'Live your lives and hug your children'

Toward the end of President Bush's nationwide speech last week concerning the attacks in New York and Washington, he offered 11 little words of advice that had nothing to do with military buildups. Rather, they centered around striving for a sense of normalcy and strengthening an important domestic front - American homes and families.

"I want you to live your lives and hug your children," the president said.

Not surprisingly, that sentence has been all but forgotten amid national discussions about looming military action against terrorists. But as Americans begin adjusting to a world irrevocably changed, the ways in which all of us live our lives will change, too. Priorities and values may shift in heartening ways.

In the process, the American family could be the beneficiary, reaping rewards that go beyond simply more hugs. One phoenix rising from the ashes of the World Trade Center and

the Pentagon could be a turning away from rampant materialism toward a renewed emphasis on people and their needs.

"Any tragedy forces us to look inside and figure out what we really value," says Jane Hammerslough, author of the forthcoming book, "Dematerializing: Taming the Power of Possessions" (Perseus Publishing).

"With our children, we've been living in a period of unprecedented prosperity, which has been fantastic for some people," Ms. Hammerslough says in a phone interview. Now, as the stock market has dropped, she explains, "The challenge we face is to recognize what real prosperity is."

Making a case for "prosperity of a spiritual nature," she says, "To feel that you have enough is to feel rich. Changing economic times force us to reexamine that idea of both 'rich' and 'enough.' "

For several decades, the phrase "family values" has been a cliché, fought over by both sides of the political aisle. All during the high-flying, go-getting 1980s and '90s, people in many quarters paid lip service to that vague ideal. Parents talked a good line about "quality time." They also spoke proudly about "juggling" and "balancing" the demands of children and careers.

But the lofty rhetoric of prosperous times often seemed forced and artificial, at odds with the pressured reality of life in an all-work-all-the-time culture.

As a counterbalance, leaders of a grass-roots "simplicity movement" churned out books extolling the virtues of paring down and the rewards of a less-is-more approach. Americans often nodded in agreement, but then headed out - again - for marathon sessions at the mall and the office.

They confirmed Wordsworth's observation: "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."

Now a change of attitude is in the air. As the country strives to regain a sense of normalcy, this could be a defining moment. Americans have an opportunity to forge a less materialistic culture, to hone different definitions of prosperity and "family values."

There could, for example, be a growing post-Sept. 11 realization that simply hugging our own children is not enough. The need to find ways to embrace and help poor children takes on a new urgency.

So does the need to find solutions to what many family specialists call a caregiving crisis all across the age spectrum. From more compassionate parental-leave policies to improved child care and elder care, the new question is: What are we waiting for?

Live your lives. Hug your children. Good advice in any age, but especially now. As families and friends gather closer around the hearth these days with sobered perspectives and reordered priorities, has the timeless cross-stitched message, Home Sweet Home, ever seemed quite so poignant or true?

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