Monday, March 09, 2009

The Economics of Fear

“In vain you rise up early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat –
for he grants sleep to those he loves.” (Ps 127:2)
The daily papers say it all. The old-age adage is true: No news is good news. People talk about it on the streets and the natural instinct during tough times is to cut back, save more and wait until the storms of uncertainty abate. Most of the Western society is now on a deep financial deficit. At the rate the bailouts are going, one begins to wonder where the money is all going to come from. If we were to graph our faith in human leaders, each bailout announcement together with an unanswered question: "What happened to all the previous money?” only goes to register another major dip of confidence mortal leadership. In the economics of fear and despair, the graph looks more or less the same. Charting downwards sharply and rapidly. In a chart by JP Koning (see below), which graphs all the significant depressions since the early 1929 to the present, we note that the Great Depression lasted for nearly 150 weeks and declined a whopping 90%. Anyone of us can easily become a Doomsday prophet by simply saying that this is only the beginning of the end. Our current economic fall began in 2007 (70 weeks), declining more than 50% with no end in sight! If there is one graph to decelerate confidence, this is it! Unfortunately, this hides a more serious problem: Disappearing emotional assurance.

Fear is very profitable. Just look at insurance premiums and stock market spikes. Market performance is usually driven by consumer sentiments. Consumer sentiments are affected by current events as well as fear-driven pessimism. In the same way, any forms of optimism is in turn encouraged by good news. However most react quickly based on more tangible things rather than invisible future, as far as good news is concerned. Sometimes, the market does not accurately reflect actual health of the economy. The system is far too complex. Even Alan Greenspan has famously admitted that his view of the free-market economy has its flaws. Yet, it is arguably the best that we now have. Unfortunately, it is based too much on the economics of fear.

Fear that kills?
I like what people say about the “old skydiver’s wisdom”, that in skydiving, it is not how far one falls in the air that kills, it is the ground that one falls upon. Like in a movie I remember, where a lady driving at night is trying to shake off a mysterious car tailing her. She becomes so fearful of the car behind, that she loses concentration on the road in front of her. Eventually she dies from a head on collision against the trees. In medical circles, I remember hearing doctors claiming that one's lifespan can be shorted by worries alone. In other words, it is the worry, not the illness that accelerates any fatality. The famous poet, Robert Frost says it well:
"The reason why worry kills more people than work is that more people worry than work." Robert Frost
I like this statement by an unknown author:
"Blessed is the person who is too busy to worry in the daytime and too sleepy to worry at night." Author Unknown
This has biblical evidence. The Psalmist in the verse at the beginning of this article reminds us of the gift of sleep. Psalm 127 does not begin with contention with the enemies of the world. It begins with the Lord, that we need to recognize the source of all good work, otherwise no matter what good anybody tries to create, it is but in vain. No matter how much time and resources we pour in, without God’s blessings, they are usually not as significant as we think. In other words, any activity that is God-‘less’ is essentially HOPE-less. Take God out of any equation, and we are left on our own, an susceptible to all kinds of devices that will surely fail our deepest expectations.

Patricia Pearson in her new book: "A Brief History of Anxiety" (Random House Canada, 2008) has a chapter that talks briefly about the different fears faced by men and women. Men tends to be more vulnerable to anything that impacts their self-esteem, like being rejected relationally or in terms of their career advancement. For women, anxiety tends to come from a different source: exclusion from decision-making networks. Interestingly, the feminist movement, while championing equal rights, is essentially an attempt to try to graft themselves forcibly into a society perceived as dominated by men. In other words, if we were to extrapolate Pearson's argument to the economics of fear, men is relatively more affected. We may agree or disagree with Pearson, but if you are male, it does not hurt to pay yourself a little more attention. Be prepared and be ready to demonstrate the hope you have in your life. How? Let the psalmist help.

