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Does Austerity Have Value?

By Michael Strelcheck

The current economic downturn has been on-going for a while now with no foreseeable end in sight. Although this period of forced austerity certainly has had its down-side it’s helpful (as far as getting through it) if one can see something of value to it.

Surprisingly, not many experts saw the economic downturn coming. In fact many economists thought that the “boom and bust” cycles of our country’s past had been eradicated from modern day economics – hello! Perhaps after this wake-up call the idea will finally dawn upon the experts that financial instability and economic “boom and bust” are directly related to capitalism’s “greedy” attitude towards maximizing profits. Now I don’t have any problem with the idea of making profit, but when the goal of enterprise is to obtain and control monetary wealth it often creates a vacuum in a society. It works like this. According to economic data, big business is sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars of profits in the bank, which, since it’s in the bank, is unavailable for circulation in the economy. The reduction of money available slows commerce, for there’s a lack of spending cash, which then slows economic growth (people and small businesses don’t have cash to buy stuff). It’s not rocket science. The problem that faces our economy is how to we get money back out into consumers’ hands – pronto. It’s clear that having our government dump “stimulus” cash into the economy can only work to a degree, so we need a change of attitude from big business. Perhaps they need to be willing to risk reinvesting their profits more actively in communities than they are currently doing? In any event, it seems big money interests hold the answer as to when economic prosperity will return.

But, while we wait for cash (or the potential for cash) to return in abundance to our free markets, we can focus on getting to know ourselves better. You have to admit, when you are not engaged in costly activities that entertain – your attention is available. A certain control or restraint of the material senses and appetites occur in austere times which is helpful in providing the “inner space” needed to explore one’s true identity. This idea is essential to a spiritual retreat, where material stimulus is removed from a person’s surroundings in order to experience what they’re left with. That’s when you find out if you like who you are, or if you have been spending money on stuff to try and distract yourself from the fact that you don’t like being with yourself. You know what they say, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Consequently, when you are alone (with yourself) with nothing to do, you may discover why you may be unhappy with yourself. This is a good thing, because becoming aware of what’s bugging you gives you an opportunity to make some constructive changes.

In the Eastern world of spirituality we find the idea of choosing personal austerity as a pathway to enlightenment. This practice is called “Tapasya” in Sanskrit and was made famous by Buddha who was born a prince but chose to give up all his worldly possessions believing that those possessions held him back. Through the practice of Tapasya the individual works to free their mind from worldly desires, clearing a space within where the age-long accumulation of forces that hold them enthralled to the physical world are “burned off”, allowing their consciousness to rise unimpeded towards  an envisioned spiritual goal. Tapasya literally means to burn or heat up. While the path of choosing severe austerity may be too extreme for most people its basic idea may be helpful to individuals and societies in order to find a healthy balance. Since we have gone this far, already, we might as well ask the question. “Do we desire more than we need?” If so, perhaps this is why we never seem to be happy with ourselves?

Fortunately, our society’s current period of austerity holds some positive potential. It can help to reduce excessive consumerism and lead people to think more creatively about the future, for our nation’s prosperity is built on individual entrepreneurship. When one feels a lack of something that feeling can really fire-up the creative juices. Another old axiom comes to mind, “desperation is the Mother of inspiration.” This may sound a little course but there’s no doubt that human need inspires an individual to engage their creative spirit. There are many examples of people and groups who are leading the way in this area. The Voluntary Simplicity Movement for example calls for individuals to stop living on auto-pilot and deliberately start making life-changing choices that release them from the non-essential activities that permeate modern life, making it possible to live in accordance with their most important goals and values. The priorities of our consumer and work-orientated culture often run counter to that which enriches and inspires us. “Simplifiers” lives, they say, are often enhanced by choices to reduce consumption and turning to simpler activities. There is a positive effect on their relationships, family life, community service and environment.

History shows that austere times can have the capacity to transform people and nations. For example Sparta, the city-state of ancient Greece, became famous for the military abilities of its citizens through their austere way of life.  From this city’s name, the word “spartan” became the term that is still used today to indicate conservation and self-discipline. It’s ironic that it’s modern day Greece that is experiencing some of the most severe economic difficulties and being subjected to “austerity packages”, but so too are many other debt-ridden countries. Perhaps, just like individuals, these societies don’t like themselves and overspend in an effort to hide from their feelings of insecurity or self-dislike?

Perhaps the most positive thing that can be said about an economic recession is that once there is one, the only way things can go is up! History has proven this to be true time and time again.  So, take a moment and consider what things you don’t need, letting them go so that there is room for the new things that are soon to arrive.

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