Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Churchill, The Blitz, and your 1992 Honda Civic

So maybe you're one of the many who graduated college and found yourself moving back in with parents- possibly far away from your friends or that girlfriend. Or you found yourself working a job you're over qualified for, and there's no way out. You've got an iphone but no place to live. You're just married and your college loan payments are two thirds of your salary. Your crappy 1992 Honda Civic is as worn out as your shoes, and those dreams of your own parking space and a corner office are fading fast. Maybe that dream girl turned out not to be, or that guy got cold feet. You're too young and too old at the same time, and you've got 213 facebook friends but you're lonely on a Tuesday night... 

Winston Churchill, 1916

I don't mean to compare the hardships endured by those in truly trying times to those more trivial neurotic problems of today, but in fact I mean to contrast them. Winston Churchill, knew a few things about difficult times. He was a veteran of  Cuba, India, the Sudan and the Second Boer War. In WWI  he personally made 36 forays into 'no man's land', generally conducting himself heroically, even while facing political opposition at home. Years later when speaking at Harrow at the tail end of the Blitz, he commented on the lyrics of one of the school's traditional songs. He took the opportunity to make his point, objecting to the words referring to "darker days".  He said:

Do not let us speak of darker days: let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days - the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.

Although the German air assault on Britain during World War II officially focused on industrial targets, bombings increasingly took their toll on civilian life. The book Eagle in Flames: The Fall of the Luftwaffe, describes how in London alone an estimated 28, 556 people were killed in night time incendiary attacks, with many thousands more wounded. The cost in lives and sheer terror is almost unimaginable in today's world. The battle for the morale of the British people is as famous as the Normandy invasion itself.

It was in this context that Churchill told the British people to thank God that they could play a part in those times.

When reading the quote from Churchill I can't help but be reminded of the similar sentiment with which James opens his letter:

 "Consider it pure joy brothers and sisters whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish it's work so you may be pure and complete, not lacking anything." James 1:2-4

Maybe the days we can be greatest are those we have to simply endure. An opportunity to persevere. So maybe that corner office isn't in the works, you're still lonely and that car isn't getting any newer. Your future is uncertain. So what? Waiting and hoping faithfully gets you far, even in the worst of times.

Or, as Churchill said himself,  "If you're going through hell, keep going."

Monday, January 28, 2013

Lost: Tolkien and Hemingway

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”~ J.R.R. Tolkien 

Tolkien, 1916
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a veteran of the Great War, a man fully contemporary with Hemingway and his band of lost generation wanderers. Although the two never met, they lived through many of the same experiences. In his preface to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings he states: "By fall of 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead".  Although he saw little actual combat he was spared few horrors of war, was under constant threat of bombardment, and suffered chronic trench foot, lice, fever,and other ailments related to being deployed in the foremost parts of the conflict, in addition to the loss of many of his close friends.  Yet somehow he seems to have escaped the fate of Hemingway's group of restless souls. 

Although he vehemently denied any direct correlation of his experiences in the War to his later works as an author, Tolkien's integrity and faith come through nonetheless. And with them his way of dealing with his life experiences. I ask readers to question what made this gentle, scholarly soul so much different from his cohort of the lost generation. What kept him from the dissolution and depression of those other young men who marched home through mud and tribulation? I think a hint would be that Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic.  He seems to have kept one foot firmly entrenched in a better world, while he weathered the storms of this one. To him 'fantasy' was not to be taken lightly, and a better, higher world was always in his mind's eye. 

In sharp contrast of the stark almost nihilistic realism of Hemingway, Tolkien wrote fantasy.  As a therapist I would suggest that these two very different methods of expressing their experiences are a window into their souls. This is borne out in their fates. Tolkien wrote fantasy and lived a long life with his family, befriending such personalities as C.S. Lewis, and creating the world of Middle Earth- largely for his own enjoyment. Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954, virtually created modern prose, but sadly suffered terrible depression, alcoholism, and fatally shot himself with a shotgun on July, 26, 1961.  

Whose world was more real? And whose was the better? More importantly, whose do you want to live in? The choice is ours, and I believe as Gandalf says, it has a lot to do with what we do with the time given to us. 

A final quote of Tolkien's, when criticized for writing 'escapist literature'.

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Lost Generation

"To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: 'I played a flute for you and you did not dance; we sang a dirge for you and you did not mourn'..."

'Lost generation'. It's a term that's been applied to one cohort or another for almost one hundred years now. Most famously applied to the World War I generation and most recently, the present generation of the Great Recession.

Hemingway and real life inspirations for The Sun Also Rises, Spain 1925 

The lost generation of Hemingway and Fitzgerald were those expatriates who restlessly wandered postwar Europe: both energetic and lazy, indulgent and empty, resilient and fragile. The characters in The Sun Also Rises eat, drink, fight, and engage in unsatisfying love affairs.  It's a beautifully simple and honest examination of a group of damaged souls. A group without the blessing of an obvious simple purpose. Anyone who has spent time with a person age 20 to 35 in the last ten years will likely recognize at least some of these characters' qualities.  By those of the post-9/11- Great Recession generation, I have heard it simply called 'so familiar'. Minus some of the exotic locales and bullfights (although maybe not).
Finding a fulfilling job is rare, the world changed while we were in college or high school. Our great war is an economic and psychological one, the wounds we carry are spiritual, and as a counselor and a young person I can testify that we are more truly socially isolated than any group before us.

We eat, drink, fight, and have unsatisfying relationships.

In 20th century England the term "lost generation" meant those who died in the Great War. Especially those young men who were perceived as the best and brightest of their day, wiped out in a short time.

Both instances of the term share the basic heartbreaking acknowledgment of unrequited potential. People that could have been, but were damaged or destroyed unjustly by the times they lived in.

 The Lord is near the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Ps. 34:18.

The only cure for a spiritual wound is spiritual healing. Moving forward, first remember that although we carry these wounds, we must not let them rob us of our purpose, or our usefulness.

More to come...