This I Believe

John - Murray, Kentucky
Entered on November 25, 2008

This I believe: We need not visit truly Hard Times in the coming years.

Here’s a phrase we hear often: “In this tough economy.” Most of us understand this American anxiety, but our real problem lies deeper than the economy. It lies in the possibility of fundamental Hard Times.

I recently picked from my bookshelf a yellowed copy of E.L. Doctorow’s first novel, “Welcome to Hard Times.” It’s certainly not among his better-liked works, in part because of its grinding exploration of evil. Welcome to Hard Times is set in the emerging U.S., and its main protagonist is a character simply called “the Badman.” And Hard Times, we learn, is the name of a terrorized town.

Since its publication in 1960, readers have been transfixed by Doctorow’s sinister and mean-spirited Badman, who is known to murder out of whimsy. He is indeed inscrutable in his evil, much worse than the tough characters of Charles Dickens. (Dickens, coincidentally, wrote a novel called Hard Times a century earlier).

But in both Doctorow’s sense — and in Dickens — Hard Times stem from neglect. Malevolence grows as do weeds in sandy lots. All it needs to prosper is… nothing. Weeds are watered by indifference.

Recall the child characters of Dickens: Those homeless kids molded by the Industrial Revolution. The hard-scrabble waifs condemned in an unforgiving world. It all starts in childhood, really, and Hard Times happen when children are fed ambivalence instead of attention; given cold porridge in place of warm parenting.

And America today is full of cold porridge. Child abuse is at high levels, and millions of mistreated kids are reported to child protective services each year – everything from mental abuse when mom or dad reject their children; degrade or isolate them; deny them emotional needs; or intimidate or exploit them.

Psychologists say that traumatic childhood experiences make these kids susceptible to an array of behavioral disorders, and many never do manage to straighten themselves out as adults.

If we don’t look out for our children, they certainly won’t look out for us. This is my key concern about the future.

Our culture is not about to undergo sudden transformation into a more loving habitat. I don’t think the town of Mayberry from the Andy Griffith show existed even in the 1950s — but sometimes I do reminisce on the heartwarming strength of Gregory Peck as Scout’s father in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And the title said it all in “Father Knows Best.”

Our real guard against Hard Times may lie in the vigilance of every adult. As caretakers to the future, we should be more ready to salve a child’s conscience if we suspect a case of child mistreatment, or to speak out to parents or authorities in the cause of what is right.

This I believe: In our children, our destiny, and in avoiding construction of a town called Hard Times.