At the dinner table recently I asked our parents if they had a sense that they were living in historic times during the Great Depression and World War II, and if so, do they feel that same way now during the pandemic? I told them I was asking because my own belief is that indeed this is a historic time but too few people seem to understand that.
Our parents never quite answered my question. Instead, they talked about how everyone pulled together during the Depression and war. They were not confined physically as we have been now, but their activities were limited by shortages in basic products and services. They got through it by conserving and sharing and accepting personal limitations so that all could survive and get along together. In contrast, they said, it feels today like so many people are pulling against each other rather than pulling together.
Perhaps they didn’t speak of those earlier times as feeling historic because their measuring sticks were different from ours. They hadn’t lived with overwhelming conveniences and comforts as we have. Life was tough, and the Depression and the war were just another season of tough times they had to get through. And rather than complain about how their lives and their plans had been interrupted, they were of a mind to keep forging ahead and working toward better times. But now, there are several generations of us that have lived in abundance and have enjoyed luxury on top of luxury. Rather than accepting the relative inconvenience of doing less and living with less — and understanding that we must do so because these are unprecedented, historic times — we are like spoiled children crying for our toys.
I know not everyone was brave and generous during the 1930s and ’40s, just like I know not everyone is selfish and childish now. History tells us there was plenty of disagreement and politicking about what should be done and who should do it back then. But what I sense is missing today is the clear-headed, open-eyed understanding that we’ve never been here before. We’ve never been in a time quite like this before, and we don’t know precisely what to do. That’s nobody’s fault; it just is.
I write stories and put them in books, but real life isn’t just a storybook where we can turn back the pages and repeat a happier chapter. We have to live in the chapter we are in and use our best wisdom and science and all the tools we have to be ready for whatever is in the next chapter. There may be pieces of the past we can build on, but some of what we thought would continue forever may be gone.
This may be the end of the world as we knew it, but not the end of the world. Instead, it’s the beginning of a new world, and soon we’re going to need to get busy and start working together again on what our new world will look like.
First published on Wilshire’s Facebook blog, May 26, 2020.