It is six months since Lehman fell and the crash (or the great recession, or the collapse—it’s time it got its name) began. An aspect of the story given less attention than it is due, perhaps because it doesn’t lend itself to statistics, is the psychic woe beneath the economic blow. There are two parts to this. One is that we have arrived at the first fatigue. The heart-pumping drama of last September is gone, replaced by the drip-drip-drip of pink slips, foreclosures and closed stores. We are tired. It doesn’t feel like 1929, but 1930. People are in a kind of suspended alarm, waiting for the future to unspool and not expecting it to unspool happily.
Two, the economy isn’t the only reason for our unease. There’s more to it. People sense something slipping away, a world receding, not only an economic one but a world of old structures, old ways and assumptions. People don’t talk about this much because it’s too big, but I suspect more than a few see themselves, deep down, as “the designated mourner,” from the title of the Wallace Shawn play.
I asked a friend, a perceptive writer, if he is seeing what I’m seeing. Yes, he said, there is “a pervasive sense of anxiety, as though everyone feels they’re on thin ice.” He wonders if it’s “maybe a sense that we’ve had it too easy in the years since 9/11 and that the bad guys are about to appear on the horizon.” An attorney in a Park Avenue firm said, “Things look like they have changed and may not come back.” He contrasted the feeling now on the streets with 2001. “Things are subdued. . . . Nine-eleven was brutal and graphic. Yet because there was real death and loss of life folks could grieve and then move on.” But today, “the dread is chronic. . . . Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe were supposed to be invincible. The pillars of media were supposed to be there forever. The lawyers were supposed to feed through thick and thin. Not anymore.” He quoted Ecclesiastes: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” We are worried, he said, “about a way of life, about the loss of upward trajectory.”
The sale of antidepressants and antianxiety drugs is widespread. In New York their use became common after 9/11. It continued through and, I hypothesize, may have contributed to, the high-flying, wildly imprudent Wall Street of the ‘00s. We look for reasons for the crash and there are many, but I wonder if Xanax, Zoloft and Klonopin, when taken by investment bankers, lessened what might have been normal, prudent anxiety, or helped confuse prudent anxiety with baseless, free-floating fear. Maybe Wall Street was high as a kite and didn’t notice. Maybe that would explain Bear Sterns, and Merrill, and Citi.
Gun sales continue up. The FBI’s criminal background check system showed a 23% increase in February over the previous year, a 29% increase in January, a 24% increase in December and a 42% increase in November, when a record 1.5 million background checks were performed. Yes, people fear Obama will take away the guns he thinks they cling to, but a likely equal contributor to what The Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch called a “gun-buying binge” is captured in the slogan on one firearms maker’s Web site: “Smith & Wesson stands for protection.” People are scared.
They are taking cash out of the bank in preparation for a long-haul bad time. A friend in Florida told me the local bank was out of hundred-dollar bills on Wednesday because a man had come in the day before and withdrawn $90,000. Five weeks ago, when I asked a Wall Street titan what one should do to be safe in the future, he took me aback with the concreteness of his advice, and its bottom-line nature. Everyone should try to own a house, he said, no matter how big or small, but it has to have some land, on which you should learn how to grow things. He also recommended gold coins, such as American Eagles. I went to the U.S. Mint website the next day, but there was a six-week wait due to high demand. (I just went on the Web site again: Production of gold Eagle coins “has been temporarily suspended because of unprecedented demand” for bullion.)
In Manhattan, Catholic church attendance appears to be up. Everyone seems to agree that this is so, though the archdiocese says it won’t have numbers until next fall. But yes, said Joseph Zwilling, the director of communications, “from what I’ve heard anecdotally from various priests,” the pews have been fuller. The rector at St Patrick’s told him Ash Wednesday was “the busiest yet,” with 60,000 people coming for ashes. At my local church at noon mass one day this week, there were 40 people when normally there are roughly a dozen, and the communion line stretched to the back of the church. Something is happening. Yesterday a friend sent the warning of the Evangelical pastor David Wilkerson, of Times Square Church, that a new catastrophe is imminent. This is causing a small sensation in evangelical circles.
To me, one of the signal signs of the times is the number of people surfing the Internet looking for . . . something. One friend looks for small farms in distressed rural areas. Another logs on late at night looking for a house to buy in a small town out West, or down South, or in the Deep South. She is moving all around America in her imagination. I asked if she had a picture in her head of what she was looking for, and she joked that she wanted to go where Atticus Finch made his summation to the jury. I don’t think it was really a joke. She’s not looking for a new place, she’s looking for the old days.
I spoke to a Manhattan-based psychiatrist who said there is an uptick in the number of his patients reporting depression and anxiety. He believes part of the reason is that we’re in a new place, that “When people move into a new home they increasingly recognize the importance of their previous environment.” Our new home is postprosperity America; the old one was the abundance; we miss it. But he also detected a political dimension to his patients’ anguish. He felt that many see our leaders as “selfish and dishonest,” that “our institutions have been revealed as incompetent and undependable.” People feel “unled, overwhelmed,” the situation “seemingly unsalvageable.” The net result? He thinks what he is seeing, within and without his practice, is a “psychological pandemic of fear” as to the future of things—of our country, and even of mankind.
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So where does that leave us? The writer and philosopher Laurens van der Post, in his memoir of his friendship with Carl Jung, said, “We live not only our own lives but, whether we know it or not, also the life of our time.” We are actors in a moment of history, taking part in it, moving it this way or that as we move forward or back. The moment we are living now is a strange one, a disquieting one, a time that seems full of endings.
Too bad there’s no pill for that.