I fought off tears for the entire 144 minutes of Cinderella Man. My emotions churned as I watched Jim Braddock fight for his family’s survival. Before the 1929 crash, Braddock was a superstar heavyweight boxer. But, injuries and the Great Depression knocked him to the mat. He stumbled from stardom and lost his place on the professional circuit. At home, his career crash meant he could no longer provide for his wife and kids. Star-turned-beggar, Braddock worked on the grueling docks for mere pennies to keep his home’s heat on.
On the brink of collapse, Braddock intercepted a whisper of hope. With the pantry sparse and the coffers empty, he caught a shot to reclaim his dignity: His agent secured him a fight. It wasn’t the main stage, but a chance to dance was better than no chance at all. His kids’ hungry bellies trumped any indignity he felt about back-stepping to the minor leagues.
“I fight and I put a little more distance between my kids and the street,” Braddock said. He grew tired of hoping-and-praying. He knew the purse in this minor league fight would create a buffer for his family. The relatively meager payday would move them a step back from the cliff. Not a mile from the cliff, but far enough to avoid disaster.
Several weeks ago while in India, I walked through the types of neighborhoods I only knew from documentaries. Weaving through tight corridors with corrugated tin homes creeping onto the footpath, I came to terms with my own prosperity. The last shantytown we visited was the saddest place I’ve been. There, I sat with members of this community who explained the plight of their town—poor health, drugs, violence, porous homes, bad schools, lepers—their list went on and on. Because of their disheartened lot, they named their squatter village Helpless. They could have chosen anything, but they selected a name that voiced their pain.
For the group we visited in Helpless, however, cautious optimism broke through the clouds. “Before, I would spend every penny I had,” Anjali shared. “Now, I have two hundred rupees [$4] saved.” It wasn’t much, but this savings account, like Braddock’s modest winnings, put a little distance between her kids and the street. Now, when Anjali’s kids caught the flu or when she found the rice bin barren, a safety net broke the fall.
In these communities, survival teeters in delicate balance. When the storms of life hit, they cause more than minor setbacks. Four dollars in a safe place means the difference between disaster and desperation. A subtle, yet remarkably substantial, difference.
As I watched Cinderella Man after my return from India, the scenes of Hoovervilles reminded me of Helpless. It wasn’t hard to reconcile these two images—both places stifled by suffocating despair. In the midst of the chaos in Hoovervilles and Helpless, however, unrelenting hope emerged. Braddock and Anjali refused to admit defeat and fought their way back from the cliff. That first step away from disaster is the most important. For Braddock, this step came with a fist pump in the boxing ring. And for Anjali, that step took the form of two hundred rupees in a savings account with her neighbors.
As we close 2011, two invitations:
- Watch Cinderella Man. There is no denying it: Life is tough for many Americans today. However, we can easily lose sight of how good we really have it. Watching this film reminded me just how incredibly challenging life was for breadwinners in the 1930s and it affirmed just how very much we are blessed.
- Give to HOPE. If you resonated with this year’s Monthly Musings; would you bring HOPE to families like Anjali’s? A little distance between these families and the streets makes all the difference.