Newsletter 145: Every Generation Thinks It’s the End of the World

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one’s from January 2019, about everything feeling so goddamned perilous, all the time. This certainly feels like a week where it’s relevant.

When did you have that first moment when you saw your parents as humans, as flawed, scared, plain old human beings like everybody else? Families are all different, I suppose. My parents were very much of the “all you need to know about me is that I am right” school when I was growing up, and I will confess, this is not far from my strategy as well. Every generation of Leitches is a little bit more open than the last. My dad says my grandfather used to come from work, go into his office, shut the door and no one saw him again until morning. (This might have also been because he had eight children.) My father was a little more open than that, but he still left no doubt about his absolute authority and studied remove: The first time I had a beer with my dad, which when I had that first “oh, he has a personality and life other than just ‘Dad’” moment, ,which wasn’t until I was about to graduate from college, he kept saying, “I can’t imagine what Bill Leitch (his dad) would have thought about a dad having a beer with his son,” which made me sad then and now. I am affectionate and warm with my kids, but also mostly unyielding. I find it important to give my boys a clear, commanding voice of right and wrong, even if, especially because, life isn’t near that simple. You give them firm guideposts of good and bad, and enforce those guideposts rigidly. You just try to make sure those guideposts are wide enough that they’ve got the space to figure out everything in the middle on their own.

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But someday, they are going to be adults, and they are going to look back at what their parents told them, and where their parents were coming from. And, at first glance, it seems like they’re going to be looking at what we were doing right now, in this particular moment in American history. They’ll want to know what we thought about all … this. Right? Maybe? I dunno. I can never quite tell.

On one hand, they will have an advantage, in that they all know how this turns out. They know whether we made it through all this, if the Republic truly was strong enough to survive the unprecedented strain it is now under every day. They know whether we’re all living in Gilead, or if it’s the United States of China, or if we all had to move to the moon because we did end up rendering this place unlivable. But however it turns out for them, and for their children, seems like it will be a direct result of this specific period of history. You could say it started with Trump’s election, or Obama’s election, or the financial crisis, but to me, this has all basically been a series of wild, dramatic swings back and forth since September 11. That was psychologically pulverizing for every person who was alive on the planet at the time, and you can make a strong argument that we’ve been going through a collective 17-year stretch of post-traumatic stress syndrome since then. When it happened, we all thought the last 100 years of history would be divided between what happened before September 11, and what happened afterward. I have seen nothing in the last 17 years that has disabused me of this notion.

But it all feels unusually perilous right now, doesn’t it? Three-quarters of the White House has either been arrested or is about to be. Millions of people have worked more than a month without pay. Every public official’s statement has the unmistakable air of “Let Them Eat Cake” to it. They’re shutting down flights because they can’t guarantee that the planes won’t crash into one another. The media industry is collapsing. (Again.) Every day is just an endless stream of people yelling at each other — of thinking the worst of each other. It feels like the end times.

Yet. That’s the thing, though: It always feels like the end times. (“Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world.”) I remember covering the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000 — part of this trip — and hanging out with all the protestors, writing about how impressively organized they were, how they all signed up for shifts to get out in the streets and then come back to the living quarters where everyone was staying to do dishes and cook food. It was inspiring, to see young people so motivated and eager to fight injustice … but that time feels so remote now, doesn’t it? 2000 is the last year I remember not feeling like the world was perpetually on fire. You look at those kids now, screaming for justice at a Rage Against the Machine concert outside the Staples Center, and you’re like, “Man, you thought had plenty to be mad about then. Come visit 2019, kids.” But it’s possible we’ll be saying that same thing in 2038 about now. Maybe my kids will read everything I write about this time in history and say, “Dad, you don’t know how lucky you had it.” Well, that’s terrifying.

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My parents must have thought the world was ending during the Vietnam War, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Their parents must have thought it was ending during World War II. Theirs thought it was ending during World War I. The world always feels like it’s coming apart at the seams because it always is. There is no golden age. There is just perpetual instability. The ground is always shifting beneath our feet.

The best you can do is hold on for dear life, keep those you love close and try to make the world better in whatever small way you can, when you can. I don’t think things are ever going to be normal after this. But then again, they never really were. You just try not to make it any worse.

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