An oldie

An oldie but a goodie which was posted on my old blog: an excerpt from a magazine piece dating from a 1954 magazine. This is a change from my usual postings on current events and controversial stuff, just some old Americana, from the vanished America of yore.

What Happened to Common Sense?
by Mary Ellen Chase, from Coronet Magazine, May, 1954

“Whenever I return to the isolated Maine village where I spend every summer, I am pleasantly surprised by the way in which my neighbors there hold on to certain old terms.

One of these is grit, with its companion, gumption; another is get up and get, which in Maine means to depend on oneself; yet another is common sense. These words describe the human qualities which my neighbors, fishermen and  their wives, extoll above all others. For fishing is a hard calling. It demands gumption, or in more polite terms, self-reliance, the power of decision and the determination not to be downed by adverse circumstances.

My neighbors are frankly suspicious of anyone who lacks these old American virtues. They voiced their common judgment of a man who had lost his lobster traps in a northeast gale and had been bewailing his fate with too little reserve.

“Why don’t he shut his mouth and pick up his feet?” they said, “You can’t set sail straight by takin’ time to bawl about bad luck.”

They and I stem from the same rural background. In the country school of my childhood, precepts were written on the blackboard, each Monday morning by our “old-fashioned” teachers who knew it to be their duty to instill iron in our souls as well as common fractions in our minds. Through the years those precepts have proved salutary to me in moments of indecision and anxiety. Usually they were in terse prose:

“It takes a live fish to swim upstream, but any old log can float down.”
Don’t expect others to bear your troubles; they have their own.
Life isn’t all you want, but it’s all you have; so have it.”

Occasionally a rhyme enlivened us. One I recall as a favorite.

The mind of man has no defense
To equal plain, old common sense.
This homely virtue don’t despise,
If you would be happy as well as wise.

Parents, too, 50 years ago dealt out such robust aphorisms liberally, sometimes even sternly, in the upbringing of children. I was taught early by both precept and example that a job once undertaken has to be completed whatever the cost, and that no one but the maker of them ought to be expected to pay for mistakes.

[….]During my life as a teacher I have often questioned whether we have discovered any worthy substitutes for those precepts and teachings which, outmoded as they seem, are rooted deeply in our history and our ways of life.

In place of the old sayings we use today new words and terms to describe our states of mind and our meetings of those difficulties and questions which will always beset us. We are now insecure, or ill-adjusted, or frustrated, or made ineffective by a sense of inferiority. These new words lack the optimism of the old. Implicit in them is the notion that we are surrounded by foes difficult to defeat.

The new vocabulary comes into use early. We hesitate to look upon our children as simply ill-mannered or spoiled. We fear that they are problem children who need expert care lest they become neurotics or uncontributive members of society.

In high school and college they are surrounded by advisers on what they would best study, what work in life they are best fitted for. They are too seldom encouraged to face problems by themselves, to make their own decisions and to pay the consequences of their own mistakes.

Nor are adults free from waves of anxiety. Too many of us are looking about for some panacea which will ease the burdens of our past and present errors in judgment and lighten our fears of the future. Something, we feel, is wrong somewhere, and without making any stout attempts on our own to discover what it is, we turn to professional advice which guarantees to show us how to understand ourselves.

Even a cursory reading of such books reveals nothing but what we used to call plain old common sense. They urge upon us a calm and objective weighing of ourselves; a frank and even merciless recognition of our weaknesses and failures, a determination to oust at any cost oversensitiveness, which is but a form of self-indulgence; a sense of personal responsibility for the well-being of our families and communities; a fresh start; in short, reliance on our own powers of self-discipline.

No one in his senses would suggest that such books are not often helpful to the anxious mind. But the assumption that most of us have somehow acquired emotional conflicts which we cannot cope with by ourselves surely has its dangers.

We Americans have since our beginnings been known for our self-reliance, for our gumption and common sense. We are, or at least we were, adventurers and our history is the story of a game played against tremendous odds and gloriously won. Why not recall the tough moral fiber which made the winning possible? Isn’t it about time that we return as individuals to those values and practices which we have not forgotten so much as neglected?

[…]Life may not be all we want, but it’s all we have, as my old school precept said, and it’s high time that we have it. We shall not find its secrets or its possible riches in the advice of others, however wise, unless we complete that counsel with our own grit, gumption, and common sense.”