Once upon a time, I was exchanging emails with a friend born, like my younger sister, ten years after me.
In those email nanoseconds, I ran off a list of what I was doing while she was getting accustomed to being out of the womb:
- Watching the lunar landing and hearing Neil Armstrong’s famous words—awakened in the night by Dad, so excited to witness this piece of history as it happened.
- The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Gaining some understanding of the tragedies of these losses because Mom did her best to explain to an inquisitive nine year old.
- Preparing to leave the comfortable confines of a twenty-room school for the extensive and frightening halls of our combined junior-senior high school.
- Overhearing grownup conversations, becoming aware of a place called Viet Nam.
Coming through the ages of my life in the 1970s gave me a sturdy place to stand in reflection on my country. Patriotism was a given until it began to unravel with Kent State, Watergate, and watching POWs limp home across the tarmac. Yes, I remember John McCain coming home in 1973. I did a report on him, that I still have, for social studies and I continue to have admiration for his strength and integrity.
In our secluded part of rural Pennsylvania we children felt untouched by world politics except for these monumental occurrences. It was mostly in our parents’ simplistic sense of right and wrong that I came to understand these events as complicated representations of what had changed from their post-Depression childhood to my Baby-boomer era.
Still, the wonder of the greatness of America prevailed.
We were the good guys. We elected presidents like humanitarian Jimmy Carter, who believed that words and accord could happen between nations and people. We were a respected country, perhaps not always agreed with around the world, but not viewed as an out of control cowboy—drunk, belligerent, and unruly on a Saturday night in town away from the ranch, ready to take on the bad guys one-handed and unarmed with the proper intelligence.
Things changed for me when I voted in my first presidential election and we wound up with Ronald Reagan. America the free where anyone can become anything? Sure I understand this, sure I support it, but a ex-actor at the helm of my ship? Reagan never floated with me. I hungrily anticipated the next election and the next, always thinking we would recover the stewardship of a Kennedy-esque government until finally this last election when pulling the lever meant so much.
Several years ago, I worked for a German-owned company and traveled there several times. Any remaining veils over the eyes I saw my country through disappeared as I discussed politics with my new colleagues, what America seemed to them, and what I saw as the differences between our homelands. One friend summed it up after watching numerous of our newscasts, “Why does the democracy you gave us work better here [Germany] than it does there [USA]?” I had no answer.
I came to think what a young republic we are and that maybe we need another revolution to rewrite the path we are traveling. We seem reminiscent of my niece when she was 13 and concluded that her parents knew absolutely nothing while her grandparents knew everything. The United States is a teen in the scheme of our life. We haven’t been through everything that Germany or other European countries have been in order to work out the kinks we’ve developed that keep our arms and legs from working well with each other.
We are the gangly adolescents in the world and yet we invade other countries with the result sometimes being a civil war and leave a teenager’s trail of destruction behind us.
Revolution? Not a very practical concept. How would you ever disrupt and change a child as big as the United States? The loss of the World Trade Centers, the destruction of the Pentagon, and the willing sacrifice of those on Flight 93 had an impact on those of my generation and older and select of those younger than us, but it didn’t change the culture of our world. It did not revolutionize us or inspire us to change anything about our approach to those around us.
I see the jadedness in many young people these days and I wonder what their apathy will do to us over the next twenty years. When 9/11 happened, my niece and nephew—at 19 and 16—were destroyed. Their faith in the USA being a safe and solid place was forever changed. At college, my niece was startled to find that many of her classmates did not care one way or the other about what had happened—an event that would change our world more drastically than any that had happened in my life time. She was appalled, ashamed, and lost a part of her goodness in merely hearing them say, So What, to the loss of life and freedoms that occurred that day. The fading of that event from our every day consciousness is enough to make me ache.
It feels like our country has lost its sense of citizenry.
The cities are too large, the schools too packed, the suburbs often barren of community. There is no constantly caring for our neighbor, no sitting on the front porch steps, watching and participating in the world as it walks by. Our reality is that both parents choose or have no choice but to work in order to have a home and family—which leaves their children in the hands of others or their time too-full of too much stuff outside the realm of family dinners.
During my childhood family dinners were full of laughter and stories that my father would reel off as if factual drawing us into whatever fantasy Dad was concocting. He convinced three little tots that there were strange animals living in the hills and woods behind our house, magically disappearing when we would turn to look. Dad made his work an adventure and I was in high school before I realized how difficult my father’s job building railroad cars was and that he didn’t stay clean throughout the day but showered and dressed in good clothes before he came home.
Christmas was simple at our house—not overly abundant with expensive presents—rather full of the wonder of it with the meaning behind the holiday never overlooked.
The reality now is that people use credit cards for gifts that aren’t affordable or necessary and spend a year paying for them so they can start the process over again. The reality is that kids compare like they never did before and are ostracized for not having the latest game-boy-z-cube-whatever-iPad happens to be on the market at this moment.
The reality is that we are what we believe in and what we admire. We no longer embrace the fundamental religions that started our country, not—I believe—because we are a godless people, but because it has been distorted to the point of being unrecognizable. Faith is uncool. Faith means you’re weak, that you’re “one of those,” that you can’t think for yourself therefore you follow some ancient dogma. True faith takes true strength.
Our newscasts are full of sensationalism and negative incidents. Why don’t we celebrate the positive things that are happening in our world? Why do we broadcast the shooting at another school, but not the number of students putting themselves successfully through college?
There is hope, though, when we choose to see hope.
I look for it and am rewarded when I talk to a friend about his two daughters—soon to be four and five years old. I see hope for a better future in this father and mother, who although they both work full-time, are engaged with their children. He tells me stories about what the girls are learning and his face lights up as he mimics their actions and tells me their new words. He gives me hope for a future where the kids grow up to be fully involved, aware adults when he promises that their dinner table will be a family event and will include stories of his work day that make what he does exciting and adventurous.
Each generation will have dramatic episodes that become tagged in your historical memory, leading how you embrace life, the choices you make, the believer you choose to be.