Sunday, December 31, 2017

Messages from the Lost Generation to Generation X: A One Year Journey




Gen X's Connection to the Lost Generation

While the late wave of the Lost Generation experienced the last years of their lives, Generation X experienced their earliest years. They were the red leaves that had hung on through the worst heat of summer, while we were the green blades of grass shooting up toward the sun, only just realizing how cold the coming winter would become. As I've been on a one-year journey to find the Lost Generation, I have sought their wisdom. And I have realized that these leaves, this generation, even as they fell, were often trying to protect us or give to us in whatever way they could. When I was a small child, my Lost Generation great-grandfather had brought me a seedling tree from Illinois, down Highway 35, and across I-40, and planted it in our front yard. In the summer, it had shadowed me as my pinwheel blew in the soft breeze and, when fall came, it dropped its leaves in the street like little treasures.

When Ethan Hawke's character picks up the phone in Reality Bites and says, "Hello, you've reached the winter of our discontent," he isn't just alluding to the crisis that Gen X remembers as kids, he is reaching back in some way to Steinbeck.

Sinclair Lewis summed up the experience of the Lost Generation: "Winter is not a season, it's an occupation." As generations go, every four cycles is a 'lost generation', and the history that goes with those cycles is always winter, always discontent. This was life for the Lost Generation, this has, in many ways, been life for Generation X.

Why it matters to understand a previous generation is that it helps to better understand our own. Why it matters to study history is so that we don't keep repeating the same mistakes. We are still very much affected today by issues of the Lost Generation. History, as we experience it, is even continuously altered by WWI. One all too real example of this is that many bombs, designed to explode on impact, were left behind in the fields of Europe as the tired arms of soldiers sometimes laid them in the grass and walked away. Today, as farmers plow fields, or as people walk by, those bombs sometimes explode and those people are sometimes injured or killed, even though it is now a hundred years later. This is known, darkly, as the Iron Harvest.

Another chilling example of our connection to the Lost Generation is H1N1. In the winter of 2009, this virus was constantly in the news as a potential pandemic. We stood in line at a clinic for shots in the freezing cold, while volunteers handed us warm blankets. The Red Cross sign on the side of their truck had me thinking about the way they had helped relief efforts during WWI, but I did not know that what we were about to get immunized for was a variation of the same flu that wiped out a large number of the world's population a century before. Sadly, the Lost Generation was born during years that made them more susceptible to this horrible virus because of a different flu they had gotten as children. 

If you are Generation X, you may have known and loved people from the Lost Generation - I surely did. One thing that became more and more clear to me through this year of searching for them, for their wisdom, for their messages left to us, is that they saw our suffering, and knew our suffering because it was painstakingly familiar to them. Their lives were coming to an end as ours were beginning so they were often unable to intervene in our lives or help us in a way they could have if they had been younger, though I think they often did what they were able to in the time they had left.

The Lost Generation lived through a similar pattern of history, and therefore had a similar struggle that Gen X has now, and any wisdom or hope they left behind helps us on our own long journeys. Some of those messages are quoted on this blog over the past year. Beyond that wisdom, these are the two messages I found from them that have affected me the most....

How to Fight

One of those messages is the example they left us of how to fight. There were two well-known truces that took place during WWI: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (which would have been a day that would have the most meaning to soldiers on the Western Front) and the Easter Truce of 1916 (a day that would have the most meaning to soldiers on the Eastern Front). In both cases, soldiers stepped out of their trenches and broke bread with the other side, an act that included both risk and profound love. Many other small, localized truces took place during the war as well. This was a powerful message from the Lost Generation to us: we should always take a moment to see those we consider an enemy as truly human, or even if just for a moment, as brothers and sisters.

How to Have Hope

C.S. Lewis, one of the brightest voices of the Lost Generation, told us the reason our heart yearns for something earth can't supply is proof that heaven must be our home. This is the ultimate hope and the ultimate explanation for why we feel lost, because we are not yet home. This image of hope and light shows up in different ways in the writing of the Lost Generation - it was the green light that the Great Gatsby reached toward over the water, it is the lighthouse that Virginia Woolf told us to look toward.

Here's to the coming new year, when we look toward hope. It will be exactly one century from the year that WWI came to an end. In November of 2018, a centennial memorial for American WWI veterans will finally be opened. Up until now, the veterans of every other major war have been given a monument in Washington D.C., the Lost Generation has not. This is exactly what it means to be a lost generation.

May the Lost Generation rest in peace. And while we've said it for generations, it is always worth saying it again:
Peace on earth.


(c) writing by Chloe Koffas 2017, photos by Chloe, Portland, Oregon


Sources:

Time Magazine: Solving the Mystery Flu That Killed 50 Million People
WWI Centennial Memorial Info and a link to donate
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Wikipedia: Iron Harvest 
An Easter Truce, 1916: Gateways to the First World War


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