Sunday, May 05, 2013

Indebted



“You can have my money, but you can’t have me.” - M.I.A.

"Human society will never escape the problem of the equitable distribution of the physical and cultural goods which provide for the preservation and fulfillment of human life." - Reinhold Niebuhr

This May Day, as students converged on Cooper Union Sq. to speak out on the high costs of education, I was being interviewed by RNN reporter, Dominic Carter, about my own student debt. As students and teachers offered free classes to the public and engaged in open discussions about the role and costs of education in our capitalist society, I explained to Dominic that even though I am fortunate enough to have a full-time (and two part-time...) jobs, my wife and I are still unable to both “make a living” in New York and pay back my student debt. Each month, we are frustratingly forced to juggle expenses and try to determine who will, or will not get paid? Some months it’s ConEd, others, Verizon, rarely Time Warner, and never the landlord, the MTA, or our stomachs.   
  It is aggravating to hear the myths associated with the indebted: we’re lazy, wasteful, whining moochers, incapable of balancing our budgets. But in all reality these are simplistic, spiteful generalizations that rarely speak to the true complexities of those burdened by the current global economic stalemate.  
       I suppose there will always be ignorant, indolent bastards in any society; however, this minority should not determine, nor define the overall policies and principles for the majority of industrious, hardworking individuals who proudly do all they can just to get by. (I should mention here, that I do support social welfare programs and feel our government could do more to invest in our communities.) But I wonder about those not on assistance. Sometimes, especially while on the train, I wonder how many commuters, whom I may assume are “successful” are merely faking it to make it? Likely, there are others who are also living paycheck-to-paycheck: disciplined, competitive, punctual, and desperately doing their best to avert life’s unexpected crises. 
  Arguably, the one thing that remains equitable for both the have’s and the have-not’s, is that all our lives continue to tick by at the same frenetic pace. However, for those burdened by debt, life is rarely an enriching or fulfilling experience. For the indebted, carefree, relaxing, and/or enjoyable experiences can be something of a luxury. (Always annoying to sit through someone else’s stories of European Tours, ski weekends, or glamourous trips to Asia.) Existence for those in debt is rarely a celebration, it is instead one consumed by frustration and a growing anger at not being able to truly achieve freedom. Some become so consumed by their debt that they obsessively fixate-on it, asking, “How can I ever pay this off?” Stop worrying, you won’t. Arguably, most of us will die with our debt; accordingly, I determined long ago that it is better to just accept it and move on.  Life is too damn precious and short to obsess on something I have little control over.
  I have done the math, cut expenses where I can, and budgeted my monthly intake and outtake. I am currently able to just make it; meaning, I can pay for the essentials of this twenty-first-century life, but nothing more. Unfortunately, paying for these essentials, means I am rarely able to make my student loan, credit card payments (which can both begin to add up and seem impossible to pay overtime), let alone put any money aside into a savings account. But I work hard and often. Accordingly, I will continue to do so, but I will not let this vicious cycle bring me down, I will enjoy life while I can. 
          Sure, all the while I may remain like the others - guilty of chasing that proverbial cheddar always hoping that the chase will one day lead to a private Caribbean Island, where the sun is warm and the drinks are always cool. Ultimately, such goals are never certainties and utopian at best. So what? I continue to (as 50 cent advised) Get Rich or Die Trying; nevertheless, reminding myself of what Seneca also said (long before "fifty"...), that “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.” Good point, better to live a satisfying, frugal life, than one burdened by the chase of fleeting materialism and greed ( i.e., the rat race.) 
  Yes, for now, as it has for so long, “making it” in America, is about seeking to live as comfortably as possible. Much of what we “own” or control is based on the credit system: homes, cars, degrees, etc. We hear that the whole economic system is “sluggish” and seems to be teetering on the precipice of collapse. But the job outlook is... good? And the stock market continues to climb. For those of us lucky enough to have food, clothing, and entertainment -luxuries much of the planet’s population so often goes without- we should not complain when taking so much for granted. We all want to work, but not all have jobs. We are all people who want recognition for positively contributing to our communities.
  Before Mr. Carter concluded his interview with me on May Day, he asked: “Don’t you think this debt you have is just un-American? I mean, what if you want to buy a house? Or raise a family and need a car?”
  I laughed and responded that it is in fact totally ‘American’ to live a life crippled by debt and credit. The entire country is in debt! In America, credit culture is just assumed. I told Mr. Carter that I strongly believe the way we look at wealth and success in this country must change. 
  In order for the human species to survive on this planet, we must begin cohabiting with it. Sure we may owe money to the banks, but we owe everything to the natural world that surrounds and constitutes us. Our definitions of 'making it', must change; otherwise, we must face and live-up to the harsh realities of our current inequitable and unsustainable system. True reward can come through creative collaborations that can be both enriching and enlightening for both community and individual alike. Life should be more for the cerebral and mental and less for the material. 
       Perhaps, brother Chris Hedges is right when he warned last spring, that “Growth is the problem.” Yes, growth at the expense of the environment and human equity, ‘is the problem’ but not growth itself. Growth need not be equated with consumption and waste, growth can be learning, speaking, feeding, sharing.
  I don’t claim to know how to pay off my student debt, but I will likely die trying. I also don’t claim to have a doctorate in economics and/or know how to solve any of our many problems; however, I do see a lot of pointless and wasteful practices happening all the time. I want us to ask the difficult questions, not avoid them. How can we rationally respond to our current environmental, economic, and social political crisis?
  Debt is something that can -if we let it- consume our lives.  For some, it is a debt to the bank on a house or a student loan, for others, it is debt to a relative or friend. But for all of us, we are indebted to the planet and life itself. Thus, we are not alone in that we are all indebted. But there are solutions to these problems; however, we must work together and be willing to change ourselves in order to subsequently change them.

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