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Hopelessness, Despair and the Winter Olympics

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A man in Ohio bulldozes his house to prevent the bank from taking it back in foreclosure. He said he was literally pushed to the brink after years of fighting with both the bank and the IRS. In Texas, a software engineer takes his own life and kills an innocent man, also injuring thirteen bystanders, when he intentionally crashes his private plane into a building where nearly 200 IRS employees work. In his suicide note, he ranted about the IRS, politicians, and corporate America's "thugs and plunderers," who are rewarded with government bailouts. Both were acts of desperation, violence and cowardice. I do not in any way condone either of these acts, and certainly not when the safety and lives of others is so blatantly threatened. Still, I wonder if they reflect a broader undercurrent of growing disillusionment and frustration in these challenging times.

The New York Times dubbed an entire group of formerly middle class Americans "the new poor," warning that millions may be out of work for years. More than at any time since the Great Depression, people are experiencing an overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness. I know. I was one of them. I seriously considered taking my own life less than two years ago because I was caught in a personal financial meltdown, which prompted me to think I was worth more dead than alive. I knew that my life insurance would provide my family with something that I could not -- economic stability and security.

I chose not to end my life, but rather to chronicle my journey from darkness into the light in an intimate journal, which later became my book, The Last Day of My Life. I asked myself one simple question: what would I do if I have only twenty-four hours to live? I thought about what I would value most, and it turned out to have nothing to do with the number on my bank statement, but rather the people in my life and the relationships I had forged. I wrote about friendship, love, forgiveness, apology, compassion, tenacity, and all those intangibles, which make up the tapestry of a rich, fulfilling life.

These are unsettling times. We read about banks receiving government bailouts because they are "too big to fail" only to post record profits less than a year later. We suspect little incentive for those same banks to renegotiate upside down mortgages because they can reclaim foreclosed properties for pennies on the dollar only to profit on the sale of those homes. Credit card companies charge 29% interest on outstanding balances for money they themselves can borrow from the treasury at near 0%. The stock market plummets, wiping out retirement accounts and life savings, and prompting sweeping job cuts. Of course people feel a sense of hopelessness. Who can blame them?

Which brings me to Vancouver. Last week, the Winter Olympics outperformed American Idol in the television ratings. It is the first time in six years that the Idol juggernaut has been successfully challenged. Does it say something about where we are as a country? I think so. Maybe people need a little good news, something uplifting that they can believe in. It's refreshing to see that the "good guys" can finish first, not through market manipulation, but through years of honest, hard work, sacrifice and dedication. After all, aren't those the values we were taught this country was built on in the first place?

We cheered as Lindsey Vonn skied to gold in the women's downhill despite having a badly bruised and swollen right shin. We marveled at Shaun White's back-to-back Olympic domination of the half pipe snowboarding event. But it was not just the American victories that captivated us. Chinese figure skating partners and married couple Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, lived in separate dormitories as they trained for their Olympic challenge. Despite being the oldest pair in the competition at 31 and 36, they dominated the event. We applauded Canadian freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau as he won Canada's first-ever gold medal on home soil. Bilodeau inspired us, not only with his win, but by speaking so lovingly of his older brother with cerebral palsy, who had inspired him to train and to compete.

Like many of those athletes, we all expect to fall on occasion, sometimes even getting injured. But if we get up, dust ourselves off and persevere, we want to believe that it is possible to end up on that podium, or certainly, at least to finish the race with our dignity and respect intact. That's what we see every night in Vancouver that gives us reason to have renewed faith. I think most people are satisfied with that. Not with the guarantee of victory, but just a fair chance of making it to the end of the race.

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