Every generation has its defining events and touchstones. For my parents’ generation it was the Great Depression. My mother never stopped saving just about everything that might be useful in the future. Plastic containers and glass jars were used to store leftovers, safety pins, just about anything “too good” to throw away. Being frugal was so deeply ingrained in that generation, it never disappeared. Every person of that era could tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Greatest Generation rallied together to win World War II, and they shaped modern America for years to come.
The Baby Boomers have a different set of milestones. I was in third grade when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. That memory is as indelible as any event in my life. It also was a harbinger of the turmoil our nation would undergo for the next decade. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, only two months apart, seared our national consciousness, dashing the hopes of a brighter future for millions of Americans. Riots in cities across the country exacerbated racial tensions. The Vietnam War did not unite us, but bitterly divided an already fractured society. The anti-war movement defined a generation of young people much like the Depression and WWII defined those who came before us.
Not all events have been divisive. Americans watched in awe as man landed on the moon for the first time. The fall of the Berlin Wall proved that freedom and liberty were more than American values; they resonated worldwide. The attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 brought us together through our grieving and demonstrated our resilience as a nation. As with the Kennedy assassination, there is a generation of people who can tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard about the 9/11 attack. I was standing in front of a class at North Carroll High School. As the years went by, eventually I had students who were too young to remember. September 11th was simply an event in history they had learned about, not a milestone memory.
I wonder what events will define today’s collective consciousness? Will it be the election of Barack Obama? Will it be the election of Donald Trump? Will it be our current COVID-19 pandemic?
It seems hard to imagine that the coronavirus emergency will become a generational touchstone. There has been no dramatic single moment that might become embedded in our psyches, no unifying element to bring us together. On the other hand, this pandemic is probably the most consequential event in many years. Schools in Maryland will be closed for at least two months. Educators and students alike are struggling through the realities of distance learning. Businesses have been shuttered, and wearing face masks in public is now the norm.
Some 60,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Yet, we have reactionaries still trying to pretend it is all a hoax designed to damage the Trump presidency. Perhaps even more ludicrous is the claim that public safety measures are an attack on our Constitutional freedoms. Don’t we have enough to worry about without being bombarded with disinformation and phony “cures” that endanger lives?
Despite the hardships and challenges we are enduring, there are some positives that give us hope for our society. Shelter in place orders have resulted in significant reductions in air pollution according to National Geographic and NASA. Many of us have seen the photos of goats roaming a village in Wales, and wildlife has made resurgences in other areas, too. Crime is down. Families are spending more time actually doing things together. Kids have more unstructured time to create and explore.
In Carroll County, folks are going out of their way to support one another. Carroll Food Sunday has teamed up with Grace Lutheran to provide food to needy neighbors. Similarly, Old Westminster Winery is collecting food which is then distributed by Crossroads Community Center. Citizens in our community are making facemasks to give to those who need them. Perhaps these small gestures, these quiet improvements to our world, may be the defining moment of our time. Maybe it is not too late for us to come together as a people.
But remember, you still need to wear pants when you go to the mailbox. I guess some things will never change.
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Tom Scanlan writes from Westminster. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.