In the days since Charlottesville, one of my favorite tweets from the past year has begun to appear again: “If you ever wondered what you would have done if you’d been alive in the 1930s, now’s your chance to find out.”
This message provides a powerful reminder that each of us can choose to be an active participant in the history-making events taking place around us. The future is not inevitable. Neither is our role in shaping it.
This is a particularly important reminder given how out of control things seem at the moment. In the last week, as in many weeks during 2017, we have experienced a year’s worth of events: the president seeming to goad North Korea into nuclear war on Twitter followed closely by the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that culminated in the brutal attack and murder of Heather Heyer. Yesterday, as things seemed perhaps to be returning to whatever normality exists these days, President Trump delivered his stunning press conference in which he declared that “both sides” were at fault in Virginia.
The silver lining of the week, if such a thing can be said to exist, is that public figures who generally project an air of detachment or objectivity – news anchors, late-night hosts, and the like – have found the fortitude to denounce the president and the larger culture of hate and racism that he has refused to reject.
But having the courage to denounce bigotry and hatred in the larger culture is difficult, especially when elected officials tacitly support such views.
Recognizing that moral courage is always difficult is one of the most important lessons of history. I appreciate the suggestion to consider how we would have acted in the 1930s because it also invites us to think about how the people of that time responded to the rise of Fascism.
I recently found an original copy of A Great Time to Be Alive, a collection of sermons from World War II by Harry Emerson Fosdick. Fosdick was one of the most famous American ministers of the day, and as the pastor of New York’s Riverside Church he had enormous influence. The title of this collection of sermons was meant to be jarring. Really, he acknowledged, it was a “ghastly time to be alive.”
Fosdick’s point was that it was the ghastly times of history that had the potential to produce better societies, even great ones, provided the people living through them had the courage to change things. “One who knows history knows that in just such times as these, turbulent and revolutionary, whole generations have been brought to their senses.”
The problem, Fosdick declared, was that complacency kept people from coming to their senses. People “love to play safe by staying put,” he wrote. “There is in humanity a natural timidity.”
When we in 2017 imagine the world of the 1930s and 40s, and ask ourselves what we would have done had we been alive, we imagine stark contrasts. There were good guys and bad guys. The good guys of this “greatest generation” knew what they were supposed to do, and they did it without a hint of doubt or apprehension.
Going back to historical sources from that time reveals more complexity. People knew that what was happening around them was wrong. But, like us, this seemingly heroic generation struggled to muster the courage to act. A sense of being overwhelmed by rapidly shifting events and a deluge of world-changing circumstances is not unique to our moment of history.
If we in 2017 feel overwhelmed or anxious about acting, we shouldn’t feel that we are somehow less courageous than previous generations. We aren’t. Our struggles to act were theirs as well, but act we must.