The thing about getting older is you’re looking at life through the other end of the telescope. The things that seemed very big from the point of view of youth are barely visible now. The really important things that were happening to you when you were young were as imperceptible then as a tsunami at sea. From the other end of the telescope, your life story turns out not to be what you thought. Not even close.
I’m a Baby Boomer, part of that wild and crazy generation which rose like a Phoenix from the ashes of World War Two. You remember us; we were the Woodstock Generation, the ones whooping it up to the dulcet tones of Hard Rock, tossing our clothes off, yelling epithets, and taking to the streets to stop the war in Vietnam. We started the sexual revolution and dragged sex out of the closet along with our father's copy of Playboy. But my generation was just getting started. Urged on by that red-haired reprobate and Francophile, Thomas Jefferson, we pursued happiness fervently in every way imaginable, blazing new trails into every kind of experience, relentlessly questioning everything and fearlessly throwing tradition out the window. My generation has been written off many times as merely frivolous libertines, but my backwards telescope sees something very different.
What drove the baby boomers on this quest to understand every ism, overturn every given truth and put all our faith in science? We grew up in the dark shadow of the deadliest bloodbath and wanton slaughter mankind has ever perpetrated on itself. Those events were part of our family’s’ histories. We saw the way our parents avoided dealing with so much and how they suppressed or ignored their desires and emotions, happy to be just like Dick, Jane and Sally in our first-grade readers. They were shell shocked. Just as their childhood ended and they were ready to start lives of their own, it turned out those lives were already forfeit. The whole world exploded in a rage of death. All our mothers had lost their first young loves in the gruesome war, or knew someone who had. In the first bloom of youth, all the fine young men had been dragged from the comfort of home and thrown into a fight to the death against a merciless horror and sickening evil that had suddenly erupted. Life became a desperate struggle, just when it should have been sweetest. Millions of those young men and women endured terrible hardship, injury and disease; hundreds of thousands never got to come home.
When it was over, the lucky ones who survived just wanted to forget. The good life was a TV dinner, a new car, and a cookie cutter house in the suburbs. Their only safety was in everyone doing their part and pulling together. Big ideas were anathema; they wanted Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Gardens. They knew something terrible lurked in the hearts of mankind, something that could flare up and condemn millions to grisly death; something which no amount of talking or excellence or tears could stop. Only killing could stop killing. And that must be avoided, at all costs.
The unimaginable horror our parents had lived through and witnessed firsthand was terrifying and permeated all our youthful perceptions. It reared its frightening head in television shows and news programs, in the newspapers, the movies, and in the parades where the veterans marched. War was the wound that was just starting to heal. It was the chilling and very recent past we heard so much about and never wanted to repeat. It haunted us like the monsters that lurk under a child’s bed at night, threatening always to leap out of the dark and devour our happiness and our very lives, the way it had done to our mothers and fathers. Only science seemed able to provide real and tangible benefits that might outrun the devil. Progress was the buzzword; better living through chemistry; see the USA in your Chevrolet.
It was left to us, their children and consolation, to try to figure out what had gone so terribly wrong in the hearts and minds of humanity to make them viciously and eagerly kill tens of millions. We looked for reasons everywhere, in history books that spoke of economic woes, racism, nationalism, fascism, and communism, in churches to find out where God had been hiding, and in our own homes for signs of incipient violence and discord. But we knew there must have been something deeper at work to cause civilization to nearly self-destruct. The great question was why; why had the world descended into mass murder on such a gigantic scale? That was the question we urgently needed to answer.
And our answer was science. Science was life examined, a discipline capable of deactivating all violent emotion. Pure rationality was the tonic that could cure the deadly war germ. Consequently, we disowned emotions, explained them away and longed for a world subject to the far superior artificial intelligence as our salvation. Humanity was flawed and ugly, only science was pure and clean. Human hearts and feelings were excess baggage that intelligent people should wisely discard. We saw people who didn’t seem to know what was best for them and imposed scientific solutions. We developed a monomania for rationality, rules and scientific studies, believing that anything with numbers must be truth.
Only science could save us from ourselves. Scientists were the new gurus. We were all going to be Scientific Americans. Too late, we realized that if science could save us, it could also destroy us in startling new ways scientists had only just devised. Science had conferred unlimited power on mankind. We needed one science to obey and believe in, one rationality that all must submit to, or the monster would come out from under the bed. Before we knew what had happened, we were right back where we’d started, at the crossroads of kill or be killed. And so, we went the way of all flesh.
Just like everyone else in my generation, I had a vague fear of a worldwide cataclysm breaking out again. But other than that, my youthful ambitions were fairly normal and modest. Of course, I wanted a taste of adventure, to see some of the world, and to do great things. But I would happily settle for doing work that I was proud of, falling in love with a good man and having a happy family. Those really didn’t seem like impossible dreams, not for one of the children of progress.
However, by the beginning of the third act of my life, the plot was mired in calamity, and nothing had worked out. My contentious family was an ongoing disaster. My husband and I had spent most of our life in what we called survival mode, trying to do what we loved and barely getting by. Then, after thirty-five-years of marriage, Tom passed away, and I got lost in a dark night of the soul. I couldn’t figure out what had happened to us or why. Then, just when it looked like the final curtain was about to ring down on all my hopes and dreams, the end of the third act had a plot twist that turned my world upside down for a surprise ending that I still find hard to believe.
You have to be old to write a story like this. If you were young, no one would believe you.