Rebecca Elia's Blog

All about Feminine Health, Healing, and Greece

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Surviving the Financial Crisis: The New Pioneers

The Greek equivalent of making lemons out of lemonade

It seems late to be addressing our financial crisis, but I'm noticing a second reaction is when our fears can transmute into apathy, numbness, submerged anxiety or underlying depression. Many do not feel they can express their concerns any longer, simply because this has become old news. We're being told that we can never hope to achieve the standard of living most of us have grown accustomed to, that it will take years for our economy to recover, if, indeed, this is even possible. Most of us have lost a substantial portion, if not all, of our retirement accounts and savings. Many of us have become even more isolated, accompanied only by our fears. All of us have had to make enormous changes.

Some of you know that I recently returned from Greece. Their economic situation is bleak. Most families have at least one family member out of work. Many families do not contain a single working adult. Their situation is as bad, if not worse than our dire one in California, and, yet, their reactions differ from ours. I’m not quite sure what I expected to find, but, from the outside, life appeared to continue as usual. One midweek evening in Volos, I went out with friends. It took us awhile to find a taverna with an empty table. Our friend turned to me, waving at our first choice-- packed from end-to-end--and proclaimed, “Our financial crisis!”

Don’t get me wrong; they are hurting. Most of my friends are experiencing extreme difficulties…so how is it that their mood was generally better, that they were the most generous, ever, to me? I remember seeing an article, earlier this year, in a major U.S. news publication commenting on how little the Athenian nightlife reflected their economic depression. One possible conclusion is that of escapism and denial, but it was clear to me that this is not the case.

When I returned to the U.S., friends and acquaintances greeted me with the usual comments: “How lucky you are!” “So great that you have the freedom to do this.” “Wow! I’ve never taken a six week vacation in my life, let alone each year!” When those same folks realized that I haven’t held a salaried position for over two years, they became silent and didn’t know how to respond.

This led me to reflect not only on the differences in our resources (Greece vs. U.S.) but also in our choices. I remembered this again, recently, when I met the mother of a local TV show host. Her mom--now in her 70’s—lost her husband many years ago and single-handedly raised five children, who now have ten children of their own. All her children are well-educated and successful . She was a hard-working mother, who, in her words “did what needed to be done without thinking about it.” She reminded me of my mother.

I realized, for some, the adjustment is so great they don’t even know where to start, but much of it boils down to choices. And most of us will not make the hard choices until we’re pushed into corners—deep, dark, lonely, crowded corners.

I may have not been surrounded by mentors to help me negotiate medical training or start a business, but I do have a mother who modeled choice. On my parents’ two-teacher income, my mother of three children found a way—a way to build a summer cabin in the mountains where we all spent three months each year, a way to feed us, clothe us, and pay for our university educations, a way for us all to learn how to snow ski (on brand new equipment purchased at a pre-season sale… When the check-out clerk rang up clothes and equipment for a family of five—a whopping $600 sale—he said to my mom “Your family must love to ski!” I’ll never forget his expression when she answered, “Yes, we will, after we’ve had our first lessons.”), a way to obtain her PhD--in her 50’s--while working a regular job, a way for us all to travel to Europe together for the summer (exchanging homes and cars with a family in France), and the piece de resistance, a way to buy a home in the most expensive area of our city when most women her age would be scaling down for retirement. One of my mom’s happiest moments is reflected in a newspaper article on her wall. It shows our entire family during graduation week. Why? Because four of us graduated earning five degrees within one week of each other.

How did she accomplish this? Hard work and choices. We shopped at discount stores; we bought used cars; Mom cooked, rather than dining out. Did we compromise on the things that were important? No. We lived in a nice home. My entire family loves to cook—mom prepared gourmet meals (Coquille St. Jacques served in half shells and Dobos Torte), and don’t forget the higher degrees from great schools, skiing at our mountain home, and European travel.

I made different choices than she did, but I learned from Mom that I had choices. I chose to structure my life the way I desired, knowing full well it would set me apart from most physicians (so much so, that I’d be harassed by the IRS for not making enough money!). Given limited financial resources, I chose how best to use them, given that “resources” spanned more than finances. Many other elements contribute to the richness of my life.

Enter: the Greeks. I realized, my family shares with the Greeks a strong sense of community and shared resources. Neither is common in the U.S., and so we struggle. Most Greeks live in houses tiny by our standards. Most live on a small percentage of our budgets. Most work many more hours than we do, but also spend many more hours in the company of family and friends. Most have few material possessions. Many have experienced hard economic times and have previously lived under a dictatorship. I believe all of these differences give them strength to persevere. Having the support of family, not just emotionally but physically, provides power where we are weak. Are there disadvantages of sharing a family home or living in small quarters? Of course; however, in times of hardship or need (pregnancy, newborn, young children, one-parent households, job loss, illness, family deaths), they have a built-in support system that most of us lack.

We can use this information to our advantage. Most of us are having to make tough choices…what stays, what goes…but it’s also a time of creative restructuring—and I’m not going Pollyanna on you. It’s time to ask the tough questions, like “What is most essential to me?” “What are the most important aspects of my life?” “How do I want to live my life?” “Where and with whom will I create family and community?” “What do I want for me and my loved ones?” “What am I willing to give up?” “What do I want to create?”

It may not feel like it right now, but the advantage we do have over the Greeks (and most other nations in our world) is our freedom of thought and opportunity to create anew. With established structures and modes of thinking crumbling all around us, it’s time to get real and find creative solutions--and, when we do, to share our solutions with each other.

We are the new generation of pioneers. It’s time.

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