Sunday Issues Links: 16 November 2008
Restoring Confidence in the Economy

Taking the Long View of History

When I asked him what it was like in the “olden days” when he was a little boy, my dad professed enough mock shock for me to recall it clearly even now.

It happened in the late 1940s so he, born in 1916, and home for two or three years by then from World War II, was in his early 30s. It wasn’t all that long ago, he said, but to me at age seven or eight, Dad may as well have grown up in the era of dinosaurs.

What surprises me sometimes when I note that I’m more than halfway through my seventh decade is that my 30s – or, at least, some events that took place then - can feel as fresh as this morning’s news.

I was too young to vote in the Kennedy/Nixon election of 1960, but I remember the debate that sank Nixon as well as I do the most recent ones, perhaps because it was such a novelty then. In recalling the Bay of Pigs, I can easily muster again the fear we felt at possible nuclear annihilation. And the shock when I heard that President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy had been killed. And so on through the years.

Many events live in my mind as strongly as when they happened. Some, Grant Park in 1968, Woodstock and 9/11, for example, I personally witnessed. Others I followed in the media – Anwar Sadat’s assassination, the Bosnia war, the bursting of the dotcom bubble and more. When necessary, I can summon my circumstances and feelings in relation to them as easily as if they happened last week.

This sense of the personal closeness of history came to mind frequently during the election campaign when youngish media people made reference to relatively recent presidents, campaigns and administrations in a tone and manner not much different than if they had been speaking of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson or even Julius Caesar.

It was obvious that times I have lived through seemed as distant to these reporters, pundits and analysts as the days of my dad’s childhood did to me 60 years ago.

Once, when I was working at cbsnews.com in the mid-1990s, a production assistant fresh out of college asked me which came first, the Civil War or World War I. Now, I might be confused about the sequence of the War of the Roses and English Civil War, but I’m old enough to have shaken the hand of an American Civil War veteran when he visited our class in school, and I knew many World War I veterans in my childhood. So I am only once removed from those events and I feel almost as attached to them as events that have taken place in my lifetime.

One of the satisfying things about getting old is the ability to take a long view of history. It works sometimes as a warning as when Governor Palin incited people at partisan rallies to shout violent invectives. I’ve personally seen enough protests turn into riots on less provocation to know that she is ignorant of the worst aspects of human nature and therefore too careless to be given a leadership position.

In other cases, one can look back and see the ebb and flow of events. Economies go up and economies go down. I’ve lost count of the back and forth just in my adult lifetime, and although the current crisis is the worst during that period, I am, as with the Civil War, only once removed from the Great Depression my parents lived through and talked of. It’s not going to be pretty for awhile, but I’m not as fearful as some of the young commentators and bloggers I read. We’ll muddle through as people did in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Undoubtedly, today's young people think of my youth, all elders’ youth, as the “olden days.” Maybe that is what accounts for the plethora of news and opinion stories (worthless) advising President-elect Obama on how he should arrange his administration and what mistakes to avoid – as if they know what they’re talking about. They have so few previous presidents with whom to compare - only Bush 43 and perhaps some of Clinton - no other history yet to recall how it was before.

Nothing changes and so does everything. You know that when you become a dinosaur.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, a message for you.]

Comments

"Nothing changes and so does everything. You know that when you become a dinosaur." Oh what a great quote, Ronni. I think I'll make a sig. file out of that one.
Yes, 'big picture thinking' is one of the primary attributes of the wise elder. In my book I called it 'deep vision'. I wrote about how, traditionally, it was the role of the tribal elder to hold that 'big picture', in order to protect the tribe from hasty decisions made by younger members who, for example, may not take into account the flood that only happens once in a hundred years and may build too low in the valley. It is up to us all knowingly to cultivate not only deep vision but the tact and diplomacy that enables us to offer our aged-in-oak wisdom without being seen as know-it-alls. And to keep ourselves fully informed and up-to-date, too. Exhorting younger folk to do things merely 'because that's how we did it in my day' is not wise, Big Picture thinking. It's just small-picture thinking grown old.

Like you I am only a step removed from the Great Depression and WWII. Having spent much of my adult life as a history student and teacher in several universities, colleges, and community colleges I know a little about history. Often while listening or reading a news piece I think about the resemblances of current conditions to past ones, some of which I have only read about. I also remember a comment (though not who made it): history doesn't repeat, but it does rhyme. I have been hearing more rhyming as I have gotten older.

I was going to mark the same line that Marian did. How right you are!!

I am a dinosaur from the olden days of the Great Depression and the one (maybe the only thing) I have learned is that this, too, shall pass.

Santayana's famous quote about "those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it" is relevant to the current economic crisis. Our politicians could learn what Roosevelt did right (The WPA and CCC, etc.) and what he did wrong (trying to balance the budget too soon). However, some things are different now so even the wisdom of Elders has to be adapted to the current situation.

Your final statement that "nothing changes and so does everything" is most apt.

Ronni, I find that at my age (60) there are fewer surprises now, but the things that I do find surprising still add zest to my life. And to be honest the good things in my life still make me feel young at heart even with some aches and pains that I have to endure. :-)

I am one of the oldest of the boomers. Truman was president when I was born. The first president I remember was Ike. The first president I was old enough to vote for was Humphrey-Nixon in '68 back when we could buy a beer and go to war at 18 in Ohio but we couldn't vote on who would send us there. I was amazed to realize that this year I voted in my 10th presidential election and it gave me pause to look back and marvel at some things and shed a tear over others. I realized, like you, that "nothing changes and so does everything."

I also wonder if we will ever really learn from our mistakes. It sure doesn't seem like it. The hate I've seen in this recent election rivals the horrible days of desegregation. That Ms. Palin played on that breaks my heart.


