This summer has been a time for catching up with friends, finally getting to sit around a table and see them in person after a long COVID timeout.

A couple of weeks ago I saw some of my oldest friends, and we spent a weekend doing what we have been doing for more than 40 years – talking.

Our observations were mostly critical. Whether the topic was politics (the rise of anti-democratic forces on the right) or baseball (too many strikeouts; not enough hitting behind the runner), we weren’t finding much to approve of.

When the conversation turned to our children, who are all in their 20s, I offered that I wouldn’t want to trade places with them now because the future looks so bleak, an idea that sounded pretty wise to me when it came out of my mouth.

My friend Scott nodded indulgently and said:

“My only consolation is that people our age have been saying that the world is falling apart since the beginning of time.”

Scott is only a year older than me, but we met when he was 17 and I was 16 – back when a year’s difference in age and a grade in school really mattered – so I have always respected his wisdom. But this floored me.

I realized instantly that I’d sounded like every grumpy old guy I’d ever heard philosophizing from a barstool or a talk-radio show. I was falling into the worst trap of middle age – nostalgia.

Growing up when I did, at the tail end of the baby boom, I thought I’d be immune to it. My understanding of politics was informed by the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (some of my earliest memories). I learned about Richard Nixon’s abuse of the Constitution before I learned about the Constitution.

My view of religion was influenced by the Jonestown massacre. The moon landing happened the same summer as the Manson Family murders, and I will always associate the two events.

The music of my high school years was disco. Gas lines, nuclear standoff, hostages in Iran, smoldering cities – even as a young person, I thought the world was falling apart, and I’ve never wanted to go back in time.

But around when I came of age, I witnessed the Reagan Revolution, a political movement that weaponized nostalgia to disassemble a half-century of progress.

Long before Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan promised to “make America great again,” which sounded just as preposterous to me then as it does now.

When was America great enough for these guys? During the Depression? Are we pining to return to a world war that cost 70 million lives? Do we wish we could go back to the days when immigrants were kept out, when Black people couldn’t vote in the South or buy a house in a white neighborhood anywhere?

What age, exactly, would be better than this one?

Reagan’s gift was making the call to retreat on the ideals of multi-racial, inclusive democracy sound hopeful. No one on the scene today has that ability. We just have competing versions of despair.

So, if any young people are reading the newspaper, here’s my advice: Don’t listen to me.

This is the best time to be starting out. The challenges are immense, but so are the opportunities to do good.

You are going to rebuild the world, like the generation that came of age right after World War II. They were hopeful,  brave and unsentimental about the past.

Not all of their ideas worked out (did we really need the war in Vietnam or a round law school in Portland?), but they gave us the civil rights movement, Medicare and a War on Poverty – improving the lives of millions of people even while falling short of their goals.

Repairing the damage done to the climate and our democracy is not going to be easy and the outcome is far from certain, but it’s always been that way.

It’s nostalgia, not history, that makes the events of the past seem inevitable. Most of the great achievements unfolded the way the Duke of Wellington described the Battle of Waterloo: “A close-run thing.” There were always lone voices who later proved to be right, and hesitant majorities who didn’t want to move so fast.

I’m still not sure I’d want to trade places with a 20-year-old, but I’m going to try to stop complaining that the world is falling apart. It is – it always is – but that’s when the building up can happen.


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