Security a la Carte

  Jerome Shea       November 22, 2009      Weekend Wonk

Last week I said that Joseph Wood Krutch’s axiom—which I usually phrase as “security lies not in what one has but in what one can do without”—may have more to do with morality than with materiality. I think it does, but I would like to put that on hold for a bit. And I have been telling my faithful correspondents, Joe and Sally, that I think that axiom is either very profound or just very commonsensical, and that its phrasing may be more compelling and beguiling than the idea behind it. It would not be the first time that words have trumped ideas. More on that later, too.

But first, let’s be crass: when things go to hell, how much money, or stuff that can be turned into money, do you need? Well, you can’t put your finger on a figure, can you? People whose wealth is off the scale—and there seem to be more and more of them these days—will probably always have a good bit of money and goods left over to survive. People at the bottom never had much anyway, but at least—cold comfort—they will not have much to miss. This is why we have people in homeless shelters, people picking through dumpsters, and so forth. (If I seem to be making light of this scandal—believe me, I’m not.) That leaves us with the great middle class. We also have to guess at the severity of the crunch, and so forth, and the short answer is that I simply don’t know, I can’t name a figure.

I like to think that Diana and I are secure. I have my UNM pension and my Medicare and Social Security; Diana is still working at a secure job with a good pension in the offing. “[We’re] all right, Jack,” as the Brits used to say. Maybe the point is that we FEEL secure, and feeling secure is the more important part of what I choose to think that Krutch was getting at. Until some complete disaster does befall us, we can afford the good middle class life: we can help out the kids if need be, we can give generously to good causes, I can zip off in the Little Red Beast for a week in SoCal on a whim, and so forth. So maybe we should look at security not as some nebulous dollar amount to serve as a desperate life ring, but as the feeling of security that you have right now, when you are not sailing as blithely along as you might have been before this present crisis, but at least chugging along. So security can be appreciated not only materially and morally, but also psychologically: if you feel secure, you are secure. When I hear the furnace come on in the night, I can smile inwardly and snuggle my face into the pillow, knowing that we can afford the gas bill. I sleep well.

Psychology cuts the other way as well. (Or shall we call this spiritually secure? Dear me, the choices are proliferating like kudzu.) What I mean is that certain people, if the crunch does come, will be ready to meet it. We all know people like this, people with cast iron hope and cheer.

Zip—there goes the job. Zap—there goes the house and savings. Joe Everyman is now in a one room apartment or even a homeless shelter. Does he spend his last few bucks on a jug of muscatel and go curl up under a bridge, totally defeated? Not on your life. He washes his last good shirt in the sink, slaps on a smile, and starts pounding the pavement looking for work. One suspects that in a previous life he was a tough little horned toad scrabbling through the sand in the shade of a saguaro. Some people have gumption and some don’t. Faced with the same adversity, Jack Everyman may well scuttle under the bridge with his jug. What makes the difference? I wish I knew. Religious faith may have something to do with it, and upbringing, but my guess is that is mostly just the temperament you were born with, something in your DNA. Think how anger affects it: Jack says, “Why me? This is so unfair!” (glug, glug); Joe says, “By Godfrey, before I die I am going to have a Mercedes again and a garage to park it in. You can bet the rent on that!”

I think that Krutch was on to something profound even if he did not realize it at the time. Thinking simply about the desert creatures, he inadvertently put his finger on the larger symbolic resonance of that phrase. And he phrased it so well that it seems to have its profundity built in. That is what made it stick in my mind for over forty years, certainly, and that is what recommended it to my better students semester after semester. The idea touches upon the material, the psychological, and the spiritual, just for openers.

As to its moral dimension, well, the ant and the grasshopper couldn’t make it this week but they promise to be here next.

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