(Note: as I mentioned in “About MMM,” some of these posts are from my former blog, because they fit the MMM theme. This is one of those posts… and it’s been modified.)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way… ~Charles Dickens
I once read an article talking about the Great Depression— and the lasting effect it had on that generation. The people who chose to tell their stories ranged from musicians to Supreme Court justices. Of course, they were all just kids during that era, and undoubtedly saw things a bit differently than adults did at the time. But still, I thought their words were telling.
When describing that time, they used words like “rich” and “special.” U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens talked about how his family lost 27 million dollars in the stock market crash of 1929— and as a result he took a different path. Instead of growing up to run the family business, he had a number of— quoting him “eventful and interesting” jobs— such as a laundry assistant and a bellhop. Jobs that helped shape him into the person he is today.
“It might be hard to understand today, but the 30’s were a very special time,” he said.
Writer Gay Talese talks about how his childhood in the 30’s provided him with survival skills that he took with him well into adulthood: “The Depression taught me a useful skill: how to live poor and not be frightened by it. At my father’s tailoring shop, I gained another kind of education. Pointing out through the windows of his shop at roving apple salesmen and other people who were down on their luck, he would remind me that they were once bankers or entrepreneurs. He taught me to take nothing for granted, to be frugal and above all to be self-sufficient.”
Jazz musician Roy Haynes says the Depression fostered his love of music: “Artie Shaw, Bennie Goodman, Irving Berlin. They were who I believed in. They were my shelter and my religion. It was a rich period.”
Others talk about how the Depression led to them spend more time with their families, forced them to use their imaginations to have fun instead of relying on material things, and encouraged them to become closer to their neighbors. Many people would help anyone who needed it– even though there was barely enough for themselves.
As another interviewee, country singer Ray Price, put it, “I’ve come to the conclusion that hard times bring out the best in men, good times bring out the worst.”
It’s such an interesting lesson for today, don’t you think?
I’ve heard the argument that people were more “innocent” back then— “it was a gentler time” is the phrase I hear often (I think it might have been “gentler” for some people more than others— but that’s another subject for another time). And I also hear that people are just a lot meaner now than they used to be. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Rather, I think we’re just out of practice. For the past couple of decades we’ve been setting up a society that has caused us to forget how to socialize.
I fully admit that I have a love-hate relationship with technology. I’ve always had a fascination with computers (ever since I first learned BASIC in the early 80’s). I also love the ability to communicate immediately with loved ones. Trust me— you don’t want to be near me when my wireless router starts acting up. And taking away my laptop and/or my iPhone would be akin to taking away my left arm. Since I’m right-handed, I could function— but it wouldn’t be easy, and it would really suck.
On the flip side, don’t get me started on how anonymity provided by the Internet has led to significant deterioration of people’s social skills (I never read the “comments” section of a news story these days). And people close to me will tell you that I hate things like self-pay automated gas pumps and self-checkout stands at the grocery store. In my opinion, those types of inventions were the beginning of the end of courtesy and civility in our society!
Okay. I’ll admit I’m being a little extreme here to make a point. But in all seriousness, one of the most pleasant conversations I have during the day is with the people behind the checkout counter at my neighborhood grocery store. I know them all pretty well. As the mother of an active tween who can eat an entire pizza on his own— I’m in there almost every day. I also enjoy talking/complaining about the weather with the clerk at my favorite gas station— who gives my son a free lollipop when we come inside to pay.
I’m not saying that the world’s problems will be solved by getting rid of automated tellers (although, those tellers are taking people’s jobs away— but again— another subject for another time).
Nor do I think that every clerk you encounter will immediately start being your best friend. I hear some of the horror stories about customers who yell at them when they tell them to have a nice day— so keep in mind that unless they know you, there may be a reason they aren’t saying that phrase. But it’s good to keep trying. And it’s good to keep in practice. We— as a society that increasingly values speed and convenience— are out of practice.
Going back to the original point of this post, perhaps hard times give us the incentive we need to slow down a bit and start talking to each other again. Perhaps we need those detours and obstacles in the road to help remind us that human relationships are key— in the worst of times, and in the best of times.
And you can start simply. Something as small as a smile and a kind word can be contagious. Pass it on.