A little perspective, please? “Imagine you were born in 1900….”

I was sent this. It helps to put what we are going through in perspective.

At Fakebook a post by one Karl B. Andersen:

It’s a mess out there now. Hard to discern between what’s a real threat and what is just simple panic and hysteria. For a small amount of perspective at this moment, imagine you were born in 1900.

On your 14th birthday, World War I starts, and ends on your 18th birthday. 22 million people perish in that war.
Later in the year, a Spanish Flu epidemic hits the planet and runs until your 20th birthday. 50 million people die from it in those two years. Yes, 50 million.

On your 29th birthday, the Great Depression begins. Unemployment hits 25%, the World GDP drops 27%. That runs until you are 33. The country nearly collapses along with the world economy.

When you turn 39, World War II starts. You aren’t even over the hill yet. And don’t try to catch your breath. On your 41st birthday, the United States is fully pulled into WWII. Between your 39th and 45th birthday, 75 million people perish in the war.

Smallpox was epidemic until you were in your 40’s, and it killed 300 million people during your lifetime.

At 50, the Korean War starts. 5 million perish. From your birth, until you are 55 you dealt with the fear of Polio epidemics each summer. You experience friends and family contracting polio and being paralyzed and/or die.

At 55 the Vietnam War begins and doesn’t end for 20 years. 4 million people perish in that conflict. During the Cold War, you lived each day with the fear of nuclear annihilation. On your 62nd birthday you have the Cuban Missile Crisis, a tipping point in the Cold War. Life on our planet, as we know it, almost ended. When you turn 75, the Vietnam War finally ends.

Think of everyone on the planet born in 1900. How did they endure all of that? When you were a kid in 1985 you didn’t think your 85 year old grandparents understood how hard school was. And how mean that kid in your class was. Yet they survived through everything listed above. Perspective is an amazing art. Refined and enlightening as time goes on. Let’s try and keep things in perspective. Your parents and/or grandparents were called to endure all of the above while in the wars or, if lucky, just working…and

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Man-o-words says:

    A great read, and a great reminder BUT . . . that’s the point, isn’t it? We weren’t created to stay home and sit on our couches. We were born to address adversity and, exactly through it, to find our way to virtue.

    The world offers us comfort, but we were not made for comfort, we were made for greatness – as Pope Benedict so eloquently put it.

    But, we do love you Father Z, and always find value in everything you post and repost. Thank you for the reminder that in times like these . . . it’s always been times like these – Think that was Churchill.

  2. Irish Timothy says:

    Thank you for posting this Father Z!

    My grandmother was born in 1900. Lived through all this. As a child she lost part of her vision and was taken to Montreal from Ottawa to Brother Andre to see if he could help. He didn’t heal her (Gods will) and she carried on her life from there and accepted it. During the Spanish Flu she worked in Montreal and said she could remember seeing the horse cartridges carrying coffin after coffin to the church for funerals. She ended up married for +45 years to my grandpa before he died, had 15 children, many many grandchildren and even great grandchildren. She died herself at the age of 93, receiving the last rites. When she was in her last days and declining my parents took all my brothers and sisters in to visit her. She wasn’t really speaking to anyone, but had her roasary in her hands and would continually and very quietly say it. Over and over. As much as anything she went through that stands out to me. What a life all because her faith in God from her Catholic faith.

  3. PostCatholic says:

    A different set of numbers for a different perspective, to wit the United States only:

    World War I – 116,516 US military deaths – est. 320,000 US military wounded – duration 16 months (Wikipedia)

    H1NI 1918 “Spanish Flu” – est 675,00 US deaths – est 29,500,000 infected – duration 15 months (CDC)

    WWII – 405,339 US military deaths – 670,846 US military wounded – duration 45 months

    Variola Major & Minor, “Smallpox” – largely controlled in US in 20th century though considered endemic esp. in Native American populations (CDC)

    Korean War – 33,686 US military deaths – 92,134 US military wounded – duration 37 months

    Vietnam War – 58, 209 US military deaths – 153,303 US military wounded – duration 222 months (almost all casualties in the latter 120 months)

    SARS-COV-2, “Coronavirus” – 103,000 US confirmed deaths – 1,750,000 US cases – duration almost 4 months and continuing (CDC)

    The devastation wrought by this plague is indeed historic. Fortunately, it is not distributed evenly across the country and the efforts to fight the spread of contagion seems to be beginning to have an impact. As a chaplain, I have been present to two families in my area so far who lost loved ones. Please hold them and others like them in your compassionate thoughts.

