Coming to Grips with Collective Trauma, Letting Go of Collective Identity

January 22, 2014

P.J. O'Rourke wrote a nice piece for Time magazine detailing the Baby-Boomers' inability to let go of the sixties.  As evidence, he points to the current deluge of all-things-sixties, commemorating the 50th anniversary of every significant and tragic event occurring in the sixties.  Most recently, the non-stop two week coverage of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK.  Occurring in 1963, still the early part of the decade, O'Rourke fears many more years of ad nauseam commemorations to the sixties. 

Not a Boomer myself - too young to be a Gen X'er and too old to be a Millennial - I am still old enough to have a healthy fascination and respect for the decade (as are scores of other folks too young to have lived them) in part because of its chaos, tragedy, and overall consequence to our nation's history and trajectory.

O'Rourke posits that this fascination, teetering on the verge of unhealthy obsession, results from an absence of "tragic catharsis, the moment when we are frozen between pity and terror and experience a purging of emotions."  There was no closure, no rock-bottom, no metaphysical lesson, no national or geopolitical event to shock a battered generation to a new trajectory.  To the witnesses, in O'Rourke's interpretation, the tragedies and confusion of the sixties linger as a some form of generational PTSD.

Like many my age, I look at the sixties with utter incomprehension of what it must have been like to live it.  But as Civil Standard is concerned, it had me thinking about yet another (and quite significant) of the many forms of identity we assume, struggle with, and attempt to reconcile in the greater cosmic context.

How then, I wonder, will our current still-infant millennium be remembered and commemorated fifty years hence?  What are the moments that will come to define it?  

Clearly it starts with 9/11.  But also two wars that like Vietnam seem a mistake and impossible to win, albeit two wars quite unlike Vietnam in their failure to affect the national consciousness, mood, and outrage in a similar tragic manner, seemingly forgotten to many. And what then of the housing bubble, its ensuing collapse, and near collapse of our country's (and hence the world's) financial markets, followed by five years (and counting) of stagnant - followed by anemic - economic growth, high unemployment, and the risk of a Lost Decade akin to Japan's?  Or maybe it's the gridlocked and broken government system we're subject to, with its failure to accomplish and solve much of anything small, much less a gargantuan issue like the growing wealth disparity that threatens to affect our politics, economy, global competitiveness, and standard of living for generations to come, as articulated herehere, and here

And who then - which generation - to claim victim to the many (and counting) traumas of the last thirteen years?  Who will come to bear the ugliest scars from our current wounds? The Gen X'ers who bore witness to the horror of 9/11, ensuing wars, and lingering geopolitical unease and anxiety?  The Millennials who bore the brunt of negligent policy and financial practices (much at the hands of the Boomers themselves) resulting in lost jobs, lost wages, and lost hope for a better standard of living than their parents?

Conclusions await.  And while not alive during the sixties, the one inference I can draw between that era and this one - as it relates to Mr. O'Rourke's hypothesis - is that there appears to be no "tragic catharsis" in sight for our own ailments. While the events of our current tragedy-in-making may not on the whole be as acute, cut as deeply, and wound so critically as those from the sixties, ever since that fateful day and tragic blow in 2001 there has ever been an unrest, anxiety, and collectively painful simmering...a slow burn...of pessimism, hopelessness, and despair over our future.  The punches just keep on coming, and there is little hope of action or finality.  Stagnancy and inevitability seem to be the new norm, of which we are unable to break free.  Catharsis for our neuroses, I fear, seems impossible.

Fittingly, so too for our identities.  They are organic, constantly evolving, and subject to externalities beyond our control.  Much as we seek it, catharsis is ever elusive.