Roughly 25 years ago, when I was working at the Syracuse University Library, one of the student assistants, a beautiful girl in her early 20s, was telling me about her wedding plans. When she told me that the big day was going to be on November 22nd, I had a look of shock on my face.
When she asked me what was wrong, I slowly replied, “That’s the day President Kennedy was assassinated.”
And then, after a slight pause, she said to me, “Keith…I wasn’t even born then.”
Wow. I was amazed. Here was a girl for whom it wasn’t even a case of JFK being shot when she was a little kid (and quite frankly, I was only seven at the time, and since it happened in Texas, I imagined it as a western-type shootout). No..she wasn’t even born yet when it happened. It was before her time.
And as that sunk in, I thought about how cool that was. How cool it was that the defining tragedy of a generation happened before she was born, and wasn’t part of her lifetime. It wasn’t her tragedy to remember and be affected by. However, the space shuttle Challenger had exploded just the year before, so she had her own “one horrible day” to remember.
Then I thought about my generation, and how for us December 7th merely meant that there were only 18 days until Christmas. Pearl Harbor meant nothing to us, having happened a good 15 years before we were born. Unless we had relatives who served in World War II, and talked about it, or unless we lived in Hawaii, it wasn’t our national tragedy, and we started off our lives with a “clean slate” so to speak. All of the horrors of World War II happened before our time.
And so it was with my parents’ generation, which was born a good 12 to 16 years after the sinking of the Lusitania, which brought us into “The Great War.”
I thought about all of these things again as I had a Facebook conversation with a former student, who told me that she was in my 6th grade classroom the morning of September 11th. When she told me that she was really too young to understand what was going on at the time, I told her that it was good to be too young to understand a tragedy, because we can’t hold all the hurt of the world in our hearts forever. Then I said that I love the fact that my daughter Sofie was born in 2002 because it meant that 9/11 was before she was born. Like November 22nd for that student assistant, December 7th for me, and May 7th for my parents, it’s not something from within her lifetime, and it means that the world goes on.
I knew people who died that day. I also knew people who were working at the WTC and the Pentagon, and escaped with their lives. I commuted in and out of Manhattan from Jersey City through the World Trade Center on a regular basis, and its destruction was like having a town I visited often wiped off the map. So with no disrespect to any of those people, or the thousands of others who were killed that day, I’m going to say that I love the fact kids like my daughter represent the fact that time goes on.
As I said to my student, we can’t hold the entire hurt of the history of the world in our hearts. It would make us crazy. Of course we can learn about it, understand it, and respect it. But there will always be a new generation born for which a particular tragedy is ancient history, and before their time.
And this is a good thing.
I look at the kids of Sofie’s generation and am thankful that that one horrible day 10 years ago happened before they were even born.
And yet I know, sadly, that at some point they’ll have their own “one horrible day.”