Every generation has a moment, an event or series of events occurring within our formative years which becomes embossed upon our souls and continues to shape our thinking long into the future. Some defining moments are startling by their catastrophic abruptness and some overwhelm us by their enormity. Some are insidious gradually molding and shaping us in ways that are often not understood until long into the future.
The attack on Pearl Harbor and the tragic loss of John F. Kennedy are two such events which by their sudden severity stopped the world in their tracks. Although I am slightly too young to completely remember the assassination of Kennedy most who were of that age can recall with vivid details where they were and what they were doing when the news broke. It was deeply imprinted on their minds. It changed the way they thought.
Those of my father’s generation were deeply touched by economic hardship. The Great Depression marked and scarred an entire generation of people struggling to meet basic needs. Overwhelmed by poverty and lack of resources many were forced into soup lines and work camps to survive. Scrimping and saving became second nature and continued even when better economic times eventually prevailed. Many were unable to shake the oppressive weight of their experience during the Depression as hardship and poverty was imprinted on their daily lives.
Following the Great Depression the United States was drawn into WWII and that again became a defining moment for thousands. Fought on two fronts, people rallied behind our government in turning back the Nazis in Europe and Northern Africa and the unprovoked attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor in the Pacific. Now as many of these veterans are nearing the end of their lives they still reflect back on their experiences of WWII, sometimes with anger and sadness and sometimes with pride at their role in the war. It defined the soldiers on the war front but also their families and friends who rallied in support of the war effort.
I am a product of the Seventies. Good or bad, depending on your perspective it helped to shape and form my way of thinking. I was reminded of this while viewing a documentary mini-series now airing on CNN entitled “The Seventies”. After years of postwar economic expansion during the 1950’s, the 1960’s became a transition into disillusionment. The major events and characters on that tragic stage included the Nixon presidency, Watergate and the Vietnam War. Together these corrupted and transformed our image of government and national leadership from a general sense of trust and respect into a tangled web of distrust, cynicism and deceit.
The counter-culture of that day included people such as Timothy O’Leary who encouraged us to “Turn on, tune in and drop out” or “think for yourself and question authority”. Widespread antiwar demonstrations did just that by challenging authority and unfortunately lead to violence and further distrust of our government leadership. Mainstream Americans dusted off old copies of “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience” by” Henry David Thoreau and retreated to the country to find themselves. The Beatles became an instant force in popular culture. Mother Earth News was born and we grew our hair long and painted peace signs on our Volkswagen micro-bus, not because we really believed in anything but rather we, as a society, had reached the point where we stopped believing. We stopped believing in authority and government and national leadership. We stopped looking for our Messiah in the ballot box. We still listened to presidential State of the Union speeches, not for inspiration but for reasons to distrust and say “I told you so”.
Somehow the iconic 70’s morphed into materialistic 80’s marred by get rich quick insider trading scandals and red silk power ties. The old god of self-awareness and better living through chemicals changed into the new reality of self-indulgence. Despite smaller families we doubled the size of our homes with private master suites and bathrooms equaling the size of entire homes in the 1950’s.
Y2K sent a paranoiac ripple through our ranks. Despite apocalyptic predictions our lives resumed their normal details on the morning after. But gone was the sense that we were safe or that we ever will be safe. After surviving Y2K without a total meltdown we are now confronted with the tidal wave of social media. Seemingly innocuous this widespread phenomenon is both insidious and incredibly powerful in its ability to transform and define a generation. We no longer take simple photos but rather we take “selfies” and share it with the world at a moment’s notice.
Perhaps this generation is the connected generation. Linked by every possible electronic gadget we are immediately friends yet forever alone in a vast environment known as cyberspace. We can protest or join any social cause or issue with the simple click of a mouse. With a conscience enshrouded in apathy we can “like” or “unlike” anything we want from the comfort of our own bedrooms. We can support or destroy anyone’s convictions, faith, or ideals by simply clicking on a button. We have become defined by everything or defined by nothing.
So where am I going with this? I’m not sure. Before we dust off old copies of “Civil Disobedience” and head for the hills, before we paint peace signs and rainbows on our mini vans, before we post hate mail or click “like” on our Facebook pages, before we compare the condition of America to the fall of Rome just sit back and take a deep breath. Don’t rely on government or political correctness to determine right and wrong. Don’t put your trust in social trends to make your personal decision about what to believe or disbelieve. And don’t necessarily take my advice either. After all I grew up in the 70’s and I don’t trust anyone over 30.