A smile never increases in price or decreases in value.
The other day I while was visiting with my 95 year-old mother, she made a statement I’ve come to believe was truly profound. Since her normal conversation is limited to “Whatcha been doing?” and “What’s Sharon (my wife) doing today?” I always pay attention when she says anything else.
We were talking about the little town of Munday, Texas, where she grew up, and she made the statement that everybody always knew what everyone else was doing. A simple statement that would surprise no one—in fact, it’s been the wellspring for many jokes and comedy routines. But that got me to thinking about the difference between the atmosphere in which she was raised and that in which most kids today are raised.
Most of us have noticed and bemoaned the general decay in morals and behavior over the years. Kids ignoring schoolwork, skipping school, becoming delinquents—dads absent from the home or in prison—mothers on drugs and ignoring their kids.
But the moral decay doesn’t end with the so-called dregs of society. CEOs thumb their noses at their employees, enjoying private jets, plush vacation homes and other luxuries while the workers face layoffs or struggle to get by.
Politicians keep dreaming up more ways to spend taxpayers’ money in order to ingratiate themselves with voters (who never seem to realize it’s their money being used to buy their votes). And hardly a week goes by without news of some public figure using his or her position for illicit financial gain or sexual favors.
What’s with our society? It didn’t use to be this way. Yes, I know, there were crooked politicians way back when, and there have always been fathers in prison and people who abused drugs or alcohol, but it’s so much more prolific now than it was when my mother was growing up—or even when I was growing up. What happened?
There are many factors which have contributed to it, and I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but I think my mother’s simple statement about her small town reveals one of the major contributors to this decline. The demographic shift away from our small-town agrarian society has torn away important parts of our foundation.
When Mother was growing up, she knew that any misbehavior on her part would soon be known to the entire town—including her parents. No one got away with much when everyone in town knew one another’s business. This necessarily produced a high level of character in people. They developed an attitude of behaving as if someone was watching, whether anyone actually was or not.
Growing up in a city, I didn’t have that same atmosphere. I didn’t have today’s laxness—people didn’t all know one another’s business like in a small town, but we did respect our elders, and I wouldn’t have wanted Mr. Smith or Mrs. Jones down the street to catch me doing something badly wrong any more than my own parents.
There was a lot more pressure toward respectable behavior back then than there is today. Even at that though, the environment in which I grew up wasn’t nearly so conducive to building strong moral character as that of smaller towns.
Another big factor, I think, has been the move off the farm. Farmers, of necessity, have to be self-sufficient. When seasonal factors dictate, they must plant. Or they must harvest—or fight weeds or pests or whatever. It doesn’t much matter whether or not they feel like it, or whether they really want to take a vacation—the work is there to be done, and they have to do it. They stand on their own two feet.
Yes, I know farmers help one another from time to time. If one becomes disabled or sick and can’t do what he needs to do, frequently his neighbors will pitch in to help. But they’re not going to carry another farmer’s load just because he’s lazy or wants to sleep late.
Compare that with an employee of a large company. If a farmer wants more money, he knows he needs to work harder and expand his operation. A typical employee, on the other hand, expects his union to gouge more money out of his company to provide his raise. It usually has little to do with being more productive. Even with the decline in power of the labor unions, the attitude has grown throughout a large portion of both blue collar and white collar America that the company owes everyone an ever-increasing standard of living, and little thought is given to what the worker should do to earn it.
After a generation or two is raised with that big city attitude that “they” owe “me” a living, work ethic begins to disappear from society. Instead of asking “Why should I work harder to get more?” we finally begin to ask “Why should I have to work?” Then it’s easy to justify becoming thieves or drug addicts or just go on welfare and expect big brother government to take care of us.
Unfortunately, I have no positive ideas to contribute. I can’t see our population moving back out of the cities and into the small towns and away from big employers onto farms. All I can do is stand to the side and look wistfully into our past.
David N. Walker is a Christian father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years as a health insurance agent. Most of that career was spent in Texas, but for a few years he traveled many other states. He started writing about 20 years ago, and has six unpublished novels to use as primers on how NOT to write fiction. Since his retirement from insurance a few years ago, he has devoted his time to helping Kristen Lamb start Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp and trying to learn to write a successful novel himself.