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Can We Be Trusted With Our Own Success?

April 15th, 2013 by dk

People will tell you the upcoming vote on Eugene’s city services fee amounts to a referendum on trust. That part is true. They claim if the fee is rejected, the vote will reflect that Eugene voters don’t trust their government. Not necessarily. It could be worse than that.

Domestic violence counselors deal with “battered person syndrome.” We might be suffering from something similar. Call it “battered city syndrome.”

Urban planners could take a page from the medical profession’s International Classification of Diseases. Many of the symptoms of the disease will look familiar. It’s a variant of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The psyche’s coping mechanisms adapt to stress and deprivation so well that a removal of those discomforts can itself become uncomfortable. The disease shows up first as dis-ease.

Battered spouses too often stay in unhealthy marriages because any unknown compares unfavorably with continued deprivation. Without a foundation of self-worth and optimism, familiarity trumps relief — sometimes with tragic consequences. When others attempt to help them exit the unhealthy environment, the outsiders are viewed with suspicion or even rage.

Clinicians call this symptom learned helplessness. Successful coping strategies can leave us unable to help ourselves or accept help from others. Once your deprivation merges with your concept of normal, you feel trapped but resigned. You “stay with the devil you know.”

Our devil of deprivation came in 1982, when our local economy crashed. It’s never fully recovered. But we’ve adapted. We’ve coped. We’ve survived.

We conserve. We do without. We share. We scour Eugene Weekly for free entertainment events. We assume we’re always at the bottom of any “sliding scale.” It’s woven now into our way of life. It’s mostly good to be not so grand.

But things are changing for Eugene.

Streets are getting repaired faster than we were promised. City staff is leaner, but more productive. The pits are filled. City Hall will be rebuilt with money on hand. Downtown is thriving. Developers are calling from Chicago and Birmingham. Yesterday we learned that we’ve snagged the Olympic Trials again for 2016. We’re everybody’s latest darling — luring entrepreneurs from Portland, landing direct flights to Los Angeles, earning plaudits from perfect strangers.

But who do we see in the mirror? Is this really us? How do we fit into the hope that seems suddenly surrounding us? We’re survivors, but can we welcome strivers? Can we become thrivers? Can we be as good stewards of our recent successes as we were during our decades of scarcity?

These are just a few questions we’ll be answering with our vote on the city services fee. All the questions come down to this. Do we want to build on our recent successes, or would we prefer to go backwards — to a place that is less comfortable but more familiar?

If up to ten dollars a month is what’s being asked of us, can we manage that? As taxes go, it’s regressive, as any flat fee is. The nickel charge for paper grocery bags is regressive too. But both fees are modest for most of us. Will the fee allow us to grow our better side, or would we prefer to feed our fears?

Some will feel the monthly fee more like a punch than a pinch. Voting against the fee might not be the most empathetic response. Can we find personal ways to help them? How can we all benefit from the good things that are happening?

Before voting against the city services fee, please ask yourself two more questions: Is it government I don’t trust? Or am I finding it difficult to trust myself? It’s cold comfort that the symptom is included in your doctor’s ICD index of treatable diseases, but here’s something better.

It’s also found in the annals of blues music. Nancy Sinatra reworked a phrase made famous in 1928 by country bluesman Furry Lewis:

I’ve been down so long it looks like up to me.
I pushed him off the ladder of success,
But down here on the bottom I get to rest.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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