Taming the Tiger: When the Shutdown is Personal

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
― Thích Nhất HạnhPeace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Today is a dark day in American History.  For the second time in my lifetime, the federal government has been shut down by factions in Congress refusing to compromise and making untenable demands. As before, this action creates direct and real personal hardship, as I have, for most of my 48-year career, made a living by providing contract services to the federal government.  Today, the shutdown required that I and almost all of my colleagues log off, leave the premises (or, in my case, close any open network connections), and refrain from using any government resources for an indefinite period of time.  This action is called a “furlough,” but, in essence, we are terminated immediately, with no notice, no severance, and no recourse.

In practice, many of us may be recalled when and if the projects on which we were working are again funded, which could take weeks or months.  But, many of us were also working on contracts that will expire this month: we may not be recalled at all.  The successor contractor can’t start work or complete the transition phase, nor can they hire, or write subcontracts, until the contract is funded.  Extended delays are inevitable,.

So, the effect of the shutdown is that a large number of us have been fired, canned, cashiered, pink-slipped, and escorted to the door (with a last-minute reminder to take our rotting and moldy lunch boxes out of the company refrigerator on the way out), for no other reason than the customer/employer has decided (through inaction in Congress) not to pay us anymore.  Even though this dreaded rejection has nothing to do with our performance or the continued need for our services in support of projects that were not over budget, not failing, and near completion, we are, nevertheless, punished, financially and psychologically.

It is human nature to view such an attack on our safety, well-being, and security with a flight-or-fight response.  Some who live paycheck-to-paycheck may have no choice but to immediately seek other employment, thus fleeing the project forever, losing valuable talent and experience that will take many months to regain.  Others of us suffer that visceral fight response that fuels a seething rage that makes us want to retaliate, to counter-attack, a futile action that would not only burn bridges, but dynamite the abutments, mine the approaches and poison nearby wells, making amends impossible.  Such ill-advised response is not reasonable, so we swallow our rage as best we can.  Unfortunately, some anger leaks out in barely suppressed road rage, sharp rebukes at minor family annoyances, loss of appetite, and irritability with all manner of persons, pets, and inanimate objects.  It is not pleasant to be near us in these times.

I would wager that unhappiness reigns in millions of households across America tonight, and for no reason other than the government, in the body of our elected Congress, has decided to quit governing, abrogating their duty to keep the nation running smoothly.  There is extant no great natural catastrophe, nor external military threat, only obstinate refusal of Congress to carry out the sworn duties of office, creating an artificial crisis that has harmed millions of Americans directly either through loss of income or unavailability of needed services, and dashed the plans of millions more who intended to visit federal parks and museums in the near future.  Campers and hikers are being evicted from the back country and campgrounds, and the gates closed.  This cannot be what the majority of citizens wants to have happen, though terminating social programs does seem to be on the agenda of a large number of misguided citizens.

So, how should we react to this calamity, personally and as a nation?  Anger serves only to breed more anger.  Each of us must resolve to overcome our emotional responses and act rationally in the face of irrationality.  Those who applaud the shutdown are, quite bluntly, idiots: they will not be spared in the coming grief.  As we have been deprived of our income, so shall those merchants dependent on our patronage be deprived of theirs, for we have no money to spare.  With what little we do have, we should be careful to avoid patronizing those who have supported the mindset and actions that have led to this debacle, without rancor, but with the bitter message that their desires serve no one’s interest.  What they have so dearly wished for us, they should share also. Those of us who have been harmed, directly or indirectly, or who feel this manufactured crisis is untenable must vote to deny reelection to those responsible, and to vote against candidates who espouse radical views that do no service to the whole of America.  Government is what we decide to do together, and right now, we are so deeply divided that the government has ceased to be effective.  Let us come together to decide these two things: America pays its bills, and has an obligation to fund its laws.  Period.  From that point, compromise is not only possible, but mandatory.

There is hope: we survived the government shutdown of the late 20th century, we will survive this one, despite our still shaky economy and despite the radicalism that has poisoned our government.  It may take a few years to weed out the radical factions that have paralyzed our political system, but it will take responsible voters who vote their conscience instead of being swayed by dogma or propaganda.   Those responsible for creating this shameful situation do not deserve our anger, but only pity, for they shall fall.  The blame also lies with those who have done nothing to persuade their colleagues toward a more moderate course of compromise.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.  — William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”