“In those days all heads of business firms adopted a guarded kind of double talk, commonly expressed in low, muffled tones, because nobody knew what was going to happen and nobody understood what had. Big business had been frightened by a sequence of economic phenomena which had clearly demonstrated that our civilization was in greater danger of being turned off than of gradually crumbling away.”
–James Thurber, The Secret Life of James Thurber (published 1943)
“We watched the news with our families, who tried to help us understand, who knew little more than we did, we could see, parents full of their own doubts and sorrows and strained distance from the world.”
—Anne Valente, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (published 2016)
Two quotes made over seventy years apart with similar sentiment – no one knows what’s going to happen or understands what has happened and how it came to this. Neither quote was made in response to current day events, and yet they seem to fit.
We were so happy to put the conflict, chaos, and losses of 2020 in the rear view mirror. Now here we are, just days into 2021 – traumatized, frightened, anxious, angry, sorrowful, confused.
And the hits are going to keep coming. We can say with certainty there is more to come. In my daughter’s young life (she was born in June 2001) she has lived through 9/11, 2008 financial crisis, 2020 pandemic and resulting economic fallout, wildfires that blanketed Portland in smoke for days on end (2017 and 2020), and multiple regional conflicts and wars that have gone on virtually her entire life. She has taken to the streets in response to threats to women’s rights, to support Black Lives Matter and social justice, and to protest lack of action on climate change.
She experienced lockdowns when she was in high school, huddled under her desk, knowing it was not a drill but not knowing if it was a vague threat (someone reported armed in the park adjacent to her school) or someone inside her school shooting people. She was deeply traumatized when a close friend attempted suicide, when a friend was raped, when a friend went away to drug treatment, when a friend was diagnosed bipolar, and when a friend died of an unintentional overdose (he thought he was taking pharmaceutical Xanax, but unknowingly took the much more potent fentanyl instead). That was her first funeral for a friend. It was a lot to process in high school.
In my not-so-young life (I was born in 1956) I have lived through all that and more. The assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy stunned the nation. I was 7 years old, at school in my 3rd grade classroom, when an announcement came over the loudspeaker telling us President Kennedy had been assassinated. Like all the kids, I was confused about what that meant. I was shocked when our teacher started crying; I had never seen a teacher break down and sob before.
I grew up with the Civil Rights movement, the Viet Nam war, Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal playing on the nightly news. My high school years were witness to fierce arguments when my Korean-War-era, crew-cut-wearing, former Marine Sargent father squared off against my teenage, pot smoking, LSD tripping, long haired brother while watching the nightly news. My dad had been a Marine, his dad and uncles had served in World War II. They were trained to proudly and willingly enter into combat. My brother knew Viet Nam was a different war; there was no honor in dropping napalm on women and children. I was always anxious as the argument heated up. Usually someone would get up and walk away, but a couple of times they came to blows while I stayed small and invisible, too cowardly to intervene. I always hoped dad would go get a beer, or my brother would get in his car and take off to meet up with some friends and get high. There was a period of time where we all smoked pot pretty much every day in high school and I make no apology for that – it allowed us to live under one roof without burning the house down. I don’t talk politics much, given the circumstances of my early introduction to political discourse.
Life went on and the following years included the Savings and Loan bailout (1980s), Rodney King riots (1992), the impeachment of President Clinton (1998), and multiple stock market meltdowns over the decades. The 1973-1974 crash was a coming-of-age jolt of reality – it meant many of my high school friends were forced to scrap their college plans after their parents lost the college fund just as they were graduating high school. Clearly, every generation has social, political, economic, and ideological challenges and traumas.
So, what I want to say to my daughter is get used to it. Buckle up and prepare for more. Global climate change will bring more climate disasters. Technology innovations will continue to disrupt careers you and your friends worked hard to achieve. You can do everything right, and still lose your home, or have your financial nest egg wiped out, in a market free fall. The economic and political divide is widening. The bizarre idea of “alternative facts” and the denial of science create an atmosphere where it is impossible to debate because people can’t agree on what is accurate and true. Certain ideologies (for example, White Supremacy) are impenetrable to argument and reason – there won’t be compromise, there won’t be reconciliation or peace. Making concessions and trying to appease people with those prejudices toward others – prejudices passed down through generations that cause people to cast themselves as victims because other people have managed to achieve basic rights – won’t work.
All I can say to my daughter is we chose to come in these times. The work we came here to do is in the context of the times we’re in. In some ways our world is evolving and people are moving toward higher consciousness. In some ways our world is increasingly dystopian, with greater social and economic inequalities and environmental damage. Prepare to be shocked and bewildered, and then carry on. Your job is to survive, adapt, and bounce back from setbacks as best you can. Don’t get stuck on things you cannot change, put your efforts where you can make a difference.
You have already faced harsh realities. Do your best to face events that are coming with equanimity as they unfold. Do your best to heal the trauma and find peace where you can. We can still love and be loved; nothing can take that away from us. We can still walk in nature and enjoy a sunrise, or backpack into the woods to take a break. We can still create magical moments. If all else fails, find a puppy to play with…
This is me with a neighbor’s puppy when I was 6 years old.
What redeemed my childhood fraught with conflict, both in the world and on the home front? Our beloved family dog. She brought love, protection, comfort and playfulness when it was sorely needed.