Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Welcome to hard times

The other day, my filmmaking partner -- Jim Phelan -- and I were talking to a friend and client about (what else?) the disastrous state of the economy. Jim, who's prone to optimism, took the lead, saying that perhaps some good may come from the current decline in just about everyone's financial prospects. Maybe people would stop thinking so much about themselves and start helping one another, he said. The third party to our discussion agreed and mentioned something about the way people sometimes will bring dinner to a person who's suffering a loss and how maybe more folks might start thinking that way now that we're all in the same leaky economic boat.

As I listened, it occurred to me that the four most powerful words in English might be "How can I help?" I wish I used them more often, but even as this discussion was going on around me, my brow began to furrow. When times are hard, wouldn't evidence suggest that people might become more brutal and more self-centered, that a "me-first" attitude might become even more prevalent? I hope I'm wrong. I hope my companions are right, and, as I grow older, I have to admit that simple acts of kindness seem more important to me than, say, intellectual accomplishment or other stunning feats, like winning the Fourth of July hotdog eating contest at Nathan's in Coney Island. (Yeah, I watch it every year.)

So I vowed that I would keep a sharp eye out for evidence that supported one or the other of these theories about human behavior. Today, I noticed a story in the New York Times that seems to lend credibility to those who worry that deprivation doesn't often lead to a bull market in goodness. It appeared under the headline, "Where snow has fallen, plow thefts have risen."

The headline pretty much tells you what you need to know about the story, which was filed out of Boston, but I'll give you the second paragraph anyway: "Reports of stolen trucks and plows are on the rise in many cold-weather states, and the authorities suspect that people who have lost their jobs or are looking for extra work are stealing the plows and setting up shop or selling them to plow drivers in need of new equipment."

I'm drawing no larger conclusions based on a single Times story that appeared toward the back of the first section, but I offer it as the way of encouraging you to keep an eye out for stories that may shed light on this important question: Are our better angels likely to be pulled toward the ground as the economy goes to hell? Stay tuned.

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