Yesterday I asked my grandfather what he remembers about the Great Depression. His clearest memory is meeting a hungry man on the sidewalk and bringing him to the back door of the family home. My great-grandmother fed the man and gave my grandpa a lecture so stern that it’s still with him today. But our family did alright during those years. My great-grandfather took pay cuts and moved from one job to another, yet he always had work and they always got by.
Last week at work, my own salary was cut and I watched helplessly as friends had to lay off friends. It was wrenching. And no one I know is sleeping very well these days. I can’t seem to turn away the anxious questions: Can I afford to keep the little house I rent? Will my partner’s business be okay? What about family and friends whose situations are more precarious than ours? What will happen and where will we go if our lives as we know them become truly unsustainable and unrecognizable?
Then, somehow, I remember the bigger context in which all of this is happening. I work for a remarkable company and my coworkers are like family. We now have to get by with less, but I can feel us pulling together, caring for each other as we get the job done. Likewise with my partner, my parents, my friends. We may be facing unprecedented change, but I’ve never felt more certain of the strong bonds between us.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about the dangers of people acting from their baser instincts — fear, greed, violence — as times become more difficult. But everything depends on our ability to cherish the opposite: kindness, compassion, helpfulness. That’s what quells my anxiety and inspires my confidence day by day.
There is reassurance, too, in knowing that my great-grandfather, by keeping calm and working hard, came through something at least a little bit like this. And that my grandfather is here, nearly eighty years later, to share breakfast and tell the tale.