  4. Rob83 says:

    The only part I disagree with is the last bit, that we are called to sit on the couch and stay home. No, it would be more like what our forebears were called to do – there is danger all around, but you continue to do your duties in life and thank the merciful Lord that the worst thing you have to deal with is a disease that is far less deadly than many of the things our ancestors had to deal with.

    I could agree with the stay home idea when it was supposed to be a few weeks. Locally it is going on 3 months and likely will last into July.

  5. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Good stuff, Father! the youngest of my grandparents was born in 1901, so yes this is most certainly true. My grandfather born in 1893 had some additional personal tragedies that – to him personally – were much more significant than the events listed, and yet he was always gentle and grateful.

  6. Maria says:

    The difference before and now is the presence of the speed of how truth of the issue is manipulated by the media compounded by the injection of fear for the ultimate goal of destroying President Trump.

  7. iamlucky13 says:

    Yep, perspective helps a lot. I hear of people having anxiety attacks about buying groceries (my wife did a good work of charity one recent eveningby running groceries to a young mom in such a situation).

    Thinking about how much worse we’ve endured in the past makes COVID-19 and the restrictions we’re asked to endure pretty easy to me. Occasionally I’m even struck by just how lucky we are that this is biggest crisis society has experienced in years.

    Man-o-words, yes, I agree that we are made for greatness, but for the most part, we’re not talking about distancing versus acts of greatness. Often the debates I hear are about distancing versus vacation plans.

    It doesn’t come easily to me, but I’m trying to learn to view the sacrifices I’m being asked to make, not as violations of my freedom, although in some cases I think they are, but as acts of virtue for the sake of others, albeit very trivial ones compared to those who suffer true adversity (among whom I don’t want to neglect health care workers who have contracted serious infections while doing their jobs).

  8. JonPatrick says:

    I think one difference between then and now is the great distrust of government, media, and the powerful corporations like google and facebook that control the online social infrastructure. As a result there are believable theories out there that much of this pandemic is being exaggerated and manipulated for political and ideological ends. I don’t think we have had anything like that before.

    Even for people who didn’t go to war there were a number of deprivations. My late mother born in England in 1926 was evacuated as a child to an unknown family in Scotland where she was put to work to earn her keep, then a few years later allowed to return to her family East of London. (Of course there are threats of separating children from their families as part of this epidemic). For her family there were the deprivations of strict rationing plus the constant threat of bombings as the Germans would often unload any unused bombs on their way back to their bases. I dont think people realize how much the London area was damaged. As a child 10 years later you could still see it when you rode the train into London. But I think people had more of a sense of solidarity against a common enemy, something we don’t have as much today as sometimes our institutions seem as much the enemy as the virus.

    And by the way, why is it we have all this finger pointing at Trump or the CDC and no one ever blames the people really responsible, the Chinese government?

  9. KateD says:

    Personally, our lives were fairly unaffected. We live simply out in the sticks and we homeschool. I feel for my family and friends who are isolated and alone and have offered to visit, but they have Corona fear.

    It was difficult to get milk for a while, but then our goat had a surprise kid and came into milk. Not our favorite, but it’ll work. Bread and yeast were scarce (yeast still is) so when we ran out of store bought we made a sour dough starter. Meat has gone from already expensive to stupid expensive, but we have meat chickens…and dual purpose goats. It’s Summer and veggies will be ready soon. We won’t starve this year and we planted wheat last Fall. If the weather treats us good, we will be okay even in the event of the wildest Gatesian fantasy coming to fruition.

    We found a way to actually attend liturgical services in person every Sunday, but one. I made my feelings known about the cessation of the public Mass. In my book that is THE essential service. After all, He did die on a Cross for me. The least I can do is show up.

    We are trying to raise saints. What kind of an example would we be setting if we just rolled over at the first challenge to our faith? How will the future generations persevere in the face of Maccabean trials, if they are taught, ‘meh’?

  10. Andrew says:


    Chickens and goats I don’t have but recently I’ve been inspired to plant some tomatoes, peppers, red beets and the like: which might in the post apocalyptic world extend my life by a week or two. In the meantime, seeing things grow from an old drawer filled with dirt gives this urban dweller a peculiar satisfaction.

  11. Imrahil says:

    Thank you, reverend Father, for posting this interesting post.

    I mean that as I said it. But, of course, when I say “interesting”, that is generally the reverse of “I quite agree”. So, there are two points. First: in times like these, one feels one needs to be very careful with “disinterested search for truth”. Everyone has an interest; everything said will be, by many even chiefly, be looked into under the, well, perspective of the question “what emotional reaction do you intend to bring out by saying that?”. In this sense: what is the point of telling Dick that Harry’s life is so much worse than his? It doesn’t make Dick’s life better; it adds one further defeat, as it were, concerning the amount of suffering. It is probably justifiable as a retort, a sort of strike-back, when Dick really has got on one’s nerves with his complaining – but I cannot see how in all the world could possibly try this to soothe people. And this is apparently just what they often do.

