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Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Greatest Generation


I have finally gotten around to reading Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation.  He writes lots of things I relate to, as he could easily have included my parents for a chapter in the book.  In many ways, he did, not by name but in terms of the kind of people they were. 

In his book, Brokaw highlights such characteristics as honesty, loyalty, humility, endurance, the ability to face hardship and deprivation, dedication, faith, the importance of family and the commitment they demonstrated as they kept lifelong marriage vows.  These were the characteristics instilled through the hardships of the Great Depression, of hard physical labor, and of the crisis of a world at war.  I know personally a number of individuals from that generation whose marriages lasted 50 or 60 years or more!  Brokaw addresses this theme time and again, stating that this generation just seemed to take the vows more seriously back then, and did not consider divorce an option. 

As I have encountered these friends of mine with their long term marriages, I have often wondered how many people from my generation will ever see their 50th anniversary.  

So many divorces.  

Brokaw sees it as a major symptom of changing times, one that is tragic in many ways.  Many in my generation had the blessing of growing up in a stable home with married parents who stayed together throughout their lives.  It is a sad thing that so many children in this day and age will never know what that is like…including my own.  Studies indicate that it really does make a difference. 

At the same time, I would like to raise some thoughts of my own, as kind of response to the ideas raised by Mr. Brokaw, with no slight intended on his observations about that “greatest generation”. 

One of the shifts that I believe has taken place is in the realm of expectations.  While courtship and romance are as popular today as they were back then, the expectations of what married life would be like appears to be different.  Brokaw points out time and again how many of that older generation expected that marriage would take work, and that difficulties, including marital difficulties, were just part of life that had to be faced and conquered.  They didn’t expect to have the perfect marriage.  Instead, they expected to build a great marriage. 

They also didn’t expect to start out with everything in place, but to work their way up.  Dad and I used to take a lot of wedding pictures, and he often commented that newlyweds these days moved into homes that his generation worked their way up into, rather than starting out there.  Brokaw illustrates this through comparing the 1000 sq. ft. homes of that generation versus the 2000+ sq.ft. homes of the 90’s.  Another interesting shift I noted was that while Brokaw highlighted individuals who followed careers for their entire lives, in this day and age instead, it has been estimated that high school graduates today will experience something like 5 major career shifts by the time they retire, and most of those careers do not even exist yet.  These are all significant shifts.  And then there has been that fundamental shift from the fact that back in those days, the bulk of the marriages occurred before they had children and before the couple took up residence together.  It is a different world…and not necessarily better!

There are lots of things that have changed over the years, and the size of starter homes is only one.  Brokaw points out the advances against the racism and sexism which were the norms of society in those days.  But, it seems to me, as Mr. Brokaw focuses on the “ease” with which divorces are obtained these days, he fails to recognize that the change in the divorce rate may well be more than just a lack of follow through on commitment.  An argument could reasonably be made that the hike in the divorce rate is also a symptom of the stresses in a radically changing society.  In addition, in my opinion it is also is a symptom of changing expectations.

For the last few decades, the gender roles in marriage have been shifting.  The fact that more wives are in the work force, sometimes earning more than husbands, and husbands are more involved in the raising of children serve as two simple examples.  I believe the expectations of what to expect a marriage relationship to be like may have shifted as well, with young couples believing, as with the house, that their relationship should start out with a depth they may have seen in that of their parents, without recognizing that their parents’ relationship was the fruit of decades of hard work and committed love.  When they experience hardship, frustration and disappointment instead, it is interpreted as failure rather than as a challenge. 

And now, with the next generation moving to adulthood and marriage, having seen so many parents split up, perhaps even their own, for many of them, the example people like me grew up with is now lost.  Many of this next generation assume single parent homes, step families and divorce is the norm.  Or, conversely, having observed or experienced the brokenness of a divorcing home, they may be building a relationship of reaction against being like their parents, rather than intentionally building their own unique relationship. 

Permit me to turn a different direction, and add one comment that is counter to the image of these wonderful marriages from days of yore.  Much as lifting the cover of those times reveals the racism and sexism of the day, it is also a fact that there were many couples who stayed together in spite of an awful marriage, filled with abuse and adultery.  One of the things that has resulted as women entered the workforce, as well as the social programs that provide assistance to the impoverished, is that women, particularly, have the option of choosing to NOT stay in a bad or dangerous marriage.  While this may have contributed to the divorce rate, it may not be such a bad thing, as it faces the fact that some marriages are not godly marriages at all, but a sham of abusive relationships. 

Better than divorce for even those abusive marriages, of course, would be for the couple to agree to face their problems head on, and do whatever it takes to make the changes necessary to build a better marriage, as many in the “greatest generation” surely did.  But when one partner is unwilling to do that work, the remaining partner faces the choice of whether to stay and endure, to stay, pray and work for gradual change, or to file for divorce and finally acknowledge that the unhealthy situation is dangerous, ungodly and abusive.  Had the men and women of this “greatest generation” also had the same kind of option to choose, and some I have known would have appreciated feeling like they had a choice, then perhaps the “greatest generation” story might have been different.

I admire and honor those of any generation who keep a marriage together for a lifetime; they have done a great thing.  I know such an achievement is not something that just happens; it is something accomplished by two individuals humbly choosing to live with an imperfect partner, to acknowledge their own imperfections, and to work together to grow and learn how to make their marriage work in the face of every difficulty that comes their way.  And in this day and age, I especially honor those who have done so in the face of a shifting society with its shifting values.

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