In 1934, on August 16th my mother, Marva Maxwell, turned 18. She had graduated at the top of her class at Sacred Heart High School. That was the public high school in Sacred Heart, Minnesota, in the western, sugar beet-growing part of the state, where her father grew crops for feed and raised beef cattle.
My mom had saved money up in order to attend college a hundred miles north and east of her home town at the Normal School for teacher training at St. Cloud, a little burg on the side of the Mississippi River. She had made money over the years candling and selling eggs and walking beans. If my memory preserves her story accurately, in August of 1934, with her whole life in front of her, she had 200 dollars in the bank, and a scholarship to college. Then the bank closed. It had already been hard times. Now times had gotten worse.
I heard her tell this cautionary tale hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the course of my childhood: when it was time for school to start her father drove her to St. Cloud, dropped her off at the residence hall, Schumacher (which she would later get kicked out of for smoking), and handed her a $20 bill: “I hope everything works out for you here,” he told her, “because we don’t have anything much for you back home on the farm.”
Years later, during World War II, my mother took the train to San Diego and Camp Pendleton where my father was assigned as a Navy dentist, with her first child in tow. They sucked on malt tablets (not the candy but a nutritional supplement) to keep their hunger pangs at bay. From this era of her life came the stories of butter and sugar and gas rationing, and of living off-base in a house where precious avocados and oranges grew on trees in the backyard where she could gather the windfall for lunch.
These stories explain things about my mom — and others of her generation. Like why she always had 6 cans of 12 varieties of Campbell’s soup in the basement pantry at any given moment, and if the supply fell lower than that it was immediately replenished. This was the generation that came home from the world’s greatest war and never threw away another piece of string or aluminum foil so long as they lived.
We want to believe that hardship will ennoble us and teach us virtue, without robbing us of the aptitude for joy, or making us mean and peevish. In reality, sainthood is a by-product of adversity only for a few. The rest of us struggle through, managing a little generosity here with a large dose of self-interest there.
I think often of my parents’ generation as the uncertainty of the global economy continues to roil and brew. I am not worried so much about our generation’s ability to survive hardship in the sense of giving stuff up and doing without. But I worry quite a lot about our ability to live with uncertainty.
What my mother really gave up as she stepped away from her father’s car as he left her at college, or rode the train pell mell to a California she had never even dreamed of, was her sense of control over the future: that she knew what was coming next — and could count on it.
I’m pretty sure I don’t know what will happen next, and it makes me jumpy. I take comfort in my usual sources of sanity: work, yoga, my family and friends. At SOF we’re starting to dig hard into some of the questions that come up for us personally. We’d love your help:
For starters, in what way(s) do you consider this a moral or spiritual crisis? Of your own? Of our culture’s?
What moral and spiritual resources, what virtues, do you bring to approaching it — in your own life, with colleagues at work, in your family, in your religious or other community settings? What are you doing now that is different? How is it different, and why?
What kind of wisdom and leadership are you looking for at this time, close to your life? Where are you finding it?
In addition to posting and collating your responses, we’ll be reflecting on these questions in our production process and our blog and posing them to wise thinkers in the realms of business, education, philosophy, science, and religion.
(photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library)