The other day, a friend talking about her wildly dysfunctional childhood remarked, “But that was just ‘normal’ for me, of course.”
And haven’t we all been there in one way or another? Whatever we habitually experience (however chaotic or misery-inducing) is “normal.” And that’s not just true of children who haven’t the perspective to know better. Spend long enough in a terrible job, a loveless marriage, a prison, a city you hate, or an unfree political climate and even when we recognize how bad it is, we forget what it’s like to live any other way.
Finding real normal again can be a shock. If we’re lucky, it’s a good shock; we leave a terrible circumstance and feel more free and more happy. We’re blessed with that “what have I been missing all my life?” revelation.
On the other hand, the adjustment can be too much. We can’t cope. We don’t want to cope, because however miserable our previous circumstances, they were familiar. We were used to them. We’d adapted. Maybe we’d even become a somebody in that familiar old (ab)normal – a boss in our prison wing, a VIP in our horrifically mismanaged company, a secure bureaucrat in our tyranny. We resent the need to readjust. We’ve lost security and gained only a bunch of choices we don’t know how to handle.
But ultimately we adjust and find ourselves a new normal. We may grouse and bitch, but we adapt.
As individuals go, so goes society. What we feared and opposed when it was new becomes so normal we not only no longer oppose it; we cling to it. Inflation? It’s not so bad; after all, we’ve survived it for 100 years and nobody’s starving in the streets. Social security? Whatever would we do without it? Sexual freedom? It’s a human right and a blessed relief from all those ridiculous old limitations.
It becomes almost funny to watch former opponents of some social trend or governmental policy rush to embrace and defend the new normal: Me? Of course I was always in favor of _____. Look at my record. You’ll see I was among the first to advocate _______. We must always defend that great American institution of _______.
One part of normal – real normal – involves pendulum swings.
One era is puritanical, the next licentious. One era believes in human progress, the next is cynical and nihilistic. One is frugal, the next spendthrift. One emphasizes core principles, the next says, “Anything goes!”
Sometimes the swings are relatively smooth. Other times the ever-progressing pendulum swings knock the hell out of our assumptions and expectations and push us into chaos. Because that’s how the world turns.
All of which, alas, makes normal – genuine normal – feel quite abnormal to anyone used to being on the opposite end of the pendulum swing.
Each swing can have its freedoms and unfreedoms. Each has its signature virtues and signature vices. Achieving real freedom, and real normal, doesn’t mean everything is wonderful. And it certainly doesn’t mean freezing any one system in place.
In fact, nearly all positions of the pendulum have both positives and negatives when it comes to freedom. One era has tremendous economic freedom while being morally intolerant and oppressive. Another values freedoms of the senses but hates freedom of speech or thought. One is theocratic and conformist but based on comprehensible principles, another is accepting of personal differences, but irreverent and chaotic.
Some hard eras are free and some bloatedly prosperous eras are, or become, unfree.
No matter where we are on the pendulum swing, each generation is inherently in a different reality and each generation looks askance at the others.
There’s no news in this – except that generations are moving faster now. Traditionally a generation was 33 years, then 20. Now every few years we have a new, named “generation” encouraged to feel insular about its own interests.
Boomers despair over the snottiness and lack of ambition of Generation Z, while Generations X, Millennial, and Z blame spoiled, self-satisfied old Boomers for ruining their futures. Meanwhile, ragged remnants of the Greatest Generation grumble about us all, while we who’ve studied history look askance at them for having either caused or passively consented to the economic and governmental mess we’re now wishing we could get out of.
Every generation wants to influence the next and every generation resists being influenced.
Sometimes members of an older generation, if they could gaze honestly at their own motives, simply want to halt any change that upsets them. Which is both foolish and impossible. Certainly any attempt to create the religious, political, or social
Thousand-Year Reich by freezing social or philosophical values at some “ideal” point ultimately crashes up against the wall of the next generation’s experiences, perceptions, and freedoms.
On the other hand, sometimes a generation has real wisdom to impart and upcoming generations ignore it at their peril.
