In a Farewell to Arms, about World War One, Ernest Hemingway wrote about the war as an experience in which glory, sacrifice, and sacredness were just words that had lost their meaning. And yet, my grandfather who was himself a veteran of that war was anything but lost. He and my grandmother left me with an intense appreciation for the whole idea of maturity as an attribute of adulthood. In that way, I still feel a profound sense of connection with the values of my maternal grandparents, an era that is gone forever.
My grandfather was born in Ohio in 1889, my grandmother in Tennessee in 1904. They were Victorians in both character and aspiration. But to my great granddaughter born in 2020, they represent a time so different from the one in which we live today, that they might as well have come from a different planet.
In the 1950s David Riesman’s book, The Lonely Crowd identified a tectonic shift in individual motivation. Riesman observed that people were increasingly acting because of the expectations of others, doing things because of what other people thought, as opposed to doing things simply, because they were the right things to do.
It was something the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had predicted, the loss of the individual at the expense of mass-man. I recall at least one sociologist who offered the seemingly contrary opinion claiming that the Victorians had lived their whole lives as a pose.
So, how does this observation square with the nature of their motivation? It took a lot of reflection, and remembrance of those times, but I think I have a satisfactory answer.
Every generation strikes a pose, but its motivational path may vary greatly. The character and disposition of my grandparent’s era stands out in sharp contrast to my generation and that of my parent’s. I would argue that there have always been individuals with a differing locus of motivation. In hindsight, I can clearly see that Riesman was right. My grandparents represented the period before the great motivational shift. They were perhaps the last complete generation who were mostly inner directed.
They were certainly concerned with what other people in their society thought of them, but that wasn’t the criteria, with which they made their everyday decisions. They made their choices solely based on what they thought was the right thing to do. In retrospect, it was a clear distinction as opposed to those who met Riesman’s criteria for being “other directed.” In contrast it’s frightening when you compare the nature of inner-directedness with today’s younger generations who appear to have internalized “shopping mall values” to such an extent that they feel incomplete without proper brand-tags on their clothing. Adults must be constantly aware that the times in which we live help shape our values.
Still an impressionable young man during the Great depression, my grandfather was frugal to a fault for the rest of his life. He volunteered for service in World War I, so his brother who still worked the family farm would not have to go. He lived by deeply held principles and if you spent enough time with him, you could figure out what they were without need of an explanation. My grandparent’s generation had their share of blunders and many of them suffered the ethnocentric prejudices of previous and subsequent generations, but they enjoyed an aspect of maturity that towers over the present.
My grandparents accepted total responsibility for themselves and their families. They neither asked for, nor expected, help from anyone. Initiative was an inborn part of their psychological makeup. They didn’t need to be lectured about self-reliance; it was a big part of who they were. They tended their own garden, canned their own food, and supplemented their mechanical needs with their own ingenuity.
My grandfather paid his bills on time and in person. My grandmother made a lot of their clothing by hand. They did these things without any regard, whatsoever, for what others thought of their actions. But today, on the surface at least, it appears that current generations in contrast are consumed by peer pressure. Tattoos and body piercings are highly observable examples.
Nowadays, practically every time I think of my grandparents for any length of time, something of the experience makes me profoundly nostalgic about the concept of authenticity. I suspect it’s because one of the most readily observable aspects of inner directedness is earnestness. My grandparent’s generation was wrong about many things in life, but their worldview was never pessimistic or sarcastic. To me and my siblings they represented optimism, steadfastness, stability and above all sincerity. The same air of sincerity appears true with current generations and yet I suspect if the peer pressure they endure is not lessened, they will be overtaken soon by a deep-seated sense of irony and a penchant for cynicism.
Unfortunately, not everyone is privileged to have had fond memories of their grandparents; some people grow up without grandparents at all, and some who did have them experience strained relationships at best. And of course, the farther we go back in time the less likely it is that each generation would even remember their grandparents because life expectancy was nothing long ago like it is today. But when these relationships do exist in a constructive way, with young and old, whether they are related family members or not, they have the potential to seed future generations with some of the most worthwhile qualities of the past.
Like comets in the night sky, a lasting inspiration from one generation offers a distant, succeeding generation something of genuine and enduring value—something so unique and so worthwhile that it can only be described rapturously: an effervescent link from one century to another—an oblique but thoughtful message from grandparent’s whom they did not know and will not remember—passed on—to a time the former will never see.
Each new generation longs for what it grew up without while each generation in decline longs for something it once admired but deems lost. Ensuring that each generation is capable of projecting vitality into the future generations requires a willingness to engage in a reevaluation of one’s values—the only way we can squeeze the last drop of value from our experience. Change is always to be expected, and yet, at times I suspect that there is something in our nature which at some point makes us wish to push away from life’s table and say enough for me. I’m increasingly aware of people my age that express relief that they won’t be here when such and such happens in the future—a telltale sign of surrender. I can relate.
When the Wright brothers flew an airplane for the first time my grandfather was 14. When my great granddaughter was born our moon landings seemed like ancient history. When my grandparents first moved to Oklahoma from Tennessee the traffic on the road was so sparse that every time, they met a car coming toward them, both cars would automatically pull over, eager to discuss road conditions. Considering how strange these comparisons sound today imagine how outlandish they will seem in 2120.
The relationships between grandparents and grandchildren have always been regarded as special. Some people jokingly claim that the two get along so well because they share a common enemy: the parents. While there may be some truth in the humor of that situation, I suspect one of the main reasons is that grandparents and grandchildren both share a time orientation more appreciative of the present than that of their career burdened parents.
My philosophy is simple in theory, but difficult enough in practice to persuade me to offer this additional material for support. If we can successfully incorporate a sense of those things which we admired so much from our own grandparents and include them in the repertoire of our own behavior, then we will need no one’s permission to pass on a legacy given to us, so long ago, by people whose lives were truly worthy of a long and cherished remembrance.
From as far back in time as I can remember, I dreaded the death of my grandparents. And now in memory, it seems clear that they lived in another time, and a faraway place. Change has erased most of the evidence that they ever lived: all that’s left is my enduring sense of regret over their absence. But if the love, courage, imagination, and special wisdom of their generation are misplaced, then they will truly have been a Lost Generation and that would be a tragedy. Indeed, any generation can be lost if their greatest attributes and aspirations are not passed on.
What the words, glory, sacrifice, and sacredness will mean near the twenty-second century I can’t say, but now that my grandparents are gone and I am a great grandparent myself, I can see glaring value differences between generations that need to be addressed by mature individuals. I’m hopeful that I might be able to pass on something without need of an explanation. Thoughts