One year ago I was on a sunny beach in Mexico with friends, enjoying the relaxed pace of small-town life, swimming in the ocean, sampling the local food and soaking up the sun. It was marvelous in every way.
One year has passed. In this one year we began to learn about the virus that causes COVID-19, which has resulted in sickness, death and global lockdowns. The past year has also been one of political pressures, conflicting beliefs, name-calling and taking sides. On the West Coast, we have suffered smoke and scorched earth destruction by uncontrolled wildfires. Millions of people have lost their livelihoods. The normal pace and patterns of our lives have been disrupted in a hundred ways, large and small. The Capitol of the United States was attacked and ransacked by rioters.
In reflecting on this traumatic year, I wondered if this country had been through any comparable circumstances before. It was not too difficult to discover that we have indeed had other years of suffering. The time period that jumps to the front of the line is the 1930s, when the United States and the world went through a decade of misery.
In 1933, we were in the midst of a global economic depression. The U.S. was waiting for a new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to be sworn in. The Reichstag, Germany’s parliament, was burned in Berlin, allowing Hitler to consolidate power. Dust Bowl storms forced the migration of thousands, lines for soup kitchens were a way of life and unemployment was over 25%. People were in despair.
What happened to those people? How did they cope? How did they come out on the other side?
In his book, “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression,” Studs Terkel recorded their stories. “The book is a monument,” said Michael Frisch, professor emeritus of history at the University at Buffalo. “People (are) living on the edge of history and trying to figure it out as they go along. I think that’s what we’re going through right now, because we are all over the edge.”
There are lessons in that book that can offer us hope for the hard times we are living through today.
Among them are many examples of people showing compassion for their fellow Americans. People who were newly poverty-stricken had to face what living in poverty was like for others, with no social safety net. There was a real sense of “We’re all in this together.” People shared what they had, and most people had very little.
People reinvented themselves. One example is “Yip” Harburg. His business went bankrupt, and all he had left was a pencil. Ira Gershwin advised him to take the pencil and start rhyming words and writing songs. He wrote the lyrics to the “Wizard of Oz” for one. Harburg later said he lost his possessions and found his creativity.
People depended on their families and neighbors. Many who lost their homes moved in with relatives. People made their own fun, gathering to play games and listen to the radio together. The board game Monopoly became a huge success at this time, although ironically it had been invented in 1903 by anti-monopolist Lizzie Magie, who created it as an educational tool to illustrate the negative aspects of monopolies.
Others in “Hard Times” talk about learning to believe in the future, trying to effect change and not to be afraid of it. Some called those years exhilarating, as people came together in what we would now call “brainstorming” to solve the enormous problems facing the country.
Here on the Key Peninsula, in year one of our crisis, there are residents making a concerted and organized effort to support local businesses. Many of those business have donated to the community in good times, and now Key Penners want to help them. Local people are looking to supplement lost incomes by offering unique services to others, reinventing themselves. People have learned to use technology to connect with others but deeply appreciate the special times when we can meet — still at a distance — in person. Many people empathize with the self-discipline needed to distance from friends and family. The heartache and loneliness are real.
At a time when there is much loss, uncertainty and suffering, we can be encouraged by the experiences of past generations. We can also choose to look at the future with an open mind and take heart. We celebrate the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines, revel in our new hobbies, and enjoy the time we have to “nest” with family. The worst hard times may also be the very times that reveal inner strengths, creativity and generosity.
Vicki Biggs is a longtime social worker. She lives in Home.
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