Challenging times

I grew up with parents whose childhoods had been shaped by the Great Depression and whose young adult stories included World War II. My great uncle, who lived in our town and was included in all family events, had faced those events in his midlife. Needless to say the philosophy of Marie Kondo wasn’t the organizing principle of their lives. It was closer to “Don’t get rid of anything. You never know what you will need down the road.” I’ve written before that among the items left behind in his home when my great uncle passed away was a shoe box, labeled in black grease pencil, “pieces of string too short to save.” The contents of the box were as labeled.

I remember lots of stories about the challenges of the Depression and of the conditions that followed during the war. I heard about how my grandparents’ farm was saved by a lack of mechanical equipment and a corresponding lack of debt. I heard about my maternal grandfather accepting chickens and even eggs sometimes as payment for legal services and how he tried to help families prevent foreclosure during the hard times. I heard about rationing and how my parents wee married in the home of my great Uncle because no other family members were able to travel during the war. Although my mother lived a little more than a decade into the 21st century, she clearly was a person of the 20th century in many ways.

Interestingly, the stories were never told in ways that made me feel sorry for my parents or other family members. They were always told with a sense of triumph. “Sure times were hard. Sure there were challenges. But we overcame them. We learned to make do and to be happy with what we had.” I would imagine myself if I had lived in those times as being able to survive and even thrive in the challenging times. I speculated about what decisions I would have made, about how hard I would be willing to work for a small wage, about how I could use my survival skills to make things when I had no ability to purchase them in the store.

Our childhood was filled with making things. We built go carts without motors to race down hills. We built tree forts. We scavenged leftover lumber from construction sites and learned to pull and straighten nails for reuse. My uncle taught me to cut a can on the seam and flatten it out and then to make straight bends to fashion a box. The steel from another can was used to make a lid. I learned to use a clench to set nails in place of rivets. These were passed on as family values. “We don’t waste things. We know how to reuse the things that others toss in the garbage.” For what it is worth, even our garbage cans were containers that had previously served another purpose. Among the stories was how my great uncle had not only gotten the garbage can in his garage but also that it had contained enough grease to service his car for years when it was discarded by an auto dealer.

As a result I grew up thinking that challenges were a normal part of life and not a source of worry or fear.

Of course it was all theoretical. I grew up with great privilege. We baby boomers escaped the actual pressures of depression and war. The war of our young adulthood, Vietnam, was vastly different in its effect on the nation.

It would be fair, however, to say that we now are living in challenging times. It isn’t the Great Depression, and our century is different from the last one. But the global pandemic has now invected 26 million and resulted in 861,000 deaths. 189,000 of the fatalities have been in our country. It is estimated that 18 million US citizens are unemployed. The ending of sort term bail out support with the end of August means that millions are facing eviction. Some have predicted that homelessness will reach the levels of the Great Depression. Schools are struggling with how to provide safety for students as a new school year begins. Hospitals are struggling to provide care with the virus spreading among their medical staff.

Challenges are everywhere that we turn. Many churches are not meeting for face to face worship. Organizations have cancelled meetings and events. Donations to nonprofits have plummeted.

And we have chosen to retire - become jobless ourselves - right in the midst of all of it. Although we are not experiencing financial hardship, the shift has been complicated by the pandemic. We haven’t been able to say our good byes in the ways that we had hoped. We are struggling to make the right decisions about what to keep and what to donate and otherwise shed as we downsize our lifestyle. Have we kept too much or too little? It is hard to know.

I hadn’t thought much about the emotional or psychological challenges of the Depression. When I imagined myself facing those challenges, I never thought of a weakened spirit. I imagined I would be strong and cheerful. I didn’t realize how easy it is to fall into pessimism when faced with constant challenges from every direction. I now understand how quickly challenges can lead to pessimism and pessimism can lead to bitterness. There is plenty of loss and grief that accompany the seasons of challenge.

I grew up hearing about how people helped one another during the Great Depression. I know stories about selfless sharing and sacrificial giving. And I know that part of how my relatives moved beyond pessimism and bitterness as they faced the challenges of their lives was to learn to take pleasure in small things. There is great goodness that remains in the world, even in times of challenge. We are still surrounded by the beauty of nature and the love of family and friends. Generosity of spirit continues to show itself in many ways.

Friends, we are all in this together. We will get through these challenges on the kindnesses and commitments of family, friends and colleagues. We can honor the history that we have inherited by keeping alive our capacity for joy and thanksgiving even in challenging times.

We would do well to remember the stories of our people who have faced challenging times before.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!