The small-town newspaper published where my Grandparents lived used to run a feature, “100 Years Ago Today”. I loved reading that piece because it put a human touch to history. It shared the personal events — birthdays, graduations, weddings and anniversaries, as well as the civic-pride events — completion of the new school building, the railroad coming to town, new businesses opening. It helped me realize that no matter what world event was taking place, or how momentous or challenging it seemed, it was just another day in the lives of these people.
I have been thinking a lot about the times we are in right now. It feels as if there are tectonic shifts occurring. The future holds great promise along with a lot of dread. The recent past contains things I don’t want to remember or think about, but am forced to because things haven’t yet resolved. The changes happening to me on a daily basis are sometimes huge and other times so insignificant I don’t even recognize that a change has occurred. I need perspective.
100 Years Ago Today
On October 17, 1921, the Roaring 20s was just getting underway as the nation recovered from the Great War. It would be a decade of indulgence in every aspect of life—bootleg gin, advances in transportation, the first solo trans-Atlantic flight, every Tom, Dick and Harry investing in the stock market, and the rise of organized crime bosses like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. I see similarities to this in our country today.
There was also an incredible flowering of the arts—jazz, theater, paintings, sculpture and writing. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald became icons. Humorists like James Thurber and Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table gang captured the frenzy and irony of a country going through tremendous change. Magazines like the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, and the Atlantic all saw subscriptions soar. This is happening now, albeit on different platforms and in different formats.
The 1920s also saw the rise of religious fundamentalism alongside an increase in racism and the burgeoning of radical political factions. These social movements resulted in clashes between immigrants, local elected officials refusing to follow laws, and radio personalities like Father Coughlin preaching damnation for most and salvation for only the chosen few. The parallels here are too numerous to mention.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana, “The Life of Reason”
The philosopher, George Santayana, wrote that in 1905 in his book, “The Life of Reason”. Turns out it is more than just an aphorism. It is remarkably accurate and lends itself to what is happening now.
What Are We Repeating?
This is not the first time that corrupt politicians have threatened our democracy. These patterns are beautifully illustrated by historian, Heather Cox Richardson. This is not the first time that religious fanaticism has invaded politics. As a matter of historical record, this seems to be quite predictable, arising as it does when hard times bring out hucksters who promise magical relief from our immediate suffering. We seem willing to surrender ourselves to this promise rather than turn ourselves to the hard work of just getting by.
It is not always easy to see the patterns we are repeating. Sometimes we only become aware of them when pointed out by others. We often only recognize a pattern after it comes to an end or after it has been repeated several times.
Truth is, what we are currently experiencing—political unrest, economic uncertainty, religious fervor, racism—all are part of our history and have occurred not just once, but many times.
The Promise of Repeating History
The upside of repeating a pattern is that we know the outcome. The more we practice a habit, the more predictable the outcome is. If we follow a recipe, there is a greater likelihood that what we eat will resemble what we had the last time we ate it. The key here is to recognize when the pattern is destructive rather than supportive, and adjust accordingly.
Political upheaval causes harm to individuals and destabilizes communities. We must find common ground if we are to get through this. We can look to history to see how others addressed similar issues and see if what they did might work for us.
I do not mean to elevate the past to some idealized version of what is good and right. Many of our current challenges have roots in that idealism, especially as it blinds us to how it really was for those who were omitted from the historical narrative. We can learn from these omissions and widen our focus to include who and what is on the periphery.
I do not mean to suggest that tradition and custom be set aside. These are essential in bringing us together for a common purpose. When the tradition or custom is hijacked or loses its inherent power to unite, we need to reclaim it or find a more powerful replacement.
How Can Elders Make a Difference?
I am the grandchild of people who lived through the Great War, the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, and World War II. I am a child of parents who lived through the World War II, Great Recession, who embraced the miracle of the polio vaccine, and who helped heal the wounds left by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his co-conspirators in their Red-baiting. I am someone who marched for civil rights, women’s rights, and against the war in Vietnam.
That represents one heck of a lot of experience in managing change. And that experience can be invaluable in helping us to navigate the challenges we currently face.
My Challenge to Fellow Boomers
It is not enough for us to fade into retirement and inhabit the stereotypical roles assigned to compliant retirees. There are challenges that need our attention. We need to use our skills, no matter how rusty, for organizing consciousness raising groups. We need to establish connections using social media in addition to the old-fashioned methods of phone trees and neighborhood block parties.
We need to step up and accept responsibility for letting our ideals be hijacked by venture capitalists. We need to wipe the stardust from our eyes and accept that our time for turning on, tuning in and dropping out is over. We need to reclaim our values and get back to doing the hard work of teaching the world to live in perfect harmony.
We carry that legacy and it is imperative that we share it.