In the heat of July, I found myself dazed and confused, and I remain so still. I have no idea what is going on with this whirling planet of ours or the people on it.
At times like this, my default mode is to turn to the natural world. I have done so for most of my eight decades. I go for relief, for solace. Only the trees make sense, only the birds’ songs and calls, only the waves repeating themselves on the beach. None of these elements offer counsel, nor do they provide direction; they simply are, and they ground me.
But reports of this world on the way to ruin — miles of northern forests in flames, the smoke in our air and our lungs; the baked Southwest; the bleached and dying coral reefs — make me apprehensive about my beloved local haunts, familiar, if a bit parched. They are now more cause for concern than succor.
I am anxious; I am adrift. I could call the Good Samaritans, but tell them what?
A friend offered a reflection of George F. Kennan, the 20th-century American diplomat, who described himself as “a guest of this age.” His premise was that a modern lifespan, at least in the developed world, extends people into a time that they have not prepared themselves for. The conditions to which they adapted in their early years no longer obtain. The pace of technological change, he maintained, leaves many of us in a place that is foreign to us. And Kennan said this in 1955!
In the year 2023, I can relate. There is an ineffable something going on that I can’t fit myself into — and it is largely negative. To be sure, I was born into a time, just after World War II, of racism and sexism, hatred and xenophobia, the Cold War, the inevitability of nuclear annihilation, and rampant environmental despoliation.
But the 1960s and ’70s encouraged a feeling of hope, of transformation and regeneration. In spite of the assassinations and setbacks, there was real progress in civil rights, equal rights, and the birth of an environmental consciousness. Progress in individual dignity and the common good seemed possible.
Now, the divisions in this country and the larger world seem insurmountable, the more so because they are based on untruths and ancient broken myths. Phobias abound. Our government seems unable to deal with a citizenry more concerned with rights than responsibilities and hooked on the nonsense of social media. I cannot find a place in all of this.
Perhaps it has ever been so. W.B. Yeats wrote this in The Second Coming in 1919 (another tough year): “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ … The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”
Perhaps it is my perception of the world and not the world itself. I don’t know. You may think this is just the complaint of an old man, recognizing his waning abilities to effect change. It is more than that. I fully realize that one generation replaces another, that power must be transferred. I see it in my own family: my children, now grown to middle age, are caught up in their own lives (and their children’s) and see their parents as somewhat positive but quaint and largely ineffectual influences on the events of the day. They think about our eventual need for care. I might have felt the same way about my parents half a century ago.
But there is a subtle yet real difference between this generational shift in power and the change in the tenor of modern human discourse. It is, frankly, frightening.
If I could stop time for just an instant, I would address the generations to come and issue my heartfelt apology for my acts of omission, for a lack of heart and courage, for not doing more to speak out and act up for the causes I believe in, for not getting into more good trouble, for not thinking of their future.
These are the somewhat confused ramblings of an elder. Feel free to disregard them if you wish.
They say that old age often comes with wisdom; I say it sometimes comes all by itself.