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These ‘unprecedented times’ are not all that unusual

Our predecessors passed through times of frugality and hardship, too.

Unemployed people, numbering about 5,000, wait outside the State Labor Bureau which houses the State Temporary Employment Relief administration in New York City, Nov. 24, 1933 during the Great Depression.
Associated Press

We have seen many headlines during the last 12 months about these “unprecedented” times. We hear comments from a range of sources about how difficult 2020 was and our hope that 2021 will quickly bring a return to normal, whatever normal is for us. Some of the expressions we commonly hear to describe our times are “unparalleled hardship,” “fragility,” “low food security,” “economic dominos,” “crisis” and “pain.”

The theologian in me believes current circumstances are just one more example of life being a continuing test to see how we respond to struggle. The political scientist in me has a lot of policy comments in mind, but for this piece I will keep to a narrower focus. Aside from any commentary about government policies or individual choice, many among us are feeling significant pain. We can all probably tell a story about someone close to us who is really struggling.

Perhaps the only thing unprecedented about our times is that we have not already lived through circumstances of this sort. Generations of people throughout history have endured adversity just as many of us are now. Many of us have parents or grandparents who survived the Great Depression of the 1930s. They told us stories of tough times, few resources and low expectations about what life could offer. They lived through rationing during World War II. They started families in postwar economic times with little certainty but much optimism. After the Depression years, many were quite content to have steady enough employment to provide a place to call home, enough food to eat and a chance for their children to attend school for 12 years.

The 1,500-square-foot home on one-tenth of an acre with a paid-off mortgage was a dream. Owning a car created opportunities for family time on a Sunday drive or even a vacation to experience what a distant city like Logan might offer. A family vacation every couple years might mean taking a family camping to Flaming Gorge or maybe to the California coast to see the ocean. Parents bought bicycles to offer their children the freedom of movement around the community. Youths might babysit or have a paper route to earn money. There was a family phone, though perhaps not in every home. In some homes, to save money, a “party line” was used. If children contemplated college, parents generally expected the child to work their way through school. Thrift and savings were a hallmark of this generation.

As with every generation, these conditions were not universal. There were still those who needed to learn financial discipline.

But expectations today are very different. Most of us have not lived under austere conditions and find austerity onerous. We live in a society that places strong emphasis on entertainment. For some among us, the restrictions on assembling in places like a theater, arena or stadium are almost more than we can bear. We have been so accustomed to having multiple options seven days a week that we hardly know what to do with ourselves at a time these options are unavailable.

We will get through it — because coping is in the human DNA. That does not mean it will be easy. It only means that we have the human capacity to overcome difficult circumstances when we adapt our thinking to solve the real problem, setting aside perceived problems that only serve to distract us from genuine solutions.

Communities in our lifetime have worked through waves of illness, epidemics and now a pandemic of disease. The last time the world went through a pandemic — when flu swept the globe in 1918-19 — little help from the federal government was expected or offered.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis identifies 19 distinct recessions in the United States dating back to 1797, with the most recent being a 2020 recession resulting from pandemic shutdowns. Americans have endured economic downturns many times. We work through it — sometimes with severe personal setbacks — but we cope because we must. And all of us should prepare now for the next economic recession, whenever it will come.

On a theological level of analysis, virtually every faith tradition sees life as an opportunity to be tested: to overcome our own selves and rise above adversity. The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is “all life is suffering.” Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, wrote, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”

Saint Francis of Assisi was a classic example of adversity-induced conversion. His experiences of war, imprisonment and serious illness led to a dramatic change in his personality and lifestyle. His previously self-centered, hedonistic and materially focused life was transformed by adversity into a life focused upon serving others. In all cases, how we deal with suffering is based on the way we find meaning in life.

For some of us, these are days of ordeal, whether it is economic, spiritual or just in lifestyle. For others it is life as usual. We have coped with hardship before, and we will cope with any current hardship we have now. It is what humans have always done. For some, it has been and will continue to be difficult to adjust. As our grandparents told us about the Great Depression, “We managed.” So will we. Perhaps generations from now, our grandchildren will tell their grandchildren about the ways we worked through difficulty and emerged battered but victorious.

Gene Whitmore is a political scientist, theologian and author, working as a college professor and Army chaplain. His views are his own and do not represent positions of any college, religious denomination or military service.