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Bill Sharon

What Needs To Go Right by Bill Sharon

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05/06/08 Lunacy and Freedom by Bill Sharon

During my first several weeks working as a teacher at the state mental hospital on Ward’s Island in New York City in 1969 (armed with little else that a BA in English and a pulse – attributes deemed more than adequate by the personnel office) I had the following experience:

On day in the early fall I was walking on the grounds of the hospital with some of the children in my care. A well dressed man wearing sunglasses came up to me and started a conversation. He seemed well educated and was well spoken. Out of the corner of my eye I could seem my colleagues holding each other up as they convulsed with laughter. As I took a closer look at the man I was talking to I saw that he was had an additional pair of sunglasses perched on his head, a pair on a string around his neck and a pair in his hand that he gestured with as he spoke to me. I backed out of the conversation as quickly as I could and endured the good natured ribbing from the staff for some time. This man, according to the whispered story, was the son of a very wealthy family that had spent a small fortune on therapy and clinics and had finally given up and committed him to the state mental hospital. A few weeks after my encounter with him he disappeared into a locked ward having been deemed a danger to himself and others.

It was just over a decade ago that Newsweek coined the phrase “the new economy” and economists defined it as the evolution to a system devoid of boom and bust cycles. A key element of this idea was that businesses should only focus on their core competencies such as brands, technical specifications and functionality while outsourcing all the rest – manufacturing and whatnot. Since the advent of the new economy we’ve had three spectacular busts –, Enron and the one we currently call subprime.

What passed for the heights of rational thought became lunacy. Each time all of us, some more chagrined than others, vowed never again to be taken in by something that sounded too good to be true. We would be vigilant, perhaps even cynical about signing up for some “new” approach or get rich quick scheme. And yet every time the opportunity for easy money or credit presented itself we were more than happy to embrace it and defend it well past its shelf life.

This insanity doesn’t confine itself to the financial markets. We have FDA approved drugs that actually cause the conditions they are supposed to prevent, health insurance we can’t afford to use because the deductibles are too high, food that has had the nutrition pulverized out of it, a prison population that continues to rise despite a statistical drop in crime and on and on. How is it that we seem to have a tolerance for this increasing level of lunacy?

Perhaps it is because underlying all this activity to create value from nothing, take drugs to overcome the effects of bad diet and no exercise and lock up as many people as there are jail cells is fear. Fear can make you crazy. Fear can make you more concerned with security than opportunity and the result is a defensive posture in life. Defense might win football games but as a policy approach to any problem it only invites the circumstance it seeks to avoid. We can’t regulate our way out of these continuing disasters because the emotion that creates them is self-sustaining. The next catastrophe makes us more frightened and more motivated to seek a magic solution.

What’s interesting is that these magic solutions are always presented under the banner of free enterprise. We are proud of our entrepreneurial spirit and react fiercely to efforts to limit it. And so we should. The conundrum that we are facing is that the entrepreneurial spirit requires an understanding of risk from the perspective of what needs to be done to achieve a defined goal. Our lengthening list of catastrophes comes from a desire to avoid the consequences of bad decisions. We’d like to think that they are both the same thing, but they aren’t.

Freedom is really the ability to define our disciplines. Freedom is the opportunity to take a risk to explore the talents we develop. Recent experience would seem to prove to us that defining freedom and the obsession to hang on to what we have and get even more without the satisfaction of any effort is dysfunctional. The catalog of what doesn’t work has become numbing, but it all comes from the same basic assumption. “Money for nothing, chicks for free” as Mark Knoffler so aptly put it.

What sets us apart from the rest of the world is that (with the notable exception of the Native Americans and the Africans brought here against their will) we are a nation of people who didn’t’ want to be where they were. That drive for something better is the engine that is at the core of the American experience. We have trashed it at various points in our history and behaved very badly at other times, but it is a fundamental attribute that stands in stark contrast to the lunacy that we have embraced over the last several decades.

I’ve been thinking about that fellow with the sunglasses a good deal lately. He seemed so plausible initially and then so frightening and ultimately dangerous. I’d like to think that at the end of the ten years of clinical training and experience that I had before leaving the mental health field and entering the business world that I would have reacted differently. Perhaps I would have been more observant and less focused on my own inadequacies. I was fortunate that day not to have been a catalyst for something unpleasant. When you don’t know what you are doing the likelihood of something going wrong is very high.

Everyone wants to know what to do to get things back on track. We’re awfully good at doing things. It might be best if we pause for a moment and get a clearer sense of what we have created through all that doing. It’s very difficult to get somewhere if you don’t know where you’re starting from.


It has been brought to our attention that Margaret is being portrayed as a psychic on $1.99 sites. These sites are doing so without Margaret's permission. Margaret has not claimed she is a psychic. - MW