Americans, Ants And Grasshoppers
Wednesday - November 26, 2008
In the old Aesop fable, the grasshopper sings merrily all summer long. He dances during the warm months and laughs at the ant, who has no time to celebrate the good times because he is so busy preparing for the bad. In the end, the grasshopper, starving and freezing in the cold of winter, begs the ants for help.
We were a nation of grasshoppers, but are turning into ants. Conspicuous consumption is out, frugality is in. Pulling back seems smart in these tough economic times, self-preservation a strong motivator of all. But is doing the right thing the right thing to do?
On one hand, it makes sense to conserve our resources. When times are lean we feel the need to squirrel away our money. We feel more secure when we hoard canned goods and stock up on toilet paper. We forgo eating out in favor of nesting at home. We drive old cars longer rather than laying out cash and credit for a new one.
But for years our leaders in government and business have encouraged the grasshopper mentality. Spend! Buy! Why worry about tomorrow when you can party today! Remember what President Bush told us after Sept. 11? Instead of asking us to sacrifice, he told us to go shopping.
To be fair, Mr. Bush was making a point-that Americans should return to normalcy after the trauma of the terrorist attacks. But we all took it to mean that we should continue down the path of self-indulgence, and that excess was actually good for us. We gorged on credit and lived way beyond our means. We became addicted to everything- cheap oil, easy credit, oversized houses and exotic foods. Big business, especially the automakers, became our pushers and our political leaders were our enablers. But in the end, as with all addictions, we have to be the ones to say, “enough.” We have to want to change.
How to change is not so clear-cut. Not only do we have to learn to like doing more with less, but our newfound frugality may be contributing to the nation’s downward economic spiral. If we eat out less, for example, that puts the hurt on restaurants, which then have to lay off workers. If we buy fewer cars the dealerships go under, which trickles up to the manufacturers, who go hat-in-hand to Congress in order, they say, to avert a national economic melt-down.
So how do we do it? How do we protect ourselves while looking out for our national interests? How do we address the well being of our family while doing what’s right for community and country?
Just asking those questions is a giant step in the right direction. Maybe the days of focusing on me, me, me are gone, at least for now.
Our first reaction when faced with danger is to retreat into our cocoon, and that’s what’s happening with millions of cautious and scared Americans today. But the soul searching has already begun, and we’re starting to talk-really talk - about important things. If our old models aren’t working, what will?
The search for answers, I believe, will force us to change and eventually lead us to a strong and vigorous energy economy, an environmental comeback with a significant reversal of global warming, and a more unified nation and world. Sound like pie in the sky? Maybe. But didn’t your mom ever tell you to aim high?
The original ending to the story of the grasshopper and the ant was pretty sad. The ants lecture the grasshopper for his shortsightedness and turn him away, presumably to freeze and die. When I was a kid I hated this version and much preferred another one: The ants take pity on the errant grasshopper and invite him in. The humbled and much wiser grasshopper gratefully accepts the ants’hospitality and food, and during the long, cold winter he teaches his songs to his serious but big-hearted friends. And when summer comes around again they work and sing-together - for a better world.
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