No. It does not.

This fallacy is perpetuated by people who have suffered and somehow need to justify that suffering. The idea that human suffering tends to be purposeless is so unattractive that we have to invent reasons for it -- spiritual growth, character-building experience, trials of adulthood, punishment from god, temptations of the devil, whatever. In this short piece, I won't try to convince you that your suffering has NO value. My thesis is only that wisdom is not conferred by privation or suffering.

My father, a child of the depression, has often told me how he would awaken on winter mornings in the dog-trot cabin where he lived with his father and seven brothers and sisters. The bucket of water, fetched the evening before, sat frozen an inch deep in the corner of the room. A keg-sized iron stove, stoked before bedtime, now held only a few wilting coals buried deep in the potash, not enough to keep the room above freezing. He tells me how he would argue with his brothers over who would get out of bed and put more wood in the stove. He tells me how he could hold his hand up to the clapboard wall and feel the wind blowing through the cracks. He tells me how he would peek over the side of the bed and could see the ground through the vapor of his breath and the cracks in the floor.

I understand this is a typical story of rural depression-era suffering. Now, at the risk of offending people who are very fond of their own pain, let's examine the story.

Did these events, repeated winter after winter, make my dad wise? It certainly didn't make him wise enough to put a blanket on the floor. It didn't make him wise enough to gather some clay from the creek and sawdust or straw from the barn and make some chinking for the cracks in the wall. The principles of insulation were well-understood by 1930; and even if they were not, how wise do you have to be to want to plug the hole in your wall through which snow is blowing? Don't get me wrong, Dad. Glad you survived, but the fact that you put up with this foolishness for more than one winter (or more than one night) refutes the connection between suffering and wisdom.

Now what about privation? Does it sharpen our wits, make us lean and clever? Is necessity the mother of invention? That's just something we tell ourselves so that, once again, we can justify our suffering, and not have to stop. We seem to think of privation as one of our civilization's motivational techniques, and therefore a good thing. We embrace our poverty like we embrace our pain. We have convinced ourselves that it's good for us.

In 1930's rural Arkansas, shoes were precious as gold, expensive when they could be had at all. My mother grew up in Swifton, a town of about a thousand souls. The streets were not even named until after the second World War. Her dad held two jobs. He was the mayor and the school janitor, and even with two jobs, he couldn't keep shoes on the feet of his six children. My dad grew up on a farm near Cabot, not much larger than Swifton. He tells me that every year he got a pair of shoes in the fall and wore them until they wore out, hopefully after the last spring frost.

I asked them if it ever occurred to anybody to learn how to make shoes. My dad trapped animals and tanned hides and was forever accumulating, in addition to copper and silver coins, the boyhood equivalent of wealth, pocketknives and marbles. Imagine in one day turning fifty cents worth of animal hides into a two dollar pair of shoes at a time when a grown man would pick cotton from dawn to dusk for less than a dollar. Even if you never sold a pair of shoes, you could save your family two man-month's a year of hard-labor wages by learning how to make shoes.

Did that occur to anybody? No. Privation had not sharpened their wits. They did some clever adapting in other arenas, to be sure; but they truly had a blind spot when it came to footwear, especially considering how highly it was valued. My mother argues that the possum and rabbit they could obtain might be good for moccasins, but not for work shoes. So they worked barefoot. Do I need to point out the flaw in this argument?

My dad's mother's maiden name is Ringold. A dutch name. With the abundance of wood available in Arkansas, and with some Dutch heritage evident, and with significant pressure to obtain shoes, if necessity really were the mother of invention, don't you think somebody on the Ringold side of the family would have come up with the idea of wooden shoes?

Recall now, we're not inventing the telephone. We're talking about basic needs of dry feet and a warm place to sleep and very simple solutions which somehow eluded people of better-than-average intelligence. There's only so much you can blame on the carpetbaggers. You slept in the cold with your wet feet as a result of not making shoes and not plugging the holes in your wall. How can you repeat the story as if it were some ennobling thing? To me it sounds as if your youth was an absurdist exercise in self-flagellation. Your insistence that "everybody back then lived that way" doesn't make me feel any better about my intellectual heritage.

Thirty years from now, somebody will look back at the ignorant barbarians in the last decade of the twentieth century and wonder at the self-inflicted foolishness we seemed unable to recognize and powerless to stop.

I wonder what examples he will write about. I'm going to guess he'll write about the war on drugs and our strange, convoluted methods of taxation.

RTJ -- 3/8/97

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