September 29, 2008

Adrift Beyond Our Control

By Stephen Kopfinger

She left England a ship of millionaires. She docked in New York a few days later, with a passenger list of ruined men.

It was October 1929, and the liner was the British steamer Berengaria, a floating palace catering to the rich and titled; and now, thanks to a stock market crash - the stock market crash of all time - the suddenly poor.

Ancient history, we console ourselves. Except history sort of repeated itself the other week. Not as catastrophically as the notorious Crash of '29, perhaps, but it does give one pause about how quickly things can turn on a dime, no pun intended.

And how intangible so much of life seems to be. Can you grasp what's going on?

What got us into the Wall Street mess? And who? Why are we at war in Iraq? Where are we getting the money to bail out a country called Georgia? Who or what really controls who gets into the Oval Office? Who decides to create another nation ending in "stan"?

Quick: You have 10 seconds to answer. Oh, why not be generous; take a whole day to figure it out!

Safe to say, none of us is going to get anywhere.

It's popular imagination to say we used to have all the answers when, chances are, we never did. Filtered through rose-colored glasses, it seemed we were always certain we'd overcome hard times, win the war, prevail over wrong. Depression, war - sure, times could be bad, but they would end, and something better awaited. No matter what, we could master our fate, or so we convinced ourselves.

Today, we're better informed of come-what-may than ever - but we seem to have fewer answers, or even the illusion of answers. It's all too much, as the Beatles once sang. And it's changing too fast to keep up, let alone absorb and control.

Even the very things we once saw as bedrock - home, family, country - seem fragile, undermined by foreclosure, dysfunction and insecurity. We're not even sure if our leaders are honestly elected anymore; and, when we do put our faith in somebody, we ponder how long it's going to be until he or she disappoints us.

"We were so sure of everything!" a stunned survivor of the Titanic disaster cries out in the movie "A Night to Remember," to use another seagoing analogy. But even that tragedy led to pragmatism: We'll simply build safer ships, the world said, shaking off the shock. We'll simply do our best to ensure the peace, we said after every war. We'll simply craft guidelines to see this doesn't happen again, the experts said after every market crash. We had hope.

And we still do, of course, or so we like to think. Without it, we'd go crazy. It would just be nice to feel like we can take the helm again, to find the safe harbor of certainty - or even the feeling of it - instead of being like those helpless, hapless passengers on the Berengaria, all at sea, adrift beyond control.

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