What a Long, Strange Trip Itís Been: Finishing Our Generationís Work

Editor's note: Edith Kusnic has been working in adult and community education for over 35 years asking questions about how to foster the natural human learning process, build communities of active learners, and empower people to build the lives and world they want. She has a BA in History and an MA in Educational Philosophy and Design and a lifelong interest in the dynamic relationship between society and the individual. Currently, she works with others to create opportunities for the deep learning needed in response to the challenges of our times. She joined Rite of Passage Journeys in 1999 and, after making her own ďvision quest,Ē has served to help guide and build Journeys and create rites of passage experiences for adults, including elders.

An image has been slowly forming in my mind, over the past few years — an image that paints a picture for me of the remarkable collective history of my generationís lifetime. One of the pleasantly surprising gifts of aging is this much broader perspective that allows one to see the Big Story of oneís life and the times and their inextricable interconnection. Itís as if pieces of a puzzle have slowly become visible one by one. With enough of them visible, it becomes possible to make out the whole picture.

The 1958 atomic bomb test in the Bikini atoll.

What this long view has to offer us as we step into and through our elder years is what I want to talk about here. Letting it inform our choices about how we spend the time that remains is increasingly urgent.

In 2009 I led an eldersí retreat, Stepping into Elderhood, with a small group of folks, most of them in their early- or mid-sixties. Our common task at the beginning was to create a visual timeline of our collective social history. All our concrete recollections — local, national, and international events; customs, fashion, music; every sort of thing — we posted on a big wall. Then we tried to make sense of it all. What was this era we had all lived through and that created the landscape within which our lives took place?

We realized we were the Atomic Generation, the first generation to grow up in the shadow of “The Bomb” (note the capitalization). Uncertain exactly how that fact impinged on our lives, we were nonetheless sure it had had incredible influences.

As we explored our shared social history, a clearer picture began to emerge. Our generation came of age during the tumultuous sixties, inspired and challenged by tectonic social changes: the Civil Rights struggle for human dignity; the quest for peace of the anti-war movement; and the dawning awareness, spurred by the environmental movement, of our connection with the more-than-human world.

Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington

As we moved into the seventies and eighties, we watched our youthful idealism be mocked and minimized. A new story of the sixties gained currency: We were a generation of hopeless, irrelevant idealists who didnít understand the real world and whose major concerns were sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And that was the positive spin! The more negative view was that we were a failed generation who had not brought about the changes we dreamed of back in the sixties — a world of peace and justice, a world where the dream of democracy would be realized for all people in this country and where solutions for the problems we faced would be found.

Looking now at the world of 2011, things do look like one big mess. In the late eighties, my young adult son said to me, “Donít talk to me about all your ideals and all that stuff. Your generation gave up. Things got hard and you just walked away.” Well, thatís part of the prevailing myth. But is that really what happened? Did we just walk away? Or did we find places to put our energy and ways to begin to work toward the world we had imagined? Certainly, some did walk away and others got lost along the way, but many of us sought ways to put our values into action.

Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring in 1962.

What if we began to see and tell a different story of our life and times that challenges the prevailing story? Can we see ourselves instead as the forward wave of a cultural rite of passage, a time of transition for the culture as it moves toward a new stage of development? When we look at our lives in this light, we may see that the work of our generation is unfinished, and we can gain energy and strength to resume our work with the goal of bringing this cultural rite of passage to completion.

Rites of passage are often characterized as having three distinct stages: severance (separating from what has been), liminal space (the place of unknowing between the “no longer” and the “not yet”), and incorporation (reentering the community in a new role).

Viewed through this lens, for our generation the sixties was a decade of severance. As young people are wont to do, we set ourselves apart in dress and appearance. For many, however, this outward symbol marked a much deeper transformation, as many saw ourselves, albeit dimly, as the harbingers of a new reality.

A huge field of new energy came into the world in the sixties; people everywhere were inspired to imagine a wholly different form of human organization — a modern world, yes, but a world worthy of the dignity of human beings, a world that fosters the best of the human spirit. Cultural historian Thomas Berry characterized the “Great Work” of our times as nothing less than the reinventing of the human species. I think thatís what our generation in fact glimpsed: that the work we were called to was to reinvent the human species.

