I hear a number of people complaining that life is just not as good as it once was in the United States of America. The grumbling comes from liberals and conservatives alike. Some worry about the economic state of the average person and others are more concerned with the state of health of our laws. Still others ponder the moral fabric of society and see things that frighten them. I sometimes feel as though we all doth protest too much. I’ve been around for sixty six years and for the most part I think that we have never been better. We tend to stretch our concerns way out of proportion as though these are the worst of times. History tells a very different story.
When I was a child we often traveled to Arkansas to visit my grandparents who had a farm in the little town of Caddo Gap. I remember being quite stunned to learn that my grandmother and grandfather were considered the most modern people in town simply because their home had electricity and indoor plumbing. As late as 1959, there were neighbors near them who used lanterns when it became dark and relieved themselves in outhouses. I remember visiting one woman and holding my natural tendencies because I really didn’t want to go inside the ramshackle building that was her outdoor bathroom. I doubt seriously that there are many places today even in Caddo Gap that are without electricity and plumbing.
Only a few people that I knew had some of the items that most of us now take for granted. Air conditioners for the common man were just coming into fashion. Most who owned them had one in a window of the main living area that they turned on only so many hours each day. The idea of central air conditioning was all but unheard of except in very wealthy circles. There were even stores in downtown Houston where most citizens shopped that used huge ceiling fans to cool customers in the summer. I never sat inside an air conditioned classroom until I went to college. Now we send children home if the air goes out for an extended period of time. Everyone panics if they are forced to open the windows while waiting for a repair.
I was leaving my teenage years before I ever watched television in color. Before then everything that I viewed was in black and white and the adults that I knew insisted on having their t.v.s repaired when problems occurred. That meant that most people used their sets for well over a decade before surrendering and getting a more modern version. I recall our repairman quite well. He was known for his honesty and low prices. He often visited our home with his truck fill of tubes of various sizes and functions. For under twenty dollars he would put our television back in running condition. I was always fascinated that one of my much older cousins became somewhat of a celebrity in LaGrange for setting up a reliable television and radio repair shop. Now when any type of media goes out the majority of people toss the old machines into the dump and get new ones. The day of the repairman for such things is long gone.
I’ve seen quite a few young people getting new cars as presents for graduation from high school. I knew one or two fellow students like that but they came from very wealthy families. The rest of us had to negotiate to borrow the one and only family auto if we wanted to drive somewhere. The other alternative was to save our money until we were able to buy ourselves a clunker. As with televisions everyone that I knew drove their cars until the wheels fell off of them. People saw their transportation as a huge investment and anything that didn’t last well over ten years was thought to be a lemon.
We had no health insurance when I was a kid. We went to the Canal Clinic for all of our shots and school checkups. My mother mostly took care of us with home remedies. Only when a major event happened did we visit our family doctor. I was diagnosed with scoliosis as an adult. In today’s world children are regularly screened for such things and referred to doctors to take care of the problem when there is still time to make a difference. I knew kids who had difficulties in school because they could not see. All children receive regular checkups for problems with both sight and hearing in today’s public schools. If they can’t afford glasses the Lion’s Club will provide what is needed.
I’ve already discussed the role of women in 1960. We have come so far that it is almost impossible for younger women to even imagine the difficulties that those in my age group encountered in the past. I could not have enrolled at Texas A&M for my first year of college because it was still an all male campus. At the University of Houston there was a major conflict when brave women attempted to infiltrate the ranks of the engineering and architecture departments. Civil rights for blacks and other minorities were all but non-existent when I was a child. Over time I watched one barrier after another falling to the wayside. Things may not be perfect but they are still infinitely better than they once were.
I often hear a politician decrying the fact that things will not be brighter for the coming generation. I suppose that the proof of that statement depends on the definition of doing better as well as which set of parents one is discussing. As with anything as the bulk of society improves there is a point of diminishing returns. We generally live so well in this country that it is becoming more and more difficult to generate dramatic changes. An all A student doesn’t have as much room to grow as one who has failing grades. Statistically we may not ever again see the kind of gains that took place in the twentieth century when more and more citizens were moving into more luxurious lifestyles.
We still have those who are homeless or living in dire poverty but we really do our best to provide them with many of the necessities. We have a better understanding of what they may need and we do indeed work hard to encourage their children to take advantage of the many educational opportunities that are now available. Still I have seen young people who are already beaten down by the daily grind of poverty when they are still quite young. These are the souls on whom we should concentrate our efforts and mostly we need to follow the old parable that it is better to teach them how to fish than to simply give them something to eat. I’ve seen some amazing transformations of struggling families when even one or two members graduate from high school and then continue to learn skills and earn degrees.
We certainly have our share of problems that must be addressed but I can’t really agree that it is time for a pity party for anyone. It angers me that we spend more time arguing with each other over who is kinder and wiser rather than getting down to the business of moving forward. I cynically suspect that all of the present day division in our world is designed to divide and conquer while those who are power hungry slyly use us for their own selfish purposes. Unfortunately we mostly buy into the charades of the power seekers and begin to sound like puppets as we utter one slogan or another. We cry and moan and belittle those who don’t agree with us and get depressed over what we still don’t have rather than enjoying what we do.
All in all I do in fact believe that it is a better world than it once was, at least here in the United States of America. But for the grace of God we might be running from trouble in the Middle East or living under the rule of tyrants in Venezuela. Our problems are minuscule compared to those of our ancestors and most of the rest of the world. Do we have room to improve? Of course we do! Still I for one say a prayer of thanks each and every day of my life. I have seen and known hunger. I have been hot and sweaty in the middle of summer without any means of being cool. I have been to homes that were darkened at night and where the residents used a hole in the ground to relieve themselves. Those kinds of things are now rare enough to induce shock. I think it’s time that we quit complaining. We may just find that we are better off than we thought.