I have thought of how much change my parents saw as they were born when autos weren't nearly so prevalent and my grandparents when it was all horses and trains. In our 60s, we have seen a lot of changes in communication and media. TV with one station and black and white was a big deal but nothing has stayed the same and we accept it won't.

Because I write fiction and have quite a few old manuscripts that never sold, when I go back to re-edit those stories, those written in the 70s, I don't even know whether to upgrade them to today or make them a story of the past because things like cell phones have changed so much for communication. We don't notice a lot of it because it's gradual abut it very much is like a different world-- some for the better and some not.

Even something written 10 years ago has a lot of things different about it when I reread it for today's market. I guess we have grown up expecting that and we take some of it and let other parts go-- like I still don't have a blackberry or want one, but I have had to learn how to use a cell phone, but not texting for me. I think why would I want to never be away from others? The world that the kids of today have doesn't allow them excuses for avoiding people by going out the door. They are always 'on'-- unless of course, you live out in the country like me where the newer devices don't work.

This reminds me of the origins of the name of my blog. When my youngest son was about 6 years old (19 years ago), he decided his father (then age 51) was born in prehistoric times (1938). In a moment of verbal playfulness, he called me THE ANCIENT ONE. I told him and his siblings that it was okay to call me that as long as they followed that phrase with BLESSED BE HE. To this very day, when one uses the first phrase in addressing me, one of the others follows with the 2nd phrase. :~D

Thank you for putting aging in such a positive perspective....the fact that from this vantage point our lived history still is "fresh" and can be easily and emotionally touched.

I was born in 1930 - so convenient to remember - and I totally agree with Darlene.

oh, if only the youth knew enough to realize how wise we are...

Hi Ronni, continue to be a huge fan of your blog, thanks for writing as always.

Two thoughts, first, I'm not sure that the "emotional disconnect" you mentioned by the reporters is necessarily age-based. I think a couple things may be going on though, one cognitive, and one that does have to do with the perception that time is moving faster these days. On the cognitive side, I also tend to remember public events in conjunction with the emotions I felt at the time, but I've been researching memory lately and have discovered that not everyone's brains seem to "record" the same levels of emotions associated with particular events as other brains do. I visualized this like an audio recording with multiple tracks - for some people, the "emotion" track records at a higher volume than other people's brains do. So it could be that some of the people you're noticing this behavior in just don't have a high emotion track with their memory recording. The way you described how you recall memories with emotions really resonated with me and sounds familiar, Hope that makes sense.

On the other hand, I do think there's a generational component in that the pace of us hearing about news, information, and events because of technology is SO RAPID these days, it's easy to get overwhelmed. I should say, I'm not entirely sure the pace of events has changed, but we sure hear about more things now than I think people of your parents' generation did - both in terms of sheer volume of "stuff" being reported on, and the frequency with which we're updated on new developments.

For my generation, news really is happening (being reported on) 24/7, and it's hard to have a long term view when your information in-box is constantly being flooded with new messages every hour of every day you're awake (especially if you have a smart phone that chatters the news at you even when you're not in range of a computer, TV, or radio). When I compare my news consumption habits of my Depression-era grandfather, the differences are quite striking. He gets news a couple of times a day - when he reads the daily paper, when he gossips with the folks at the senior center at lunch, and when he watches the evening news program after supper. I, on the other hand, am being updated continually, all day every day, and I wonder sometimes if it doesn't all start to blur together a bit. Before I've had a chance to really reflect or digest something, my phone is already on to telling me the next thing. I dunno, maybe I'm wrong about that.


The second thing I wanted to throw out there is something that's been on my mind lately.. we've had video archives of past events ever since the grainy black and white films, and obviously we have personal letters, and documents and archives from past events that were available in libraries or books - but with the absolute profusion of amateur video, blogs, wikis, flickr, and other ways to express ourselves on the web, archives that are readily accessible to anyone with net access and google - I wonder if our sense of history might change as more and more people record more and more of their thoughts, ideas, actions.. It's almost as if we're creating living archives of ourselves that - so long as the net is sustained - will be available for all the generations to come.

I'm too young to have shaken a Civil War veteran's hand as you did, but I wonder if the Civil War might have more emotional resonance to me if I could have read the blog posts, sees the videos, and the pictures, and tweets of Civil War vets. Today we see so many Iraq vets lifeblogging like that now, if not while they're active in the field, certainly their thoughts about it when they come home. And I wonder how this archive will change how future generations will view/remember this war compared to other wars, when we had far fewer artifacts and points of view to consider, and those that did exist were only accessible if you had the right book, or were at the right library or archive to view it.

It may not be the same as being able to have a conversation or a dialogue with those who have passed on, but it sure seems like more people are recording parts of their lives, and creating potentially rich materials and resources for future generations to refer to if they need to look back in time and figure out why events folded a certain way, or what the average citizen was thinking when an event happened rather than just what the press reported, or what the leaders decided or thought. I wonder if all of our activity on the web won't help make history more "alive" in the future?

My gramps is getting closer to losing his battle with cancer all the time, and I find myself wishing that I'd done more to get him to blog, to write, to record himself, so I'd have that treasure trove of his wisdom to go back to when he's gone. I'm starting to think the bloggers and youtubers of today are doing more than connecting with people in the present, they're also making it possible for generations to come to connect with them in the future. It's a fascinating side-effect of the increasing ubiquity of the web, and one that I hope will have a positive impact on how "history" is perceived in the future.



I think this is one of your better pieces that resonates with me, but then you have so many strong ones.

I'm acutely aware of history in relation to current events and how unaware so many of all ages seem to be -- to our detriment.

I hold out hope that sober thought will be given to some of the lessons learned from past events. We are behooved to remind our leaders of those if they forget or ignore them.

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