Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fear, Happiness and the New Economy

“You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.” Cesar Chavez

“Fearlessness is the first prerequisite for a spiritual path.” Ghandi

In a sense, much of our oppression remains only because our fears support the continuation of an oppressive economic system and prevent radical change. How did we end up so far into this insane economy that prioritizes profit over happiness, the earth, and each other?

In the US, the most predominant religions are Christianity and atheism or agnosticism (which often simply means apathy). Christianity, as I was taught growing up, calls us to be the best, the least sinning, and the most holy so that one day we will enter the distant kingdom of heaven separate from the material world we now inhabit. Atheism calls us to not believe in anything beyond our own material form and our material surroundings. Both of these perspectives promote fear of death. In Christianity, fear that we may not be good enough to be saved and go to heaven and thus end up in eternal hell (or private doubts linger about whether Christianity is right at all). In atheism, we fear that our essence will disappear with our material death. Our fears in life range from discomfort to being alone to not being loved to being meaningless.

Our ability to create a loving economy that meets people’s needs and true desires is held back by these fears. We are afraid of death, so we beg for crumbs from the elites and try not to rock the boat. Often we don’t speak the truth and act authentically, loving and unselfishly, for fear we may be pushed out of the boat economically. Our lack of faith in ourselves and in each other and our lack of connection exacerbates these fears. We funnel our energy towards getting crumbs and appealing to those in power rather stepping out on a limb with each other. All of these fears keep us chained to the old economy, convincing ourselves that a little tinkering here and there is enough even though deep down we know things will keep getting worse if just keep going in the same direction, more of the same.

Having been close to death due to illness and relative poverty many times (more than 10 times in the past couple years), I can tell you that when you lose these fears (as I was forced to do), you reprioritize happiness in the moment. That happiness comes from love, compassion, generosity, connectedness… And happiness is really what the economy should support not prestige, material comforts, impossible immortality and so on as it does it in the US. As evidence of our dysfunction, the US, according to mainstream media, is ranked 27th in happiness indicators among developed countries, even though it is number one in GDP.

The way our current economy operates creates fear for survival, alienation from each other, and takes away things that make us happy like: free time, health, creativity, community, nature…If I had the choice between possibly having one year of happy life versus sixty of unhappy life chained to my fears, I now know I’d take the chance of having one happy year. And it’s not even just about individual happiness, because if we have a sense of spiritual oneness, our happiness is tied to everyone else's. In this way, commitment to a radically different economy that supports everyone’s true happiness to the greatest extent relies not on a sense of guilt, but on one’s own desire to be happy. The more one gives, the happier and the more connected one feels.

A friend of mine who worked with the banking industry met an Indian woman who works at a free acupuncture clinic and was blown away by her generosity. This woman to some extent trusted that her community and the universe would take of her if she did the right thing and even if not, she was happy with living a spiritually self-actualized life and not focusing fearfully on accumulating enough points in her bank account to feel secure.

It seems like most of us are waiting for our masters to fix our boat or build us a new one, but we need to have enough faith to jump ship and swim to shore or start building a new boat together. There may be economic suffering in the short run, but when you know you are doing the right thing in the long run, this matters little, and happiness often comes from doing the right thing regardless of the results.

For the last few years, I have been working to help the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico to rebuild their economy in this way. Of course, we don’t tell them what to do. They propose projects and we merely help fund them. But I am inspired by their willingness under threats to their survival to construct a more humane, egalitarian, democratic and participatory economy, moving towards their ideal. Our material suffering here in the US overall is little in comparison, yet we rarely take even the relatively low risk chances to create a better economy. We don’t trust each other to take care of one another so then we actually don’t take care of one another and then we trust each other even less in a never-ending downward spiral. This spiral can also go in the other direction and it takes the same amount of energy, but it feels much better.

Maybe we don’t think it’s possible to create an economy based on love, equality and compassion, but the Basques, the MST, and the Zapatistas are doing it. Or maybe we have been so spiritually poor for so long that we have forgotten what happiness is. As the New Year approaches, perhaps we can think about what really makes us happy and make a resolution to have the courage to start building a new economy based on that…


  1. actually i have nothing against atheism or christianity. i have do see that as it is interpreted by some it creates some problems- unresolved issues with death....which leads to people clinging to life for fear of death which makes them feel scarcity more strongly because material scarcity is linked to mortality...

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