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Trying to survive in infested waters

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POSTED March 22, 2009 5:17 a.m.
On Friday the thirteenth, I had a disturbing experience.  Arriving early at the club for a quick Jacuzzi and swim, I witnessed a frightening scene.

No one was there.  The pool area was completely devoid of human beings.

Scenes from “I am Legend”, “Cloverfield” and “Wall-E” flooded my mind.

What shocked me most was the specter of an emaciated body floating in the hot tub, ensnared in what looked like dozens of monster bacteria, or multicolored alien parasites.   Looking around, I saw no one.  

But wait: I was wrong.  Far from being threatening invaders from outer space, these creatures were in fact thirty or so long foam tubes.   “They’re called ‘noodle floats’”, the scrawny kid apologized, bolting to attention.

“That’s cool.” I replied. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt your…whatever.”

No sooner had he vacated the Jacuzzi with his retinue of buoys and another kid who appeared out of nowhere, than an employee showed up with a big sign.  “Sorry.  We’ve got to close down the pool.  The filter isn’t working.”

That meant my little pond too. Looking down, I noticed the water did seem awfully green.  So much for another attempt at therapy for my back, now that I can’t do any other exercise without provoking another pain-episode.

It was bad enough that the kids, thinking I was a friendly person, began making a lot of noise and slapping those plastic noodles against the tiles, making a loud explosive blast when I was just dozing off.  Bad enough that those foam things that bigger folks ride around in water aerobics floated my way, pushing, and shoving, and crushing me into the corner of the tub.

Now I was sitting all alone in a swamp of stagnant water.  (This would be proven later that day by acrid mildew in my swimsuit.)  The pool might as well been full of sharks, of leaches, and of razor-tooth Amazonian piranha.
 
Jumping into hot water is never fun
At least you’d be able to see what’s killing you.  Just the week before, I’d had another firsthand encounter with an invisible enemy.  Jumping into the Jacuzzi for another attempt at therapy, I had quite the opposite experience.

The water registered at 122 degrees.  No wonder it was so clean, so empty, and boiling away like a pot of hot oil.  As several astounded witnesses gaped from the pool, I began instantly to burn.  From ribcage to feet, my skin started screaming.  I couldn’t help recall the story we’ve all heard so many times, about how a frog dropped into boiling water leaps right out.

I am not a frog.  But I jumped out of that cauldron of hell-fire faster than a flying fish, and flopped groaning on the cool pool ceramic.  “We’re sorry,” the attendant told me at the front desk, “the new heater malfunctioned.  It was already 120 degrees last night!”  And yes, there was a sign warning me not to get in, discreetly hidden between the rails of the stairs I didn’t use.

The same sign they’d pull out a week later, when the water turned green.

On the third week, I arrived with a new life-insurance policy and a military wet-suit.  Actually, I arrived just as I had before, hoping against all odds that things would be better.  They were.  The hot tub and pool were closed.

Admittedly, they close every week now for four hours on that same day.  No doubt the intention is to make sure the same things don’t happen again.

All the above is true.  I vouch for it in the presence of the holy angels.  But even truer, as we all know full well, is how perfectly my three weeks of misery represent, perfectly, what has happened in the American economy.

I’ve also had my earnings & investments trashed
And if I interpret ordinary things in a distorted manner, maybe it’s because I, too, am among those whose earnings and investments have been trashed.

For those who eased into investments ever so carefully, the water’s heated up slowly, boiling them alive before they discovered what was happening.

Those who jumped in boldly and whole-heartedly simply burned faster.

The lucky ones hopped out on time.   Many others weren’t so fortunate.

Millions entered the waters of our economy with the best of intentions, full of dreams and ambitions for a prosperous career, a home of their own, and the promise of a retirement fund allowing them to enjoy the golden years.

If they weren’t swallowed whole by sharks, their blood was sucked dry by a great variety of vampires, so attractive to the eyes, yet so very dangerous.

And waiting in the shadows are always the little fish brimming with razor-sharp teeth, experts in the culinary arts.  They come through telemarketing frauds, manipulative promotions, financing schemes, and those wonderful sub-prime instruments designed to lure investors in, only to eat them alive.

Finally, for those with enough fiscal experience and good fortune to avoid the perils of visible enemies, the overall putrid economic environment has begun to pollute everything.  The near-desperate attempts to rescue haven’t yet addressed the underlying causes.  They seem only to feed the parasites.