My friend S., an Austrian economics maven, points out that his generation and mine grew up when inflation was “normal.” We not only expect the cost of living to be higher every year; we’re likely to assume that that’s the natural order of things – or even to assume that inflation causes prosperity.
Our great grandparents, if they grew up in England or America in the Victorian era, had the opposite expectation. They experienced growing prosperity, but with stable currency – something we’ve learned to believe is not only not normal, but impossible.
Inflation isn’t only an economic phenomenon. Debased currencies affect (seemingly, but not really, by magic) all kinds of behaviors from top to bottom of society.
Inflation does everything from driving hungry entrepreneurs close to government (the source of all that fragile bounty) to driving the rest of us into a “live for today” attitude. Inflation drives the need for a welfare state, which in turn leads the poor to feel trapped and resentful. Inflation inspires debt, irresponsibility, present-focus, unprincipled materialism, greed, opportunism, and cynicism.
All these are “normal” to Boomers and Gen-Xers. For us, this is the way it’s always been.
Millennials and Gen-Z, however, are seeing the cracks in the inflation-created facade of eternal prosperity – declines in education, job opportunity, social mobility, financial success, home ownership, and more.
They’re simplistic if they think older generations caused all their problems. But they see we’ve benefited from an artificially puffed-up economy and that they’re increasingly not benefiting. Naturally they’re pissed.
We all know it; we’re living in one of those prosperous-turning-bloated eras in which freedom erodes. For most of us, so far, the erosion has been gradual and mitigated by bread and circuses.
But it’s clear the pendulum we’re riding has reached the highest point of its swing. We feel paused and poised for a tremendous downswing that will sweep everyone and everything along with it. We suspect – we’re almost certain – that this next swing won’t be pretty – and may be very ugly indeed.
What will we end up with? Hyperinflation? Civil war? A theocratic revival plus inquisition? A left-wing cultural revolution complete with American Red Guards and punitive tribunals?
It’s also clear that whatever happens, and however much older generations may dread it, the worst will fall on younger people. Elders may suffer and die, but the kids will live with the lifetime consequences.
We all remember parents or grandparents marked forever by the one-two pounding of the Great Depression and World War II. Aside from soldiers permanently scarred or families bereft of husbands or sons in war, we had generations permanently aware of and shaped by not just financial and physical insecurity, but by a pervading sense that the bottom could drop out of life just like that – boom, crash, everything gone, everything different overnight.
Even in families like mine, where my mother’s securely employed father actually benefited by others’ Depression tragedies and my father spent the war putting around safe American harbors in a PT boat, the scars were deep and permanent.
What’s coming is likely to be much worse because we don’t have the relatively stable social and familial structures our grandparents had. Whatever chaos comes, it’s going to be worse for 20-somethings than it will be for the remaining Boomers and aging Gen-Xers.
I’ve been pondering a question for which as yet I have no good answer: Can elders do anything to help? Can We the Experienced in any way mitigate the coming chaos for our children, grandchildren, and young friends and neighbors?
We can’t stop it. Just as it “steamboats come steamboat time” it crashes come crash time, it wars come war time, and it inquisitions come inquisition time. Or so it seems, even if history really isn’t that deterministic. Sometimes it meteors come meteor time or it volcanos come volcano time.
The big events have causes that can be analyzed unto death after the fact. But we ordinary people can do nothing to prevent major disasters. Or even influence them much, as a general rule.
What we can do – maybe – is exert positive influence on those who will have to live with the consequences. We can – perhaps – help them develop coping mechanisms, attitudes, skills, and sound values that will enable them to be both adaptable and knowledgeable enough not only to get through the chaos, but to emerge on the other side strong and principled enough to rebuild not only their lives but their world.
S, my economics-maven friend, points out that if the fall of the pendulum brings hyperinflation (as seems likely), people will do terrible things merely to survive. It won’t be a time for philosophizing or principled action. But after that come opportunities for good.
