“Hard times make strong men,
Strong men make good times,
Good times make weak men,
Weak men make hard times.”
Our parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents fought in Vietnam, Korea, and World War II. The suffered the effects of the Great Depression, or they were raised by survivors of complete economic fallout. They lived through housing booms and bubbles bursting.
They were drafted. They dodged the draft. They went to work, joined unions, got degrees on the G.I. Bill. They started companies. They got married and divorced, opinions be damned. They stayed in marriages they didn’t want to because divorce wasn’t an option for them. They lived fulfilled lives without having kids. They had children they didn’t want to because they didn’t have a choice – or at least not a physically or morally safe one. And they had as many kids as they wanted.
They eradicated polio. They eradicated Nazis. Their intervention in the Middle East’s and Africa’s conflicts helped create al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS. And their resolve pushed many of those terrorists into caves and graves.
They discriminated against women, against people of color, and against differently abled people.
But they also marched for women’s liberation, for civil rights, for the rights of people with disabilities.
They suffered PTSD and mental illnesses without a clue that’s what they were doing, and no resources to solve it even if they had known.
And they fought to push governments, the military, companies, and insurers to improve access to solutions for those who needed them. And they simultaneously helped reduce the stigma associated with those diseases.
They got us into a Cold War that threatened total annihilation of the planet, and somehow managed to end that war peacefully.
They went to the moon! They put the space station in orbit. And they cut most of the funding to NASA so we don’t have shuttle missions anymore.
They went from complete prudish repression to free love to a deadly epidemic that stole some of the world’s greatest people. And they pushed scientists and governments to help shift an automatic, grizzly death sentence into something still scary, but far more livable.
They were oppressed for being themselves. They oppressed others for being themselves. And they stood up for themselves, corrected course, and delivered a decision that ensured that we’re all guaranteed the right to marry whoever we want to marry.
They lived through the good old days enough to tell you that the good old days were not always so good, and to teach us that we’re living in our own “good old days” right this minute.
The world is in a constant overlapping set of cycles.
One generation’s hard times helps make the strong people, who bend reality to their will and make good times. Adolf goes on a rampage…things get ugly. Don’t want Nazis running around taking over Poland and such? Don’t worry, your grandparents already whipped the ever-loving shit out of them about 70 years ago.
The children of that generation grew up in good times, living on (comparatively) easy street, and wound up “weak.” Their weakness allowed the bad times to creep back in.
But at the exact same time, the Greatest Generation’s kids were pretty damned great themselves. They may not have fought the Nazis, but they fought for civil rights, for equality, for the environment, for education, and for just about anything else you can name. And they made a better world for their kids.
Generation X, the grandkids of the Greatests and the children of the Boomers, grew up in good times, living on (again, comparatively) easy street, and wound up “weak.”
Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11, never-ending student loan payments, unsure retirement, weak job markets, the rise of autism, underfunded schools, housing crash…easy street ain’t so easy afterall. Hard times make strong people, and there we were, getting strong in the face of those hard times. Well, as hard as they can get once your granddad kicked Adolf’s ass and your parents gave peace a chance but made it happen by any means necessary.
And here we are. We’re a people who have always faced hard times with grit and resolve, and we’ve always come out stronger on the other side. We’ve always used our determination to make reality fit our vision. And once we’ve achieved some version of what we wanted, we’ve always taken our foot off the gas and enjoyed our reward.
We’ve always risked life and limb in a paint-trading race up a blind hill, gotten to the top, then put on some tunes and coasted down the other side. We proudly tell our kids about the crazy hurdles we had to jump. And we’re proud they don’t have to jump them.
We’ve done so much. We’ve killed the Nazis and wiped out polio. We’ve gotten (mostly) equal rights. We’ve gone to space so many times we got tired of going to space (yeah, that’s the ticket…we’re tired of it!). We’ve defeated the USSR (sort of). We’ve restored relations with Cuba (sort of). We’ve taken HIV from being 100% fatal to being mostly not fatal. We can even marry each other, and the government can’t check what equipment we’re each packing first!
And we’ve still got thousands of problems to tackle.
But if you’re mature and intellectually honest, you’ll admit that Western “hard times” in 2017 are utopian for most of the rest of the world.
In the US, for the most part, we’ve thankfully run out of the kind of hard times that forge the insanely strong people your grandma and grandpa were…thanks, mostly, to your grandma and grandpa.
The linchpin of “hard times creating strong people” is simple: it’s empathy. Knowing what pain looks like makes one a lot less likely to knowingly create more pain, or to allow your kids to suffer it.
And when you’ve been thrown headfirst into hate, war and division, you wind up a little less likely to purposely jump (or throw others) into it later.
We’ve been blessed beyond all measure to grow up in this era. We owe a massive debt to our forebears for what they gave us.
But in the absence of formative brutality befalling us, many of our current choices show how little pain we’ve experienced…namely through our willingness to flippantly subject others to it.
I’m deathly afraid that our weakness today is going to give rise to worse times ahead.
I’m hopeful that, through thought, reflection, study, and purposeful development of empathy, we’ll be able to break this cycle in our lifetime.
I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to create good times without having to first create the bad times that call upon our hidden strength.
I’m weak, compared to my Papa and Grannie, but I’m hopeful that the empathy they instilled in me will help me grow strong enough to bend reality to my will without having to experience their hell first-hand.