I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum with some of my family last week. In many ways it was something of a surreal experience.
I held my one year old granddaughter as the two of us gazed out on the memorial honoring those who were killed in the 1995 bombing and I was left with a number of conflicting emotions. As I looked out on the Field of Empty Chairs I wondered what kind of world my generation was leaving her generation. As I thought about the 168 lives represented by those empty chairs, 19 of which are a smaller version of chair representing the children killed that day, 168 lives taken in an act of senseless violence and I had to think about what she had to look forward to.
I decided she has quite a lot to look forward to, actually.
It’s easy to get bogged down in the negative. It’s easy to get bogged down in the negative because there’s apparently so much of it. It’s everywhere, right? The downside of the negative news is that we see so much of it because it is what drives revenue. Cute pics of puppies and kittens will only get you so far if you’re trying to drive advertising traffic. If you want to really drive traffic you need carnage and destruction. Or at least something that pushes people to extremes. The economic middle class isn’t the only middle we seem to have lost. People who think in the middle of the road aren’t heard from much, are they?
But you know what’s good about what we are currently experiencing as a nation? In and amongst all the insanity we begin to get a taste for some things that are real and while it is sometimes painful to see and hear painful things it is in our recognizing what is really happening in the world that we can learn and grow. And change some things that need changing. We’ve made a lot of progress as a nation in the last 50 years but we have a lot of work to do.
There is a sense of nostalgia that leads us to look back on our past and believe that things really looked like they did in Leave it To Beaver.
Dad working 9-5 in his suit at the office coming home to mom in a skirt, pearls and apron with a freshly shaken for him martini in hand. Putting on his sweater and putting up his feet whilst he waits for dinner and reads the newspaper, sips his martini and smokes his pipe. The trusty family pet named Champ sits at his feet while 2.3 kids frolic in the yard waiting for permission to come inside and wash up for dinner.
Maybe for some people it really looked like that but I’ve never met anyone that actually claims it. I was speaking with one of our senior folks a few weeks back about nostalgia and she made the comment that they didn’t grow a garden for the enjoyment of fresh vegetables. Instead, they grew a garden to survive (her words, not mine). Some things might have felt better 50 years ago but not everything.
Our brains tend to help us remember the stuff that feels good and the hard things recede to the back of our brains, which is why nostalgia is dangerous. It can seem like everything was baseball, hot dogs and apple pie then (I’d add hand cranked homemade ice cream, too) but there were some rough things going on. I vaguely remember the riots in 1968. I was five so I had no earthly idea what was going on but I remember seeing places burning on TV with people running around in the glow of the fires. I also remember 4 protestors at Kent State shot and killed by National Guardsman in May 1970. The pictures of what was happening in VietNam are forever etched on my brain.
Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing when it clouds our sense of history. Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing when we remember all the good things without the leavening of the things that were bad. It’s dangerous because it leaves us with a distorted sense of how things are today compared to our nostalgic remembrance of days gone by. Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing when it steals our sense of hope.
My point is not to suggest that things are so rosy and peachy keen that we should run around singing zippity doo-dah. Things are rough right now and a lot of people are hurting. My point IS to suggest that as a nation we WILL survive this time of difficulty. Not because we always have and we deserve it but because we are a nation that learns from our difficult challenges and grows from that. Our history is full of the expansions and contractions of the struggles of this nation and we manage to work our way through. It’s never fast enough nor complete enough but it is always a work in progress.
Do I wish my generation had done a better job for my granddaughter? No question about it. What generation in the last century hasn’t thought that? But I also know that if I keep my perspective and don’t let myself get bogged down in the news reports I’ll remember that many of the women in her life have college degrees (her mom even has a master’s degree). Fifty years ago? Not so much in the women’s education department. For that matter, she has the right to vote. One hundred years ago? Not so much in a woman’s ability to vote (that came in 1920 for those that are counting). And let’s not forget that there is a real chance we’ll have a woman as president come next January. Four years ago? Not so much in the woman’s ability to be presdent.
As she and I looked out on the memorial pool and the 168 chairs just beyond it she reminded me with her hand on my shoulder that there is hope. Hope that comes from seeing what is wrong in our culture and doing something about it. Hope that comes from being a society that is working and growing toward a world where little girls can grow up to go to college and go on to be president some day.
It’s a funny kind of hope. A hope that rises from destruction.