In 1968, the year I turned 17, the world seemed like a dreadful place. A boy two years ahead of me in high school died in Vietnam that year and, by the time we rang in 1969, so many more horrible things had happened that I couldn’t figure out how anything would ever right itself again. I felt powerless and confused, and wondered if this is just what it was to begin to see the world as an adult.
I would sit with my parents, watching Walter Cronkite as we ate dinner on little, rickety TV trays. Every night we witnessed U.S. soldiers in battle in Vietnam. I remember hearing the commentators discussing the Tet Offensive, and realizing we were not, in fact, “winning” the war, as we’d been told since it started. Later in the year, 20 or so U.S. soldiers led a massacre at My Lai, raping and killing hundreds of unarmed civilians, including women and children.
At home, things weren’t much better. In early April, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, and in June, Bobby Kennedy was killed in the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel. In between those two events, blacks around the country marched and protested and were, in turn, brutalized by police. By the time the Republicans nominated Richard Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew as their presidential and vice-presidential candidates, amid anti-war and civil rights protests, it felt, as Yeats wrote in 1918, that the center could not hold. The riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago later that month proved it. The country was in utter chaos and for me, an optimistic, albeit somewhat depressed 17-year-old, Richard Nixon’s election in November was no comfort.
We can listen to each other, ask questions, be diligent about participating in our communities, understand that people do not choose to be “have nots.”
As I write this, and I think about what is happening in our country at this moment, I feel a kind of responsibility. I wish I could say that my generation had been able to bring people together, to end the hatred, to help people to see the right way to treat others. And in many ways, we did what we could. We marched for civil rights and we handed out anti-war leaflets on street corners. I offered support to my friends who were drafted, and I had thousands of conversations about how bad things were and ways we might be able to turn the tide. Within a year or so, I started marching for women’s rights, but even then I faced an odd kind of rejection when mainstream feminists weren’t all that excited about including those of us who were lesbians.
Regardless of our level of activism—or the cause we were pushing—most of us felt impotent. The frustration and pain of living in a culture that was so focused on what felt like the wrong things spurred many to leave, if not literally, then at least to live off the grid, or to just plug their ears and hum loudly. Others became educators or social workers. Most of us, truthfully, just focused on ourselves and our families and moved forward with our own lives, feeling overwhelmed by a political and social system that continued to ignore and oppress enormous portions of society. We tried to touch the people in our own spheres with values we dreamed might be reciprocated. And always, we hoped we could all be better.
I don’t know that any of us felt we had the energy or the power to fight the system in any bigger way. Lots of people became politicians themselves, of course, and continued trying to fight the huge machine within that structure. But a look back at Barack Obama’s 7 ½ years in office—and the obstructionist behaviors of the Republican Congress—makes it clear that the political system can only do so much. One glance at the TV screen over dinner this week left me with a sinking feeling that things have only gotten worse.
I will turn 65 in two months and I wish I knew how to change the direction of the country and the world. I wish I knew the path we should all take to bring more people into the mainstream, to stop the fear and hate that seem to pervade so much of what happens here. Everything I think of sounds sappy and ineffective, though. Most of us still lack the power to move the political machine or to affect a change that would empower the poor and disenfranchised. But we can listen to each other, ask questions, be diligent about participating in our communities, understand that people do not choose to be “have nots.”
I wish today, as I did back then, that I knew the steps to take, the ways to remain open and optimistic. I long for the wisdom to know exactly what to say to racist, sexist, exclusionary people to remind them that we are all human beings trying to be alive and to feel that we have a fair chance at a full existence. I find myself saying it to people who already agree with me, though, as we all stand, open-mouthed and in disbelief at the direction our fellow humans are taking. I wish I knew what else to say and do, but I don’t. It doesn't stop me from hoping, though, that we can all be better.