Issue #60: Belonging and Debt
"Debt is like any other trap, easy enough to get into, but hard enough to get out of." — Henry Wheeler Shaw
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I don’t talk about my actual job as much in this space, but I just presented on a recent research report I authored focused on understanding wellbeing in the decisive decade ahead. The central research question: How can we rehabilitate amid collective trauma? This report includes six forecasts and four scenario briefs mapped to a 2x2 framework aligned with two critical uncertainties: our trauma response (growth vs. depreciation) and our social orientation (independence vs. interdependence).
Because of this research as well as the pace and severity of heart wrenching headlines these days while still processing the enormity of what we are all up against when considering the dark side of belonging, I keep returning to the concept of debt. Debt certainly has deep structural incentives and implications as outlined in this explainer video from hedge fund manager Ray Dalio:
But debt has consequences beyond a balance sheet or net worth. NerdWallet recently featured the physical and mental health toll of debt-related stress on factors such as sleep and maintaining quality relationships. Although student loan debt is top of mind as the Biden administration weighs some form of loan forgiveness, the ways in which we conceptualize and normalize debt have important implications beyond personal finance.
Astra Taylor, co-founder of Debt Collective, recently reframed how we can think of student loan debt: “In this country, most working people aren't living beyond their means, they are being denied the means to live. Exploding household debt is the result.”
Sociologist Louise Seamster reframes the structural underpinnings of debt in racial capitalism:
White debt promotes agency and grants opportunities as an investment in an imagined better future. It can serve as an advantage for tax purposes or showing credit “worthiness.” Black debt, on the other hand, represents the negative balance sheet that must be worked through just to get to the starting line. But it is a race up an eroding hill of sand: Black debt means higher interest with lower returns. Black debt also represents the past and ongoing theft of Black assets.
In many ways, our current uses and applications of debt denote morality and worthiness and gatekeep permission for existing freely and authentically, overemphasizing the negative character of the indebted rather than the damaging qualities of the institution or system causing or owning the debt. As such, we can learn a great deal about where and how belonging arises based on who is indebted and digging into why and how they are in debt.
Our social ideas, interactions, practices and philosophies coerce people into accruing debt that remains unpaid in both financial and cultural capital. I’m more interested in the range of social and emotional debts we incur when belonging is set aside, obstructed or minimized. The wealth gap is one way of describing something that could also be called “descendants’ debt” a more human centered and precise descriptor that outlines the consequences of wealth transfer for some and inheritance of precarity for others. Systemic oppression is a debt imposed on future marginalized generations. Epigenetic findings are beginning to quantify and scribe this indebtedness into DNA. A first-of-its-kind study about pregnant victims of the Rwandan genocide and their offspring measured and quantified the DNA-level damage in genes associated with mental health conditions such as depression and PTSD.
To reimagine debt as less of an individual responsibility emblematic of moral weakness or failing, and view debt as a collective or systemic failure of upholding rights and needs gets to the crux of how impairing, handicapping or destroying belonging has a far greater impact than anticipated at first glance.
This insight is telling for the ways in which our lack of connection — our belonging debt — may compel unthinkable or even dangerous behaviors. When I look at the intersection of debt and belonging, I see a few important signals:
Signal 1: Well+Good reporter Emily Laurence coined the term “grief debt” to describe the emotional depletion of cascading grief: “When we withdraw energy from our emotional bank to process every instance of strife, those instances compound one another, depleting energy further until there's nothing left to withdraw.” As the awareness and experience of strife has shifted from interpersonal conflict and disagreement to societal commission of harm and violence and omission of enforcement of responsibilities and protections, our grief debt grows deeper and more vast, potentially to a point of no return.
Signal 2: Texas is the canary in the coal mine for the growing trust debt in civil society. Since Gov. Greg Abbott’s order mandating the investigation of families with transgender children, more than a half dozen investigators in the child services agency tasked with conducting these investigations have either quit or are actively seeking different employment to avoid being forced to take immoral and/or dangerous actions. Although there is certainly an argument to be made that quitting in protest could undermine the discriminatory impact of the order, it also leaves children stuck in dangerous or unhealthy living situations with abuse or neglect because the agency is understaffed and unable to keep up with intervening in situations with material threats of safety.
Signal 3: How might our ideologies generate indebtedness that exists neither materially nor cognitively? Although plenty of folks might either be unaware of or even laughing at the current downturn in cryptocurrencies, head of Rebellion PAC Brianna Wu points out that this economic slump will only serve to further radicalize young men who already had tenuous relationships with authority, institutions, organizations and civil society because of entitlement culture. Entitlement culture can be seen as a multi-generational liability or even a type of belonging debt. Entitlement culture requires perceptions of cultural and material superiority and control impervious to reality or compromise by optimizing for winning at all costs, upholding toxic individuation, and justifying actions from the dark side of belonging.1/ I am convinced the disillusioned young men that will lose everything in the upcoming cryptocrash will turn to fascism, not socialism, as they look for someone to blame. To them, crypto is a way out of the American trap of nonexistent wages for a generation.2/ The meme culture, the in jokes, the worship of Musk. To a generation of undersocialized boys, this isn’t just an investment. It’s how they make sense of the world. And it’s going to be a bloodbath. They’re not going to join a union in response, they’ll go full fascist.
Signal 4: The American care crisis has been in dire straits for so long that it’s easy to forget that our collective inaction and underinvestment has expanded this emergency to other areas of care. Care debt — the depletion of sentiment, services, resources and relationships that tend to human needs of vulnerable people — is at an all time high as child care comes with luxury premium prices and even essential sustenance for infants experiences scarcity.
Signal 5: Profiteering off spiritual debt is an age-old pastime in American culture. The founders of SoulCycle have moved from selling transcendence via physical exertion to building their newest venture, Peoplehood.
“What Elizabeth and I found at SoulCycle was that people came because they thought they wanted to get in better shape,” Ms. Rice said in an interview. “But, ultimately, what they found in those rooms was connection. We quickly learned the product we were selling was connection with other people.”
“A decade later,” she continued, “we realized that connection should be its own product. We are modern medicine for the loneliness epidemic.”
What signals of debt and belonging have you spotted recently? Leave them in the comments below!
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