Everyone is still trying to get accustomed to these troubled times. People are trying to grasp the new realities and to develop new plans for the future and new coping strategies for the present; everyone has gone back to the drawing board, only to discover that the old verities and certainties no longer apply.
An adage that is generally, probably mistakenly, taken as an old Chinese curse says: May you live in interesting times. Surely, I am not over-interpreting by changing "interesting" to "troubled."
As for the real Chinese antecedent of this cures, the best guess has been: "It's better to be a dog in a peaceful time than a man in a chaotic period."
In troubled times the data you used to project and plan your future are no longer relevant. It is one thing to feel that you are lost, quite another to feel that things are not going to return to normal. It is one thing to lose your bearings; quite another to feel that there are no more bearings. In troubled times you cannot project a predictable future. How can you plan for it?
Today it feels like the storm that engulfed the financial system last year has passed. People are not as afraid as they once were. They are talking about green shoots and reliquefied bank balance sheets.
Yet, the anxiety still lives. It feels like we can all breathe a sign of relief, yet the anxiety is there, below the surface, ready to roar again.
No sensible person lives through a hurricane and declares that that was the last one he will ever see.
In normal times the young lawyer who amassed a pile of debt to finance his education could expect to land a great job in a top law firm. In fact, he had been already been offered the job. He was preparing himself to set out on his life plan.
In troubled times firm just called to rescind the job offer. Or else, to cut his salary. The result: he can no longer service his student loans. The few jobs he has rustled up pay so little that he will have to live at home with his parents.
His life plan has come crashing down around him. And he is not the only one involved. Can he still propose marriage to his girlfriend? Can he, a trained attorney, ask a woman to suffer through the indignity of living in his parents' basement. Especially if he does not know what his future will look like. Or whether he will even have a future.
Or, think about the couple that is planning to retire. They had saved up for this moment, had squirreled away as much as they could, and invested as conservatively as possible. Last year, however, they discovered that there was no safe haven for their assets. Financial stocks... obliterated. Bonds... severe decline. Blue chip stocks... down more than 50%.
And let's say that they have recovered a large portion of what they lost. Now what? In troubled times how do you secure your financial future. Bonds seem to be safe, but how safe can they be with the government issuing more and more debt to increasingly reluctant lenders. And what about the dollar? What will the decline in the dollar do to their purchasing power. Much of what they buy comes from foreign countries. How much will their lifestyle be hurt by the falling dollar? And, what if there is a bout of inflation. How can they live on a fixed income from their bond investments if the currency becomes seriously inflated?
In normal times people would sit back, hunker down, and put their money in treasury bonds. They would think that the American dollar is as good as gold. Now, the the only thing they are sure of is that they are sitting on a powder keg. In these troubled times they do not know what to do. So, they don't.
Take another married working couple. They have two children and two jobs and a mortgage. In normal times these would be good things. In these troubled times they are both facing the prospect of losing their jobs.
Even if they are among the happy few who are still working, the threat of unemployment, of defaulting on their mortgage, of not providing for their children hangs over their dreams. Their companies are downsizing. They need to make room for younger lower-salaried workers.
These people may still have jobs but they are surrounded by friends and neighbors who have lost theirs. Every day they go to work to find empty workstations, remnants of lost jobs, and an eerie silence where once they were hearing the bustle of activity.
Those few remaining colleagues are exuding dread. Who knows who will be next?
And then, in New York, there are people who have spent their careers in journalism, publishing, or the print media. In troubled times they are not worried about the fact that the company just outsourced a few jobs, or even that it cut back. They are facing an unprecedented situation: their entire industry is failing; it seems to be disintegrating before their eyes. It is going away, and there is no point waiting for it to rise from the ashes. It is simply not going to happen.
Where can they go now? What can they do? They love books and reading and writing. How are they going to be able to make a living now that the print media has entered a death swoon?
In troubled times they might find new jobs, even new careers. But how well will those jobs pay? Worse yet, how much of their social standing and prestige will be compromised in the transition from managing editor or investment banker to maitre d'?
A job is not just a paycheck. It is a network of social relationships, of insider gossip, of cocktail parties, of company picnics. When you lose your job, and especially when your industry implodes, you find yourself without your social bearings.
Of course, it is not all gloom and doom out there. Some people are thriving, most conspicuously anyone who works for Goldman Sachs. The bank had a banner year and will soon be distributing giant bonuses. Bravo!
Is it time for these bankers to pop open the champagne and celebrate their good fortune? Not on your life. In troubled times you do not celebrate. You apologize.
Thus Goldman CEO Blankfein has been apologizing for its role in last year's financial debacle, and is trying to limit the damage he did by saying recently that Goldman was doing God's work.
In troubled times those who do well are prohibited from enjoying their success. The rich feel like they are walking around with a target on their backs. They used to be Masters and Mistresses of the Universe; now they are treated like common criminals, as though they should feel guilty for being wealthy.
Surely, it would be a boon to the New York economy if these bankers went out and spent their bonus money like drunken sailors. But they can't. In troubled times, profligate spending looks bad; it provokes envy and resentment; it elicits ever-growing tax bills.
Forgetting the bad PR, these same titans of the banking industry have friends and neighbors and relatives who have been far less fortunate. It is the height of poor taste to flaunt your success when so many of your former colleagues are out of work, with mortgage and tuition payments breathing down their necks.
We are not living in a time of change, transformation, and growth. The trouble beneath the surface of the national psyche manifests itself as a vacillation between anxiety and complacency, between an anguish that recognizes that the world has undergone a change for the worst, and a complacency that refuses to admit that it is real.
It can't be happening here; it can't be happening to us. Yet it is.
It is not surprising that more and more people are using coaches to help them to get through the difficulties that this sea change has produced. Thankfully, many therapists are doing more coaching and less therapy.
They have grasped the first lesson: in troubled times the one thing you do not want to do is go it alone.