Forgive me if this is long-winded and driveling; something just hit me but I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain it.
When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I was friends with some neighbors whose kids I babysat – still am friends, at least in a vague Facebook-and-holiday-card way. Obviously they were older, 30ish or so when I was sixteen. His parents were Holocaust survivors; I’ve seen their tattoos. My husband still has both grandfathers, lucky man; one was a conscientious objector in WWII, and the other was a bona-fide hero in the Pacific war, Purple Heart and everything. So the thing is, I’m old enough to know people who showed extraordinary valor in that war, but they are / were old enough that we don’t just sit around and swap stories. (My husband’s grandfathers have been willing to share more of their stories in recent years, but they do feel like history.) As a young engineer, I did work directly with people who made history as part of the Apollo program, but I don’t think that’s a common experience.
Dorothy GIlman is famous for her Mrs. Pollifax mysteries, but I’ve just been reading one of her older books, The Clarivoyant Countess. It’s a series of short stories about a clairvoyant in the 1970s; in it, people discuss psychic powers, reincarnation, and a lot of the other arcane stuff in fashion then. (Some of the conversation in the stories has the feel of the dinner parties Madeleine L’Engle describes in her nonfiction, so I believe they fit with the zeitgeist.) The story that hit me hard has a minor character who went through the concentration camps and saved his wife from them by a brilliant ploy.
And it sort of hit me: yes, the fifties were mostly a time of nesting and reaction, but the young (and older) people trying to change the world in the late ’60s and early ’70s had an intimate knowledge people who had done exactly that – changed the world and won out over evil through heroism, courage, and determination. They knew them as well as my younger coworkers might know me – I’m not old yet and I have clear memories of the ’80s. No wonder they believed in their own abilities to measure up and change the world again. If their parents could do it, why not then?
And the WWII generation had at least a head start; I don’t know that I could say that people who lived through WWI changed the world exactly but they had it change around them, dealt with it and survived.
Now, when we see a need for change as in Ferguson, those examples are farther back in history from us. The amazing leadership and perseverance of the Montgomery bus boycott, the lunch-counter sit-ins, the feminist changes that meant I could major in engineering and get jobs with no real resistance are all forty to fifty years in our past now. They don’t feel like yesterday to the middle-aged, let alone to the young.
On the other hand, we know through direct memory that we can survive massive change around us – just look at the Internet. The WWW has only been around since about ’92. We know that with a concerted effort we can make real change happen now – look how many US states allow same-sex marriage, illegal in all fifty states within the lifetimes of people who aren’t old enough to drive. it might be harder for us – especially our youngest – to believe we can change the world when we don’t have so many obvious heroes among us, because it’s harder to see history made when you’re inside it. It’s hard to have a historical perspective on current events, but I think if we can take that step back to be objective, there are plenty of examples to build those hopes on.
Does that even make sense?