Their stories weren’t of the tragic kind, but in listening to some of the 800,000 American government workers who have been living without a wage during the country’s longest government shutdown, one couldn’t help but feel for them. They had done nothing to deserve such treatment, yet they are losing mortgages, selling their cars, prematurely dipping into their retirement savings, and, in some painful images, taking their kids out of college. If there is a trait of tragedy about the entire thing, it is to be found in the partisan mess that is American politics at the moment and how political leaders have become so calloused to the plight of millions – even if those workers are the ones actually keeping the government going instead of the political masters.
But there is another lesson here. Up until a month ago, most of these workers likely felt their lives were secure and their future promising. Now, just in missing one or two paycheques, they feel like they are on the edge of a cliff, with virtually nothing they can do about it. Such accounts play on our heart strings, but the reality is that millions and millions of citizens living in poverty have have to endure such indignities through every minute of every day. Many can’t locate work. Others have employment but it’s of the minimum wage/no benefits kind.
The numbers of those living in low-income situations is increasing in most Western nations, yet when we see the tentacles of poverty reaching into society and affecting the average lives of government workers, we realize just how near our vulnerability is. It could be that 2019 could become the year of living in fragility. It’s possible; we’re already partway there. It gets infuriating because, as we noted in a previous blog post, the capitalism of the wealthy might be booming but the economy of the average family is frustratingly stagnant. It all leaves most of us too close to the possibility that our way of life could suddenly drop into the cellar, just as happened to those government workers in America.
Our democracies are clearly fragile, as evidenced with Brexit, the tumult in France, and especially the flaunting of the rule of law in the United States. The basic essentials of our collective life have been pummelled in recent years. Those norms of integrity, goodness, equality, truthfulness and kindness have been kicked in the teeth, and though they are still present, they are diminished by our ongoing sense of collective anger, most frequently presented on social media.
The major natural events like hurricanes, flooding, drought and seasonal alteration came closer to us this year than in recent memory. The economic effects are massive, but it is the feeling of vulnerability that they have left us with, and our inability to pull together as humanity to fend off the worst of climate change, that quietly terrify us.
We have learned in recent years that all these challenges we face are somehow connected. Our political, social, economic, cultural and environmental situations affect one another in ways that teach us we are more unprotected than we once believed and that unless we pull together with solid policies and citizen action, the coming 12 months could be even more dangerous.
These words are meant to scare us because, in reality, we’re worried enough already. They are meant to call us together and to find in our need for one another a clear reason to change our fate and reduce our fear. The government workers in America remind us that we are closer to ruin that we imagine.
Author Margaret Mitchell reminded us that life is under no obligation to give us what we would expect. We must do that ourselves, wrestling away from all that turbulence, chaos and vulnerabiity, societies that fight for justice, fairness, a place in the sun for all of us, and, ultimately, a belief that our interdependence on one another, is our greatest hope, not only for survival, but fulfillment.