Ten years ago I read a study asking people to list their earliest memories of world news. The survey intrigued me, but I wanted to see for myself. So I asked about a hundred people to think back to early childhood and see what they first remembered as earthshattering news.
Try it yourself: make a list of your earliest memories of significant world events and try to recall where you were at the time. I wrote down:
- The assassination of John F. Kennedy. I was in school, first grade.
- The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. I was about to eat dinner with my family.
- The landing on the moon. I was at home, watching it on TV with my grandfather.
My mother, and many of her friends, remembered the Depression, Pearl Harbor, and VE day. A younger generation I asked remembered the crash of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the Desert Storm war, and the horrors of 9/11.
The study I read then asked each respondent to choose one of following three words as the best way to connect with others at church: Behave, Believe, or Belong.
In my own informal study, 80% of my mother’s generation preferred, Behave; about 65% of my generation said, Believe; and all but one of the younger generation chose, Belong.
The people I polled lived in the greater Ann Arbor, Michigan area, were all middle class, and all had similar spiritual leanings. Not the most diverse group. But that’s the point.
The determining factor seems to be generational history, not locale, finances, or spirituality.
It’s Not Just News
I interviewed two brothers born in the mid-fifties. One was a social worker who lived a Spartan lifestyle (despite living in Ann Arbor), drove a beat-up Chevy Cavalier, and invested in government bonds. The other brother was a business tycoon; he saved nothing, drove a Maserati, and spent his earnings on multiple annual trips to China, India, Africa, and Europe.
Both attributed their money-habits to their parents who had lost their farm in the depression. One of them remembered the loss and saved every cent in sheltered investments to avoid a similar fate. The other remembered the deprivation and spent every cent for lost pleasures.
Both agreed that their poor childhood fifty years ago steered their spending habits today.
How Well Do We Know Ourselves?
If we don’t know our histories, what do we really know of ourselves? Most of the modern world was invented in the Middle Ages, and its ideas arose in the Enlightenment and Romantic eras:
- Our reliance on technology comes from the many inventions of medieval monks (yes!) who felt “work” was a gift of God, but “toil” was part of the curse;
- Romantic love as the basis of marriage was created by the culture of chivalrous knights;
- The market economy began around 1000 AD along with the rise of the feudal system.
All these ideas and practices—as well our legal systems, nation-states, and even fashion—seem second-nature to us, whereas in other cultures and times, they might seem abhorrent.
Why am I writing this article on this topic at this time? I don’t know! Not for sure. It probably has something to do with my history. But as I look at modern cultural creep, I realize that so many things I consider completely normal are “normal” only for us Westerners.
I don’t want to go back to arranged marriages (and my kids are glad of it), but I want—at the very least—to examine my life in the light of older times. I used to think cultural creep was mostly contemporary influences on our hearts and minds; now I wonder if these modern motivations are merely a leaf hanging onto the twigs, branches, trunks, and roots of our past.
The study I read said my mother’s generation worked hard to dig out of the depression and to sacrifice in WWII, so they chose, “Behave.” My generation saw the moon landing and great civil rights reforms—despite the assassinations—and they hoped in, “Believe.” The next generation felt the fruitless suffering of disasters, so they prioritized community and chose “Belong.”
Which simply says: Our future is largely shaped by our past.
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(And I’m curious, what were YOUR earliest memories of significant world events? And how did they affect you? You can comment below.)