September 21, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Sometimes the good old days were actually better

Cynthia DewesPundits like to say that life was simpler back in the mid-20th century because everything could be classified as black or white, right or wrong, with no moral ambiguity. They think that choices were easier to make then, although it was still possible to make a wrong decision.

They point to the country’s unity in supporting World War II, in widespread public respect for religion at the time, and to strict legal and cultural rules about sexual behaviors as being somehow naïve or hypocritical. Their assessment makes people in those years sound like robots too dim or apathetic to rebel against unreasonable restraints.

Having lived during those supposedly mindless years, I know this is simply not true. Life decisions then were certainly as complicated as any today, but expectations were quite different.

For one thing, the idea of a just authority was not questioned. Since belief in the authority of God was prevalent, it wasn’t much of a stretch to accept the authority of parents, bosses, teachers or anyone else we were younger than or inferior to in some way. Being young or inexperienced or just further down the pecking order didn’t make us feel abused; it was just a fact.

Parents were expected to care for their kids, and to teach them about God, respect for others and the value of education. Children were expected to obey their elders, to study and work as required, and to learn how to get along with other kids while they had fun. And they were expected to have fun.

Employers were expected to offer decent pay and working conditions, to produce the best products possible and to motivate their workers. Employees were expected to work conscientiously in return for their pay, to be on time and to get along with fellow workers. Customers were expected to pay their bills and to be reasonable in the service they requested.

Teachers were expected to like kids and to be prepared to teach them. Admini­strators were expected to support teachers and to keep parents informed about school affairs. Students were expected to complete their assignments and to pay attention in class.

When young people reached maturity, they were expected to prepare themselves for a profession or get a job. They, in turn, expected to define goals for their lives, including finding meaningful work and possibly a life partner. At the beginning of their adult journeys, no young man or woman expected to earn as much money or to live in the style which their parents had achieved only after working most of their lives.

If all this sounds simplistic, it wasn’t. Expectations like those required many decisions and, naturally, not all decisions made were the right ones. People erred by procuring abortions following unwise sex or they were fired for doing unsatisfactory work. They married the wrong person, went bankrupt spending more money than they earned or went to church only because it looked good to others.

It’s true that people today may be more honest in claiming their rights and exercising their freedoms, and in permitting others to do the same. They don’t find it necessary to keep up with the Joneses or obey archaic rules, and that’s good.

But, even if those times were not as simple-minded as we’re told, our expectations were more realistic than some of those today.

At least, they seemed to work, always a good sign that we’re doing something right.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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