Generational identity – revision meets reality

It was leadership from my parents’ generation that made the decisions to fight the war in Vietnam. For a generation that had fought against two evil regimes – Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan – adopting isolationism was unthinkable. And the new enemy ideology – Communism – was spreading. The national mood was bellicose. So .. fight!

It wasn’t until I heard reports of the older brothers of some friends being killed by snipers that .I realized it was actually costing us anything. Then came the protests. By the time I was in high school, my generation had established its own beachhead on the national scene. Country Joe and the Fish sang “It’s one, two, three what are we fighting for?”. “Old enough to kill but not for votin’ ” rasped Barry McGuire. And after the killing of protesters at Kent State University by National Guard troops, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang “Four Dead in Ohio”. Those, among other hits, were the anthems flooding the song lists on the new venue of FM radio.

And we changed our culture, if not THE culture  Head shops arose to feed the hunger for bohemian style, free love and optimal smoking of marijuana and hashish, just for starters. We were cool and we knew it.  And .. we were victims of an identifiable evil.

My generation had revised the discussion and had invaded the national conscience. I remember the power and pride I felt in those days, to be part of a whole generation who was finally getting it right.

And in some ways, we did get it right – today we can look at the Vietnam war as a debacle – a bad idea spawned from bad information with bad motives. It’s easy to see, now. There was no domino theory in play wherein China was advancing its empire into Southeast Asia – the Vietnamese hated the Chinese – and Ho Chi Minh saw socialism as reform over French colonial rule. For Vietnam, it was a war for independence.  America was propping up a corrupt government in the south.

For my generation – at least those around me – our revision of the dialogue and effect on national direction became part of our identity.

Going back, you can find that every generation develops some level of a contrarian spirit and is convinced of its own righteousness, regardless of a gross lack of perspective and experience. An event as dramatic or costly as Vietnam isn’t necessary. Any issue, any injustice, marginalized group or sin of the former generation is fair game to “get right” and rally around.

The identity is the goal.  But if reality is consulted, and it will always be, my generations’s anti-war movement got it wrong in many ways:

  • The treatment of returning soldiers was completely shameful. Flower children, not being so floral, threw cups of urine in the face of wheelchair-bound veterans – because the “correct” response to the war was to dodge the draft and move to Canada.
  • Communism was and is bad. The jury is in. We didn’t want to talk about it, but I have had the honor of working with ex-USSR citizens. Their tales of brutality – as a rule – speak for themselves. It is all the rage to cite what’s wrong with America – and we should fix that. It’s a whole different story coming out of nations ruled by totalitarian socialist regimes.
  • The questioning of America’s forceful role in world conflict has reproduced a lack of vigilance and rise in isolationism that can resemble that prior to the second world war. When there is real evil (see ISIS) it is historically better to fight it earlier than later. Because fight it you will.
  • The hubris of a generation caused a complete ignorance – or denial – of the sacrifices of our parents’ generation. They were not perfect, but they were perfectly great. I will remain humbled by what they went through and gave to us. Shame on us where we have not been humble enough to see that and put on some gratitude.

The example of the war in Vietnam is only a pointed example of generational pride. All revisionism suffers from it. C.S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery”. And it is always found to be full of error and excess.

As a workable example, I don’t expect many of my children’s generation to even read this. Maybe after I’m gone and they see the cycle (and it can be found somehow). I don’t make that observation with any resentment – I had avoidance to reading what my father wrote.

But I was wrong. Badly.

I rest my case.

The discouraging word

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

And the skies are not cloudy all day

Those who’ve heard the song know the lyrics are describing a “Home on the Range”. The poem, first penned in 1873, functioned as an anthem for the American West as it was being settled in the late nineteenth century. And the song lives on today, its melody firmly burned into the mental circuitry of Americans across the generations.

HD Home On The Range Wallpaper
The place it describes sounds idyllic. And for the settlers, it captured their best sentiments concerning their new home. The accuracy of the lyrics, then, is questionable, but lyrics are not bound to be accurate. They can aspire, even fantasize. And that makes good poetry.

But … there were cloudy days.

And, yes, that discouraging word, though seldom heard, was nonetheless uttered and made its mark on the hearer.

I have found that discouraging words don’t need to be common to take effect. Indeed, only a few well-aimed epithets – pointing out real or imagined weakness or shortcoming – can derail entire creative lives.

I know. It’s happened to me. I can still clearly hear the voices of several co-musicians as they imitated a cracked note I sang or mocked a melody I had composed.

Our culture celebrates the put-down. The enormous popularity of the competition shows, where judges are free, even encouraged, to tear into the work of those who dare come before them, speaks to our embracing the critical mind and tongue.

Now, this is not to say anyone should settle for anything less than their best in the creative process. Indeed, the sheer work it takes to produce that scares people away.

But something else scares people away too.

The discouraging word.

Steven Pressfield, in his book The War of Art attacks “the resistance” to creativity. It has many emanations, but the self-speak is a key one. And self-speak comes from other-speak.

It was said of George M. Cohan – the great American songwriter who received a Congressional Gold Medal for composing Over There to accompany America’s entry and fighting in the first world world – that he rarely threw away an idea. Compare that to the creative graveyard of the discouraged artist.

So what do we do about this discouragement:

  • Know that those people doing the discouragingare very often either a) discouraged themselves and unable to tolerate your success or b) clinging to notoriety/celebrity that your success would threaten.
  • Criticism can help serve as an editor. What sensitive and creative people hear is “You have no talent” when what they should hear is “You need to work some more on this” if and when the criticism is well-founded and accurate. And you do.
  • Inspiration != finished product.The work you need to do to produce your best work is iterative. Don’t be afraid of that. Unfortunately, it’s that work which goes undone in the face of the discouraging word.
  • Develop a strong filter.There’s deep wisdom in Seth Godin’s observation that negative responses to your creative work is only a way to find your market, your audience. It’s no surprise that some people won’t like your stuff. And you may not like the stuff they like.

I don’t claim victory of the discouraging word. And I don’t declare war against those who have brought it into my life. But the discouragement itself? It’s the enemy of all things good.