In the early days of the pandemic, when folks still were running about trying to find enough toilet paper and ammunition to last through the end of the world, and your aunts were busy sewing cloth masks to sell on Etsy without quite knowing what Etsy was, and your aunt Sue brought you an entire grocery bag full of masks with little kittens printed all over them and you were nodding your head in agreement when she explained that “you can never have too many masks,” while inwardly thinking you had just received way too many — back in those days, I was upstairs in a spare bedroom sorting through old boxes, trying to get away from the madness.
I came upon a shoebox full of memorabilia my mother had given me which I had neglected to open. Inside I found a newspaper clipping of my great-grandfather’s obituary. One line stood out: He had been an award-winning newspaper columnist. That was news to me; nobody in my family had ever mentioned it.
The following summer I made several trips to the North Dakota state archives to find the weekly columns Charles Kyte had written for the Foster County Independent beginning in 1933.
They turned out to be simple reports of, and commentary upon, the news from Melville: Mrs. Bowers hosted bridge club Saturday afternoon; a truck delivering eggs overturned on the edge of town; Mr. Miller, the “popular young barber” married Miss Eastman, the town’s “most efficient schoolteacher.”
Over the next 10 years, the column painted a picture of small-town America in the grip of the Great Depression: the townsfolk battling prairie fires, floods, tornadoes, blizzards, drought, injuries and illness. Yet the people depicted in those reports are full of life. They get together daily to play cards, dance, visit and help each another out. Their lives are filled with such an abundance of friendliness and good humor that one suspects the narrator of exaggeration.
Reading those columns led me to reflect on why our national mood today is so sour. Are the present difficulties so much worse than those of our ancestors?
Consider these comparisons:
In the 1930s, 75% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty; today that number is under 10%.
Life expectancy in the United States in 1930 was 60 years; today it is 77.
The child mortality rate in the United States for children younger than 5 was 103 deaths per 1,000 births in 1930, compared to 7 deaths per 1,000 births today.
The homicide rate increased dramatically during the pandemic, reaching 6.5 per 100,000 in 2020. In 1933, the homicide rate was 9.7 per 100,000.
Polio was constant threat in those days, as were many other deadly diseases that made regular headlines, like scarlet fever, diphtheria, malaria, typhus and tuberculosis. Today folks are more likely to be worried about toenail fungus.
Comparing our lives to those of our ancestors, one can reach only one conclusion: conditions overall are much better now, but the way we feel about things is much worse.
One reason for modern dissatisfaction is that we consume too much news and talk about the bad news way too much. A poll asking Americans to reflect on daily events contributing to stress revealed that two of the top three factors were “hearing about what government or politicians are doing” and “watching, reading or listening to the news.”
Previous generations typically regarded the news within a context of robust daily interactions with their neighbors. That context gave them a confidence that, despite the stories of bad things taking place in the world, the people around them were mostly kind and decent.
Today most of us spend considerable time alone, working longer hours and more remotely, socializing less. We live in a world of constant news, much of it not filtered through the beneficial context of friendly relations.
This is a good time of year to reflect that, on the whole, the world really is a much better place for most people living than ever before. If we do not feel hopeful about the state of things, perhaps that says more about our state of mind than the world itself.
Fortunately, we can do something about the way we feel. We don’t have to change the world; we just have to change how we live. We can spend more time together. We can take time to listen. We can tell jokes and stories and play games. We can make an effort to meet new friends and take joy in the company of old ones.
Reading my great-grandfather’s column, I realize he never thought of his fellow citizens as potential enemies. His pen was not a sword in the culture wars; it was an instrument of peace. He regarded all readers as friends. He was the sort of man who, in Emerson’s phrase, “carried the holiday in his eye.”
Every year he would end the last column of December with words upon which I cannot improve: “To all readers of this paper and my many friends, I extend the season’s greetings, and my sincere wish is that all may have a very pleasant holiday season and that the New Year will bring each and all of you happiness and prosperity.”