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Reader calls columnist on appearing to be ‘smug’

I have a bone to pick with you (about your Oct. 7 column). When you say difficult times should come — for whom? Don’t opine on such a serious matter when you have a job!

For those of us who have been without full-time employment for over a year despite looking every day, this is the Great Depression. You’re lucky that you could put $850 on your credit card to fix your son’s car, and I’m just guessing that you aren’t rationing food the way that some of us who lost our jobs are.

Fielding phone calls from irate creditors and getting shut-off notices from utility companies are experiences that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, especially for people who have worked hard all their lives and can’t understand how they arrived at such an awful place.

I’ve yet to discover the "gifts" to which you refer from these hardships. What I have discovered are sleepless nights, hoping that nothing goes wrong with my car because I can’t afford to change the oil, waiting in long lines with scores of people applying for two jobs with one company, the grief that comes from realizing that I could lose my home, and constant anxiety from juggling meager funds to pay an ever-growing stack of bills.

As if it isn’t enough to be bombarded daily with dour forecasts from journalists and over-eager attorneys screaming on the television about foreclosures and bankruptcies, your comment just struck a nerve. It sounded … smug. Not like you.

— M.B.C., Las Vegas

Wow. Smug. I was going for humble.

I’ve kept your letter for these past four months. It made me think.

On the one hand, I stand by the thrust of the original column: My generation is awash in whiny entitlement. We don’t know how to suffer, or particularly why we should have to.

Next, I freely admit I was making my point in generalities. My generation was raised by parents who, themselves, were raised during the Great Depression. Those parents hit the workforce during a period of unprecedented economic growth in our nation. They promised themselves their children were not going to suffer the way they suffered, and a large number of them made good on that promise.

But this is not to say that poverty didn’t continue to exist during this time of plenty. And if I gave that impression, I apologize. I meant to make a general observation about our recent culture of child-rearing.

To wit: In general, since the mid-to-late ’50s, parents have gone increasingly soft. We’re permissive. We have lowered the bar of expectations. We no longer insist our children learn to put off immediate gratification toward embracing more meaningful goals.

I think the reason I was so flummoxed by your criticism was that I understood myself to be pointedly, even savagely, critical of myself and my generation. Here’s an excerpt:

"I often think that, in my lifetime, I could likely live through a national economic disaster that would make the Great Depression look like a picnic. It’s not like I’m not doing my part. I stimulated the economy by cashing my economic stimulus check, though I’ll be damned if I can remember what I used it for. And I just today put 850 more dollars on my credit card to fix the driver’s side door/mirror of my son’s car. Seemed important. Not sure I can articulate why."

Smug? I was going for biting self-satire.

Maybe your criticism was, ironically, making my point in a way I didn’t even see. Perhaps you’re saying that my very ruminations about the coming sufferings were, relative to those already suffering, precisely a practice of the entitlement I was bemoaning. That, for me to suggest there were important lessons for us to learn in a time of economic crisis … well, maybe this fell on you like "let ’em eat cake." If so, then I regret that.

But, finally, your letter pushed me to wonder if my own envy had leaked into that column. I finally asked myself, "Steven, is it possible that you have shoved away from your consciousness the unflattering fact that you’re grouchy and bitter that you don’t have more? Did you unconsciously write your own "neener neener" opus to wealthy people?

M.B.C., that question is gonna keep me soberly occupied for a while.

What I won’t surrender, though, is my belief that this nation, collectively, has some suffering to do. Specifically, we’ll be forced to give up entitlements. And, yes, I think there’s a gift for us in learning to live well with fewer entitlements.

I did not mean, nor do I believe, that there is any inherent merit in being poor.

Thank you for your letter.

Originally published in View News, Feb. 24, 2009.

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