Commentary: New optimism in tough times

Never in my lifetime have I seen the country grappling with such severe economic disruption.

Signs are everywhere. The back page of the Wall Street Journal on Thursday featured giant green type: "FINANCE IN CRISIS." The ad announcing a conference noted that the world's financial system was broken, credit remains constrained, markets and regulatory regimes have failed and the old rules governing financial flows were moribund. Not mentioned were the legions of Americans who have lost their jobs, their houses and their health insurance.

For me the grim scene appears more vivid, the broadcasts louder and more alarming, because I spent most of 2008 in Botswana. One day I was marveling at a sunset in the serenity of the African bush; on another day I was back in the United States, moving among people who wondered aloud: What is there to hold onto when the ground is shifting?

People are in pain. They confess quietly how their nights are sleepless. They worry about what might come next for their families.

All of this gloom led me to think about fear and resilience; how Americans define "the good life" and how some find opportunity during painful transitions. I decided to seek thoughtful people who might be inclined to talk about those topics, and so today I begin an "Editorial Notebook" series recounting conversations with thinkers to whom I addressed the question, "Is there another way to view our country's economic recession?"

I begin with William Isaacs. He is founder and president of the consulting firm Dialogos in Cambridge, Mass., author of "Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together" and co-founder with Peter Senge of the Center for Organizational Learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For two decades he has helped senior leaders create "visionary transitions" for their organizations.

From Isaacs I acquired a new lens through which to see the downturn.

"Any circumstance that looks terrible and scary can be an excuse to feel bad," Isaacs told me. "It can also be an opportunity to say that this could easily be a moment where we finally redefine what it means to be around. What matters in times like this? Well, who you trust. Who you relate to. How you live in a more balanced and sustainable way."

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