Many of us are cognitively — perhaps genetically — predisposed to romanticize the past and catastrophize the present. Our expectations of the future are more malleable, but usually reflect how our internal narrative frames past and present.
Where have we been? How did we get here? Where are we going? A few personal snapshots, with a very wide lens:
1944: The year opens with Nazis controlling most of Europe. In the Spring the Soviet Army shifts from defense to offense. On June 6 the Allies launch the Normandy Invasion. In November 1944 the Auschwitz Concentration Camp is closed, after murdering over 1 million mostly Polish Jews. Chechens are internally deported to Siberia. Over 100,000 Japanese-American citizens are interned for another year. The Supreme Court avoids a substantive decision on internment, allowing the practice to continue. The Warsaw Massacre. Paris is liberated. Roosevelt is reelected for a fourth term. The Senate consists of 57 Democrats, 38 Republicans, and one other. The House is made up of 242 Democrats, 191 Republicans, and two others. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $16,181.
1954: Crimea is transferred from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Ukranian SSR. First mass vaccination against polio. Puerto Rican nationalists open fire on the US House of Representatives, wounding five. Army-McCarthy Hearings. The French are defeated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, leading several months later to the withdrawal of colonial forces and the creation of North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In Brown v. Board of Education the US Supreme Court unanimously finds that segregated schools are unconstitutional. The Algerian War of Independence begins. The Soviet Union for the first time tests a thermonuclear weapon. The Dow Jones Industrial Average — for the first time — exceeds its previous peak achieved just before the crash of 1929. In the newly elected Senate the Republicans and Democrats each have 47… with 2 others. In the House there are 232 Democrats and 203 Republicans. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $15,745.
1964: Plans are announced to build the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The 24th Amendment to the Constitution is adopted banning poll taxes. De facto segregation of New York City public schools prompts a boycott by most African American and Puerto Rican families. The man later convicted of murdering Medgar Evars is freed as a result of a hung jury. The summer is punctuated by race riots in New York City, Rochester, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Martin Luther King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The New York Times reports that Kitty Genovese is murdered in plain sight while her neighbors refuse to get involved. Three civil rights workers are murdered in rural Mississippi by local Klansmen and a deputy sheriff. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 becomes law. Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Johnson wins a landslide against Goldwater. The elections produce a Senate with 68 Democrats and 32 Republicans and a House with 295 Democrats and a 140 Republicans. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $19,455.
1974: First OPEC oil embargo ends. Oil prices are 4-times higher than when the embargo started. Patty Hearst is kidnapped, later cooperates with Symbionese Liberation Army in bank robbery. Universal Product Code (UPC) is first used to sell a retail product. April Super-Outbreak of tornadoes kills over three hundred in the central US. President Richard Nixon resigns. Car bombs are used in Dublin, Birmingham and elsewhere as “The Troubles” escalate. World Trade Organization starts. India joins the nuclear weapons club. The annual inflation rate for 1974 is eleven percent. The mid-term elections return a Senate with 57 Democrats, 40 Republicans, and 2 others. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $25,227.
1984: Hezbollah car-bombs the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut killing 24. US Marines withdraw from Lebanon (following October, 1983 bombing that killed 241 US military personnel.) The Provisional IRA fails in an attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Thatcher and most of the British cabinet. Prime Minister of India is assassinated, followed by sectarian strife with over 10,000 killed. Famine in Ethiopia threatens over ten million. A mentally ill man attacks a San Ysidro, California restaurant killing 21 and injuring 19 others. This year’s 4.3 inflation rate is down from 13.5 percent in 1980. Ronald Reagan wins in a landslide over Walter Mondale. The new Senate consists of 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats. The House has 253 Democrats and 182 Republicans. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $30,817. Despite all, not nearly as bad as Orwell predicted.
1994: Northridge earthquake. Rwandan Genocide kills up to 1 million. Last Russian troops leave Germany and most of Eastern Europe. US and Russia agree to cooperate to de-nuclearize Ukraine. NATO intervenes in Yugoslavian Civil War. Aum Shinrikyo launches sarin gas attack on Tokyo subway. Provisional IRA announces complete cessation of military operations. Iraq threatens Kuwait, US deploys troops to Kuwait, Iraq withdraws military forces from border with Kuwait. Russian troops are ordered into Chechnya to quell insurgency. America Online offers “retail” access to the World Wide Web for the first time. The elections give Republicans control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since 1954: Senate 53-47, House 230-204 (plus 1). US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $37,598.
2004: Madrid train bombing kills 191. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia join NATO. NATO is fighting in Afghanistan. The European Union accepts ten new members: Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Malta and Cyprus. Nick Berg is decapitated by a proto-ISIS organization in Iraq, a video of the execution shows Berg in an orange jump-suit. The US-led coalition transfers sovereignty to the Iraqi Interim Government. Ground-breaking for Freedom Tower (replacing WTC). Beslan school hostage-taking results in over 300 deaths and 700 serious injuries. Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Earthquake and tsunami kills over 180,000 across the eastern Indian Ocean. George W. Bush defeats John Kerry for President. The new Congress will consist of 55 Republican Senators and 44 Democrats (plus one other). The House also has a Republican majority: 232-201. US GDP per capita in 2009 dollars: $46,967.
You can take/make your own snapshot for 2014. You know the election results. Our current GDP per capita is $53,429 ($49,811 in 2009 dollars). This is a week when memories of Birmingham or Selma or the Summer of 64 weirdly echo.
We live in a time of profound and rapid change. This is only a cliché if we fail to fully recognize its reality. If we engage the reality, then we will also acknowledge that about the best most of us can do is surf the social-technological-economic tsunami on which we find ourselves poised.
There are certainly those who — for good cause — fear the water. There are some who grandly presume to reverse the waves. Others retreat deep into the interior. I empathize. I do not crave the clash of currents and soaring crests that threaten to crush me. But here I am. With you.
How can I make the best of my circumstance? How can we, together if possible, enhance our chances of getting safely to shore? Even have some fun?
I give thanks. This is, I am told, an attitude and habit that strengthens. But whether or not this is true, I am authentically thankful. I have not yet drowned. The water is invigorating. The waves are awe-inspiring. I am constantly challenged to be better: physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.
I give thanks for prior challenges overcome by others. I give thanks for the undeniable progress I have seen in a society becoming more diverse, inclusive, wealthier, more knowledgeable, and creative.
I give thanks for seemingly insoluble problems. These have often given me employment. While the most rigorous waves usually swamp me, on rare occasions after a wild ride they bring me to some sandy shore for rest and recovery. Occasionally the very worst waves — most fearsome problems — have scooped from the ocean floor or retrieved from a tidal cave priceless treasure.
Very best wishes for your own thanks-giving.