Woodstock was followed 4 months later
by the infamous rock concert at Altamount.

Few people were immune from this energy unleashed during the sixties. The times were, indeed, “a-changiní“ — as the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, the womenís movement, the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, and many, many others transformed our society. Change was also manifest in the music, in the “hippie” culture that was born, and in the burgeoning interest in Eastern religions. But the long register of positive developments was also balanced by negative ones: violence, drug abuse, the collapse of faith in social and political institutions, a divided country.

As the seventies gave way to the eighties, the backlash of reaction coalesced into a strong political force of its own. Those advocating the “new way” became increasingly marginalized. Hair got cut, suits put on, and the childish things of the sixties were put away. Reagan became president, and order was restored.

But ferment was going on beneath the surface. The unleashed energy had brought intimations of what is possible in the human realm along with vague directions and clues about how to pursue it. Like a vision that comes to one fasting in the wilderness, it needed much interpretation and a lot of time to understand. If we challenge the cynical story of our generation, perhaps we can see that the field of energy let loose in the sixties was not extinguished or burned out. It went underground, carried by those of us who had experienced it. We might come to see our lives as having unfolded in the liminal space of a larger cultural rite of passage — no longer the old world, but not yet the new one.

Eco-philosopher and teacher Joanna Macy calls the aim of this work The Great Turning. She describes three streams of work necessary for shifting our culture to a life-sustaining one. First are holding actions, the work needed to blunt destructive practices and policies and mitigate the suffering they cause. Dealing with the consequences of homelessness, opposing wars, and advocating sane actions against climate change are examples of this stream. The second challenge is building new forms, the work of creating new social forms and practices and developing the conceptual understanding necessary for them. Examples of this have been the alternative health movement, the local and organic food movement, and work on alternative energy. The third stream is shifting consciousness and includes work in psychology, consciousness studies, and new spiritual and religious practices.

My daughter once characterized the people she knew from my generation as pathfinders who forged trails through new territory so that her generation could find their way more easily. Perhaps we could all see our generation this way. We didnít give up; rather we dispersed and began laying trails through these three streams of knowledge and action that Macy described. Some of us have been working to save habitat and wilderness areas, others have taken on poverty and economic injustice, while still others have focused on alternative energy. Others have worked on the crafts of teaching and learning; others have explored new spiritual understandings; and still others, cooperative living. And that is just the beginning. Everywhere we look, we can see evidence of people who have been hard at work for years laying a foundation for a new way of thinking needed to meet the challenges of the future.

But we also see the evidence of the strength of the forces that have fought the kind of change we sought. Social, environmental, and political problems we had begun to identify as early as the sixties have festered and grown more virulent. Our political system is broken, our economy in tatters, the effects of global climate change already in evidence. In short, we all know that we have made a grand mess of things and, even if we have different interpretations of what and why and how, we all know that something is terribly wrong.

I am writing this in mid-November 2011 with news of the occupy movement finally being covered on mainstream news. Like many other demonstrations and protests that since the seventies have been tagged as originating from the “Left,” it was ignored for many weeks by the mainstream press and disparaged and denigrated by those on the Right. In the revived epithets we hear clear echoes of the sixties: “Dirty Hippies!” “Get a job!” “Take a bath.” “Anti-American!” “Socialists!” “Communist!” Itís been over 40 years since the height of that eraís “young peopleís uprising,” but those anachronistic slogans are once again marshaled to keep us locked into a fraudulent story of our generation. Meanwhile, it is business as usual toward planetary destruction.

Most recently the coverage of the occupy movement has been about the over-the-top police response and what appears to be a concerted effort nationwide to stop the movement. As I watched the video of the pepper spray incident in Davis, California, I flashed back to the image of the young girl at Kent State bent over the body of a young man, and the horror two weeks later at Jackson State. Two iconic images of college students — our nationís young people — bearing the brunt of military-style policing 41 years apart. The shadow of the sixties is visible across the country. The forces amassed to repress this latest attempt to visibly bring forth new values are strong.

