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Don Cunningham: Staying Grateful in the Middle of a Pandemic

By Colin McEvoy on January 18, 2022

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on January 13, 2021. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

Does anyone eat Spam anymore?

How about little chunks of fried hot dogs cut up and stirred into a pot of canned baked beans?

I don’t. But I did.

Growing up, they were featured dinner entrees in my dad’s weekly meal rotation based solely on sustaining life.

The rotation also included frozen chicken croquettes paired with mashed potatoes made from powdered flakes, Hamburger Helper with either ground beef or canned tuna, and fish sticks, lots of them, a staple on Fridays during Lent.

The gourmet entrée was the Salisbury Steak TV Dinners that came in the partitioned aluminum containers complete with brown gravy, a vegetable, some whipped potatoes, and a little cobbler dessert.

Yes, my dad loved us. He still does.

But he was a single parent. Our mom had died by 33. He was a Bethlehem steelworker who after high school, got married and had his first child at 19 and his second at 21.

He did the absolute best he could with the money and culinary skills he had. And he kept us alive.

We weren’t poor.

We had what everyone else in the neighborhood had: Enough to get by.

Most importantly, we were happy, loved and cared for.

My sister and I both started jobs in the seventh grade and worked throughout junior high and high school. We learned the value of money, how to save it and that we needed to work for it to buy what we wanted.

We dare not complain about our lot in life or the meal on the table. If so, we were reminded that many had it much worse and to be happy with what we had.

I hated green beans from a can; still do. My dad would heat them slightly, no butter or salt and put the pot on the table. We were required to take our fair share and eat all on our plates. They were vile.

My regular complaints were answered with a stern reminder of the starving kids elsewhere in the world that would love to have my green beans.

I didn’t understand why we couldn’t send the starving kids my green beans.

Reflecting back, his message was a good one. It was biblical.

Be happy with what you have. Don’t focus on what you don’t have.

I suspect many working-class families of that era and earlier ones had very similar life experiences and cuisine. And learned those same lessons.

If you don’t love the meal in front of you, be glad that you’re not going hungry. That appears to be a lesson lost or forgotten in today’s America. Maybe it’s a result of having too much for too long.

“The fortunate man is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate,” the sociologist Max Weber wrote.

The pandemic has been a challenge.

Not only has it killed 840,000 Americans, but it has upended economic supply lines, led to employee staffing issues, and required rules and restrictions on social interaction like masks and social distancing to keep people safe.

It’s this era’s crisis, our equivalent of an economic depression, world war or a prolonged natural disaster like a drought or famine that causes population migration.

Most Americans under the age of 85 haven’t lived through a real crisis. As a whole, we’ve not met the challenge well.

There’s no risk of any of today’s generations supplanting the vaunted status of The Greatest Generation that weathered the depression, won the Second World War, and found a way to sacrifice for the greater good all while maintaining civility.

In crisis, we learn the good and bad in people.

  • Instead of being grateful for the modern marvel of air travel, unruly passengers delay flights, threaten staff and shout in outrage for needing to wear a mask.
  • Instead of being grateful for restaurants serving quality food that someone else cooks, customers yell at servers for delays and complain to managers who are struggling to find workers to serve rude people.
  • Instead of being grateful for the conveniently located grocery stores and drug stores carrying aisles worth of products in every variety and size that previous generations could only dream of, shoppers yell in outrage at what’s not there.
  • Good manners and civility hold a society together. They emanate from being grateful for what you have and understanding the challenges of other people.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting things to be better.

The desire to improve is the key to innovation, progress, and advancement.

There’s no excuse for being rude.

The only way to end a crisis and improve a society is through some level of common goal and shared burden. And the patience to understand that sometimes it takes a minute.

America is losing its optimism. Anger is replacing Ronald Reagan’s sunny belief that every dawn is a new day, that it can be “Morning in America.”

We’re robbing today’s young people of that wonderful feeling in youth that all is possible, and that tomorrow will be brighter. Social media, partisan news outlets and demagogue politicians want us to see enemies next door where there aren’t any. Not every issue needs a political solution, a comment, or a tweet.

Turn it all off. Remember to eat your green beans. Be glad that you have them.

If we’re not grateful for what we have, someday we may wake up and it all will be gone.

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