Thursday, November 21, 2013

Generations and the loss of JFK

The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is tomorrow. And with this anniversary I'm reminded of what a major moment this was in the history of our country and in the lives of most Americans who were alive and old enough to understand it fifty years ago.  It's one of those moments where people remember where they were and what they were doing when it happened or when they heard.  People remember it as a "Turning Point" where there was a "Loss of Innocence." 

I don't remember it.  I was born after the fall of Camelot.  I was born into a world where the Loss of Innocence had already happened, the Turning Point was past, and we were in the age of cynicism.  I have some sympathy for Steve Friess who wrote an article in Time titled "Five Reasons People Under 50 Are Already Tired of JFK Nostalgia" and Nick Gillespie who wrote in The Daily Beast, "JFK Still Dead, Boomers Still Self-Absorbed."  Those of us younger than the Baby Boomers have been steeped in Boomer nostalgia for as long as we can remember.  And right now we're hitting the 50th anniversary of all those Major Moments.  (And for those of us in Generation X, the only thing worse than Boomer nostalgia is people talking about how Boomers need to make space for a new generation -- the Millennials.  It's particularly annoying to see Boomers cede ground to their own wonderful children, leaving out the forgotten generation between.) 

I'm not as cynical as all that--most of the time.  I do think the Turning Point marks a Loss of Innocence and was a Major Moment, but I do think that it was primarily that for the Boomers.  Our country had had crooked politicians before.  Our country had had war before.  People had seen death and suffering before.  The Loss of Innocence that happened at this shot heard round the world was the Loss of Innocence of the Boomer generation.  This moment is terribly important -- for them.  And that, in and of itself, is worth spending time reflecting upon.  Their grief, their fear, their shattering loss, all of that was very real and very important, then and now. 

I saw how important this death was for my Boomer friends during the first presidential campaign of Barack Obama.  There were so many comparisons being made between Barack Obama and JFK -- youngest presidents, change agents, Caroline Kennedy saying Obama will be "A President Like My Father."  There was such fear that I heard from Boomers of assassination.  It was almost as if someone like Obama, who was being closely associated with Kennedy in many minds, was already marked for assassination.  The fear I heard from some Boomers was very real and very present in their minds.

So, yes, Kennedy's death continues to matter.  And to not understand the impact it had on this large American generation, in particular, is to ignore a large pastoral issue in our country -- a very real grief that continues to need to be honored and understood.

As someone born after the death of JFK (and RFK and MLK, for that matter), the only thing I can relate it to is the fear and shock we (and maybe this is stronger for those of us who are younger) after September 11th, 2001.  September 11th, 2001 is a date that I mark before-and-after.  Before 9/11 we lived in a country that had not had a major attack on our soil in fifty years.  After 9/11 we lived in a culture of fear where many things would be done differently -- the way we travel being the most obvious example.  Before 9/11 we lived in a country where fear of hijacking was minimal, and we would assume hijackers wanted to take the place to a location of their choice.  After 9/11 we understood that the goal was death.  Our heroes became those who managed to crash their plane themselves in the fields, rather than into the terrorists' target.  I know I've had arguments with at least one Boomer over whether or not 9/11 should be memorialized in our culture.  For them, it's not as pivotal a moment.  Their Turning Point had already  happened; 9/11 was awful, but not seminal.  For my generation, however, 9/11 was a Turning Point.  For me, happening at the beginning of my ministry, I feel like it changed my profession, my understanding of the mission and purpose of ministry.  It was a big Turning Point.  But I hadn't lived through JFK.  The biggest cultural moment for me prior to 9/11 was the Challenger explosion. 

These are called "Flashbulb Memories" -- the memories of events that are so strong that we can remember everything about that particular moment.  And unlike all the other 1960s nostalgia we'll be hearing about, JFK's assassination was a Flashbulb Memory moment, as were the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon, and the Challenger explosion and September 11th, 2001.

So, Gen X and Millennial friends, we need to get over our cynicism and stop rolling our eyeballs.  This nostalgia and sharing of 50th anniversaries is going to go on for a while.  Probably it'll go until 2019, as we mark the anniversaries of the peace movement, the civil rights movement, etc.  We've got the anniversaries of the assassinations of Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. yet to come. But what we need to do is cut through the surface level, the media level, that we'll be hearing about, and talk to people about what this moment really meant to them, how it changed them, why they continue to focus on it, what it's deeper meaning is.  We need to get past the nostalgia and into the real work of the grief and fear, and the way it continues to shape our country.

3 comments:

Nancy James said...

One aspect, that I think may be difficult for younger Americans to grasp, is what a momentous change in politics was represented in the election of JFK. It dealt, among other issues, of course, with religious tolerance. My own father, who was the product of conservative Irish Presbyterian heritage, believed that the Pope would govern our country via JFK.

Sara said...

I'll warn you right now that when we get to the 50th Anniversary of the Challenger Explosion, I am going to wax crazy nostalgic. For me, that was the Loss of Innocence.

Caroline said...

Nicely written, Cindy. I'm close enough to the boomer generation that the memories of this Major Moment - the assassination of JFK - are clear and strong for me. It was a turning point for me as well. We loved Kennedy. He held such promise, as a young president with a young family and as one whose value system aligned with ours, i.e. it was time to move on and recognize black Americans as our sisters and brothers and treat them with equality and respect. That's what he was all about for me. Trouble was that he got shot before he could really make any of the things come true that we were hoping for. I was a freshman at UGA. I had walked to a gym (PE) class across campus from my dorm. A few of us who had gathered heard the news just before class started and we found our teacher and told her. We went with her to her car and listened to the news with her in her car. We were all stunned and very quiet. Thanksgiving coming right after the event, we all went home for the holiday with heavy hearts. And then, still at home we watched as Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald in Real Time on our TV's. The nightmare was continuing. I was not enjoying dorm life as much as I had anticipated and now I was grieving, so that Thanksgiving was another turning point for me. I realized that I needed the comfortable surroundings of home and family to get through the rest of the school year and so I moved back home. Such was my Turning Point and my "Loss of Innocence".

Mom