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The short story “Kaleidoscope” by Ray Bradbury ends with a mother and child observing what they believe is a shooting star. “Make a wish,” urges the mother, but the streak is actually an astronaut flaming as he plummets to earth. In the early days of space exploration, the idea that a person could become untethered and drift into inevitable death haunted us. It should haunt us still.
One of the most challenging aspects of aging—especially with sporadic quarantines—is that sensation of drifting away from the familiar—or, more accurately, having the familiar drift away from us. We who come from a time when our over-the-counter cough medicine contained codeine (it tasted good!) and LEAVE IT TO BEAVER was accepted as a slice of normal American family life wonder when we had to begin worrying about leaky guts.
Change happens whether you want it to or not. Often it’s welcome. In my lifetime, change has accelerated beyond warp speed. My first college vigorously separated men from women—in loco parentis—because college students weren’t capable of running their own lives…although men could be drafted away from their lives to die in Viet Nam at 18 but couldn’t buy beer until they were 21. I wasn’t allowed to have a credit card of my own once I was married because I’d be a wife, although I’d lived independently as a professional for over five years. Men who worked with my husband insisted the moon landing was a hoax because people can’t survive in space. Speed limits were set at 55mph on the highways to save gas. Big name entertainers couldn’t eat or drink in the fancy venues that hired them, because of their race. Native American children were ripped from their parents and their cultures and forced to attend boarding schools that abused them with impunity. The rich and powerful commonly believed they should be able to use the less wealthy as pawns because being rich made them superior human beings. (Wait…has that changed?)
Not all changes are desirable. A very recent change that has dumbfounded me personally is the morphing of common decency into something I don’t have a polite word to describe. Without waxing political, I can say I wouldn’t have allowed either of my children to spend the night at the home of many of our elected leaders today. Sure, the houses are undoubtedly posh, but the behavior and morals are back alley. In addition to the fact that people say the equivalent of “it sucks to be you” to young rape victims, LGBTQ, mistreated ethnic minorities, and women whose lives are endangered by their pregnancies, lying is promoted as a clever means of avoiding responsibility. I hate dishonesty—even when it works. And it works all too often with the help of prying social media.
The newfound popularity of ignorance has to gall anyone who values wisdom, which often begins with education. Books that require the reader to exercise critical thinking are banned—books once assigned as mandatory reading for discussion. Reading great literature is dangerous because it teaches empathy and asks questions. Those who would manipulate the masses can do so more efficiently if the masses don’t realize what’s going on. (Slave owners understood this.) Science is respected only when it zooms celebrities into space, not when it works to defend against illness or climate catastrophe. Pleas for personal responsibility are met with a four-letter word. Diversity is maligned as a means of societal destruction—ignoring DNA identification that ties us into an interdependent global family. Violence is common on middle class streets as well as in churches and schools and is accepted as inevitable as one ignores bad weather or pollution…unless it harms someone you love.
The people who want to turn back the clocks of society often don’t know what they’re talking about—the polio, the measles, the discrimination, the wars, the Depression, the cruelty. Have they imagined what the future looks like where they’re drifting? Do they ever wonder why the Wild West of fact was forcibly tamed so families and legitimate businesses could live free of gunfights? Do they ever tally the number of important contributions that have been made by people they would like to eliminate? No wonder they don’t want to present history accurately. Disneyland was born from a cartoon. Reality presents confounding dimensions. We are all drifting away from the familiar, but if we’re wise, we don’t surrender what is good about us or our world as we adapt.