But at 75 years, it does seem to warrant some reflection. I have lived through 3/4 of a century. That sounds like a very long time, and yet it doesn’t seem long at all really. Yes, my childhood, even my 30s seem like a long ways back, but not 3/4 of a century. That concept is hard to wrap my head around.
Our concept of time seems to vary depending on whether it is personal experience or whether it's historical. When it’s personal, we don’t feel like we are part of history, that we are part of the march of time. And yet we surely are. If I think of all the periods I’ve lived through … Vietnam, AIDS … to name just a few, I have been witness to a lot of history. But I don’t feel like I’ve been part of this vast moving scope of humanity and the cosmos, ala watching an American Experience episode.
The other thing is that on reflection, I’m aware that I almost feel distant from this historical period, probably because I don’t or didn’t feel part of its sweeping movement. And I don’t feel like it’s a period I’m particularly proud to have been part of. Quite the contrary, it has been a period filled with pestilence of one sort or another, whether war or disease or various forms of inhumanity and dysfunction.
We tend to look back at past epochs with nostalgia, at the great things, the transformational things that happened. Even the disasters are remembered with nostalgia, again think of American Experience.
WWII is always held up as something that people were very proud to be part of, which is great. But was WWII uplifting? Not really. It wasn’t fought to save the Jews … hardly. African-Americans were segregated and treated shamefully in the armed forces. It was entered into by the American leadership because they wanted to save Europe, and ultimately save us; so it was largely self-interest.
But for most people it was an exercise in patriotism, answering the call of the country. And since almost everyone was involved in one way or another and everyone pulled together, it was something people honestly could feel proud about. In this sense it was uplifting … people were ready to sacrifice even their lives for a larger cause. There was a sense of community.
The cataclysmic events of my historic period had no such upside. Some would say that within the gay community AIDS had an upside, but that was I feel very limited; there was far more fear and distrust than caring for your fellow man.
Even the often-cited coming together of the country after 9/11 only lasted perhaps a few days. The potential was possibly there, but the people were never asked to sacrifice, other than their privacy. The main drumbeat from the government was one of fear, not duty. The period’s wars impacted mostly our disadvantaged class who enlisted as a way out of their dead-end lives. Yes, some enlisted out of a sense of patriotism, but they were isolated in our society. For the returning troops there was little support at home, not even among those who supported the wars.
When one looks at these cataclysmic events, past and present, one sees clearly how our sense of community, of our all being fellow citizens of our country, has deteriorated if not vanished. That is not good for America. And that is the root cause why I feel distant from the period in which I have lived, why I don’t feel part of its sweeping currents.
But aside from these cataclysmic events, life is not really different now than in the past, viewed objectively. There have always been and will always be bright spots, inspirational things that man has achieved, random acts of kindness, but they always occur in the larger context of overwhelming misfortune, suffering, and pestilence.
Truly such is life, and all I or anyone can do is to live his life as well as he can by offering himself and others joy. To the extent that there have been bright spots over the millennia in the midst of so much suffering, it has been because of those individual spots of light. I have certainly been blessed to have received such light and love from many people throughout my life.
And I have been blessed to have found Buddhism and by committing myself to walking the path have been able to more consistently offer myself and others joy. The truth of the old proverb is revealed: better to light a candle than curse the darkness. That is our purpose in life, our only purpose.