My get-up-and-go has got up and went


“My get-up-and-go has got up and went” was a common saying of those surviving during the depression. They worked long hours at back-breaking jobs for little pay in order to provide basic necessities for the family. Previous generations often summarized their day as “I’m worn down to a frazzle.” Relative economic prosperity relieves most Americans from such grinding physical toil that often accompanies poverty.

An anonymous poem and then a Pete Seeger song from mid-century incorporated the phrase into a long, humorous commentary on becoming old. Old age is depicted as crawling into bed “With my ears in a drawer, my teeth in a cup, My eyes on the table until I wake up.” Young people run and dance with abandon, but the elderly admit, “I huff to the store and puff my way back. But, I’d rather be huffing than not puff at all!” Finally, the elderly person reads the obituaries every day and thinks, “If I’m not there, I know I’m not dead, So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed!” As our population ages, more of us understand the reality that the humor masques. Nevertheless, it is good to laugh at and with old age; otherwise, infirmities can become very depressing.

A strange malaise affects American society leading many to experience loss of get-up-and-go. What little there was has dissipated like a vanishing fog. Burn out is cited as one reason for the malaise. Burn out conjures up the idea of hard labor and burning a candle at both ends. Studies indicate that burn out results more from loss of meaning and purpose than hard labor. One can thrive while working hard if there is a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s work. Too many of our neighbors seem not to have any satisfaction based on meaning or purpose in their lives or work. Terrifying accounts on news and media channels describe suicides by relatively young people from ages 20 to 40 years, and even by teenagers.

In response, self-care has spawned profitable enterprises. Specialists, sometimes self-identified and untrained, step forward to offer therapies for relief of burn out and general malaise. Some recommend various forms of meditation or yoga. Others suggest prescription drugs and other drugs that promise to help a person relax and escape. However, if one major cause is lack of meaning and purpose, such therapies do not get at root causes.

The poem mentions two positive responses. The chorus of each stanza of the poem states: “But, in spite of it all, I’m able to grin, And think of the places my getup has been!” Our memories are tendrils that tie our lives together and shape our identity. Positive memories from a life well lived provide a foundation for the present and perhaps more energy for facing the future. The last line of the first stanza is forward looking at a time when “nations are warring and Congress is vexed,” “We’ll still stick around to see what happens next!” To be curative, the forward-looking response must involve more than just curiosity and baseless optimism.

Positive response requires a structure of affirmations and beliefs that support a lively hope for a better future for ourselves, our neighbors, and society. Deeds that help other people are first steps. Meaningful local actions to build and then support structures that encourage such activities are pathways beyond malaise to greater flourishing.


Raymond Brady Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.