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In the course of my daily life I don't generally do a great deal of deep thinking about things. I don't suppose anyone does beyond what is required for making it through a day. I imagine that a theoretical astrophysicist might do a bunch of deep thinking on a daily basis, but that's kind of in the job description, isn't it? If you are in the business of contemplating the cosmos for a living then it's kind of in the job description, but if you are just plodding along and trying to survive it probably isn't something you have a lot of time for.
The other day a young woman with whom I work said something to me that turned out to be a catalyst for a great deal of deep thinking on my part for quite a protracted period of time, rather more, in fact, than I was honestly prepared to do, but these things often take on a life of their own and once turned on, often deuced difficult to turn off.
What she asked me was if I thought that my generation had really been instrumental in ending the Vietnam War. It was an honest question and I wanted to answer it honestly but I realized that I needed to think about it first. We like to think that we were a force for peace, but were we really, or did the war end because the people who started it in the first place just chose to end it? To be frank, I wasn't sure.
I was in high school in the early 70's. Almost everyone I knew had a relative, friend, neighbor, or acquaintance who had lost a young man in Vietnam. There was almost no one who was not touched by a death in that war by that time. I can remember gathering on the football field after school with many other students to protest that war and having the school and most of the town call the police, who arrived with dogs and billy clubs to threaten us with expulsion, suspension, and jail if we did not disperse. That sort of thing goes a long way to making anyone a little testy. If we didn't care for the police and the school administration before, we learned to after that particular incident.
In thinking about it, I could trace being angry and disappointed back to 1963, when I was just turned 9 years old. When you are young and your life should be all sunlight, moonbeams, and bird song, seeing your president murdered on TV definitely qualifies as a traumatic event. For my children, living in a world where assassinations, attempted assassinations, and mass shootings have become a tragically regular occurrence since that time, the full impact of that period in history is somewhat diluted for them. This is a horrible fact, but nonetheless true. For us, it was when everything changed and nothing was ever the same. I believe that event contributed in a very real way to our anger, rebelliousness, and need to protest.
It's funny what you remember about that kind of trauma. I remember sitting next to my father and watching the funeral on TV. It was the first and last time I ever saw him cry. My mother's tears were expected but my father's were a revelation. Fathers never cried back then. Seeing my father in his grief and terrible compassion was a moment that rocked my world, even more than the murder of the president and the grief of the nation. In that moment, my father became completely human and I was both fascinated and terrified by the knowledge. We already felt confused, afraid, horrified, and frightened. My father, the man of such calm strength and quiet courage, was crying, and I suddenly felt completely adrift and totally insecure. I can remember knowing somehow, that the world had changed and that it would be forever and never the same. I didn't really understand why this was true, but I knew that it was. Children can know things even when they have no real understanding of knowing them at all. And I can clearly remember feeling angry, angry that a world in which I felt I had no part had forced itself into mine and changed it in such a brutal way. The Vietnam War was an extension of that feeling in a way. Mass brutality on the heels of more assassinations.
If we had an age of innocence, it was gone. On the up side, our anger propelled us into the kind of action it takes to affect real change, and I can't help thinking that young people now could do with a little righteous anger. It might even get them up off their couches, away from their phones and video games, and into a place where they understand that sometimes, a little anger can go a long way to creating real change. Maybe we didn't end the war, but at least we tried in a very real way, and maybe, just maybe, it made a difference. There is one thing I know for sure. No one will ever change the world one iota by tweeting their dissent in 140 characters from their living room.
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