Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Ruminations on simpler times

As we live through and experience "interesting times" (the traditional Chinese euphemism for strife, disorder, chaos, and upheaval) there is always that human tendancy to look back at Grandma or Grandpa's life as being simpler times, the "good old days" when life had a slower, easier pace, and people had time to breathe, commune with one another, enjoy life, and live on simpler, less stressful terms.

The wonderful historical writer, David McCullough, refutes this delusion in his lecture delivered earlier this year at Hillsdale College. He spoke about Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, the second President of the United States:

Something I always like to emphasize is that there never was a simpler past. We hear often, "Oh, that was a simpler time," but it's always wrong. Imagine Abigail's life. Up in the morning at about 5 to light the fireplace that served as the kitchen, call to the children to come down, cook the breakfast, tend the stock, try to keep the farm solvent during the whole war with her husband gone and with inflation and with shortages of everything. Schools were closed, so she had to educate the children at home. Her day didn't end until 9 or 10 at night when the children would go upstairs to their bedrooms, where it could be so cold that the water in the bowls that they used to wash their faces was iced over. And then she would sit down at the kitchen table with a single candle and write some of the greatest letters ever written by any American.

In one plaintive letter, she writes: "Posterity who are to reap the blessings will scarcely be able to conceive the hardships and sufferings of their ancestors." And we don't. We don't know what they went through--epidemics of smallpox or dysentery, which could take the lives of hundreds of people just in the little town of Quincy, Massachusetts. It was by no means a simpler time. They had to worry about things that we don't even think about any more, and suffer discomforts and inconveniences of a kind that we never even imagine. We have little idea of how tough they were. Imagine John Adams setting off in the middle of winter to ride nearly 400 miles on horseback to get to Congress. Try riding even 40 miles sometime. John and Abigail were separated, in all, more than ten years because of his service to the country.

They had to worry about things that we don't even think about any more.

I remember that one of the "Aha!" moments of my life came while I was watching the PBS television series, "1900 House." It was one of the first "reality" television shows, and the first one I'd ever seen, anyway. I was enthralled by the premise, and by each episode as it unfolded. The series showed the experiences of a modern-day English family who volunteered to take up residence in a house furnished and stocked as it would have been in 1900, and their task over several weeks was to attempt to live life the way a family would have lived it there in 1900.

At first I didn't think of 1900 as being very far from the present. Surely a Victorian household, while backwards in some respects, was neither rustic nor spartan. But the adjustments for the modern family were huge, and no more so than for the wife and mother of the family. To her fell the chores of cooking, cleaning, laundering, doctoring, and managing the household with only the antique tools and appliances. The burden of her work, just to achieve clean clothes for her family, or to keep her children nourished by way of an antiquated kitchen, was phenomenal.

Nothing else has so dramatically, immediately, or emotionally demonstrated to me how much the condition of women (especially housewives and mothers) has changed with the advent of the washer and dryer, the vacuum cleaner, modern miracle drugs, and electricity. These technological advances have done more for women than all the feminists combined.

On my worse day I can always comfort myself now with the thought that I have so much personal power, autonomy, and freedom at my command. My lifestyle is a miracle compared to women born earlier or living now in other places around the world--a miracle I, personally, have done relatively little to deserve. If I awake bored, stressed, or depressed, at least I don't have a dayful of exhausting physical labor ahead of me just to keep body and soul together for one more day. I do not have to scrounge for a needle, candles, or soap, as Abigail Adams did. I can hop in the car and go get a cappucino or a smoothie if I want--shallow of me, perhaps, but what freedom that small luxury represents, that we so utterly take for granted.

Instead of heading down to the local river to beat my family's clothes against a rock, I can go to a library, supermarket, bookstore or art gallery, visit friends or do more rewarding work. I have the leisure to read a book, watch TV, garden (not plow), surf the internet for entertainment or instant world news, and write down my thoughts. I am free to have a life of the mind, to create or recreate. And instead of having buried several children or died in childbirth as many mothers did in earlier days, I can obtain near-immediate and effective medical care for myself and my family. We are not wasting away from diseases or parasites now forgotten.

And so what are we masses of American kings and queens of such middle-class splendor doing with all of this unprecedented free time, physical comfort, and autonomy?

John and Abigail Adams would be incredulous to see the wealth of blessings showered today on their posterity, in large part thanks to their own sacrifices. I wonder, though, what they would say about our character and our purposes. How much have Americans changed since 1776, and is the change for the better or for the worse, do you think?

Which indeed are the simpler times? I do know this much: I wouldn't swap.

BACKGROUND: See my previous post on conservative guilt.


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