A Ps 127 Perspective
Ps 127:3 draws us back from the worries of the world of work and activity, back to what matters more: the family and the children we love. The psalmist intentionally interrupts one’s train of thought about work, and draws the reader to reflect on children as a reward from the Lord. Gradually, the Psalmist builds up his picture to incorporate the idea that it is not one’s responsibility to battle, but to BUILD UP one’s household for battle. If the battle is the Lord's should not the warriors be of the Lord? We can think of warfare in terms of three levels. At the first level, the battle is not our individual responsibility. In fact, we are called to be faithful to God, not to be fearful of the devilish schemes of the world. The Lord seems to be reminding us that any battle for God is never going to be an individual crusade. In the army of God, there are no Rambos. Secondly, our immediate responsibility is to build up our household of faith, with children our reward of faith. If forced to make a choice between a “successful business” versus a “strong, united family,” many of us will claim that the family wins hands-down. The first thing in any battle is to ensure that the soldiers remain highly motivated. Building up the family effectively assures that one's unit remains intact and solidly assured. Likewise, in the arena of fear, do not let the economics of fear bring down the harmonics of family. The English author, William R Inge gives a financial twist to worry saying:
"Worry is interest paid on trouble before it is due." (William R. Inge)
For the pessimist, the ground is one that is hard and anyone falling on it can hardly survive the impact. For the optimist, at the bottom, there will be a cushion with firemen and emergency crew holding up the edges of the safety platform to catch us when we fall. For the Christian, we know that at the end of the downward spiral, we need not panic about not having man-made cushion, nor worry about when we are going to die. Instead, we know that at some point of the seemingly endless tumble, we will be scooped up, and placed safe in the hands of our Loving Father. Even better, for the Christian, Jesus has promised never to leave nor forsake us. That means in all of our struggles, Jesus is with us, yesterday, today and forever. Do not be taken in by the economics of fear. Be received into the confidence of God, via the Hand of the loving Father in heaven.

Let me end by saying that we need not be victimized unnecessarily by the economics of fear. Yes, times are hard, and jobs are being lost everyday. At the same time, can we also see that the sun rises by day, and the moon by night? Many events in life remain much the same. The simple pleasures of life can still be appreciated without extravagant spending. Things like a simple sandwich, a cup of coffee, a medium sized muffin, and even an occasional trip to the video store. Rarely do we have anyone so poor that they cannot afford to buy a friend a Cappucino, or a yummy delicious cake for a beloved birthday child. The simple pleasures of life can also be free; like a walk in the park, or a game of chess over tea with your favourite buddy. There are battles to be fought and wars to be won. Let our sense of God's timing comfort and deliver us from worry. The important thing is that, when we are safely residing in the will of God, we will not fear the unknown, or to wonder what is going to happen tomorrow. God is our Father who knows best, a General who sees ahead, who has never and will never ever lose any war. The war has already being won, at the cross! We are now waiting for the glorious ushering in of the Kingdom in its fullness. Until that happens, Jesus remains our example, who chooses to serve without expecting to be served. The Spirit enthusiastically dwells in us as our Helper and our Comforter to guide us along physically, emotionally, spiritually and in all aspects of life important to us.

The economics of fear can derail us from our true purpose: Kingdom Living. It can twist apart any hopes we have may about contributing to the expansion of the Word of God. Leave our economics of fear to God. Instead, put on the harmonics of love and goodwill. Let our light shine before men, and not our worries before the world. Ps 127 closes with a picture of contention with the enemies at the gate. The key is to be ready. When the time to battle comes, blessed is the one who has full of soldiers prepared to fight. When the moment of war begins, blessed are those who are so charged up with hope and victory-seeking, that they engage the opposition with strength, courage and exceptional motivation of love. The battle is the Lord’s. The economics of fear is but another attempt to make us doubt God, to decrease our faith in kingdom work. We have to nip this spiritual disease at the bud quickly and intentionally. Lest our seed gets eaten away by birds; or our seed grow without roots; or having our seed suffocated by the worries and deceits of the world. Let our seed grow not in the economics of fear, but in the hope of God. Then and only when, when we contend with the enemies at the gate, when we face the enemies at the front, we close our backdoor of vulnerability, cutting off the devil’s most potent weapon in the economics of fear: Deception.


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