Conservatives think the world is going to hell in a handbasket; liberals think it’s already gone.
I heard a lot of discouraging words from my fellow Chicagoans around the Fourth of July last week, drowned out briefly by a long volley of gunfire from a rooftop in Highland Park, Illinois.
Indeed, there are so many things to be in a funk about that you start to feel self-conscious when you catch a grin in the mirror.
But it’s a little early for us to resign ourselves that we’re going to die in Emily Dickinson’s snow—”First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go.”
Most of us have many years left to live! Many of us are still very young and have great energy! Many of the rest of us are middle-aged and have great wisdom and influence and resources! Leaders may emerge! Reversals are possible! When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro! I mean, we don’t want it said in our obituaries, whenever they come, “Murray wrote and lived with great energy until sometime soon after the age of 50, when he became disaffected by political developments in his nation and largely withdrew from the public conversation.”
I have a similar feeling right now that I had in April 2020 when I published this account of a talk that I had with my teenage daughter, about how to think about life, now—as a series of dangerous adventures imposed upon us by history, rather than the safer ones we thought we’d get to choose, for personal fulfillment.
Wednesday, April 22, 2020, 9:15 a.m.
I’m not a fan of pep talks or pregame speeches, which are usually less emotional communication and more coaches’ superstitions, and I’ve urged coaches to “Skip just one for the Gipper.”
But Monday at the tennis courts at Smith Park I heard myself giving one—a very, very heavy one—to my 16-year-old daughter, who I’d just unwittingly reduced to tears by telling her a soft-soaped version of a New York Times Daily interview I’d heard. The newspaper’s health and science reporter sounded damned credible when he said that American life will be weird, and maybe very weird, for years to come.
My wife thought it was premature to tell her that, but it seems to me that, six weeks into this nightmare—and with months and months to go—it seems it’s time the kid stops fantasizing about a summer at the North Avenue beach, traveling soccer tournaments and a return to scholastic normalcy next fall.
And starts thinking … about what, exactly?
As we waited for a court to open up, I haltingly began to tell her she needs to start thinking more broadly of life’s great adventure.
I told her that one reason we are all knocked so completely on our asses by the coronavirus crisis is that in America, we haven’t had a universally life-disrupting event in the seventy-five years since World War II ended. World War II, when my dad was plucked right out of the University of Virginia and traded in his white bucks for army boots on a mosquito-infested Army base in Georgia and then was put on a ship and sent across the Atlantic Ocean, “for the duration.”
But in the decade before that, there’d been the Great Depression. About a decade before that, World War I and Spanish Influenza. And back then at July 4 parades, would march veterans of the Civil War! And lots of death and disease and danger all the time back then, between all those events.
But after 75 years of relatively predictable school careers and graduations and sports and proms for a lot of people, we are culturally unprepared—not just kids, but parents and even grandparents—for what we are staring at.
As a society, we haven’t prepared for this civically or politically, and as individuals, we simply haven’t prepared intellectually, emotionally or spiritually. As Fran Lebowitz said, “It is a very startling thing to be my age—I’m sixty-nine—and to have something happen that doesn’t remind you of anything else.”
So I appealed to what I have already taught my 16-year-old since the beginning—
—a sense of adventure, physical toughness and spirit. I explained all that history that this virus now connects us with, and I asked her to try to begin thinking of being a part of that—part of “a bigger adventure” than what she’d ever expected life to be. Bigger than the games we have invented—sports, high school social drama, SAT scores. And lasting, in one form or another, for at least as long as the rest of her high school career.
“But you’re supposed to cherish your senior year of high school!” she said.
Not that none of the old pleasures will be a part of her life—and not that life won’t have new pleasures to compensate—but that life will be different enough that pining for this summer to be like last summer and wondering feverishly when Lollapalooza will be back is less useful than thinking more openly, more broadly, about what is needed, what is possible, and what we can achieve in this life, as we stand here and look at it now.
“I don’t want to do that,” she said with a tear in her eye.
“I know, Honey, I don’t want to do it either,” I said with a tear in mine. “But I think we need to at least start thinking that way.”
Luckily, a court opened up just then, and we took to it.
And you know, I’ve never seen her play harder in her young life.
Human beings get but a “short movement of life,” as Robert Kennedy said in the terrible year of 1968, and even the luckiest among us cannot choose over which timeline of historical triumphs and disasters that short movement is lain. It’s disheartening for some of us, who may feel we were grew up while the long arc of history was bending toward justice, only to live out the second half of our lives at a time when it seems to be bending the other way. We were born in a summer blockbuster, and we may die in a sad art-house film. What kind of shit is that?
But here we are.
And we can only bring our best to bear, as creatively and courageously as we can, in as cheerful a spirit as we can daily muster, to the situations that appear in our field of vision. “To live out [our] lives,” as Kennedy concluded, “in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment [we] can.”
That’s what I’ve been telling myself these days, anyway.