Failed Generation?

A while back, I was listening to Krista Tippett interviewing the Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli (author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which I can recommend as a good primer for those of us who learned our last physics in high school). In talking about his past, Rovelli said this (in his charming Italian accent):

I spent my youth traveling and being a little bit revolutionary in the Italian politics of the time. And at some point, we wanted to change the world. I’m of that generation; we failed. And at some point, I just fell in love with physics…

Now, Rovelli is a little younger than I am, but apparently he saw himself as a child of the sixties – those days when we were going to “change the world.” He says “we failed.” And I thought that was worth thinking about.

And then in Sunday’s NY Times in an article about movies of the sixties, I read this:

“A revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao Zedong said, but this revolution was also a party, and left behind a legacy of hedonism. Rather than tearing down the consumer society, the ’68 students helped to open it up. Their generation is remembered more for its embrace of sexual freedom and personnel fulfillment, for a social transformation enacted in the realm of the personal.

We were the children of the “greatest generation” that fought the wars (World War II or Korea or both) that saved the world for democracy. Big shoes to fill and we tried to fill them in a way that often pitted generation against generation. Fights over the dinner table about draft resistance and whether girls should wear “dungarees.” Protests at the state house about civil rights and women’s rights. And, in many of these crusades, we did not fail. There were new civil rights laws, the Vietnam War came to an end, women wore jeans and entered the workplace in huge numbers. And yet.

We did not seem to learn any lessons from Vietnam. Black Lives Matter is not a given for many of our citizens. The ERA was never passed. Women went to the workplace, but still did most of the work at home. And the president who was most recently elected could not be more different from the young president who inspired us.

Rovelli is right; at some point we grew weary with taking on the world and fell in love – with our partners, our children, our careers, new technology and avocations. And here we are looking out over the environmental and political wasteland that somehow happened when we were paying for our children’s education, learning to use a scanner, and scouting out retirement locations. We had to make a living; we had to start trusting people over thirty when they were us. We let things slide.

And there was something we forgot (if we ever really knew it). There was another part of the boomer generation; these were the people who went to Vietnam willingly, who felt that integration and the sexual revolution were forced on them. While many of us gloried in what technology could bring us in the way of iPads and cell phones, many of them were losing jobs to robotic technology. While some us saw increased globalization as a way to have cool cars (remember the VW buses?) and exotic vacations, other saw their livelihoods move to Mexico or the Philippines. These members of our own generation – and their parents and children – would seem to have elected our current president, to have pressed the brake on change – hard and with the force of resentment. Read Hillbilly Elegy. Listen to Fox News (but don’t listen long).

When we rebelled, our parents did not agree with us, but they eventually came around. They loved us. But there was a big part of the boomer generation that found the change too hard and too fast. It hit at their basic values. Some took solace in religion, some in patriotism, and others in their own kind of rebellion, their own kind of Tea Party. Why couldn’t we win them over? Did they see that the college kids were just going through a phase and then returning (with their degrees) to a secure middle class life? How did we fail to connect?

Our generation accomplished much and we are still kicking. Old ladies in tennis sneakers are a powerful force and provide the backbone of many good causes. But somewhere we failed.

Many of us lament the fact that the younger generation does not seem to feel the need to change the world that some of us felt. Yet, we see the murmurings begin with the students from Parkland, from the persistence of Black Lives Matter. And, to be honest, our generation had the impetus of the draft at our back threatening our brothers or boyfriends or selves. But, you say, the young have an environment that is crumbling around them. It’s their world they are watching lapse into environmental and political chaos. I still believe they will act. But, whatever they do, let’s hope they do it in an inclusive way. Including all members of their generation. And us too. We still have our tennis sneakers.

This week’s story, “Common Enemy” (from the Sam Levenson quote “the reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy”), is not about politics, but, well, I’ll let you decide what it’s about….

Failing Bodies and the Failing Planet

First of all, you must read The Overstory by Richard Powers. It is a powerful novel –a story in the best and oldest sense of the word – about trees, nature, and the place of humanity in the cosmos. And it’s about psychology – how much we are affected by our peers, our culture, how hard it is to step aside, how dangerous it can be to think outside our conditioning, but also how necessary. The mood of the book is at once lyrical and dire. Humankind does not appreciate the intricacy and power of nature and seems not to want to learn.

As elders, we will be especially moved by this book and its characters, many of whom we follow into old age. We will want to warn the next generation. But how are the old (myself, the author, all of us) to tell the young and the disenfranchised that they cannot have what we had – new cars, wooden houses, air conditioning in home and vehicle, all of it?  And we had it without guilt. We had the advantage of not giving any thought to clearing a lot, building a house, driving a big car just for the fun of it, having as many children as we could afford to support – and never considering what the earth could support.

We know better now. In part, we learned from our own bodies. We are paying for our early smoking, drinking, drugs. We take statins, use inhalers, go to physical therapy. Athletes are getting joints replaced and hoping they did not land on their heads too many times. Surgeons replace arteries clogged with the fat we ingested thoughtlessly. Dayspring mishandled. And as we retire, we have time to look around at our devastated planet – a devastation that we funded with our new houses and cars and expectations that progress meant we could have more and more. Our bodies and minds know that perpetual progress is a myth. We know this as we nurse our knees and grope for that name we can’t remember. We know this by going back to the neighborhood where we grew up and looking for the woods we played in. The planet too has paid for our mistakes: global warming, plastic continents floating on the ocean, butterflies that never return.

In the middle ages there was the idea that the human body was a microcosm of the universal macrocosm – and each individual grew old in this post-lapsarian world just as the world also grew older, decayed from its Edenic beginnings. But the Enlightenment assured us the world was progressing, not regressing. In the seventeenth century, George Hakewill made an early appeal for the idea that life on earth, that earth, was improving, progressing – and yet even he realized what this meant for the idea of microcosm/macrocosm: “And though whiles I have laboured to free the world from old age, I feele it creeping upon my selfe.”

But the truth is, whether or not humans are accurate microcosms of creation, we are most definitely part of the macrocosm and most definitely not in charge – as much as it might temporarily seem so. In trying to overcome and overwhelm the natural world, we have forgotten we are only part of that world. Irretrievably imbedded in the macrocosm. It is true of a tree; it is true of homo sapiens.

One of my favorite characters in The Overstory is the (fictional) scientist Patricia Westerford – at one point she says: “Trees stand at the heart of ecology. And they must come to stand at the heart of human politics. Tagore said, Trees are the earth’s endless efforts to speak to the listening heaven. But people – oh, my word – people! People could be the heaven the Earth is trying to speak to.”

This novel is full of stories and statistics that will frighten you. They should frighten you. But it is also full of the glory of creation. There is a theory (from Carl Sagan among others) that if humanity was evolved by creation for a purpose, we are perhaps an effort by the cosmos to become aware of itself. Through us. Perhaps our task is not to overcome, but to appreciate. Old people should be good at this. We are also, perhaps (because elders have often stepped out of economic and romantic competition), capable of what one of the characters in Powers’ book calls unbinding. His question is this: Can people come to independent moral decisions that run counter to their tribe’s beliefs? Unbinding. Seeing things outside of cultural norms.

We have lived long enough to know the costs to the world we live in for the lives we have led. To recognize the difference between cost and value. Look around you. Unbind. And read the book. Richard Powers says it far better than I can.

And for more on trees, look at my “Fable About a Soccer Mom.”