Thursday, November 10, 2011


"As far as I was concerned, the Depression was an ill wind that blew some good. If it hadn't occurred, my parents would have given me my college education. As it was, I had to scrabble for it."
-Sargent Shriver

Some of my favorite books are about the great age of sail, particularly the Napoleonic War (what I consider World War 1) and clipper ships. There's a great deal about these books that appeal to me, but one thing that stands out is the attitude of the sailors. They might complain and argue and have various personal problems with things that happen, but when it comes to the wind and tide, they tend to be philosophical.

No amount of complaint, rage, tears, or pleading will change the wind. It will blow as God intends, whether too strong or not at all, or just right. A sailing ship cannot sail directly into the wind no matter what, although a well-handled ship with the proper design can come amazingly close. The tides come and go at a regular pace based on the moon and you cannot change it. So sailors learn to put up with it. You wait, and understand that your desire or need simply does not matter a bit. The wind will come when it comes, and the proper attitude is to be ready when it does and react properly when you have an opportunity.

And when things go bad economically, that's the attitude you have to have. Because being poor and living through tough times is something very difficult to face, particularly if you have been wealthy before.

Living in modern America, we have an astounding, unprecedented array of conveniences, comforts, and delights within our grasp. For a few bucks a month you can access the world's biggest database of books, images, movies, games and distractions on the internet. Television sets can access hundreds of channels, hundreds of "on demand" movies, record things you miss to watch later, and offer them from the comfort of your easy chair. You can order food to come to your home, you can order nearly any goods and services to come to your home in many areas.

We have sophisticated, astonishing electronic gadgets on our hips in the form of the latest cell phone. We have microwaves to cook food in seconds, we have all manner of gadgets, devices, and technology to make our life easier, down to something as simple as water from a tap and an indoor toilet that flushes (and warms the seat, in some cases). If you want to go somewhere, you hop in your car that has music and entertainment built in, including video screens and DVD players. You can drive almost anywhere, limited only by fuel that's a fraction of the cost compared to other places in the world.

Americans have it so good its difficult to even put it into perspective, compared to even fifty years ago. The most opulent, wealthy, and extravagant king in the world several centuries ago would faint in astonishment at what the average American takes for granted, even expects as a divine right.

Losing those things can be quite a shock, especially if you have been living fairly well. We in the west have become accustomed to live being about what pleases us, what brings us happiness, comfort, and health. We're so inwardly focused and interested in immediate comfort that when something challenges this, we are not simply surprised but indignant. It is our birthright to be happy, healthy, and comfortable, we insist. For most of the world and the vast majority of history, that's simply not the case.

Wealth is advantageous simply because it reduces the pain and difficulty of obtaining the basic needs of life, giving you more time and resources to spend on other pursuits. If you have enough to survive, you can then attempt to better yourself and achieve more. Wealth is codified human power, it is a mathematical statement of the ability you have to manipulate your life and those around you. The more wealth you have, the greater this power becomes.

When you are poor, you have fewer of these resources, and have to devote an ever greater percentage of what you have to simply surviving to the next day. True, deep poverty of the kind that is imposed on many people by an economic depression grinds you down to the point of struggling simply to have enough to eat and shelter over your head.

One of Louis L'Amour's repeated themes is that we are just a few steps away from real hardship, that we take for granted the basic needs of survival but should not because it is so easy to be reduced to struggling to exist. When a major disaster strikes an area, such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or flood, people there find out sometimes overnight that what they took for granted is gone and they must survive with what they can manage to find.

That home you always figured was there is suddenly gone. That electricity you rely on so strongly suddenly is no longer there. The fresh water, the heat, the cell phone signal, all the things of life that people become accustomed to can be taken away swiftly and totally without warning. All it takes is some sudden event like a meteor or a volcano, and you're faced with surviving rather than enjoying life.

How you approach and react to this mentally matters even more than what you do physically. Some simply give up, sitting down, unable to even begin to know what to do. They don't last long. Some rage against their misfortune, looking for others to blame, demanding justice and fairness, insisting that everyone else owes them what they have become accustomed to. But many, perhaps most, react by finding a way, through the tears and fears and anxiety.

Humans are, if nothing else, amazingly adaptable. In a short time, people can become used to just about anything and learn to work around it to their best benefit. When you have no choice, you can learn to face problems and deal with them.