In the aftermath, people might understand why inflation could never truly be “normal” and they’ll have ideas about how to create more stable currency. Without its ever-expanding supply of trillions, the federal government should have less opportunity to wage perpetual war or buy off huge blocks of the population. The chaos may fracture existing social structures, but it will create new structures, some at neighborhood or community level. Those people without any understanding of economics, history, or philosophy may stumble along, blindly glad to have survived the chaos. But those who do understand will have opportunity, insight, and potential personal power.
Will everything be just hunky-dory for them after recovery from the inevitable fall? Hell no. We’re talking about the human race. On chaotic planet earth. We don’t do utopia. But we can and occasionally do systems that maximize freedom, prosperity, and peace.
With sufficient survivors who are prepared, smart, and well-grounded in principles, there’s a chance.
You and I may not live to see it, We may not want to live to see it. But we humans have that weird, yet undeniable and undying, urge to know that our grandchildren and our grandchildren’s grandchildren and our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren will thrive.
With chaos almost surely ahead of us, what can we do to ensure that the kids of today who carry our DNA (physical or philosophical) into the future can make it through that future? And ensure that they can create something worthy on the other side for themselves and those who will carry their DNA onward?
Some things are obvious and fall into the category of “teach your children well”: show them how to manage money; live by the golden rule; challenge them to be creative; encourage them to build survival skills; help them learn that actions (and principles) have consequences; give them space (literal and figurative) to create their own lives as they see fit; be an absolutely awesome example of a great human being.
That’s limited of course. It’s more effective than sitting around grumbling about “the kids, these days,” but it’s thin. Ultimately those kids are going to go their own way, driven by their own influences and their own concepts of what’s good, worthy, and normal. We can only try to exert a little influence, hope for the best, but ultimately surrender our illusions of control.
Still. What more can we do to help influence the pendulum’s swing? Can we influence the pendulum’s swing or is the very idea mere folly? Are the kids entirely on their own, or can we help them survive and thrive without beating them over the head and shoulders with dire warnings and condemnations, as passing generations tend to do?
One thing comes to mind. It’s very easy for kids to feel weak, helpless, inept, and sorry for themselves. As they get a little older, self-righteousness blights the relational landscape between generations. I suppose these things have always been latent in humanity (though we’ve created a culture of dependency and age-based cliques that undoubtedly make these particular negatives worse).
But in the past, some adult would likely have said, “Hey, buck up, cupcake” to a whiny child. Or a better adult would have taken a child in hand and helped him or her accomplish something real, to learn to rise above the whining and sense of inadequacy. Somehow we’ve now stupidly ended up with a large cohort of kids who are actually taught and encouraged to see themselves as fragile and endangered, and yet also to view themselves as more right and righteous than anyone else.
The very negatives inherent in childhood are being praised, encouraged, and emphasized!
What’s going to happen when these delicate, inflexible beings go crashing into a reality that’s harder than most of us have ever known?
Well, a variety of things, of course. Some may go completely catatonic with shock. Others will grow up, grow a pair, and triumph. More will fall somewhere between.
Whatever happens (or doesn’t), our children’s and grandchildren’s notions of normal won’t be our notions of normal. The only thing we can be sure we’ll have in common with them is the one thing hardly anybody is prepared to deal with: change.
And their changes may be catastrophic. Worse than those of that forever-scarred generation of the Great Depression and WWII.
Maybe there’s little we can do to help them recover and thrive. But it would be both inhuman and inhumane not to want to, not to try.
It seems to me that one great way we might be able to help those future-carriers (and maybe influence the pendulum’s swing even from our graves) is to help them to become more adaptable. Flexible. As lithe and liquid in their actions as a cat. Able to walk through figurative walls and find ways over, under, or around immovable objects.
Of course most won’t be interested in such scary, challenging, and useful learning opportunities, and most of us won’t really be capable of teaching them. So it goes, world without end, amen.
The blessed thing to know is that, with our help or without it, a few will always grow strong, smart, and ultimately creative enough to make the world new and free again, someday.
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