I would like to follow up on my reflections about our shifting society, as noted in Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation. One of the topics discussed a lot in the book is that of personal and societal values. I was struck by the topic afresh the other day, when I was having lunch with a group of friends. Looking around the table, we commented that it had to be a gathering of old folks, because nobody had their cell phones out texting and looking at Facebook posts and surfing the internet while eating with friends, choosing a focused visit with one another instead.
Later that same day, in another group with younger folks present, sure enough, the cell phones were active the entire time. It got me to thinking about Brokaw’s comments regarding shifting values in our society.
One of the areas where values have shifted has to do with hard work, rewards and perseverance. I remember when I was younger; people lamented the rise of “instant” foods as evidence of the impatience of my generation. Instant potatoes, instant coffee, instant rice, instant oatmeal, even a drink to instantly meet your breakfast needs….all were cited as proof that people were losing patience and perseverance. Take that a multiply it by a million to be where we are today, with email conquering “snail mail” and individuals frustrated when an internet download takes more than two seconds.
In two generations we have moved from the perspective that anything worth having is worth waiting for” to the advent of instant gratification to a new expectation of INSTANTANEOUS as the norm for anything. Nice homes, marriages, job success, building a nest egg….all things that once were accepted to be the tasks of a lifetime are suddenly now the expectations and demands of the moment, which are then abandoned if left unmet.
Another meaningful value I found highlighted by Brokaw was the idea of serving for the greater good…sacrificing one’s own personal interests for the sake of others, to make the world a better place or to aid the lives of others. Time and again that was how individuals described their commitments and efforts in serving and supporting during World War II, an attitude that came back to civilian life as those individuals sought to make their communities and their world better through personal efforts. Many today also want to make the world a better place, what with environmental concerns and desire for world peace and mutual respect. But the missing element, it seems to me, in the realm of personal sacrifice. Often today, people appear to support causes that are conducted by others, government agencies and so forth, using their excess funds or time to help. The concept of going without myself so that a cause can be advanced or for the welfare of others is not a common trait.
If you will forgive my cynicism, an illustration of this concept can be seen, I believe, in the work of Al Gore. While warning the world of the dangers of global warming and the need to change how we live, he travels to speak in a personal jet polluting far more in one trip than most individuals do in the course of an entire year or more. His defense was reported to be that he buys carbon offsets in the rain forests, but that is a far cry from personal sacrifice, wouldn’t you say? His example is the way many live in these times, standing for causes as long as those causes do not interfere with their own personal lifestyle. That is a far cry from the sacrificial lifestyle of “The Greatest Generation.”
Loyalty is a value that has made significant shifts over recent decades. So many of the people in Brokaw’s books remained working with the same company for decades, pursuing stable careers. Now, it is much more uncommon for someone to work for the same company for an entire lifetime, and even if someone sets out on that path, attractive salary offers can easily lure individuals from one job to another, one location to another. Loyalty is an important character issue. People can be loyal to their employer, loyal to a brand name or a store, loyal to their spouses, and employers can also honor loyalty by the way they treat their employees. When loyalty breaks down, so do lots of other things. Marriages are devastated every day because one spouse is no longer loyal to the other. The Enron disaster of a few years ago demonstrated what happens when management/employers choose not to honor the loyalty of their employees, as so many lost their pensions while those responsible walked away with millions. In cases like that, sometimes I wish I could have been the judge on the bench. I would have sentenced those executives responsible to forfeit their entire savings and personal possessions…including property in spouse’s names, and then be given simple homes and a basic car with which to start life over. Then, I would have ordered them to use the vast sums they stole to pay back proportionally each individual who lost retirement funds, requiring the executive to personally write a check, hand it to the individual with a face to face apology. Why? Because it is clear the individuals involved had lost their way when it came to character and values, and needed to be reminded that real people suffered, and real people trusted them, and real people are important.
Let me provide one last example. Brokaw’s book also highlights the pervasive values of family and religious commitments. Sometimes marriages fall apart because individuals’ values place perceived personal interest above their family when making a marriage and family work is making more demands on them than they are willing to give. The mindset can be one of wanting one’s fun before it’s too late, or it can be an unwillingness to face one’s own shortcomings or put forth the effort needed to make the necessary changes. When family takes second seat to self, there is often a high price to pay. At the same time that this emphasis has suffered decline, individual’s need for God has also declined, not unsurprisingly. When one’s first priority is oneself, there is no need for a God, nor an interest in learning what God might think of our self-centered actions. The cycle continues to spiral, because as one’s involvement with God declines, so the choice of one’s personal values also decline. Values are based on one’s own ideas, one’s desires, and the whims of societal and political winds…each of which provides unreliable guides for one’s moral compass. I guess it wouldn’t really matter what morals and values one might choose to live by, except that when all is said and done, God will judge each of us, and it will be HIS standards that he judges by, not our own. Choosing to live by the wrong set of values will bring great disappointment to say the least.
The point of this blog is simple. I was struck in reading Brokaw’s books to look at my own life and choices in comparison to the examples set by those who went before in that “Greatest Generation.” I encourage you to do the same. What are the values of YOUR life? Not what your words would indicate, but the values actually demonstrated by the way you live, the calendar you keep, the finances you handle. And, having examined those values, what is the basis out of which you choose those values? I would encourage you to not allow the foundation of your values to be the shifting sands of self-interest or popular opinion…be a better person than that! If nothing else, learn that lesson from the Greatest Generation.