The Great Disruption
Living with uncertainty
The other day I went to a Christmas tree-lighting event at the town square. I was with my wife, youngest daughter, who is 3, and a hundred or so other people—some I knew; others I didn’t.
It was what you would expect—carolers, hot chocolate, warming fires, a fire truck with the local Santa hopping out to greet children. There were cheery adults milling about with more than a fair share of small, scared children. Part of that angst I attribute to Santa. He scares a lot of small children. I remember my older daughter also being a bit leery of our Santa at the time, a beloved man named Jack Williams. I suppose if I were 3 feet tall and a corpulent, hairy old guy in a red pantsuit approached me, I’d be scared, too.
My daughter and several other 3-year-olds were clinging to their respective moms. But it seemed there was more to it than a scary old Santa. It occurred to me that these children were part of a generation of kids experiencing the world under the regimen of COVID-19. These are children who have started life without playdates, babysitters, trips to the market, in some instances even school—basically any significant social exposure. They are unsure of crowds, faces they don’t know, events not carefully orchestrated for their safety.
Ironically, these COVID kids are living an ultra-controlled life due to an apparently uncontrollable pandemic. I find it a bit heartbreaking to watch a 3-year-old expertly don a mask as a matter of course, and without complaint. This is now part of their collective lives.
It is also the rare experience for my generation, and now my children’s, in which a threat—equally menacing to all—hangs over an entire population. It hadn’t struck me until that tree-lighting event that I was a part of a generation that had mostly slipped through the cracks of historical upheaval.
I was born in 1960, and, with my cohorts, comprise the tail of the baby boom. We were born too late to experience the pall of WW II, the Great Depression, the Korean War and most of the Cold War. We were too young for Vietnam. And by the end of the 1960s, most of the childhood diseases were controlled with vaccines; smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, and rubella were of little concern to us. Chicken pox was about all we had to contend with. There was, of course, 9/11, and the wars that followed, but unless you lived in Manhattan, or were in the military, that was an acute threat and one that became increasingly remote for most of the U.S. population.
I am no fan of wars, disease, or economic ruin. Still, I can’t help but think that the generations before me were different because of these cataclysms—stronger, more resilient, burnished by humility and grace under pressure. Uncontrollable events have a way of revealing character.
Ushering people into the wilderness—as I did for many years as a guide—is hardly comparable to war and disease. Nonetheless, there is a lesson to be learned in wild places. I have noticed that as people float into a wilderness where pretty much anything can happen indiscriminately, their first reaction is to retreat into their established stations in life. But give them a few days in that world, and they flourish. Strength, kindness, humility—real character—emerges.
I have a good friend who has, for years, been instrumental in the effort to build the future National Medal of Honor Museum in Arlington, Texas. A couple months back, he and a few of us toured the site and learned about the project and the medal itself, the first of which was awarded in 1863. It is the nation’s highest award for acts of valor. To date, there have been 3,508 recipients (several have received it twice).
The character traits common to Medal of Honor recipients are courage and sacrifice, commitment and integrity, citizenship and patriotism. One could expend a lot of words and time debating what these qualities mean. For me, the thread running through all of them, though, is one of perspective. It is a manner of looking outward versus inward. It is acting for others, rather than for self. It is recognizing a bigger picture than what you see.
What defined the generations before me was their ability to not only survive but to thrive in a world riddled with uncertainty. While there have only been 3,508 Medal of Honor recipients in 158 years, the qualities those people embody have streamed through countless men and women who weathered battles of a different kind. Their first instinct was to reach a hand out, to imagine ways they could help the next guy before helping themselves. Aggregate that over a generation and remarkable things happen in dark times.
Now, suddenly, this generation that has escaped most of the great collective threats of the last century, finds itself facing a world that it hardly recognizes. The question hangs in the ether: how will we respond to the moment?
In the winter months, I work on a mountain. To get there, I park my car in a dirt lot, then walk about five minutes down a path and across a river on a bridge. Last week, I was walking to work; the night was inching towards day. As I crossed the bridge, a bald eagle flew over my head, close enough to startle me with the sound of his wings breaking through the cold air.
I’ve written about this before—so I apologize for repeating myself—but on one of my dad’s last days before dying of cancer, he was in bed staring up through a sky light and spied an eagle high above. “That’s where I would like to be,” he said.
Even though I don’t take much stock in events beyond the physical world, ever since that day I’ve always seen eagles as a visitation of some sort—a father gone from this world but still looking over his son. Maybe that’s just what I wanted to believe.
Perhaps I had been inspired in Texas. Perhaps it was just the realization that the world had changed, but this visitation on the bridge was different. This was more of an invitation—from someone, or something—to behold others, to look outward not inward, to embrace the uncertainty sweeping the world, to ascend into the brightening sky and spread valor where it is needed.
Yes, you might fall from the great height. But then again, you might just catch the air right and soar. You might have a chance to glimpse that illusive place where the dawn sky meets the precious earth and an unscripted universe blithely unfolds.