Should hard times mean hard hearts?

Kate Ellis was addressing herself to women when she worried out loud about the economy in the pages of "In These Times." But her sober thoughts speak to men as well, and at a profounder level than economics.

"In a world of scarcity," she wrote deploringly, "you don't think too much about a friend who has lost . . . her job except to be glad it's not you. Instead you think about how you are going to find one, or hang onto the one you have.

"Scarcity intensifies neediness and competition."

This will be the really regrettable crunch of the '80s, Kate Ellis suggests -- if women lose the grace to concentrate on anything "beyond demanding 'our share' of a shrinking pie."

Hard times make for hard hearts -- that is, more or less, Kate Ellis's fear. But she does not use the word "heart." She speaks of the price of "nurturing," with a woman's ironic sense of what nurturing can imply: somebody feeding off somebody else.

Can a working woman survive if half her energy and time be given to "nurturing" a family? This is an old question, and Kate Ellis assumes it has already been answered: "It seems to me that every day the total number of women whose ongoing lives are organized to include a man goes down."

The new and terrible question that she asks, as a feminist, is this: Can a working woman survive, even if she restricts her "nurturing" only to her sisters -- to other working women? "It's more competitive out there between women," she observes. "The pressure I feel comes not from individual men I know but from the work world."

Personal relationships often demand more than they're worth, and he travels fastest who travels alone -- this wisdom of the loner has long been an accepted part of the male pattern of success. Many a good -- and bad -- novel has been written about the loneliness at the top. But the typically euphemistic question (Can an ambitious man allow personal relationships to stand between him and his goal?) becomes far more chilling when one transposes it bluntly to ask, as Kate Ellis does: Can an ambitious woman -- or even a woman who just wants to keep her job -- afford to be loving?

While reviewing several new films in Ms. magazine Molly Haskell picks up the same theme. She coins a phrase, the "solitude ending," to classify films like "An Unmarried Woman," "The Marriage of Maria Braun," "Norma Rae," and "My Brilliant Career," in which heroines ride off into the sunset alone, as heroes once did -- refusing to succumb to that reflex to "nurture." One can almost imagine a parody of the old macho slogan: Nice women finish last.

In our movies, in our lives, men as well as women seem to be calling for "solitude" (the Haskell term) or "space" (the Ellis term) as contrasted to the old rhetoric of "community" and "caring."

A "nurturing" person is now in danger of being perceived as a dupe.

Collectively, as well as individually, the country appears to be asking: With hard times at home (not to mention abroad), can we afford the luxury of altruism? A recession threatens to mean that Congress will find the funds for missiles but not for senior citizens -- to say nothing of symphony orchestras. Meanwhile, cities and towns will continue to pave their streets but cut back on their library budgets.

Everything that "nurtures" begins to look like a frill.

How many books does it cost to fill a pothole?

This is known as getting our priorities straight, but does it?

Nothing is sadder than a government (or an individual) whose primary resources are devoted to emergencies -- to surviving enemies rather than helping friends. The "security" we hear so much about these days, both as a personal and a national objective, is an essentially negative idea. Security, like eating, may be a necessity but it should not be a goal -- not if the premises of civilization are assumed.

What everybody may be asking finally is this: In hard times can we as individuals, and as a society, afford to be civilized? If we cannot, there remains nothing much to be secure for.

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