I started writing this morning and what came out was so depressing, even I couldn’t read it. So I scrapped it. Sometimes The Dark Side beckons me. It makes me feel clever to be cynical. But it’s wrong. Cynicism serves no constructive purpose, other than the occasional perverse chuckle.
I was raised in an era when cynicism – which passed for realism – was the norm of our parents. And why not? They had grown up in the Great Depression. They had experienced the horror of World War II. My father had been a soldier in Germany and had been a P.O.W. He came back emaciated and disillusioned. My mother had grown up so poor that the Welfare people threatened to take her and her sisters away from my grandparents.
So both my parents had good reason to want to lavish their children generously with all that money could buy. My father worked about 80 hours a week and made his unofficial work playing gin rummy with the Big Boys for high stakes. He was shrewd and lucky. My mom was like a kid in a candy shop. Finally, after a childhood and adolescence of deprivation she could indulge in beautiful clothing, luxurious surroundings, and even give back to the community through tireless charity work. We, their children, were the beneficiaries of their desire to see us live their childhood dreams. We were given piano lessons, dance lessons, theater and art training, golf lessons, swimming lessons, and all of us went to “good schools”. I have absolutely no reason to complain about any of it.
But there was a dark undercurrent just below the surface. My parents were of the mind that, basically, the world is filled with liars, cheats, con men, and phonies. Nobody and nothing was to be trusted. My sisters and I were routinely warned from a tender age not to trust boys. When I expressed interest in the performing arts, I was admonished not to fall victim to the “casting couch”. While the Founding Fathers and the Constitution were revered, the Government was seen as a necessary evil that, while it protected us, also could turn on us. The mythology had it that the Big Corporations were out to crush the “little man”. Even religion was suspect.
Maybe if my parents were to read all this they would protest that I was mistaken; that they hadn’t felt that way at all. I can only tell you what came through to me. Psychological truth need not be literally true in order to have its effect.
And so it’s not surprising that I struggle with the question of trust. I want to trust that, as Anne Frank observed in her diary, “People are really good at heart”. But my early childhood conditioning is at odds with that statement. When Bush won this last election (let’s not talk about the election before this one) I couldn’t help but be suspicious. Art pointed out that three million votes are hard to fake. He’s right. But Art is, as he says, “the infernal optimist”.
I’m writing about all this because I don’t think I’m alone. When I talk to friends and relatives of the Baby Boomer generation, they have the same kinds of feelings. We can all remember the sensation of being surrounded by a Dark Cloud growing up. The twin ghosts of The Great Depression and World War II have become the dark lens through which we often see the world. And when bad things happen, as they inevitably do – When the Big Box Stores crush the Mom-and-Pop stores, when Enron makes off with billions of dollars, when spouses cheat, when doctors fake credentials, when priests abuse children – all that mistrust gets reinforced. It takes tremendous will and faith to remind ourselves that these are only the headlines. What really counts are the stories that never make the papers; the honest businessmen, the faithful and devoted spouses, the dedicated doctors, the devoted clergy.
It all makes me wonder. What ghosts will we pass on to our own children?
© 2004 Robin Munson