In Tough Times, Rethinking Wealth

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008

In the midst of all the bad economic news, Kerri Wright Platais hears signs of possibility: in her neighborhood, at her church and near the sports fields where her children play.

The conversation, she says, is not only about cutting back on restaurant meals and movies. Now people are asking themselves about life's larger priorities -- about what is important and why, and about the kind of sacrifice and hardship that was deeply woven into the lives of their parents and grandparents, the generation of the Great Depression and World War II.

"We just have never done without, as a generation," said Platais, 46, an international agricultural consultant who lives in Garrett Park. But with all of the financial loss and turmoil of late, she said, "this is more than a wake-up call. It's a reality call to get back to the basics."

At a time when the magnitude of the nation's economic decline has been staggering and panic-inducing, a quiet resolve is emerging in many middle-class families to take a step back and reconsider their lives in a spiritual or philosophical way, according to interviews with clergy, economists and residents.

It may be a natural response to crisis, but some, including Platais, suggest that the accumulated loss and turmoil have produced a will to find meaning in other ways: refocusing on relationships and values, helping people in need. Many parents are talking to children about buying less, saving for what they really want and delaying gratification.

"We have to go back to the things that are really important, which aren't things at all," Platais said. "They are people and relationships, and it's love and your faith and your neighbors and the people you take care of."

This concept is easier for those whose losses are few or more abstract -- say, in retirement accounts that might not be touched for a decade. It is tougher for those who feel immediately imperiled by the downturn, who have lost homes, jobs or money they need now.

"I think this is what happens when people are threatened," said Stephen S. Fuller of George Mason University, an expert on the local economy, who compared the meltdown with a terrible car crash. "It's a time for reflection, and there is a reordering of priorities that are pretty fundamental."

The rethinking of life as it was has also extended to the spiritual, many suggest.

"At times like this, it's a chance to evaluate and assess what's really important to us, and what's ephemeral and fleeting," said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac. Weinblatt changed his Yom Kippur sermon at the last minute to address the economy because of the prevailing anxiety.

Weinblatt said a worried public has just begun to "grasp and hold onto the bigger picture, in terms of values, in terms of life, in terms of what really matters." Compared with tragedies such as Sept. 11, 2001, in which so many lives were lost, the economic decline is a different kind of crisis, he said; "many people realize that in the end, it's only money."

For James Joyner, 69, a retired Smithsonian facilities manager in Sterling, such rethinking would be a good thing. He wonders how this generation of parents and children, with their BlackBerrys and cellphones and flat-screen televisions, will adapt to new realities.

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