The first thing to do is not look for someone to blame. Its usually the case that someone is certainly to blame in a bad economy, but not always. The time for them to face justice will one day come, and you should be ready to act on it when the opportunity comes (voting, for instance). But none of that helps you face tomorrow. It might make for good entertainment for Batman to be driven to almost insane lengths to fight crime based on his parents' death, but Batman is basically insane. That's no way to go through life.

Getting past blame allows you to critically face the situation you're in and make the changes you need to deal with life. You have to be willing to realistically and honestly assess what you do and consider important, rejecting everything but what you truly need. Your 15 year old daughter might cry and scream and think she'll die if you don't have cell phones, but the truth is, she'll get over it in a few days and life goes on. You might feel as if you've lost a dear friend when the internet isn't available, but you'd be surprised how quickly you get used to not having it around.

Learning to live on much less is a skill, and like all skills it takes time, failure, and help to really learn what to do. Yet learn we can, and must, to face our troubles. The greatest burden and sorrow I think lies on the shoulders of the father of a family. It is upon his back that the weight of providing and protecting will typically rest. It is he who must keep a brave face and a smile as he agonizes over not being able to provide for his family what he believes they should have.

Few men can easily tolerate not being able to lavish their loved ones with pleasant gifts and comforts. Few men can sleep well at night knowing their children are hungry and cold, that their wife cannot have luxuries and delights he would give her. The burden of leadership is taking responsibility; it is realizing that while everyone must give their best and may be to blame for things that go wrong, the one responsible is the one who takes on that trouble and helps everyone through it. A leader cannot show the sorrows and fears he feels, because he has to keep the morale of his followers up. A leader cannot turn to anyone else, because they're the end of the line. Their family will have a shoulder to cry on, a strong, steadfast figure in the center of uncertainty, but the leader has to be those things.

And like all good leaders, the man has to be ready and willing to rely on the judgment and wisdom of everyone in his troop. That means when the wife understands or has greater experience in an area, he has to be willing to not just listen but follow through on her wisdom. When your kids have a good idea, then you have to be the one who carries that idea out.

Which is why men so dearly need women to be supportive, positive, and trusting. If a man is to carry that immense burden, he needs his wife to be there as an encouragement and to be a support. Cutting him down, questioning him constantly, not respecting or trusting his judgment all whittles away at the man until he's a wreck who is no use to anyone. It may make a wife feel more important and empowered, but all it does is ruin the marriage and damage the family to belittle him, even when he's not around.

And when there's only one parent, that burden becomes even more awful and they need even more to have someone around to help ease it. Family, friends, church family, everyone needs someone to help rest for a moment.

Everyone has to be willing to not just give up what they must, but give what they must as well. That means working harder to get the things you used to get easily. If there's one constant theme in all of this, it is that you're going to have to do a lot more to get what you used to. You have to take longer to cook, maintain, and supply yourself. Whereas once you simply bought convenient things, now you have to provide or create them. And that means everyone has to be willing and able to pitch in as best they can.

That attitude of willingness to work and supply the effort required of everyone is the critical difference between bare survival and building a future. It is the pioneering spirit that built America, it is the philosophy of work that made our culture and all the technology we enjoy today. You cannot take anything for granted when you are truly poor, and you cannot rest on your achievements.

And the strange thing is, hardship and want seems to generate more cheerfulness and family closeness than ease and comfort. People who never spoke to each other pitch in and help dig out of the ruins in a disaster. People who never gave to anyone else open their wallets and purses in generosity that sometimes hurts to help those in need when things go really wrong. America owed Haiti nothing, few of us even knew anyone from that little country, but when it had a horrendous earthquake and hurricane, the money flooded in from the USA.

So when things get truly awful, you will find that suddenly the things that once loomed so large in your life, the things that seemed so important suddenly shrivel away and become childish, often easily discarded. As I wrote a few days ago about 9/11:
Most of the country changed their viewpoint for a few weeks after that. People flooded into churches. Reality shows like Survivor plunged in popularity. We woke up a while from the bread and circuses distractions of modern hedonistic culture and banded together, a short while, as a single nation with the real world and its true important things in our minds.
And that change in attitude is the most important tool of all in your survival kit to making it through economic depression. You have to abandon the childish ease of comfortable times and face the future with adult determination.

This is part of the economic Depression Era Survival Kit.

No comments: