When I was a teen there was a song that advocated living for today. The whole idea was to set aside worries and enjoy the moment. It was a kind of rebellious chant against the work ethic that seemed to be driving our country into a state of anxiety and materialism. Many young people, myself included, began to question the way things had always been done and wonder if there were possibilities that might create a more equitable and prosperous life for everyone, not just the power elites.
Of course there was nothing really new about youthful indulgence into utopian thinking. It’s something that has characterized teens and twenty somethings for centuries. Some of the most revolutionary and profound ideas in history came from young people who had grown weary of the status quo. So too did I envision a world free of prejudice, poverty and artificial hierarchies. I was more than ready to rebel against the lack of freedoms and opportunities for minorities, women and the poor. In some ways my generation lit the fires that evoked change for the better but as so often happens we became distracted and burdened by the responsibilities of life. Soon enough we were the people over thirty whom we had distrusted. Like so many before us we settled into the rat race and focused on our families and our occupations. We had little time for philosophizing or inventing new ways of doing things.
Now my generation is old and only tenuously maintaining a hold on the power to influence. Yes, our president is from my age group and so is his presumed opponent for the job, but it is apparent that a younger group will soon enough be taking over the reins. In the meantime most of the folks my age have retired from work and are spending much deserved moments enjoying however many years they may have left on this earth. With more time to consider such topics we sometimes ponder our accomplishments and worry that perhaps we might have done more to leave a kinder more promising legacy to our children and grandchildren. After all, what is really the purpose of our day to day existence if not to make a difference?
The last twenty years have been plagued by terror, wars, economic turmoil, extremes of climate and the emergence of hate groups that had been long festering underground. We are as divided as a nation as we were in the sixties and seventies of my youth. Perhaps we are even beginning to understand how life was for our great grandparents who found themselves engaged in a civil war. It has been challenging to watch the deterioration of our relationships that is often fueled by the very people who should be bringing us together. It is particularly sad for those of us who invested so much energy into the idea of making our country an inviting place for everyone regardless of who they might be. Now without warning we are dealing with what may well be the most damaging moment of our history.
Covid-19 has further accented our rifts and made it more clear than ever that we have issues that are still to be resolved. As I sit inside my home at the age of seventy one I grieve for the world, but most implicitly for my nation. I can see that we are not united at all and that our differences seem to be widening rather than mending. We are too much guided by fear and basic needs to work for a self actualized version of our nation. Because we want quick fixes we appear to be placing bandaids on our wounds rather than attempting to understand and heal the root causes of our problems.
When we only react rather than create rational plans we are bound to overlook the pitfalls of our decisions. I feel certain that the vast majority of people want what is best for everyone but in our hour of uncertainty we appear to be allowing those who are the loudest and most aggressive to determine our fates. Instead of putting the best medical and business minds together we are pitting them with one another as though we can’t be safe from the ravages of Covid-19 while also keeping our economy moving as robustly as possible. It has become a them against us free for all in which we witness people hoarding and scrambling for crumbs, all while taunting and insulting anyone who disagrees with whatever they happen to believe.
I have seen this kind of behavior before. It was very much a sign of the times during my youth. Then it was called the generation gap. It meant choosing sides between those who served in Vietnam and those who were against the war. It involved a pretense of fairness when certain races were segregated from the freedoms that the rest of us enjoyed. It kept women from thriving in engineering schools or colleges of architecture. Anyone who disagreed with the status quo of the country was told to “love it, or leave it.” It was not the romanticized era to which so many want to return.
We made some progress for many people but we became weary of the fight. We let down our guard and became self satisfied while new difficulties emerged. Our children and grandchildren kept warning us that there was till much work to be done but we only laughed at their intensity and reminded them that we all feel that way for a time and then get over it. Now I see that getting over it can be a dangerous thing. It leaves us unready and vulnerable when we do not work together to build and repair the foundations of our nation. We revert to partisan thinking and the hateful ways engendered by fear.
I am worried but not so much for me anymore. I am fearful of what my children and grandchildren will have to endure because we appear to be so incapable of setting aside our differences in a time of need. I am worried because so many are unwilling to sacrifice to get us all through of our difficulties. I worry when I see protestors threatening with guns. I worry when I hear insulting and racist comments fall so easily from people’s tongues. I worry because I see fear and ignorance and politics guiding decisions.
I have always been both fascinated and inspired by a story about the great depression in my city of Houston. Unlike other places the banks here never closed. As the tale goes the movers and shakers of the city met with Jesse Jones in the Rice Hotel and they agreed that instead of working in competition with one another they would join forces to make certain that nobody would have to go out of business. While times were nonetheless tough they indeed managed to keep most of the commerce working if only in a lesser form of itself. It was the understanding that saving as many people as possible was better than attempting to emerge as a single victor that kept the Houston economy working better than in most locales.
My daily prayer is that we will find a way to emulate cooperation and send a loud message to those who would have us fight among ourselves. We can emerge with cuts and scrapes or we can risk being mortally wounded. The difference will be determined by how willing we are to work together. I hope we find a way to make that happen.