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Business Casual: Feeling Helpless

On the first day of the federal government shutdown, which happened to be a gloriously beautiful fall day, I was thinking of national parks and what a nice day it would be to visit one.

Never mind that I needed to be exactly where I was – at my desk, in front of my computer, lunchtime carton of yogurt at the ready in the office refrigerator: I wasn’t going anywhere. Still, I was peeved. Suppose I had the afternoon off and was hoping to  find a nice national park to visit?  The Chattahoochee recreation area by the river? Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Cobb County? Not really options, since they were closed or about to be.

I suspect I was focused on the shuttered park system because it was among the few things I knew for sure would be affected by the shutdown.

Later that day, I would get around to worrying about whether I’d have mail delivery at work or at home, whether the produce for sale in my neighborhood grocery store would be properly inspected and whether the roadwork I complained about on my way to the office would cease because there might be federal funds involved.

From there I began to think beyond my own circumscribed world and wonder whether the scientists at the Centers for Disease Control would have access to their laboratories to continue their research, whether people with travel plans could renew their passports, whether the bankers at the Federal Reserve in Midtown would continue to keep their eyes on the region’s economy and whether FBI agents could still chase down bad guys.

Then, after I took a couple of aspirin for the headache that was rapidly developing, I ventured to random wondering: Would classes be cancelled at West Point? Would anyone feed the animals at the National Zoo? Were the baggage-search lines at Hartsfield-Jackson snaking around the terminal towards infinity?

Then the wondering took a sober turn. Will the military and their families really get their pay promptly? Will people who are dependent on Social Security checks receive them in a timely fashion?  Will federally subsidized lunch programs for school children continue uninterrupted?

And, finally, the biggest “wonder” of all: Why did this happen?

I felt like a kid who is sent out of the room while the grown-ups have an argument: powerless, helpless and completely at the mercy of people who are not up to the challenge.

This is the point at which a representative democracy shows its shortcomings; it works best when the representatives keep in mind what they are supposed to be doing – which is representing, taking care of things. We seem to have elected some people who promised to have our best interests at heart but have not made good on that promise.

Wasn’t there an implicit bargain in there somewhere? We citizens would do our part – cast our votes, pay our taxes, live our lives with the assurance that elected officials would govern wisely and well? I’m pretty sure there was.

But a lot of our leaders are reneging on that bargain. They are listening to a small but vocal and particularly vitriolic segment of the populace that doesn’t like much of anything except bashing other people’s ideas. They have plenty of time to do that since they don’t actually have ideas of their own that keep them busy.

It’s likely that they, like the rest of us, are feeling powerless – that’s easy to understand. A lot of that sense of powerlessness was fed by the economic chaos of the recent recession. People watched their savings evaporate, their houses lose value, their jobs disappear. They kept their part of the bargain – worked hard, saved a little, had their kids’ teeth straightened, took their cats to the vet, kept their sidewalk swept, did all the things good people do; and it still turned to mud.

Some folks soldiered on and continued to work hard; some became bitter. Some decided to run for office and exploit both the hard workers and the embittered.

No matter that the federal government shut-down lasted “only” 16 days, it was harmful – to our economy, to our well-being and to our spirits. Maybe we should all take a psyche-soothing afternoon off together and head out to a national park – assuming, of course, no one closes them all again.

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