Ceniuries of criticism of those who simply make money
Four centuries before the time of Christ, Socrates criticized those whose science was not the production of wealth, nor the creation of value, much less service to society, but the making of money (see Plato’s Republic).  

Karl Marx rejected Capitalism because that system generates capital by the investment of capital produced: the fruits of labor denied to those whose sacrifices created them.  The capitalist, according to Socialism, benefits from money making mechanisms, while the worker is reduced to slavery.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s brilliant assessment, “Democracy in America,” sternly warned that the most effective system in the history of humanity would certainly collapse if individuals no longer dedicated themselves to the common good, but instead misused their liberties for selfish purposes.

But the solution lies not in eradicating those who victimize others, much less in pitchforks, piano wire, and public lynching.  We all share some of the blame in our current economic disaster, because we all wanted heaven on earth, and thought we could get it at a bargain.  For those who have been fully innocent, and whose lives have been devastated, we need to pray, and to make whatever sacrifice necessary as individuals and communities, and as a nation, to offer them hope.  For those who have caused the collapse of our economy, we need to cut off their feeding-tubes and put them back to work in restoring our economy, or demand justice.  And for ourselves, we need to listen to what the Lord has to say:  “No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and Money.”   

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?   Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not much more valuable than they?

Can worrying add even an hour to your life?
“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?  And why do you worry about clothes?  See how the flowers of the field grow.  They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?”  (Matthew 6:24-30)

The Catholic Church teaches that “In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits.   The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race.   However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence.  The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge.  It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.   

“The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind…

“In his use of things, man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself.  The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family.

Biblical passages to keep in mind about the economy
“Goods of production - material or immaterial - such as land, factories, practical or artistic skills, oblige their possessors to employ them in ways that will benefit the greatest number.  Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor…(in this regard, see Matthew 25:31ff).

“In economic matters, respect for human dignity requires the practice of the virtue of temperance, so as to moderate attachment to this world’s goods; the practice of the virtue of justice, to preserve our neighbor’s rights and render him what is his due; and the practice of solidarity, in accordance with the golden rule and in keeping with the generosity of the Lord, who “though he was rich, yet for your sake . . . became poor so that by his poverty, you might become rich.”     (Catechism, par. 2402-2407)

Socrates had demonstrated, 2,400 years ago, how the excessive desire for possessions leads, irrevocably, to the breakdown of trust and security in a world where those who have not envy those who have.  Fourteen centuries later, a psalmist would write: “The wicked…ring me round…They trust in their wealth; the abundance of their riches is their boast.  Yet in no way can a man redeem himself, or pay his own ransom to God.” (Psalm 49:6-8)

Jesus summed it all up: “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24).  And St. Paul advised the Bishop Timothy: “Tell those who are rich in this world’s goods not to be proud, and not to rely on so uncertain a thing as wealth.  Let them trust in the God who provides us richly with all things for our use.  Charge them to do good, to be rich in good works and generous, sharing what they have.  Thus will they build a secure foundation for the future, for receiving that life which is life indeed.”  (1 Timothy 6:17).   In the Christian perspective, real wealth lies in giving, nor hoarding, and true security lies in God alone.

Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s Parish, Stockton, Ca. 95202.  Written on March 20, 2009, the fifth anniversary of his weekly reflections for the Bulletin.*
 
(These weekly columns, totaling roughly fifty per year, normally appeared in the Faith Section of Saturday’s paper.  However, on occasions they took their place among Sunday’s opinions, or on a certain weekday.  I would like to express my gratitude to Dennis Wyatt for his extraordinary patience in accepting these articles past deadline, in placing them in a prominent place, and in tolerating their excessive length.  I hope that you, our reader, have found these reflections of some value in approaching the events, the dilemmas, and the tragedies of our times from the perspective of Christian Faith.  Finally, for those who are not Catholic, thanks for letting me share the beauty of this faith, which I embraced at the age of twenty-five.  May God bless you all. May he also bless my mother.  Her birthday is Monday.)
 
(P.S. If you wish to make a comment regarding whether or not my columns have had a positive impact in your life, please fax it to (209) 948-0673, or mail it to me c/o St. Mary’s, 203 E. Washington Street, Stockton CA 95202.)
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