destructive things. Think about your particular wants, needs and options. The government has hampered and possibly destroyed the real estate and financial markets. Could they come back? Sure, if the market ever became free again, and if the currency were to stop being manipulated by politicians with agendas. A free market is not utopia, but a free market is the only context in which there can ever be any lasting growth and prosperity. That’s not going to happen in the near term, not under the existing Congress, and not under a Romney Administration or a second Obama Administration. Ten years or more down the road—who knows? But for now, forget it.
Your job is to look for new options. It sounds like you’ve already started. So what if you’re not making a lot of money right away? Can’t you keep making modifications until you get it right? You’ve done that before, in your prior career. What rational reason is there to suggest you can’t do it again? Keep in mind that ninety percent of the population is still employed. (Or maybe 85 percent if you consider how government fudges the numbers.) That’s still a lot of employment going on out there. The fact that you’re in such a tight spot means that you have less to lose. It means that you’re willing to take more risks. Something that was a risk when you were making $75,000 a year, or $200,000 a year, and you had more to lose, is not nearly the risk when you’re making much less and forced to live with your mother. Now is the time to think out of the box and create new options. Don’t falter in that quest. Ramp it up! Push harder. Only your negative thoughts can stop you, but you don’t have to listen to them.
There’s no question that politicians and dominant social trends are your enemy. But you have a potentially bigger, and even more relevant enemy: Yourself. Don’t stand in your own way. Don’t think things like, ‘I don’t have any start up capital. Everything is a mess. I can’t do anything.’ In reality, there are some things you cannot do. You cannot get back into your previous career, at least not any time soon. I’m not suggesting you give up on that. Keep doing what you’re doing to make a comeback in that arena. But start working on a ‘plan B’ and soon. Doing odd jobs and cutting costs, like living with your mother, are fine. But you ultimately need more to live for than that. Survival is important, and obviously comes first. But even while you’re struggling to survive, you can have another plan in place and in progress.
When you get down, read and watch biographies. This can include biographies of people you don’t particularly know of, or care that much about. I do this all the time. It’s the best form of continuing education for someone in psychology, and sure beats all those asinine ‘self-help’ books out there. It also beats watching the news, seeing twits with power do everything they can to bring down the world. Biographies are real-life examples of real people who struggle and fall, and then rise again; and who fall again, and then rise again.
Regardless of the cultural and social-political context, you always have the ability to make a comeback. It’s true, the options for your comeback are somewhat shaped by the context in which you live, and circumstances over which you do not have immediate and direct control. But please don’t let the fact that you don’t have immediate and direct control over some things obscure your awareness of the fact that you have immediate and direct control over many things.
There are people who did OK during the Great Depression. I’ve read that there are people who made millions in that time. There are people who pursued values in the Dark Ages, a time of religious insanity and political cruelty. People have even had inspiring lives in the context of dictatorships, running from them or even playing a role in overthrowing them. Consider Nien Cheng (whom I once met), who lived a prosperous life in pre-Communist China, only to be jailed for years under the Maoist dictatorship — then to rise again in the 1980s, coming to America. I’m not trying to minimize the terrible nature of terrible things. But I am trying to prove to you that values can be pursued and achieved in just about any context — including the depressing era of Obama.
Don’t let the idiots stop you. Face the facts and call the stupid trends what they are. Spread my articles, or the writings of anyone with whom you agree, far and wide. Get people talking and thinking so we can restore freedom and rationality to at least part of the world. It’s always possible and always necessary to fight for these things, as these virtues will probably always be under attack. That’s the only way we’re going to save our society, and restore a context in which the unfettered pursuit of limitless values can be achieved. The fight and the pursuit of this is, in part, a value itself.
Your life does not have to be on hold, or held hostage to, a perfect state in which nothing will ever be troubling again. If it were, then nobody in human history would have ever accomplished anything. Others have found their own triumphs, even in crisis. You can too.