But the occupy movement also brings a new glimmer of hope. Is this the moment we have been waiting for all our lives? The moment when consciousness shifts, a new worldview grabs the Zeitgeist, and suddenly we are united in working for a better future for all of us? Can this become that moment — not the moment of a grand ideological struggle where the battles of the sixties continue to be fought, but the moment when we move beyond them, together finding new solutions to entrenched problems? Or will we continue on the old path, allowing problems to continue to fester, leaving challenges unmet? What a heroic struggle is taking place in our body politic, not between Right and Left, but between hope and cynicism!

Global challenges: World hunger / Women's' inequality / Climate change and endangered species

I donít want to inflate our importance, but I think that answering these questions is the unfinished work of our generation and the key to choosing between the two paths open to us. I also think that in finishing that work we will be completing our generationís rite of passage, the stage called incorporation. Incorporation is the stage where one returns to the community; steps into his or her new role, takes on its responsibilities and claims its rights; and brings his or her gifts in service to the community. Many of us were denied that completion as we stepped into adulthood. The gifts we brought were disdained by a mainstream culture fighting not to change. But if we are strategic and conscious, our elder years may offer the opportunity to complete our work.

A few years ago I encountered the “Awakening the Dreamer; Changing the Dream” symposium designed by The Pachamama Alliance. The ambitious mission of that symposium is “To bring forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just human presence on the planet.” What struck me most were the words “to bring forth.” I realized that bringing forth requires an orientation that our generation has commonly had. We were held in the position of children, dismissed and disdained. As we tried to bring forth the values and knowledge that came into our consciousness in the sixties, we were met with riot police and eventually guns. As a generation, we were not welcomed by our elders and encouraged to bring our gifts into the larger community. What we stood for was mocked. We were told to be quiet and fit in, if we wanted a place in the community of adults.

The similarities between the occupy movement and the movements of the sixties are striking, but there are also key differences. One of the most important of these is that this generation of young people — sleeping in tents across the country, suffering abuse, and getting arrested — have elders who share their values. We can welcome them into adulthood, valuing what they have to offer. We can mentor them; we can offer to share the skills and knowledge gathered on our underground journeys. In short, we can be the elders all of us needed and few of us got.

Another difference seems to be that the slogans thrown out this time around no longer seem to have the power they once had. Theyíre beginning to ring hollow. More and more people trust the evidence of their own eyes and ears. Schoolteachers and cops and firemen are not Communists bent on overthrowing the government. They are not wastrels, living on the dole. But the forces that want us to adopt the other story are strong and very well organized. For over 40 years they have been effective at characterizing — as somehow a left-wing Communist plot — the basic human work of living up to oneís values, trying to make the world a better place, and living in harmony and balance with the wider natural world.

Perhaps it is time to come full circle and complete our generationís rite of passage. Perhaps, in our elder years, we can change the orientation we adopted and cease to see ourselves as simply advocates for the world we imagined all those years ago. Instead, we are those with the knowledge and skills needed for building that world.

Perhaps by stepping fully into our roles as elders we can help shift the tide and help a New Story be written. Perhaps by naming and claiming the story of our own generation, we will be telling the stories the young ones need to hear. Perhaps by naming and claiming what weíve learned during these past 40 years we will be passing it on to a new generation actively trying to overcome the cynicism and gridlock that holds this country in its grip.

Weíve learned in many ways and in many different arenas what it means to be a human being and the conditions necessary for humans to thrive and reach their full potential. Weíve learned about how to communicate, cooperate. and collaborate to create social forms that nurture the human spirit. Weíve glimpsed spiritual understandings that unite instead of divide. Weíve learned about what hurts our precious planet Earth and what nurtures it and us. Weíve learned so much in our individual journeys as pathfinders — so much that will help create an “environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just human presence on the planet.”

Now appears the time to find ways to share what weíve learned and nurture a new generation struggling to find hope and the will to action — struggling to find a way to transcend the cynicism and despair rampant in our times. To do that, we must step fully into conscious, intentional elderhood, taking responsibility for the future. This may well be the path of redemption and fulfillment for our generation — the action needed to finish our generationís work and help put this nation on the track that will lead to the world we have been imagining all our lives.