Although the above proverb is often falsely associated with a Chinese curse, it does illustrate tumult and disaster, stress and suffering. We are about to enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly a million dead Americans in our wake. We are in the midst of increasing conflict in Europe and Asia, as ultranationalism continues to thrive and grow within our own borders and internationally. Beyond all that, we have a climate that is increasingly unstable and in a state of rapid decline. We live in interesting times.
It can feel overwhelming and challenging to be hopeful about our future, but looking to the past and understanding how we rose above historic challenges may comfort and inspire us to keep fighting the good fight.
The last major pandemic to sweep the country — the now well-known 1918 flu — caused multiple waves of death and was paired in the slaughter with a “Great War” in Europe. During this time was the gruesome height of Jim Crow across the South, and a preceding collapse of world order that led to both the Great Depression and the greatest, most terrible war in the modern history of humanity.
- That time in history was also critical because the seeds of the modern American century were being planted: Empires collapsed as colonies and vassal states emerged into independence.
- The Great Migration and the return of Black veterans, that fought in World War I, prevented the continued descent of racial abuse and negative race relations that we now know never stopped for many.
- The people who would eventually labor on the battlefields of World War II and lead nationwide movements like Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and Gay Rights movements were just being born.
It was interesting times, to say the least.
Many didn’t make it, but those who did became known as the Greatest Generation. Through hardship and grit, this generation took up the task of making their world better in collective undertakings. They changed the world and tried to pass down generations of prosperity and peace.
The lesson I take from all this — what made America great was not the glorification of a “strong man”, but the determination of a strong people. Strong people who put common decency first, who worked hard wherever they migrated to show that right makes might, and they tried to change the world closest to them. They were opposed, both by their own neighbors and by powerful forces abroad, but these forces could not resist the rising tide of individuals working together for a common future.
On this President’s Day, I’m grateful to not have the national embarrassment of the office’s former occupant, but I feel certain that we also should not over-glorify the current or even future occupants of the White House. Change happens with the actions and choices you and I make. This change is long overdue and must happen, with both urgency and persistence. We can and must work, wherever we are, to drive the 21st century to be every bit the American century as the 20th and to have our country strive to live closer to its ideals and to be the shining beacon of those ideals for the rest of the world.
Thank you for seeking out challenges in your community and getting to work on solving them with your neighbors. We are fortunate to live in such interesting times.