This has been a year of collapse. Let"s mark the catalyst as the fall of the World Trade Center when, in mere moments, the Twin Towers fell like houses of cards. Over these past 12 months, as we have struggled to make sense of things and put our lives back together, we have suffered other, slower-motion, collapses. There was the Catholic Church, and the revelations of child abuse by priests - as well as the lack of action and accountability from the church hierarchy. There was Enron, a collapse in and of itself, which catapulted a spate of similar disintegrations: Arthur Andersen, Tyco, Worldcom ... the list grows daily. This collapse connects directly to the erosion of trust we have in our government - for those of us who had retained any trust - as former CEOs-turned-politicians are having their past business decisions investigated. Other breaches of trust over this year have accumulated, such as alleged insider trading by the former queen of elegance and good taste, Martha Stewart, or diabolical dealings behind the awarding of medals to Olympic ice skaters. I remember sometime earlier this year, I was driving along and listening to these and other reports on the news. I noted that every story, from some CEO"s accounting cover-up, to an Olympic appointee who had lied on her resume, had one thing in common: inflation. I don"t mean the economic definition of inflation. I mean the psychological one: essentially, a psyche filled with hot air. People often engage in exaggeration, whether it"s on a resume or an annual report, or even in conversation, to compensate for an insecurity or a hollowness - what I like to call a "hole." But it"s more than an exaggeration slipped into a spreadsheet or a friendly chat. It"s an exaggeration that you believe so comprehensively that it becomes who you are. I have done it. Over the course of decades, I painstakingly built an entirely bogus self-image utilizing this form of inflation. I thought it was working out for me, until I realized I couldn"t continue operating at that level of deception: The gap between my inflated self-image and my true self was chasmic in size. If you have a hole somewhere in your psyche or your soul, as most of us do, it may seem easier to wear a mask than to deal with it. Some of us construct ersatz personas filled with hubris and arrogance. Some of us try and fill the hole with drugs or sex or greed. Some of us combine both. These strategies are counterproductive. The more drugs you pour into yourself, the more you deepen the hole of despair and self-loathing. You might successfully avoid your psyche"s unloved spot, but you manage to make your hole an inversion of gravity, as in your own, personal black hole. You can mask your hole with inflation, with a fantastical self-image, complete with a sense of injustice (the world is against you) and a feeling of resentment (no one recognizes your genius), but sooner or later, your lie comes home to roost. That"s why I see potential value in the series of collapses. I see it as motivation to reflect on our own frailties and failures, a fulcrum to show us what fools we can be. Unfortunately, instead of learning the lessons, we have continued to traffic in forms of inflation. First off, our political and military response to Sept. 11 was to puff up and blow people and things to pieces. Granted, President Bush took a few weeks to deliberate before attacking Afghanistan, but he went ahead and did so. Now, though, it doesn"t appear to be satisfying enough, as we tag Iraq as our next target. We can only wonder who may be next after Saddam - or what new problems we"ll create by attacking Iraq. Secondly, we anointed the hard-working firefighters and policepeople as heroes for their efforts in dealing with Sept. 11. I would, however, question whether we needed to elevate these individuals to such heroic stature. I suspect that emergency personnel like paramedics and firefighters have a grounded sense of altruism that doesn"t require being placed on a stage. I maintain that we can honor their courage and their dedication without dramatization. Consider, for example, those miners who were rescued last month. I am happy for them, for their families and for their community, but do they need to be exploited, raised to the level of heroes and used as soundbites and sightbites by a hungry media? The year of collapse has served to invert a familiar social dynamic: priests and CEOs are in disrepute. The working stiff - firefighters, miners, etc. - are now on top. Perhaps this can be interpreted as a hopeful sign, that our blue collar workers are now properly respected, while demi-gods have fallen to earth. I submit, however, that everyone can occupy a level playing field. As a society, the lesson of Sept. 11 is that collapse on a grand scale can be useful if it shakes up a complacent - even criminal - people. Within each of us, the lesson of Sept. 11 is to find a personal Ground Zero that can sustain a reality-based personality.
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