For many Americans who were born during the time of World War II, “war babies,” we grew up with a narrative about our country that was distinct and dramatic. The might of our ideals of freedom and democracy, of “liberty and justice for all,” of our political system, our economy and our citizen-military power, made America the “leader of the free world.”
We defeated Hitler and liberated the concentration camps. We made peace with our enemies and supported them in rebuilding their shattered nations into thriving democracies. We supported the founding of the United Nations, and the institutions of an international world order with the aim of insuring a stable, peaceful, prosperous world.
We were “the land of opportunity.” We were the destination for immigrants from around the world seeking a better life. For many of us it was personal: our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents had risked everything to come here, and created that better life.
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Yet now as elders in our 70s and 80s, we war babies have experienced an American story much more complex than the one we were born into.
On the one hand the story includes America’s shadow. The legacy of slavery and bigotry. The rights and opportunities denied to so many. The different stories we’ve each lived depending on our race, gender, sexual orientation, where our families came from and where in the U.S. we’ve lived. America’s tragic, needless wars. And the rising inequality, alienation, and fragmentation of our society that exploded into domestic terrorism — instigated by an American president! — at our capitol on January 6, 2021. Followed by the political stalemate and the decisions from a politicized Supreme Court that have left America more divided than at any time since the Civil War.
On the other hand, over the course of our lives we have also witnessed a story of America’s greatness. A story that includes the opportunity for a better life that America has offered to so many. And the resiliency of the values and ideals to which America has always aspired, however imperfectly, that have inspired people around the world: that we’re all “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;” that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” And we’ve witnessed times of real progress toward those ideals, times that brought hope to millions. Times when we were proud to be Americans, and optimistic about the future.
And now, in our twilight years, we’re living through a darker time. Our democracy itself seems to be under the greatest threat that we’ve witnessed in our long lives.
Where does America go from here? Where does the world go from here?
Beyond any election cycle, we need healing over the long haul. Healing from the history, resentments, and hatreds that divide us. To be “one nation” where we can relate to each other not as enemies, but as fellow human beings sharing common values, ideals, dreams — and a common interest in preserving a healthy, well-functioning democracy. Where we know that we can each prosper when we can all prosper. This will take time.
We, the elders of our generation, can contribute. We can do it by sharing our diverse American stories, and from these stories, to piece together a collage of our chapter in the journey of America’s soul. We can witness, recognize, and embrace both our individual uniqueness, and our common values and dreams — our common humanity. And invite others to join us.
And perhaps to help welcome in a time of healing and renewal that could lie ahead.
Aryae Coopersmith — July 1, 2022