Living in Interesting Times

The Great Depression has been mentioned a lot recently – Google searches on the subject have risen sharply in the past couple months. The Depression and its Black Tuesday – October 29, 1929, the day of the stock market crash that signaled the beginning of the economic downturn that was to last over a decade—have long been a standard of darkness against which to compare subsequent trials our nation has faced.  Along with another date: September 11, 2001.

While we are still too close to 9-11 to know exactly how it shaped the population, there is a well-defined Great Depression era cohort, or group of people defined by the experience of a particular event. The generation born between 1912 and 1921, who lived their formative years during the Great Depression, showed themselves in subsequent years to be unlikely to take risks or incur debt, placing a high value upon hard work.

Those of us in outlying generations, however, have still been shaped by history in ways that don't appear as shapes on a sociological chart. A society can be marked by disasters like the Challenger and Columbia explosions, by economic crises and wars, by friction between groups that erupts into violence. It can also be changed by uplifting experiences like Martin Luther King's speeches, the first steps taken on the moon, or the Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan.

Events make us who we are and bring us together. People may not all the same, but history shows us that learning does take place on a grand scale that reflects the changes occurring in each individual life over time. Yet often history engraves upon us in the present without our knowing its message until far into the future. The expression, "May you live in interesting times," is usually said as a challenge, perhaps acknowledging that it is a challenge to live through events without understanding their meaning with the benefit of hindsight.

Right now we are surely living in interesting times, and the election of 2008 may just be one of those defining events that we will all look back on as a watershed between a deepening economic gloom and a brighter tomorrow for Americans. There is no way to know exactly what this tomorrow will look like from today. One thing is sure: we will get there the same way our predecessors got through The Great Depression: each day at a time, one decision at a time, every life lived together.

Tags: Great depression, History, Population cohort, Recession, September 11

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