This week, while my college age children were home for Thanksgiving, I had a conversation with my 20-year old daughter. Like the youth of every generation, she is keenly aware of the mistakes of the past, my generation, the Baby boomers, in particular. I can’t argue with her on that.
Still, my daughter is growing up in a post-modern that is, perhaps, more critical of the past than any generation in recent history.
I remember growing up in the sixties and seventies and being keenly, as well, aware of the mistakes of my parents’ generation. There were demonstrations, riots, anthems of angry youth and more. No generation in recent history, perhaps, was as vocal about the mistakes of their elders than my generation. The Civil rights movement, the Equal Rights Amendment, anti-war demonstrations, the sexual revolution, burning the flag and burning bras: social upheaval was the everywhere in the public and private conscience of my generation.
It’s ironically fitting, I suppose, that my daughter feels the same way about that very generation that blazed the trail for her.
But things have progressed far beyond the protests of my generation. Her generation rejects not only tradition, as we did; they reject history. They doubt the traditional historical narratives are true. They doubt the validity of history itself. Skepticism and protest may be the only thing that survives. Truth assertions are not to be trusted.
How can we know truth at all in a post-modern world? Even the truth they feel in their gut? If post-modernists are being honest, they can’t! The same doubts, skepticism and criticisms eventually turn inward. They can’t even be sure of the truth they think they know. Such is the angst of this generation.
One thing no one can argue is that humans have limited perspective. We are finite.
Our perspective is limited by our own experience. We don’t know what we don’t know, and our understanding is similarly limited.
Our perspective is colored by the here and now. Our current attitudes are a reaction to what is happening in the current movements of our time that emerge out of the generations that immediately precede us. If we can’t trust anything from the past, we are stuck relying only on the present – such is the dim light with which we peer into the future.
We may not commit the same errors of the generations that came immediately before us, but we are sure to commit our own. Just as the apple is often accused of not falling far from the tree, we are likely to repeat the sins of our parents in some form, if only because we are have rejected them without truly understanding them. And worse, seeing no value in past history, we are doomed to repeat it (as some pundit once said).
It’s probably evident by now that I don’t have an enlightenment view of the progression of man.
They way I see it, each new generation thinks that it has learned from the previous one. But have we?
In my nearly 60 years of existence, I now have a different perspective on the world than I had in the naively hopeful and turbulent times of my youth. I have to agree with my young daughter, now. We didn’t change the world the way we thought we were going to change it. And worse, the impetuous, naive confidence of youth suggests no better results for them, especially with the post-modern cards stacked against them.
The celebration of Thanksgiving in the United States has fallen on hard times in the collective conscience of the post-modern world. We can’t even trust a holiday that encourages thankfulness, lest we somehow breath life into the dying ghost of the values we once thought set us apart in the world of oppression and evil. The narrative, we are now urged to believe, is a cover for the very oppression and evil we thought ourselves above.
Like many people in my daughter’s generation, she has grown up being taught and believing that the history of the United States, Columbus, the pilgrims, the manifest destiny, was all wrong. She might not appreciate this piece of history, but this idea began in my generation and has evolved through subsequent generations to the present.
We have to admit (if we are candid) that there is some truth in this critical view of our past. It wasn’t all good as my generation grew up being taught. Our history is full of what the present generation would call oppression.
But the larger perspective and truth is that all of history is marked by the oppression of humans by humans if we are really being candid. People have never lived in a time in which that fact was not largely true. Oppression didn’t start in the 21st Century. It didn’t start in the last two millennia. Oppression of people by people has been the rule for all of human history.
At the same time, it wasn’t all wrong. It never is. We can make the mistake of believing that everything in the past was perfect, but we can also make the mistake of believing that everything in the past was evil.
The idea of a national day of Thanksgiving is not bad. It’s not just not bad, it’s very good. It shouldn’t be overshadowed by questionable stories from the past.
If we are going to doubt the traditional narrative about Thanksgiving, we need to be consistent and doubt our very doubt, lest we trade one false narrative for another.
People write history, and people re-write history. In this post modern world in which all of written history is viewed with a skeptical and jaundiced eye, we have to be aware of our own limitations and frailties. Our very skepticism is subject to the limitations that skew our perspective. If we don’t see that, we are, indeed blind.
What is so true about our re-written history that is not also true of our written history? Frankly, we ought to be just as skeptical of our skepticism.
A true skeptic’s skeptic might throw up her hands and simply chalk it up to the truism that “we can never know”. We simply are not in a position to know the truth for certain. Such is or our finite, human condition.
Such is the existential angst that a post modern world produces. And so, I feel for my daughter and for her generation. They don’t have the naive hope of my generation. My generation, and the generations since then, have dispelled that hope, and I don’t think it has worked out as well as we hoped our criticism and skepticism would achieve. We were naive in that as well.
Yet, despite the human condition, we need hope, even if it seems naive. We need Thanksgiving. We need to find the good in things, even in the past. We can’t live on a diet of existential angst. Suicide rates and indiscriminate mass killing by the youth of the last couple generations are proof of that.
And so, I urge my daughter, and all of her friends and her generation to hold on to hope. Learn to measure it with the humility that should accompany the limited perspective that is the experience of youth without losing energy and determination to make positive contributions to this world. I think we do this, primarily, by doing what is right, moment moment.
We can’t change the past, though we (and should) learn from it. We can’t foresee or guaranty the future, though we try. But we can do the right thing in the present. And if we do that, we should, indeed, have hope for the future and some expectation of achieving better things (despite ourselves).
I submit that, without a firm faith in God, we can have no hope even in doing right (whatever “right” is with no absolute anchor for it). We can have no hope of rising above our limited perspective and experience that dooms us to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can never be sure of what the truth is. With God there is, indeed, nothing but existential angst.