Is New Year’s a time to look forward, or back? In truth, it is both, a moment when all of us are forced to take stock of the passage of time.
The Christmas season has slipped past, a joyous one for me this year of family and friends, but I know a difficult one for many. A cycle of more normalcy awaits in January. For now, however, we sit in a sort of calendrical portal, wondering where we are going, buffeted by where we have been.
We live in an age where many feel a significant weight of historical import. The daily headlines are shocking and dispiriting on many fronts, perhaps most significantly our rising threshold for outrage. More than any one story, there is the churning discontent and disorientation of the cumulative assaults on reason, democracy, and justice.
It has been a bit surreal to walk this path with you from my perch here online. I hear the immediacy of your concerns. We engage in a conversation across the imperfect medium of social media.
My hope is that I can provide whatever approximates a notion of wisdom from the vantage point of having lived long and seen many things. And this New Year, I am reminded by the ubiquitous memorial tributes, how many who shared my time on this planet are leaving us.
One of the truisms of the cycle of life is that we as a society are in a constant state of losing our collective memories. With the written word and historical scholarship, we can pass along the past to learn from it. That is a precious gift, but it is different from living through it.
When people come to me and share their deep fears about all the serious challenges we face, I understand the anxiety and worry. I am asked: Can we do it? Have you ever seen anything like this? There has never been anything like this, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t seen dark days when previous generations asked similar questions.
For those who were not alive, I cannot fully relate the sheer terror of World War II. Death, destruction, cruelty, and horror cascaded on a scale that I don’t think the human mind can fully comprehend. I remember the days when it seemed the Axis powers would win.
For those who did not witness it, I cannot fully convey the evils and menace of Jim Crow. For all the talk of shattered norms in our government today, we must remember that it was the norm to tolerate the terrorizing of African Americans, the complete disenfranchisement, the legal and social belief that separate – which was never believed to be equal – was the natural order. This is not to say we don’t have much work that must be done on racial justice in America. But if you could walk through a segregated town in 1962…
Moments like these crowd my memory. The idea that the world could end during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the slaughter of Vietnam, the stigmatized death sentence of AIDS, the wake of assassinations: JFK, MLK, RFK, children stricken by polio, apartheid in South Africa, murderous dictators, on and on.
For me, all of these summon forth pictures and feelings of where I was, how I was struck. When I read the history of the Underground Railroad, the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa Massacre, Gettysburg, Valley Forge, the pogroms, the potato famine, and back, to the plague, the crusades, the many, many wars, the many, many held in bondage, the crushing poverty that existed for the vast, vast majority of people on Earth for most of human history, I think that those were once memories as well. Now we study them, lines in textbooks or perhaps a bit more if we are interested, but we will never feel them.
All this is to say that we have our moment now for action. We have a planet threatened by a climate crisis and a politics in dangerous disarray. But we do a disservice to ourselves and our ancestors to succumb to cynicism or hopelessness. We feel this moment. We are living it. It is what we know. Some day, our descendants will read about it. What will they go on to next in the textbook? That is up to us to write.
On this New Year, I do find myself thinking back a lot. But it is not with nostalgia. It is to better understand where I am going, where we all are going, and how to do whatever I can to help those yet to come. They will not have the burden or responsibility to remember this time. That is our charge. I see such energy and ingenuity that I know, if we find ways to harness a forward momentum, we can persevere and even thrive in the new year, and the years to come.
Happy New Year. And thank you all for joining me on this journey.