“‘Tis a gift to be simple. ‘Tis a gift to be free.” During the Great Depression some parents and grandparents learned from this early-American song and from proverbs. Then they taught their children their children and grandchildren. What lessons will we learn from recent experience?
During the Great Depression even those employed were poor by current American standards — large families in tiny houses, no car, hunger and simple food, hard labor and no safety net. Many were unemployed, destitute, even homeless migrants. Hobos marked houses with symbols where food was shared. The poor tended gardens or hunted for food to feed their children. Surprisingly, the poor were more generous with the widow’s mite than the wealthy.
Families passed along proverbs to their children and grandchildren. Those echo as faint memories.
Any person who has a job is not poor.
The best place to put your extra food is in your neighbor’s stomach.
A penny saved is a penny earned (Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac).
Waste not; want not.
Remember the starving Chinese (an admonition at dinner tables).
It is more blessed to give than to receive (Jesus in Acts 20:35).
Them that has, gits (a caustic comment on inequalities, then and now).
Prudence in expenditure, personal discipline, delayed gratification, careful savings, dignity in honest labor, generosity and gratitude for opportunities — those were virtues instilled in and emulated by children of the Great Depression. Grandchildren now roll their eyes at stories beginning, “We were so poor we ate dirt!”
American standards of living rose dramatically in decades following World War II. Huge houses for smaller families, at least two cars in garages, middle class wealth, lavish waste and expenditures. Still, the poor barely keep heads above water. Rapid changes darken the future for many younger Americans. Decline in manufacturing, increased demand for education and new skills, globalization of finance and commerce, expanded competition for job, unemployment and meager wages overwhelm many. Even so, Americans remain incredibly wealthy by historical and global standards.
Then came a world-wide pandemic. Responses, good and bad, shape our social relations realities for the future. Many work from home, with less in-person contact, less busyness, fewer purchases and more quiet time. It feels like the Great Depression, but with some safety nets and more time for calm reflection.
Some have learned that “less is better!” Craving for everything, but never having enough, distractions and harried lives could be replaced with fewer excesses, time to enjoy family and simple things and slowing down to find pleasure and peace in less than our desires and more satisfaction with what we have.
A wall plaque proclaims, “I’ve been rich; I’ve been poor; rich is better.” Certainly, enough to meet basic needs is a blessing, but craving and striving for luxuries and then wanting more proves to be burdensome, not a path to freedom. Moreover, our desires sometimes enslave others. Freedom to waste not and want not, to save pennies to have enough for our needs, and to be generous to those whose needs are not met might lead to a wonderful life. Could this become our timely proverb? “’Tis a gift to be simple. ‘Tis a gift to be free.”
Raymond Brady Williams, Crawfordsville, contributed this guest column.