Fear Itself

My parents were married during World War II and I was born a few years after it ended, which makes me a Boomer. My generation has often been unfavorably compared with our parents’ generation. We’re often portrayed as self-absorbed, narcissistic, and materialistic. Sometimes we were called the “Me” generation. On the other hand, we were generally idealistic, optimistic, and remarkably lucky. We were the beneficiaries of sustained economic growth, and incredible scientific and pharmaceutical advances. We were shaped by the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict. We questioned everything.

rooselveltsWe grew up in the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt. He was both revered and reviled. The two sides of my family held opposing views of his presidency, so for many years I was confused about how to think about him. When I was quite young the animosity was so strong on the paternal side that some relatives elected to call my mother “Ellen” rather than her given name. “Eleanor” reminded them of Eleanor Roosevelt whose only crime seemed to be that she had married Franklin.

My mother’s family, on the other hand, was generally favorable toward the Roosevelts and particularly admiring of Eleanor’s accomplishments. (My mother dearly loved her in-laws and never objected, in my hearing at least, to being renamed.) Eventually I formed my own view of the Roosevelts based on what I learned in my reading and studies. My political coming-of-age was during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, which were exciting and tumultuous times, so Roosevelt was tucked in the distant background of my consciousness. In my mind, his administration belonged to my parents.

But his words have become starkly relevant to me as I’ve reflected on our current social and fearpolitical climate. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he proclaimed in his first inaugural address during the depths of the Great Depression. How I wish we had political leaders who could inspire us with that kind of courage and optimism! But to me it seems that from every side most of what we’re hearing today is aimed at stoking fear.

But in my experience the American people, for all our faults, are not cowardly or pessimistic. We don’t like consuming fear with our morning coffee. At our best we are helpful and generous. Even us Boomers. So maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Maybe it’s not our leaders we need to be listening to right now.

Maybe it’s our neighbors.

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