I am a Stranger in a Strange Land
I sometimes feel “lost in space” (and time), a sentiment that seems to assault my being on a more frequent basis every year. Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of growing old. Now that I am well into my seventh decade of life, I am aware of not just a protracted physical breakdown but sadly the perception of the inevitable creep towards diminishing mental acuity. This is a sobering realization.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe God is finished with me; I still have much to give to this world. But the “fire in my belly” and the imprudence of youth have tempered. I’m no longer that “angry young man.” Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” and Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town” are no longer my theme songs. Perhaps the Doobie Brother’s “What a Fool Believes” is more appropriate. Actually, I now prefer the smooth jazz of Brian Culbertson over them all.
The world in which we now live is substantively different from the one in which I came of age and honestly, I not entirely comfortable in it. My formative years were populated by the Cold War, early Rock and Roll (jokes about the Dave Clark Five abounded), and nightly news broadcasts from Vietnam.
I think back wistfully on my early relationship with my father. He still believed that the government was the instrument of our ideals. The deception perpetrated on our society by the leadership of the Vietnam War and the lies of Watergate forever disillusioned me. Regan’s comment that, “…government is the problem” rang true, although there was deception enough even in those days (exemplified by Iran-Contra affair). We Baby-boomers ultimately developed an abiding distrust of authority.
Yet, there were ties that bound my father and me. As a young Armored Cavalry officer, I commanded the same camp on the East German border that my father had thirty years prior. We both witnessed the utter brutality and corruption of extreme socialist-communist regimes. I saw the manifestations of the axiom that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” With such experiences, limiting government intervention (in almost any facet of our lives) seems prudent.
Such is not the view today. A developing attitude seems to be that not only is government the “answer,” more government improves the outcome (absolutely). The following generations don’t seem to recognize the inevitable consequences resultant from the concentration of power.
By contemporary standards I am likely labeled a bigot, sexist, and xenophobe, none of which have I ever considered myself. Yet, there I am, sitting on the other side of the table.
In my formative years, race issues were prevalent. There was civil disobedience, riots and violence (on all sides). Racial epitaphs were part of the lexicon. I do not justify them; I only try to place a perspective on the issue. The attainment of (at least partial) Civil Rights by minorities has been a blessing on our society and we should be deliberate in our relationships with each other. Yet, I am wary of making everyone a “protected class,” requiring special treatment. Aren’t we all equal? Or does the passage from George Orwell’s Animal Farm apply, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This cuts both ways (for a long time, it represented “White Privilege”) and trying to flip the status does not undo the sins of the past.
I also grew up when my father was the undisputed “head of the household” and “provider.” Vestiges of that still linger in my psyche. Also, the lax attitudes towards sex (and virtually everything else) of the 70s and 80s were in sharp juxtaposition to more prudish times. My early adulthood was marked by the mantra, “Work hard, play hard(er).” After extended deployments, it was almost expected that you would push things to the limit. Again, I am not condoning the conduct and I would not want my children subject to that environment today. But it seems a bit disingenuous to apply current standards retroactively on behavior inherent in a different time and place.
Likewise, there was a different perception of national identity in the past. We were worried about the “Red Peril” in my youth. In addition to the “duck and cover” drills in elementary school, we remembered the human wave tactics of the communist Chinese forces at the Chosin Reservoir (a battle in Korea). Further, our popular books highlighted the inhumanity of the Japanese during World War II. I also grew up watching John Wayne and Audie Murphy save the wagon train from the attack of savage Indians. Our mythology was of the “taming of the West” by European settlers. “America” was a white Anglo-Saxon society based on Judeo-Christian values, or so I was led to believe.
Reading “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee” and studying about slavery in school disabused me of the fundamental righteousness of that belief. Yet, some vestiges of that story still linger in the back of my mind. “Of course, people like me are the ‘good guys!’” In reality, this simply wasn’t (always) so.
I still believe in patriotism and perhaps a bit of jingoism. The flag, for all the unconscionable events that occurred under that banner, still represents the society I believe in (even if it is not the one in which we live). It is worthy of esteem, and I bridle at those who disrespect it, even as I acknowledge the rights I defended at freedom’s frontier to do just that. I am not an “America love it or leave it” kind of guy, but do acknowledge the fundamental special nature of a society that has, ever since its founding, moved ever nearer the “unattainable” ideals it espouses.
I try, but I am not color blind. I make snap judgements based on external characteristics, be it color of skin, style of clothing or some other equally unrepresentative trait. Yet, I acknowledge the fundamental inequity the past collective actions have imposed on minorities and wish we could truly find a way to “level the playing field” without further stratifying our society.
I am now a “stranger in a strange land,” my own. The world I knew and in which I was comfortable is gone, replaced by a world of extremes in which a (moderate) conservative (with many traditional beliefs) is not only no longer the dominant figure, but he is outright rejected by popular culture. Perhaps my father felt the same way when he saw my long hair and heard “Black Sabbath” on my record player. Maybe it is inevitable in the transitions of generations.
My core beliefs are wracked by internal contradictions yet unresolved. So where do I belong? The honest answer is, “I really don’t know.”
It is a daily struggle to reconcile my past with the realities of the present and the specter of future change. As often as not, I just feel left out, seemingly alone in my lack of clarity of who and what I am and where our country is headed. I find some solace in the belief that I may not be alone in that boat. Although it may be less a boatful and more a bunch of individuals bobbing around in the water looking for something to latch on to.