Is the recession making us better people?

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In the past few months, as the economic downturn has left millions out of work and millions more struggling to make ends meet, many have directed their spare time and unused talents toward helping those who are less fortunate. While pundits and analysts attempt to explain the spike in volunteerism, it's worth asking if the recession is making us better people.

The idea that privation and suffering are good for the soul underlies numerous religions, and several actually have holidays and activities that are built around withdrawal from pleasure and the mortification of the flesh. While this doesn't necessarily translate into a post-recession wardrobe of sackcloth and ashes, many consumers seem strangely willing, if not eager, to get back to a more modest and values-based way of living.

One indication of this is rising enrollment at seminaries and theological schools. Over the last year, the Dallas Theological seminary and the Yale Divinity School have both seen a 10% jump in applicants, and applications to San Antonio's Oblate Seminary have tripled over the past five years. The Union Theological Seminary has enrolled twice as many students and the Jewish Theological Seminary has doubled its Ph.D applicants since last year.

Even among those who aren't inclined to dedicate their lives to the ministry, there seems to be a rising desire to give of oneself. In New York, Citymeals on Wheels has had a 32% increase over the last year, and another food organization, God's Love We Deliver, has had a 20% increase. In many areas, volunteers are actually being turned away from organizations that have reached their full capacity.

A cynical observer might argue materialistic, selfish reasons for all of these changes. For example, the jump in seminary applications could have more to do with job security than with faith. Diocesan priests of the sort trained by Oblate Seminary enjoy free room and board, enjoy a small salary, and have post-retirement elder care covered. For someone facing a slow job market, a huge mortgage, and rising food prices, celibacy might seem like a small price to pay for job security and a roof over one's head.

In a similar vein, one could argue that volunteering is a great way to meet potential work contacts, or that it looks great on a resume. One site even notes that volunteers live longer, are happier, and have less heart disease. Numerous pundits have pointed out that President Obama's stimulus has laid the groundwork for massive growth in volunteerism, or have argued that the energy of his campaign translated directly into greater community engagement.

In other news, some cynics have claimed that the only reason Ebeneezer Scrooge became a nicer guy was because he heard that it was good for business.

All of this, however, ignores a major change in the past few months. On a basic level, the fundamental operating principles of American society came under attack. Since at least the 1980's (and, frankly, for a lot longer), the dominant consumerist perspective has argued that bigger is better. Whether it's a bigger house, a bigger TV, bigger breasts or bigger cars, size and price became the measure of status. Huge salaries translated into huge respectability and, on a fundamental level, people believed that the guys at the top were working in the best interests of society.

The recession put a lot of these fundamental beliefs into question. Competition with the neighbors landed thousands of families in houses they couldn't afford, and the search for the bigger, better next thing left millions mired in credit debt. Moreover, it became increasingly clear that the men at the top, the nabobs in whom so many had placed their trust, were every bit as greedy and flawed as the rest of us. Suddenly, the "greed is good" dogma, and all the assumptions underlying it, was exposed as naked and ugly. And empty.

Perhaps the recent push toward volunteerism is nothing more than a shot at networking or a holdover from the Obama election. On the other hand, it might suggest a return to fundamental human values. Perhaps this is one time when privation will, indeed, make us better people.

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