This week I celebrated my 71st birthday, and I find myself optimistic. Given the state of affairs in this country, I’m not sure why.
It’s not easy clinging to one’s optimism, awakening each morning, finding Trump is still president. Congress is still, well, Congress. Federal courts are increasingly stacked with young, far right, ill-qualified jurists. The sacred struggle for civil rights we thought was won decades ago rages anew. Wars that once ended with treaties are now never-ending.
An NPR poll says 84% of Americans are angrier today than a generation ago. A Pew poll discloses most believe the economy will weaken, environmental conditions will worsen, and they expect a worse-than-9/11 terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
In spite of it all, it’s hard to shake the optimism some of us baby boomers banked in the first decades of our American experience. Through the ’50s and ’60s, the country had problems, but we also had reasons to be excited about the future. I’d take the experience of my 71 years anytime over that of younger Americans who are coming of age in the era of Trump.
We had JFK, the Beatles, Wolfman Jack, Martin Luther King, the hippies. They have Trump, Ted Nugent, Rush Limbaugh, Franklin Graham, the neo-Nazis. We had Walter Cronkite. They have Sean Hannity. We had science. They have Fox. We had no sense that the ideals inspiring the nation had expiration dates. We believed King’s promise that the arc of history bent toward justice.
Our generation witnessed the passage of the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Endangered Species and Wilderness Acts. Science mattered. Facts led to opinion. Now, neither facts nor science matter. Environmental challenges are dismissed as hoaxes.
We boomers were told our nation was a melting pot of different nationalities. Now we’re told welcoming “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” poses security risks, and that we should build walls to keep them out.
Our fathers and mothers defeated nationalism, risking their lives during World War II, only to witness nationalism resurrected under Trump who brays proudly, “I am a nationalist.” We were convinced the antiwar movement, the civil rights and women’s movements, and youth movement of the ’60s and ’70s made America great. Now they don silly red hats saying “Make America Great Again.”
We saw Russians beat us into outer space. JFK promised we’d put a man on the moon before the decade was out, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” I turned 21 the year the U.S. made good on Kennedy’s commitment.
Our generation drove a crooked president out of office. We “saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it,” as Sen. Edward Kennedy said at his brother Bobby’s all-too-early funeral.
I evolved from a 21-year-old skeptic into a 71-year-old optimist. In a perfect world, optimism would be the natural product of aging. Right? Bob Dylan said it. “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” Having those years as a basis for our faith, we find reasons to be optimistic, even now.
There’s something about today’s pessimism manifesting itself among those too young to have lived through Vietnam, Watergate, the assassinations of the ’60s, and celebrating how this great country survived it all and more.
There’s ample reason for optimism. Whether it’s the Parkland kids working for gun-safety laws and courageously scolding the NRA, the young group of diverse women now in Congress, or the Gay-Straight Alliance at Cheyenne’s McCormick Junior High standing up to “the powers that be,” this generation is tough enough to meet today’s difficult challenges.
Optimism is the great motivator of the young. When you reach your 70s, optimism becomes a vicarious experience. We may not be around to see America’s current ordeal resolve itself. Younger shoulders will shoulder it. As Wyoming’s great Gov. Ed Herschler used to say, “I’m so old, I don’t even buy green bananas anymore.”