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It's All About Perspective
Each generation has its own defining moments
The older I get, the more my students remind me of the growing age gap between me and the teenagers I hang out with all day long.
I was using George Bush’s 9-11 speech to teach rhetorical analysis and giving my students context for everything leading up to that day. I tried to explain the national division over the 2000 election, Bush’s hopes of being a domestic policy president, and the way the entire country shut down in a matter of hours while we all waited to find out what these attacks on the East Coast meant for our entire country.
Then, in period of the day, a student raised his hand and asked a question with the curious honesty that only a teenager can ask: “Why is 9-11 such a big deal? I mean, after COVID, we’ve been through something so much bigger.”
I paused. I didn’t know how to answer him, because his world didn’t change on September 11, 2001. Mine did. It would be years before this child was even conceived. He wasn’t being rude or belligerent. He honestly didn’t understand how much his world has been shaped by the events of September 11 and every day since then. September 10, 2001 is my “before.” His is February 2020.
As a mom, a teacher, and a citizen, that one classroom interaction had me thinking about all of the events that we make a point to remember without really acknowledging what those events mean.
For Gen-X and older Millennials, we had grandparents who remembered the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Some of our grandfathers and great-uncles headed off to war. When we were in high school and college, Holocaust studies exploded, and suddenly we were learning about the worst elements of World War II, admonished to “Never Forget” what happened to the twelve million people systematically murdered by the Nazis with only a tiny mention of the two Japanese cities that were destroyed by a weapon that would lead to a cold war that defined our 1980s childhoods. For most of us, there was no mention of the Japanese internment camps that imprisoned American citizens during that very same war.
Some of our fathers fought in Vietnam, and some were too young but had friends and family who died on the other side of the globe. Our parents remembered where they were when JFK was shot and watched a president resign in disgrace. Most of us were born into an age of political, social, international, and economic uncertainty.
And for those of us who studied Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as high school history students, we learned just how interconnected it all really was.
Then the world, as we knew it, came to an end on the morning of September 11, 2001.
I know that many parents now struggle to explain to their children how big of an impact 9-11 had on them. My husband and I imperfectly explained it as we took our kids through the Flight 93 Memorial last summer.
How do you explain the importance of an event that turned your life upside down while your family is currently living through the upheaval of a global pandemic that does not want to go away? How do you explain the post-election tension that now seems tame in the wake of political turmoil and current attacks on our very democracy? And how do you do this when things are heating up, both literally and metaphorically, around the globe?
And it seems that no one can agree on what the real threats are.
We hear claims that the world is more dangerous and more troubled than any time in modern human history.
But maybe, just maybe, a world full of humans has always been a mess.
This is what Fall Out Boy pointed out when they updated Billy Joel’s classic hit.
Acknowledging that the world has always been a mess doesn’t mean that we passively sit by and accept what the present is throwing at us. History echoes, it doesn’t repeat. And because history echoes, we can decide what shape that echo is going to take, reforming the canyons and valleys into which the echo carries and putting up sound barriers in an attempt to pursue better outcomes.
On the twentieth anniversary of 9-11, I wrote a piece asking “What Are We Remembering?” Instead of continuing to co-op the battle cry of Holocaust survivors to “Never Forget,” I wanted to think about how we remember these transformative moments, which over the course of a lifetime are often too many to recall. Each generation throughout history has faced its own challenges and had to answer for the sins of past generations. Each generation has left messes for their children and grandchildren to clean up.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying. That doesn’t mean we don’t keep working for a better future for us and our children and every generation that comes after. That doesn’t mean we don’t pursue a society that flourishes in spite of our flaws and resulting mistakes.
And perhaps that is the vision we need to present as we move into 2024. Instead of rightfully pointing out all that is wrong with an authoritarian Right that is focused on a return to a narrow vision of the past, we present our friends and neighbors with an optimistic vision for the future. We acknowledge that we are going to make mistakes and that there is going to be a learning curve because there are always lessons to be learned, but we can live better. We can embrace a pluralistic society and still do better. We can build communities focused on human flourishing: physical, emotional, and spiritual.
We “never forget” the atrocities of the past to help keep us from repeating our past mistakes. We remember what happened because acknowledging the past is the first step in healing. We lament the pain as communities because grief brings us together and unites us for the purpose of building something new and improved.
And in such a time as this, when there are people who want to deny the pain of the past, the need for lament, and the desire for healing, it is important that we keep doing all three to prepare the next generation for global citizenship. Because we have no idea what the next generation’s defining moment is going to be.
Discuss in comments: What do you see as defining moments for your generation?
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