One of the fun aspects of having kids in your life is you get to teach them about what came before. Not only does this activity make you feel smart if, say, you’ve made some really stupid mistakes that day, but talking to kids about the past can bring the light of hope into a room.
Of course, the level of hope depends on what you share or what questions they ask. And you can bet they will ask lots of questions. Sometimes dark questions, the answers to which are not at all hope inspiring (unless you lie).
“Why are those people without masks screaming at the people with masks?”
But there’s plenty of good to share (unless you’re miserable by nature). For me, the veracity with which I can invoke hope depends on my state of mind, and how caffeinated I am. But even when I’m deep in the doldrums, I endeavor not to be a Debbie Downer, at least when talking to the young. Some days are better than others.
Thankfully, the young are largely immune to the journalistic rule, “If it bleeds, it leads.” You need not hook them with horror to get their attention and commence your duty to enlighten. Especially the very young will be captivated by gore-free stories, like, for example, the Wright Brothers using bicycle parts to make the first functional airplane, KoKo the gorilla learning sign language, and/or the Beatles making music that inspired high-decibel screaming. They love that stuff. (I do, too. Still.)
Youngsters are amazed there was a time when cars didn’t come with seat belts, and that a consumer advocate named Ralph Nader wrote the 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed – a book, of all things! – which ultimately led to seat belts being standard, even though car companies fought fiercely against them, wrongly thinking a safety device would bum people out and discourage them from buying automobiles. True story!
If something happened during my lifetime, naturally my telling of it conveys more power. I especially mean the unforeseen things that have transpired in my adulthood, which, upon reflection, still genuinely astound me. Events that came to pass against the odds, often suddenly. History I have lived.
I tell about watching the collapse of the Soviet Union on TV while tending bar in the East Village. Watching the Berlin Wall toppled by a swarm of ecstatic Germans. I’d only just walked that wall a couple years before, listening to Bowie’s “Heroes” on my Walkman, feeling epic. Guards with machine guns and dogs, spitting distance away, patrolled the barbed wire, keeping East Berliners from leaving. Totally normal.
I tell them about the dramatic demise of apartheid. How revolutionary Nelson Mandela went from serving 27 years in prison to being president of South Africa. How I’d learned about apartheid from Little Steven Van Zandt’s protest song “Sun City,” and his activism. How it all tipped incredibly fast. And its inevitability and justice only seems apparent in hindsight.
The apartheid talk usually involves explaining racism – which invariably must be explained, as it is unnatural – which often leads to a discussion of slavery.
This discussion evokes both hope and heartbreak. It is heartbreaking to reveal to a child that fellow humans are capable of atrocity; heartbreaking to observe them process it, their young minds frowning at the cruelty, finding a place for it in their imaginations. But this experience is leavened by numerous tales of bravery, of character, of integrity and faith – like Mandela’s story, among others – inspiring massive communal, successful action on the road to overcoming overwhelming odds. Battles that seemed unwinnable until they were won.
Those words are like an incantation: “Battles that seemed unwinnable until they were won.” Hope is not magic. It’s real, and easily evoked by the many stories that seemed unlikely until they weren’t.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.