We've overcome hard times before
Updated 8:49 AM ET, Thu May 7, 2020
(CNN)A sudden crisis turns the world upside down. Millions are thrown out of work. People despair and dread the future.
That was the grim scenario many Americans faced almost a century ago after the 1929 stock market crash triggered the Great Depression. And many people are experiencing it today as the coronavirus pandemic ravages the US and the rest of the world.
Commentators have drawn parallels between our current time and the 1930s, saying the pandemic could trigger the same type of economic and political upheaval that marked the Depression. But there's another part of that era that can illuminate the present: Lessons from those who somehow managed to emerge from the Depression with their optimism -- and in some cases, their finances -- intact.
These survivor stories are collected in a classic book, "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression," by Studs Terkel, the late, legendary journalist. It's filled with bruising but inspirational stories from impoverished farmers, businessmen, hustlers, politicians, housewives and others. One reviewer described Terkel's book as "a huge anthem in praise of the American spirit."
As one person recalled in the book, the Great Depression left an "invisible scar" on many survivors. But it also made some people more resilient and grateful. Survivors talked years later about finding hidden blessings -- even when their world seemed to be collapsing.
Here, in their own words, are some of the reasons why they beat hard times.
They learned empathy for the less fortunate
Diana Morgan was a pampered Southern belle in a small North Carolina town who knew nothing about the struggles of the black cooks and maids who served her family. She was forced to scrounge for a job after her family lost their cotton fortune and found one at a government relief agency where she said she became "absolutely hooked" on helping poor families. Morgan realized how much she had changed when she and her husband were invited a fancy hotel ball in Washington.
I'd been picketing it the week before because they paid their workers some ridiculous wage, oh like 75 cents an hour... I wrote a letter and said I couldn't possibly go to a hotel where the wages were so unfair. My husband was very much surprised. He said, 'I never dreamed you would take that kind of stand.' Well, I never dreamed I wouldn't.
I'd like to think that even if we hadn't lost our house, even if I hadn't the job with the Civil Works Administration, I might have waked up someday... I don't know. Maybe I'd never have understood how people feel if I weren't subjected to it. Maybe you do have to experience things personally.
They learned how to get by on very little
Robert Card said he set out for college with one suit, one necktie, one pair of shoes and $30 borrowed from a bank. He called the Depression a "painful" but "glorious" time because it forced America to face longstanding problems of poverty.
What a pleasure it was to get a pound of hamburger, which you buy for about five cents, take it up to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and have a cookout. And some excellent conversation. And maybe swim in the Kaw River.
One friend of mine had an old Model T Ford Sedan, about a 1919 model. He had this thing fitted up as a house. He lived in it all year long. He cooked and slept and studied inside that Model T Ford Sedan. How he managed I will never know. I once went there for dinner. He cooked a pretty good one on a little stove he had in this thing.
They learned you don't need a lot of money to bring joy to your kids
Howard Worthington was working at an investment firm that failed during the Depression. One of his friends jumped to his death from the top of a building in downtown Chicago. Worthington said he started drinking heavily and credited his wife, Margaret, with holding their family together.
I'll never forget that Depression Easter Sunday. Our son was four years old. I bought 10 or 15 cents' worth of eggs. You didn't get too many eggs for that. Margaret said, 'Why, he'll find those in five minutes.' I had a couple in the piano and all around. Tommy got his little Easter basket, and as he would find the eggs, I'd steal em' out of the basket and re-hide them. He had more fun that Easter than he ever had. He hunted Easter eggs for three hours and he never knew the difference.
They learned to reinvent themselves
E.Y. "Yip" Harburg said that after his business went bankrupt all he had left was a pencil. His friend, Ira Gershwin, told him to get the pencil and a rhyming dictionary and start writing songs. Harburg eventually wrote the Depression classic, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," and the lyrics to songs in the "Wizard of Oz."
I was relieved when the Crash came. I was released. Being in business was something I detested. When I found that I could sell a song or a poem, I became me. I became alive. Other people didn't see it that way. They were throwing themselves out of windows.
When I lost my possessions, I found my creativity. I felt like I was being born for the first time. So for me the world became beautiful.