October 6, 2017
I hope this letter finds you happy and in good health. I assume old-fashioned mail service still works between America and Europe. I purposely chose not to email you as I want this letter to reach you a few days after its writing. I find some of our new technologies don’t allow the proper time for pause and contemplation. I am convinced that not everything should be instantaneous.
Full transparency: I am at my desk tonight with a heavy heart. As I’m sure you are aware, we had another tragedy recently in the USA. Your old friend’s soul is aching in pain for the victims and for our country. What is happening, and why does it feel as if the world is spiraling into a deep sea of hatred and violence? Is humanity worse off now than when we grew up and fought together in Vietnam? Do you remember our saying that the world had gone mad and that all future generations could only improve on the nadir of the 1960s? And those comments acknowledged the insanity of both world wars. I just don’t know any more, John. For seventy years, I have lived with nothing but optimism for our future. I have maintained a belief in the goodness of people. Yet, I struggle today.
Maybe, in reality, the world is no better or no worse, but it feels different. How do we even begin to define what better or worse means? If perception is reality, then our current reality is somewhat discouraging. You called this years ago, when you left. I will admit I was upset with you for leaving the country we fought for. But I respect you, and I respect your judgement. You earned the right to your opinion, and conceivably you were correct. Maybe we have finally lost our way.
Perhaps it’s just an aging man’s diminishing viewpoint, but the last year appears to have produced the worst of our hopefully not-so-true colors. I won’t bore you with all the details, as I’m sure you caught enough on television where you are. With any luck, you tuned out. However, it seems almost impossible to ignore the spectacle. And a spectacle it is. Regardless of your views, or which side you support, I think we all agree that it’s a show like no other show. And the title of this new reality show is The Great American Division.
I just don’t know any more, John. As I said, it all feels different. Political discourse is no longer civil. Was it ever civil? If not civil, at a minimum wasn’t the argument about ideology and ideas to build a better country for all citizens? Were we not proud of the process that included rigorous debate, compromise, and benevolent solutions? Where to be politically correct simply meant we learned from the past and we were practicing civility based on these lessons? This has changed fundamentally. The discourse and rhetoric are not a debate on ideas but rather an assault on the system itself. Our leaders have become irreverent, and in doing so they are teaching our young people that to be disrespectful is a vehicle to success. What long-term good will come from stirring anger and hatred to throw everything we hold dear under the proverbial bus? What will the world be like in the event that fundamental principles and morals fade to near extinction?
The divisiveness is worrisome, John. It is more than division based on race and gender and party and economics and opportunity gaps. It’s deeper than that. It is division based on what we decide to respect. Beliefs that were once held dear by all Americans, by most citizens of the world, have been cast aside. The Shining City on the Hill has been renamed and redefined as a swamp. How does this new description not infuriate any American who knows anything about our history? Our fathers fought in Europe, and you and I both battled so we could be proud of our shining city, proud of the virtues of democracy. Are we to be equally proud of the so-called swamp?
Of course the country needs work; of course there are problems; of course we will have disagreements. This is to be expected, as freedom is messy. However, at no time should the institution itself come under attack. Where will that lead? John, I will readily admit a sick feeling I have that fringe factions in America would take up arms against their own people if simply given the word. Have I finally lost my mind? Could Americans transform into the savagery history has shown us that humans are capable of? Savagery our fathers saw on the Western Front. Savagery you and I saw with our own eyes. Where decent people commit the unthinkable when given a green light by leaders to ignore law and order and all known social norms relative to dignity and grace?
Okay, back to the here and now. How are your kids and grandkids? Mine are doing great. Young people are so smart these days. It’s hard for me to comprehend what their lives are like, with so much information at their fingertips. With that, I often wonder how much of this information is true knowledge. This difference is an important subtlety. I assume your grandkids speak several languages? What an amazing gift. Travel and observing various cultures is so important to real education. Only through exposure and experience do we recognize and understand the many biases we live with, the blind spots we all have that form our view of right and wrong. Unfortunately, the push here now is to become more insular, more nationalistic, more obtuse. As we both know, this path leads to a dead end.
