When I was young enough to be a member of the “next generation,” I gave little thought to those who came before. In those years, I thought only about my own life to come. After all, what did “before” have to do with me? With the innocent hubris of youth at my back, I felt that I had all the answers that they did not. The only impediment I saw on my path was the possibility that they would not pay attention to my most earnest offerings.
I certainly never wondered whether I should take into consideration those who came before me in any important way. The American educational system conspired with my ahistorical view of myself by withholding the very knowledge of all the eradicated and invisibilized ancestors that I could not claim as my own. History, as it was taught to us, was all about white men up on horses, inside tanks and piloting airplanes in the name of conquest and death.
In this focus, I was not alone. My classmates and I were being socialized, taught to be “real” Americans, reinventing ourselves with each new generation, idolizing youth and newness while simultaneously discarding anything not new and shiny. I won’t claim that I did not find my way to some of these hidden (s) heroes, but not in the number or ubiquity that would have made me feel less alone.
That narrow focus has irrevocably changed for me with the very seasons of my own life and the companionship of the many other seekers of justice. The fallow springtime and the bountiful summer that followed are today sweet memories. As I have been fortunate enough, in such company, to have accomplished more than I could have alone and, as I am well into the winter season, my attention turns now almost naturally to those who follow me. In this turn, I understand now that I accomplished nothing without standing on the shoulders of those who came before me (Sir Isaac Newton), as the ancient maxim goes; in my case and for my generation, the unbreakable shoulders of so many stubborn and courageous women that we had to rediscover.
In my recent years, I have come to understand that there will be many springtimes once I am gone. For me now:
The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.
For example: We continue to fight wars and to make so-called civilized rules about what is and is not permitted during these unimaginably destructive altercations. The words and the regulations numb us to the reality. What are we doing but sending our children to murder other people’s children? What are we teaching our boys but to rape the bodies and souls of the daughters, sisters and mothers of the old men that send them to their own death? To do the same to the bodies of their fellow female soldiers? Instead, we celebrate the inclusion of women in these murders as progress in human rights. Now our young girls can murder right alongside their brothers. Indeed, we name this change equal rights.
For example: Back at home, we fight each other in the streets as well. Who is safe in our streets? Certainly not women. Not people of color. Not the aged or the disabled. Is anyone safe from the hatred spewed every day in the name of freedom, in the name of America? Obviously, if it must be said that Black Lives Matter, that Women’s Rights Are Equal Rights, that is because Black lives do not yet unequivocally matter, and women do not yet have equal rights. In the very exclamations are contained their negations.
For example: Our homes are overflowing with ever more intimate partner violence. The numbers are every day increasing rather than decreasing. On days of external excitement, such as high visibility sporting events, they increase exponentially. What are we teaching our children about love, intimacy, and safety? What sort of homes are we making for them?
For example: As an educator, I feel nothing less than despair at the ways we are educating our young people: banning books; banning free speech; censoring language; banning deep inquiry or debate in favor of the doubtful goal of comfort and of an unexamined call to unquestioned support for feelings over and to the exclusion of other human capacities.
We coddle them instead of teaching them to think critically, instead of equipping them with the tools they need to navigate a complex and often dangerous world. We shower them with unearned praise and awards. In a recent broad cross-cultural study, American children placed first in self-esteem and 48th in mathematical ability.
Our universities are becoming assembly lines, spitting out unthinking experts in manipulating technology and doing rapid research on Google. Questions, deep thought, epistemology, and philosophy are derided in the very places that they should be encouraged and are even forbidden in the service of political correctness. Critical thought is renamed bigotry and few cries out in protest, fearing that very accusation.
For example: As is quite typical of modern American adolescence, these same children struggle to develop what some branches of psychology name an identity. Do we guide them? Do we teach them how to hold profound questions carefully and patiently until the answers emerge? No, we do not. Instead, we teach them hurried and premature solutions that very likely will damage them for a lifetime.
We do not lead them to the prior and informed responses of philosophy, psychology or even spirituality. We continue to conspire to ignore history, and to ignore careful, patient inquiry. We instead teach our children the immediate, the technological and perhaps the most damaging solutions. We administer toxic, dangerous, and unproven drugs to quell their fears. We even collude in surgically removing their very body parts in the only known “cure” to an identity crisis. Yet no one is even shocked any more.
For example: I do mean to sound the alarm, but not to overwhelm into paralysis, so I will mention only one more, perhaps the severest, most threatening aspect of our children’s inheritance. We continue to destroy their most important legacy, the very earth we live on. Where will they get the water that sustains life? Will there be air for them to breathe? Food for them to eat? Not if we continue to look the other way, to permit the indulgence of indifference.
We are denying the next generation the truth, the delicious complexity of life, the magical beauty of the gifts of the earth. We are denying our children their own health, their own bodies, their very souls. In all these ways, we fail them every day. My generation was denied many freedoms, denied all sorts of knowledge that would have made our lives and our struggles less lonely. This generation is not only being denied the opportunity to shape the world according to their own vision, but is being denied the possibility of life itself.
It is almost too late to make the difference that I so much want to make. I fear again, as I did in my early years, that my cries, the cries of others beside me, will go unheard and unheeded. I am desperate. I am anguished. I will continue as long as I am able, but how much longer do I/we have? I weep for the innocent children everywhere.