What the Fortunate Owe the Unfortunate: “Hard Times Come Again No More”

From Parishioner Margaret Wohler

I visited my son this June in New York City while he was at NYU for a summer workshop. He had housing in Greenwich Village next to Washington Square park. It was nice and mostly fun but he had mixed feelings: every day, multiple times a day, he was confronted by the tragic outcome of the American opioid epidemic. People who struggle with heroin addiction were everywhere in his neighborhood and the signs of their struggles were impossible to ignore: needles under benches, vomit, unconscious people who had soiled themselves, still and silent, in the park. They could be dead….or maybe not? It didn’t matter. But it did, and does, matter. They were always there. I had never seen someone actually shoot heroin into their arm in the middle of the day in a public park, but there we were. We were there. 

I’ve always heard that New York City is great if you have money but miserable if you don’t. Clearly my son didn’t have the kind of monied shield that would have protected him from seeing the misery. When you only visit the leafy uptown areas, the theaters and expensive restaurants, seeing the city from an Uber, you don’t witness the lives of the homeless, the addicted, or the immigrant dishwasher in the un-airconditioned back of the restaurant in Chinatown. With such a curated window on the city, can you really claim to have been there? 

What does a society do with people who are down-and-out? What do we owe them? I believe that God’s vision for humanity is to live in relationship. I think God wants us to have as many friends, and lasting friendships, as we can possibly manage: an entangled web of enmeshed support to one and all…where, when a strand is pulled by hardship, the pull is felt all over the network. According to the NIH, in 2020 more than 902,000 US Americans had used heroin in the prior 12 months. Many are functional users, I’m sure, and are still embedded in the relationship web. But what do we owe those who are incapable of being in relationship with anyone because they are comatose on a bench? 

The New York Times columnist Bret Stephens describes two Americas: the “Protected” and the “Unprotected”. The Protected live in safe neighborhoods with good schools and clean air and water, have mostly intact and mostly fully insured families with high incomes and stable jobs. The Unprotected live in less safe neighborhoods, with fewer trees and poorer air and water quality, poorer schools, and fewer stable income opportunities with benefits. When these demographic facets never over lap, we all become characters in a narrative that can be manipulated and twisted and used by political powers to keep our country angry and divided. We owe it to each other to see each other, to visit and witness each others’ lives. We need to be present, to be there, and do the structured policy work to bring others into the realm of the Protected.  

As parents, we recoil while considering that our child could end up flat on a bench in Washington Square Park. We reject this possible outcome in life for our Protected children. But why not? Why are we able to opt out of life’s misery? Every one of those Unprotected people have a mother and father who presumably love, or loved, them at one time. All of them had a family that was there, at one time. We have families, too. Why would our families be any different? If you have read “Dopesick” by Beth Macy, you know addiction can happen to anyone. It’s scary to think that we may not be as Protected as we imagine. 

I understand that it’s difficult to consider the fate of people who are unfortunate, especially from mistakes in judgement that are their own. It is easier to dismiss them as degenerate, or stupid, and their misery is their own to consider. I did it myself during covid; I’m ashamed to admit that I often blamed the unvaccinated for their fate. It’s not our problem if they are addicted, or poor, sick or stuck. We can safely walk by them and not see them, day after day, because they aren’t like us, the Protected, the lucky, the smart and the good. They are the other people….the ones for whom life is delivering exactly what they deserve. Callousness helps us get through the day as a short term crutch but becomes a long term emotional disability. Chuck described this disability in a recent sermon as numbness; being numb.

Americans don’t like to see obvious failure. It cuts across our uniquely American brand of optimism; that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough: The American dream. Yet some people fail and failure is in alignment with reality. Not everyone wins all the time.…experiencing a frictionless ascending glide path to success and happiness…however much we may wish (or scheme) this dream for our own kids. Some people have bad luck; others have bad judgement. It hurts to see them fail. It’s tough to feel those feelings but you can’t claim to be fully human if you refuse to embrace life in its entirety. The good comes with the bad and we are needed there, as witness. Maybe that’s the best we can do.  

I’m reminded of Sister Helen Prejean and her work with prisoners on death row. She has no illusions of saving their lives but is with them at their executions. She is witness to the failure, of a justice system and a life, as a human and a friend. Hers is the last face they see. 

Jesus said that “the poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). I guess this is true since the designation of being poor is so relative. You’re only poor in relation to what others have. I remember working with Cambodian refugees on the Thai Cambodian border in the late 80’s. They were, by any measure, very poor. One man asked me, “Isn’t it true in the United States that even prisoners have air conditioning, flush toilets and even a bicycle?”. For him, this was unimagined luxury. They had never seen a flush toilet or air conditioning and only the most fortunate people in the camp had a bicycle. They had endured genocide, forced slave labor, disruption to their social order and the loss of home and family. They were poor but they had survived and were able to be in relationships. They were still above the ground.

I wonder what our obligation is to people who are so poor that they struggle to simply maintain conscious life. Their pain must be immense to chose semi-, or actual, death over life lived in the relationship network. We can imagine bringing them into our web through prayer. Indigenous societies have always prayed their dead ancestors into their relationship webs…and, in that way, kept them alive. Maybe praying for the hopelessly addicted can be a way to also keep them in the network, and not forgotten, regardless of their ability to participate. Their misery should shake us and make us hyper-aware of our lives and obligations. Pain makes life vivid. 

Perhaps this is one reason why Protected Americans should consider the lives of the Unprotected: they help us to notice and feel grateful for our luck in life. Maybe we’ll share in that luck. We might even see similarities to us, in them, and work to change their circumstances. I’ll admit that I have no idea what to do for far-gone heroin addicts. But their lives have to be worth something; more than the garbage on the street. We will indeed equate them with the garbage if we fail to see them. Perhaps we can pray them into our consciousness; pray them back into the imagined fold. 

Years ago, I saw a dance performance to an a cappella rendition of Stephen Fosters’ “Hard Times Come Again No More” (1854). I was blown away by the pre-Civil War vision of an American world with legalized slavery, no antibiotics, no vaccines, high child and maternal mortality, child labor and death by starvation, which really happened: failures of American life at the time. Poor and failed people have always been with us. Foster requests that we pause to consider them as a means to living emotional lives of full humanity. Reject numbness and be there, with each other, members of each other’s relationship web, even if only imagined in prayer. Maybe that’s the best we can do.

Hard Times Come Again No More (click to listen)

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,

While we all sup sorrow with the poor;

There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;

Oh! Hard times come again no more.


‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,

Hard Times, hard times, come again no more.

Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;

Oh! Hard times come again no more.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,

There are frail forms fainting at the door;

Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say

Oh! Hard times come again no more.


There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,

With a worn heart whose better days are o’er:

Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,

Oh! Hard times come again no more.


‘Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,

‘Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore

‘Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave

Oh! Hard times come again no more.


Stephen Foster, 1854

— Margaret Wohler, July 25, 2022


Columnist Bret Stephens, New York Times, July 21, 2022

“Hard Times Come Again No More, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor”

NIH: Scope of Heroin Use in the United States

Sister Helen Prejean: Wikipedia

Opioid Epidemic Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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