My youngest granddaughter is a spitfire. You would like her, John. Idealistic and liberal in her teenage youth, she challenges me with every conversation, although I will admit our last conversation left me feeling somber. She told me that she and her friends no longer aspire to be President of the United States, that the position itself has been diminished in status from their perspective. I suggested they separate the position from the person in the position. She said they had tried to do that, but it became impossible with every new tweet. I suggested that they aspire to the position to change what they believe needs to be changed. She took pause at this suggestion. That’s encouraging. John, can you believe this tweet stuff? Are we going to carry on diplomacy with fewer than one hundred fifty characters? Could nuclear war become the logical conclusion to a failed twitter conversation gone sideways? No doubt somebody famous will post a social media image of the missiles heading our way. Perhaps it will be titled #Duck Fast. God help us all.
Full confession, John. I understand why our current leaders won the last election. This is the irony. They won for the exact reason that our predecessor won. Hope. We all hope for something better, that life is not simply something to endure, that we all deserve more than what we have. We feel that Washington and our political leaders are standing between us and what we rightfully deserve. People are being left behind, John. Jobs are changing and will never come back as they once were. Any notion otherwise is a fallacy. Skills required for middle-class employment are not the skills most people have. How will social media, automation, artificial intelligence, and advanced technologies of all sorts help with this situation? Don’t even get me started on the physical and emotional health of our citizens and the health of the earth itself. Perhaps we have lost respect for ourselves and in the process for our world in general? And if so, can we gain it back somehow? History of the world has taught us that the big resets only come through world wars. Will we ever learn otherwise?
I often think of you and our time together. You, a visible minority, dealing not only with the war in front of us externally but also the war around us internally. Did that experience ultimately lead to your giving up on your country? Did you finally just say enough is enough and this will never, ever change? How is it that after all this time the human being still deals with prejudice and hate with mental models that are centuries old. Centuries old and visibly outdated. It is impossible to progress if new knowledge is not embraced. At what point do we collectively interrupt the conversation and confidently take a stand and say I’m sorry, that view is incorrect, we have fought that war, we learned from that experience and your opinions and actions are simply wrong and not to be tolerated! How does the notion of free speech connect to the premise of declaring certain lessons learned? Been there, fought that, lost millions of people, learned this, got the t-shirt. Seriously, John, when do we get to reap the benefits of battles already fought?
And so, my old friend, we have had another tragedy. Friends and family of the perpetrator will claim he was just a regular guy. This is not new. But how can this be? And the debates will rage on. Gun control, mental illness, religious affiliations, nationalism, who’s to blame, whose solution is correct, whose news is real or fake. How do we even describe this new vibration? Is there a word in French that describes a situation where everybody is right and everybody is wrong all at the same time? Meanwhile, as the debate rages, as we seek motive and logic in the illogical, anger and hatred will continue to cook as the pot itself expands to allow for more ingredients to make the mean stew, the new meal of madness that so many sit down to each evening. And yet, there is no end in sight, no true solution being offered. Could it be we are simply a society in decay. How does one fix a society in decay? What is the solution when the problem is an abandonment of respect and decency in general? How can we fix a problem that has no owner, no definition, and no core values attached to the remedy?
I know what you are thinking, John. Where is my old friend, the eternal optimist, the curious one, the man who believes that love and kindness can conquer hate and anger? Rest easy, my friend. That old man is still here. And I do see some light on the distant horizon. This shining light comes in the wake of our tragedies. The light you feel when you turn off the talking heads who broker in the availability of industrial negativism, and instead, you embrace the noble stories about the victims, the heroes, the brave, the honest, the selfless, the dignified, the honorable, the kind and respectful people that still exist today. The images of these tragedies contrast the true heroes with the espoused heroes. While the talkers are seen running with phone in hand, the true selfless heroes stay and help as adrenaline shoots decency and love into their bloodstream and they respond naturally to do what is right. That is grace my friend. How do we tap into this deep place in our souls on any given day? A day that is void of tragedy.
Your old friend is still here, John. My armor of optimism has a few chinks, but it holds strong. Our youth give me energy, and their future will be bright as we find our way. I am convinced that learning must be the new economy, the new cultural revolution, the new mode of human relations, the new app. Where we treat people with respect and practice what we have learned from centuries of lessons. This will not be easy — practicing is not always easy, and we may not all get there, but practice is a requirement for success.
I have just looked at the clock. You will be rising soon and I must put my head down for some rest.
Thanks for listening, my friend, and I look forward to your insight.
Sincerely and with attempted grace and respect,