I recently drove by the campus of the University of Washington and was flooded with memories. My time as a student there had been transformative for me. I entered in one generational universe and exited in another.
Fifty years ago it was 1968 and I was getting ready to start my sophomore year. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Riots had torn through scores of American cities. Vietnam was sending thousands of boys home in body bags. The racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was running for president. The country had reached a boiling point. The inner cities were in open revolt, demanding an end to bigotry and segregation. Women were in open revolt, demanding equal rights and a seat at the table. Young people were in open revolt, demanding an end to the war in Vietnam and the right to vote.
These were times when established norms were toppled and the “establishment” was being called to justify its very existence. We’d entered a time when seemingly everything was up for question, when the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” to borrow a phrase from former Vice President Spiro Agnew, were hard at work speaking truth to power.
As I drove away from the campus I couldn’t help thinking about our current time, how everything has changed and yet — nothing has changed.
The “nattering nabobs of negativism” are at it again, speaking truth to power.
- Institutions once trusted are being toppled,
- Leaders once revered are reviled,
- Beliefs once sacred are discarded.
Today we live in a world that appears to be unraveling, just as it did in 1968, but this time from a different direction. It’s as if the revolution of 50 years ago has been turned upside down and inside out.
— Lewis Caroll, Alice In Wonderland
As I drove home to Everett I wondered what, if anything, we learned in these past fifty years? How could times on the one hand seem so eerily similar and on the other so wildly different? Why has it been so hard for us, as a people, to learn our lessons, make our amends, and strive for the common good?
I had no answer.
Then I asked the very same question of myself: why was it so hard for me to learn my lessons, make my amends, and for me to strive for the common good?
And I remembered.
It was only when I sobered up to the rabbit hole into which I had fallen up and crawled out to accept reality at face value that I halted my repeating cycles that took me nowhere. As the Greek historian Thucydides observed, “History doesn’t repeat itself, man does.” Sobriety had required honesty, a willingness to face truth, even if it was painful, and the choice to reach out in service as one broken person to another. New practices slowly became new habits as I gradually relinquished my need to be the center of the universe.
As I neared home a final reflection came to mind. I remembered Robert Kennedy’s visit to the University of Washington in 1968 during which he gave an unforgettable speech.
One line in particular was brought home to me.
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
It struck me 50 years later that RFK got it right. Real history isn’t written in large brush strokes across a giant canvas; history is written in the fine, small strokes of individual lives. I was revived by this realization: there is never a time when I can’t do something positive, and never a moment when I’m not being invited to make a difference.
For all times the Serenity Prayer is a wise guide to understanding how to impact our time and place in history:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Lasting revolutions always come from little steps.
Just a thought…
Copyright © 2018 Patrick J. Moriarty. All Rights Reserved.
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