    Second and more important, however: the actual content.

    There are a lot of interesting comparisons. Interestingly, the one not-obvious comparison that really is applicable (the obvious one that is applicable is the Spanish flu) is rather missing here. The point the poster is making is that all these have it so much harder, so, don’t complain about staying at home and sitting on the couch. Because staying at home and sitting on the couch is so nice and easy, and we’re all having a jolly good time, haven’t we?

    The thing now is, no, we’re haven’t. And if we aren’t rather too eager (which humble people often are) to ascribe this to the fact that we’re egoist monsters, we may find out that our complaints really are rooted in human nature – and “human nature” as the Catholic, not as the Calvinist uses the term.

    Now nobody in his senses would claim that we are at the worst trial of history, ever. Those persecuted by the Nazis, or the Germans in the Soviet POW camps, etc. had worse trials. But, and I’ve thought about this rather often, but it seems to have been a rather memorable line from the sermon for Corpus Christi in the year I was a first-communicant. “Man does not live by bread alone – he lives by communication and, as a Christian, by Communion” – the thing is that we really are (for argumentative simplicity’s sake, I’ll speak as if we were still in full “lock-down”) starving. Man does not live by bread and Amazon prime alone, either. The hunger is for things more postponible than actual material food, it is true; but in the end for things not less necessary for life. It is necessary for life to spend (physical!) time with your family, and without someone deciding the father is family but the uncle is not, and next time, because the situation has got slightly better, that the uncle is now family but the second-cousin-once-removed still is not. It is necessary for life to see one’s friends. It is, as Chesterton reminds us (contrasting it, at one place, with mere leisure), even necessary for life to have fun.

    To the particular points.

    (1.) World War I starts. 22 million people perish in that war. And they knew at least what they were perishing for. But, yes, World War I was, in many ways, a nightmare, of course. But perhaps not so much because people were dying; they were not stupid, they knew that that was going to happen. Nor because people had to be killing; they had not yet post-modern sensibilities and knew and accepted that that was the job of a soldier. What made the nightmare (as in the military letter we read in history lessons) was “the whole manner of fighting”, and specifically the machine-gun. To this day, “the trenches” is a synonym for the horror of war. Because the soldiers were stuck that and had nothing to do (sounds familiar?), and if they ran out they were mowed down.

    But, as even Remarque acknowledges, where the situation was bad, the antidote of comradeship was very strong. With comrades, the soldiers could stand the trial; those, that is, who did not get a fast-track to their eternal destiny and were dismissed (as the soldiers say) from all earthly worries.

    (In fact, the antidote of comradeship became so strong that it became a problem of his own. One of the many factors that contributed to the rise of the Nazi party was probably the fact that there was a big reservoir of comparatively young men who resented the fact that war was over. They resented the defeat and the peace conditions, of course, but even more so the fact that the war was over. They were not at home at civil distance and manners, without comrades.)

    (2.) Later in the year, a Spanish Flu epidemic hits the planet and runs until your 20th birthday. 50 million people die from it in those two years. Yes, 50 million.

    50 million more people who have no longer any earthly worries. And the rest did not have the energy to occupy themselves much with it, having just finished a war and (in Germany) a Revolution.

    (3.) the Great Depression begins. The country nearly collapses along with the world economy. Yes, and that, as well, was really hard. But it brought only unemployment and poverty, and that, though perhaps worse than a quick-but-not-actually-sudden not-improvided death, it is still bearable by a family who sticks together or friends who stick together. It was, of course, really hard on the stockbrokers who had invested on borrowed money and lost everything, and in some cases killed themselves; but I have been so brought up that I cannot really resonate with them, whose actions we were taught were just wrong. I may only intellectually grasp that they were doing what everyone was doing, without most or all bad faith.

    (4.) When you turn 39, World War II starts. The writer, I assume, is an American. Then why does he think the most heroic moment of this nation was a particularly bad time to live in? It was hard, of course, for us Germans; not so much because of the war, but because enemies of mankind ruled as and of the ordinary Germans, while not enemies of mankind, so many had so many temptations to acquire petty guilt (or sometimes worse), and yielded to them.

