By Marsha Crites • Guest Columnist
It occurred to me as I was hiking up my mountain today that one of the reasons Obama’s “Yes, We Can” slogan may have resonated with so many is that it sounds a bit like the message from our childhood book The Little Engine That Could. In that timeless story, the engine, who had been ridiculed by the newer shinier trains, keeps repeating the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” until he crests the hill and sings, “ I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could.”
The hill we are climbing as a nation right now is incredibly steep. Suffering is all around and seems to spare few businesses or individuals. The morass we have created (yes, most of us have contributed in some small way to the financial mess) is thick. Even the smartest among our leaders will struggle to make the right decisions about what will get us to the top of the hill fastest. I wonder sometimes whether those solutions that are the quick fixes will really be the long-term solutions we need. Indeed, the Little Engine in the story traveled slowly, slowly and precariously, using mainly will power to make it to the top.
If we were really lucky we had parents who could read us that story, who could encourage us when the challenges of childhood seemed insurmountable, who modeled determination and optimism in their own life struggles. But many of us did not have such models. Those who were raised in homes where addiction, abuse, neglect, mental illness, and racism played a large role are likely to suffer more now, as the tools of resilience and perseverance were not available to them in those critical developmental years.
Yet, most of us know at least one person who by force of sheer determination overcame great obstacles to enjoy a better life. I am not necessarily talking about financial obstacles or success here. We all know someone who suffered great losses, unbelievable physical or mental illness, the collapse of all they held dear, and went on, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, to re-create themselves in a powerful and fulfilling way.
I am fortunate in many ways to have worked though Haywood Community College this winter to help provide skills and encouragement to the unemployed, including those incarcerated in prison. Imagine, if you will, preparing to leave prison in this economy. Where will they find shelter, a job, food, and the encouragement they will need to start over, when even those without a record are struggling?
Yet, I seriously believe that those leaving prison have something many of us don’t. Many prisoners have faced their own “bottom,” as they say in the world of recovery from addictions (and the state we keep hoping for in the stock market). They have lost everything and must begin again with a rusty engine and determination to build a whole new life. These folks have a powerful incentive to get it right this time.
But we, as a community, must be willing to offer them the chance, to support their struggles to build stronger families, to learn new skills, to get a job, to be more effective parents and choose new ways of coping with the challenges we all face. It is tempting to judge these folks as people who don’t deserve a second chance. But who among us will cast the first stone?
Look around you in Western North Carolina and you will see lots of miracles taking place. In both Haywood and Jackson counties, in the last two or three months, social service agencies, churches, and other volunteers have opened shelters for the homeless within weeks of determining the need. Folks who have never planted gardens are ordering seeds and waiting eagerly for enough warmth to turn over the earth. People who have never checked on their neighbors are offering a hand with cutting wood, or sharing food.
Without this financial mess, we, as a nation, did not have the fortitude to take on the greed and corruption rife in many of our industries and governmental bodies. We, too, now have the opportunity, like those getting out of prison, to begin again with a new set of ethics. We can hold accountable those institutions that serve us and for whom we work, accountable to the standards of honesty and transparency, servant leadership, justice and accountability. We an insist that as individuals and organizations we stop the thoughtless dependence on fossil fuels. We cab begin to green up our own lives. And we can insist that our food sources be really safe and sustainable.
It will be easy once we are on the down side of the financial mountain to return to our passive neglect of our responsibilities as citizens, just as it will be easy for those leaving prison to return to the addictions and habits that got them into trouble in the first place.
But I, too, have a dream. I dream of a day in the not too distant future, when we can all find honest work for safe and thoughtful companies whose real values play out in more than a slogan on the wall. When all our children have someone to read them The Little Engine That Could. When we have conquered the scourge of addiction and mental illness, problems that cause far more suffering than cancer or heart disease. When we have access to clean fuel and healthy food sources. When businesses understand like our animal brethren, that fowling our nest just doesn’t pay.
If you are among the down and out right now, I encourage you to practice what cultures in the Far East call mindfulness. Whether you are incarcerated, laid off, discouraged, or panicked about our current state of affairs, there are some simple tools that will see you through. In the face of an uncertain future, decide to be present now. Most of us don’t breathe deeply. It really works. Commit to reading to a child daily (start with The Little Engine That Could), make a list first thing in the morning or last at night of all the things you are personally grateful for, play your guitar or piano if you can, bring in daffodils to grace your table. Work at the homeless shelter, go to the library and read an inspiring book, walk or run outside every day, turn off the scary news, take out food from your freezer and cook a heart- and belly-warming soup. Share your wood, your food, your time, and your fledgling hope with those around you. Sing loudly in the shower even if you don’t feel like it.
I promise you that those of us who take this path will see an end to our personal recession sooner than those who sit in front of the TV regretting our pasts and fearing our futures.
A caveat here. If the dark night of the soul you are experiencing is real clinical depression, no amount of music, daffodils, or helping your neighbors will be meaningful, because people who are clinically depressed cannot smell, feel, or hear that which is beautiful or inspirational. If you suffer from clinical depression this is a great time to get or stay on professionally prescribed medicines. If you lack access to medical care seek help for your depression through Smoky Mountain Center or the Good Samaritan Clinic.”
Meanwhile, remember The Little Engine That Could — I think I can, I think I can, I think I can .... I thought I could.