12/20/2010 03:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

There's No Place Like Numb

He was a business owner who'd weathered economic downturns before. When things were bad he fretted and worried, but he always believed that an upturn was around the corner. In 2010, he begged, borrowed, and stretched to make payroll each week. Scrounging together extra money for the lavish bonuses of years past was inconceivable, but what surprised him was his reaction to the realization. "I wasn't upset. I didn't sweat. I was numb. Just numb," he said.

For decades, she ran a highly successful business, lavishing gifts upon customers, vendors, and employees throughout the holiday season. It was difficult to do in 2009, but she decided to be generous despite a faltering bottom line. "Last year I maxxed out some credit cards to make the holidays jolly."

This year, her income diminished further, so the presents petered out. "I knew I was lucky to still be in business, so I gave holiday gifts maybe 10 seconds of thought before discarding the whole idea. And I realized that I didn't even care. I just felt dead inside."

I understood precisely about feeling zilch. I had just reacted to the demise of two real estate deals in one day with nothing but utter indifference. The first transaction crashed and burned after two different lenders denied the buyers a mortgage, and the second one conked out after the appraisal came in $17,000 lower than the contract price.

In 2010, the real estate market semi-emerged from a two-plus year wasteland of disinterest, fueled by a few bold buyers and some exceedingly flexible sellers. I was elated as deals came across my desk, but that elation evolved into anger each time a deal disintegrated. Week in and week out, transactions would give up the ghost somewhere between offer and acceptance, or end up kicking the bucket after contract but before closing. Banks get the bulk of the blame, but there's enough to go around for those who begin deals they don't have the funds or the capacity to complete.

As my law office filled with the chalk outlines of deceased deals, my emotions plummeted. My feelings had fallen to absolute zero by the time the last two passed away. I should have been incensed at the circumstances that prevented more deals from closing, depriving my bank account of fees it so sorely craved. But I wasn't mad, sad, troubled, or dismayed; nowadays, a deathly dullness has settled over my business consciousness.

I am desensitized to any further downturn, just like the anesthetized business owner walking into his warehouse to drop the bonus-free bomb, and the proprietor who dully deflected her assistant's questions about seasonal largesse with a terse "There's nothing for anyone this year."

As business owners, we all are trying to hang on for dear life. But how do you keep a grip when your fingers have grown numb?