    Speaking of World War II, Goebbels held his “Sportpalast speech”; “do you want total war”, etc. The speech is well-known; though the audience was carefully selected, Goebbels successfully convinced it to wish for total war. Where he had only very partial success – this is the rather less well-known background of this speech – is to convince the other leading Nazis about the actual practical plans he proposed in his speech. For instance, he wanted to close down restaurants, theaters, bars, and so forth. (Just saying.) But he couldn’t really do it, because the morale of the troops on home-leave and of the industry workers had to be kept up. Also, he never himself seems to have thought of closing the cinema, for the same reason.

    Note: When I say further down that something was worse than “anything a list”, the Second World War is understood as it appeared to ordinary Americans or Germans. It goes without saying that Jews, Gypsies, Soviet soldiers that were POW in Germany, Germans that were POW in the Soviet Union, perhaps also those that fought at Stalingrad while they were doing so, suffered more than an ordinary American from point (a).

    (5.) Smallpox was epidemic until you were in your 40’s, and it killed 300 million people during your lifetime. Yes – but it did not interfere with our lives, except for a brief time of (admittedly very hard) illness, and of course those who got fast-tracked to their eternal destiny.

    (6.) At 50, the Korean War starts. 5 million perish, get a fast-track to their eternal destiny, and the red peril is held at bay. Plus, though it is macabre, the war-caused consumption actually triggers (in part, but, as I am told, in a rather big part) an economic miracle.

    (7.) From your birth, until you are 55 you dealt with the fear of Polio epidemics each summer. You experience friends and family contracting polio and being paralyzed and/or die. Yes, this really was a terrible disease. Still, people seem not to have worried about it until they had it. They did run for the vaccine once it was available (as they should), but noone had the idea of moralizing himself and other people into sitting on the couch until some day some doctor might have a vaccine somewhere.

    (8.) At 55 the Vietnam War begins and doesn’t end for 20 years. 4 million people perish in that conflict. This was a real problem, more so than the others in the list. But not because of the 4 million people who got their dismissal into eternal life, but because the United States were right and yet lost, and that chiefly by losing the propaganda battle.

    (9.) During the Cold War, you lived each day with the fear of nuclear annihilation. On your 62nd birthday you have the Cuban Missile Crisis, a tipping point in the Cold War.

    It is true; in itself this would have been quite the fear. But here the fear was so big that the very idea of nuclear annihilation, while quite possible, was surreal; if nuclear war does come, all is over anyway, people thought (perhaps wrongly, but they did think it), so why bother until it comes. Of course this may be one of the reasons for the post-1960 partial breakdown of morality in the conventional sense of the world (though not the only one), but apart from that…

    Oh, and the one (and perhaps two) best points of comparison are actually left out.

    a.) In 1919, the United States enact the Prohibition.

    Here, for the first time in history at least on a large and not unnoticed step by step scale, a state decides it is not enough for him to hold wrongdoers and foreign enemies at bay, but actually force the whole population onto an (as they in unison with many admittedly pious and decent people, but incorrectly, perceived it) higher moral level – and if that hadn’t been enough, it was done on a population which had just won a war and survived a pandemic and, if anyone ever did, deserved to have a little fun.

    This was worse, spiritually speaking, I should say, than anything in the list and worse also than what we are now living through, especially because politicians today say and mean that measures are temporary (whether they really are remains to be seen, right now I believe so, two months ago I was not so sure, but I never doubted they did in their heart mean them to be temporary), but politicians at that time said and meant their measure to be permanent. And all those decent drinkers went to criminals for a taste of the good old times, rather entirely replaced beer and wine by hard stuff, and learned to see “religion” (as it probably was then already tarred with the same brush) as the thing those Prohibitionists profess and promote as substitute for wine, and as apparently involving Prohibition. That, spiritually, was a nightmare; worse, perhaps, than Communism, which was evil but unmaskedly so; less bad, of course, than Nazi antisemitism.

    At present, there are some silent voices heard like “why should we go back to our partying, meat-eating, CO2-producing life even when the virus is defeated”, and so forth, but they are, so far, silent and not presently a driving motive behind the actions of anyone in power. Also, the South Africans have a minister who is Prohibitionist who sees that people, locked down in their homes, “take to drink” (as the phrase goes), because they want to drive the greater danger of despair from their heads with the lesser danger of alcohol-as-a-medicine , which is (though “the only genuinely dangerous way to consume alcohol is to drink it as a medicine”, Chesterton; it should be drunk for joy) rather a rational decision in the circumstances; so he forbids it, and apparently intends to leave it that way; but so far that case is isolated to South Africa.

