Not long ago, a book was written, “The Greatest Generation” (1998, Tom Brokaw), about Americans born between 1901 and 1927 that survived the Great Depression and then prevailed against an evil that threatened to conquer the world. I never read the book, but the title always rankled me.
As a Baby Boomer, I took exception to this concept that one generation was greater than another. Truth is, every generation inherits their parents’ legacy and makes a new legacy to hand down to their children. What made that generation great is they stood against a formidable evil. They never chose greatness. Not to diminish their greatness, I will always be amazed and thankful for their fight, courage and resolve.
They did not choose war, but fought in one. Another American generation, pre-Civil War, chose a devastating war rather than find solutions consistent with the American ideals of our Founding Fathers. That generation quoted the Bible, the Founding Fathers, felt right in their cause to enslave others and were willing to die and kill for it — a cause history has proven to be indefensible.
As the “greatest generation” passes, as the boomers age and those that follow begin creating their own history, what will be the verdict of history for our generation? Was there a Sept. 11, 2001, moment that defined us, a recession that forged us, a virus that changed us or two wars that divided us? Will our anti-war 1960s, our civil rights progress during the Martin Luther King Jr. era, or civil rights backsliding more recently, be most remembered? Will history tell how “the moral arc of the universe” bent toward justice after we watched George Floyd die, or will we return to business as usual?
While it’s impossible to write history prematurely, let’s venture some predictions. Our legacy seems to be that we just disagree and quarrel about everything. Social media, all media, exacerbates our human condition to quarrel driven by some dark forces within us (and without). Our most successful politicians divide us as strategy, and our two-party system polarizes. The big issues, the existential threats, our standing in the world, are ignored while we bicker.
While the reader may disagree with me (thus proving my point – ha!), we know these things to be true: in healthy dialogue, opposing views are needed as input in problem-solving. Common ground should be sought and everyone’s input considered. We need to concede some things we want to get some things we want. OK, Boomer?
Saint James once wrote, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want so you quarrel and fight.” That’s us. We want to vilify the “other” when all the while it was us, our stubbornness, our selfishness, our sin, that is doing us in. It is you and I, not them, that is destroying us, and leaving this legacy to our children. Rather than fight constantly and oppose each other, we need to ask how we can help each other.
Perhaps we should remember who we were a lifetime ago, when, as youths, we engaged each other not with quarrelsome words but with peace symbols. We may look back upon those times with embarrassment as to who we were. Conversely, if we could look forward from then and see us now, might we be more disappointed in who we’ve become?
I always resented Brokaw’s title, that their generation was greatest. Our generation fought for equal rights and human rights for minorities, women and gays; stopped an unjust war and ended a cold war; took a post-war world in ruins and brought increased prosperity to the entire world. We put a man on the moon and ushered in an information age. We could have been a contender for the greatest, but then this fight against each other, this so unnecessary kind of a quarrel, brought on by our lesser angels in our soul, took us and drove us to division, to hate, to bickering. Forget about greatness; it steals our potential for good.
Sal Moretti is a retired Bakersfield superintendent, former USAF captain and freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.