Look Back To See What’s Ahead

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

The President was in Atlanta Thursday to promote Georgia’s Pre-K program.  I, instead, was just a few blocks from the White House while the President was in Decatur.

My visits to DC are becoming more and more frequent, and there are parts of the city and many government buildings near the Capitol that I know too well.  And yet, I have to confess, that I’ve done very few of the “tourist” things around the city.  I’ve never done a White House or Capitol tour, I’ve never been inside the now closed for repairs Washington Monument, and I had never been to any of the Smithsonian museums – until Thursday.

After having one meeting cancel and another get delayed, I was left with several hours to consume while in downtown DC.  My co-worker and I decided instead of sitting inside an institutional grade hallway we would venture down a couple of subway stops and pick a museum to tour.  We ended up at the American History Museum.

After wandering through a couple of exhibits we found ourselves in one titled “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War”.  Near the end in a section dedicated to Vietnam, he – almost two decades my junior – made a comment noting that we were finally to stuff I could remember.  Well, sort of.

Being born in 1969 I can’t say I exactly remember the Vietnam War.  What I told him I remembered is the coverage of the anti-war movement, as by the time I had conscious memories the war was already considered a mostly lost cause.  I then explained that my earliest memory of a historical event was when Richard Nixon resigning, which added more angst to the national mood that had already been suffering from division and doubts in our institutions.  I talked a bit more about how during the first decade of my life, America was filled with self-doubt.

We had, of course, just walked through other exhibits dedicated to equally troublesome periods of America’s history.  Multiple-front battles from World War II had been a bookend to a decade of Depression.  Reading the number of deaths from individual Civil War battles – with the dead on each side being our own – made today’s modern warfare seem almost sterilized.

Almost each generation at some point in our country’s history has faced the uncertainty of division, doubt of an economic future, or the sadness that comes when our youth are sent off to war and many do not return.  Yet our country, some 236 years old, soldiers on.

We had just finished our brief conversation about the seventies when we turned around to the next phase and found ourselves staring at a large chunk of the Berlin Wall.  That wall came down during my last semester of college in 1989.  It’s amazing how the outlook of not only our country, but the entire world, had changed during the span of two decades.

Skepticism in government had become hope for freedom.  Economic uncertainty had yielded to economic expansion.  The country that was so divided in 1974 had provided a Presidential election in 1984 where one candidate carried 49 states.

Times change. Events come and go. There are troughs and there are peaks.

Even in the best of times there are those who can only see the negative.  In the worst of times, those who can only see the negative can only project that into the future in perpetuity.  Our history, however, says that is not the case.

We would all do better to take the occasional break from the responsibilities of our present to visit the lessons of our past.  We are a country that has accomplished much, but have always had our trials and even occasional failures.  Each, however, has propelled us forward a bit wiser and better prepared for what lies ahead.