    But even then, people could console eath other, in person, at parties (with soda-water).

    b.) In 1923, German fortunes, in so far as consisting of cash money, annulled by a monstrous inflation and people get the feeling that the whole world is crumbling down, decent citizens have drawn the short straw and shady fortune hunters prevail. Less nightmarish, probably, than the prohibition, but still one of the major contributing factors to the rise of the Nazi party.

    (Excuse the length, please.)

  12. Antonin says:

    This business of church’s or anyone else collecting information is a very bad practice. I am sure that it must violate some health privacy laws. I think contact tracing is ok but only IF completely voluntary and based on actual medical necessity. For example, if someone tested positive. There are ways to do this and still maintain civil liberties.

    This is just like after 9-11, the state ends up encroaching on civil liberties (in that case Patriot Act, etc) and the population acquiesced. Now we will see the surveillance state amp up more. Foucault actually described the rise of bio power in Birth of the Clinic.

  13. Alice says:

    My grandparents were all born in the 1910s, so they lived through all of this. If I complained about algebra, they’d have said, “That’s why I dropped out of school and went to work.” If I complained about mean kids, they’d have told me about mean kids they knew as kids and how they or their numerous siblings fought back. I can’t say for certain what they would say about the lockdown, but they hated idleness, so my bet is that they would consider staying home and sitting on the couch the worst thing of all.

  14. Lucas says:

    Respectfully speaking, please I’m being respectful here..These types of posts annoying me.

    Let’s say you were born in 2000, already you’ve had 9/11, a global recession, 2 long and not really that productive wars, bad hurricanes, tsunamis, covid, sars, fukushima, etc.

    Point is, we won’t know if 85 years how bad it’ll be for those born in 2000. Yes the 1900s were bad, but so are the 2000s. Do I think my parents generation was the greatest generation? Sure. Do I think those born in the 90s have it much better than they let on? Yeah.

    But there are always bad events and bad things happening. Sitting around does no good.

    Again, IMO, IMHO, trying to respectfully disagree..

  15. Amateur Scholastic says:

    With great respect, I struggle to see the good of posts like this. Younger orthodox Catholics are well aware of their generation’s failings, and well aware of what boomers and prior generations think of them. What is the purpose of older Catholics, especially priests, repeatedly shouting ‘you have it so easy, junior!’, ‘all you have to do is stay on your couch’, and so on?

    (I refer to the last paragraph, which seems refers to ‘you’ in a generational way. I have no problem with the point that Covid is less bad than WW2.)

    I suppose there must be some young orthodox Catholics out there who benefit from this criticism. Most I know are discouraged by it. I struggle to see the good in doing so.

    I’m a father of four young kids, with God-willing several more on the way. I in no way pretend I have it easier than someone born in 1900, but here are some of the things they and I have to contend with that would be unimaginable to somebody born in 1900 (or, in most cases, 1950):

    – Divorce is everywhere. I forget the percentage, but it’s huge. Even for kids who are spared that tremendous evil, the effects reverberate out onto wider society. Everybody is made more miserable.
    – Pornography was and is everywhere. It was pretty bad in the 1980s, but it’s obviously infinitely worse now. It was much more localized in the early-mid 20C.
    – More generally, all the major forces in society — the government, big business, the academy, the media — are actively trying to damn our souls, and our kids’. Media is relentless. You can’t get away from it because you need it for work.
    – Individual family units are almost entirely alone. The Catholic ghetto, that lifeline of support and community and prayer, has passed into history. And wider society is obviously vastly more fragmented as well. My wife and I find this in particular a great burden. Parents and the few siblings we have (thanks contraception! something else that was rare in 1900) are hundreds or thousands of miles away.
    – In 1900, Catholics had priests who were largely orthodox. Even non-Catholics had most of the natural law. Now you have to up sticks and move to find an orthodox priest, and friends who obey the natural law.
    – Almost everybody I know graduated with a large amount of debt. Boomers got through college largely without it.
    – In the mid-20C, a labourer could afford to buy a family home on a single salary. Now, you can be a middling professional and still find that very difficult.

    Examples could be multiplied. And many of the things I mentioned or could mention are more likely to damn your soul than tuberculosis or a world war, so in a certain way, they’re worse.

    Now I’m really not saying we have it harder overall than prior generations. That’s obviously silly. But my point is a) certain things are much harder now than 30, 60, or 90 years ago, and b) it’s disheartening for younger orthodox Catholics to hear priests and elders criticise them on what seems a fairly regular basis. I struggle to see their purpose in doing so. The left isn’t listening to them, and the orthodox already know. Hence it is difficult to see the good in doing so.

    Please take this comment in the respectful spirit in which it’s intended.

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