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RANT FROM SEPTEMBER 1999
"A Longer Perspective"
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     Q. -- What does age get you?
     A. -- A longer perspective.
     As a young boy I was interested in history, but it took a
while for what historians call "the time line" to fall into place
in my head.  "Dad," I once asked, "do you remember Zachary
Taylor?"  He was only mildly amused.  He was old enough to be my
grandfather, but not quite that old.  In fact, his grandmother, 
who reared him, was married in the year that Abraham Lincoln was 
first elected, 1860, but Zachary Taylor came before that!
     There is a large quantity of time into which a thoughtful
young person must organize the stories from the past that he
hears about or reads about.  It takes some doing to get all that
into chronological order.  The idea of B.C. -- before Christ --
was important fairly early in my childhood, because Christianity
was.  It was my first encounter with negative numbers and
counting backward.  Abraham [1900 B.C.] came before Moses [1250
B.C.].
     I remember when I was little, Franklin Roosevelt was
president forever, it seemed.  Then one day when I was twelve, he
was dead.  The entire business of presidents and elections has
been a steady decline ever since then, it seems to me, but I have
paid attention anyway and am able to list the names and dates of
subsequent presidents.
     Formal study helped nail down that time line -- what came
before what, what may have influenced what, what couldn't
possibly have influenced what, because it came after -- all that. 
Christopher Columbus came before George Washington.  Martin
Luther came before the doctrine of papal infallibility.  Julius
Caesar came before Attila the Hun.  Genghis Kahn came before
Napoleon Bonaparte who came before Adolf Hitler.
     I'm sorting all this out and four decades whistle by, with
job, career, job changes, career changes, marriage, children,
divorce, remarriage.  My children learned of World War II, the
way I learned about World War I -- by reading and by listening to
the father's conversations with other older people.  My children
do not remember the Korean War at all, because it was stopped
before they arrived on the scene.
     I began to sense that the perspective that comes with aging,
combined with paying attention all the while, helps a body
understand things better, and see patterns.  For example,
President Clinton wants to be like President Kennedy, and as a
womanizer perhaps he is, but as a President, he's much more like
Lyndon Johnson.  Even the words of their speeches about war and
foreign policy are almost identical.  Young people can hardly
perceive that however, because they can't remember Johnson.
     I recall how upset I was recently when a major party
nominated for a seat in Congress a youngster who could not
remember the Vietnam War.  He was born just as it ended.  I
pondered all that, and realized that that candidate wasn't the
only one.  All armed forces recruits lack any memory of that war. 
But the Vietnam war has had such an ongoing and wholly
deleterious effect on life in this country that it seems somehow
questionable that people who don't remember it and know little or
nothing about it can vote and even come close to electing a
person in a similar mental state to serious decision-making
office.
     The kicker in this perspective thing came not long ago.  A
certain celebrity looked very young, although there was another
one even younger on the Celebrity Jeopardy podium.  A question
revealed that she did not know that Ronald Reagan, an actor, had
once been President of the United States of America.  Now I admit
to wishing sometimes that there was a way we could all forget the
Great Prevaricator, but when I saw a card-carrying celebrity --
someone young people look up to, I guess -- demonstrating that
forgetfulness, or some other sort of perhaps unavoidable
ignorance, I was alarmed.
     All this is not meant to denigrate young people.  Every year
there is more history to learn.  A continually larger body of
information builds up.  One has to learn it artificially, that is
by reading and listening, since one can't possibly remember what
happened before one was born.  It is a daunting task.  
     These observations of mine about perspective are intended to
help young people understand older people better, for starters,
and to encourage both groups to pay closer attention, so that the
wisdom that comes from the longer perspective can be allowed to
do its work.  

                            *   *   *

Copyright © 1999 Harry Willson

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Copyright © 1999 Harry Willson

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