The wisdom of a baby boomer’s age

Sometimes baby boomers tell stories at BoomerCafé about their lives. And sometimes they tell stories about the wisdom their lives have given them. That’s what this Boomer Opinion piece by Estella Clifford of Glenside, Pennsylvania, is about. The wisdom to survive adversity. And the need to experience it.

I was in high school in the late 60s, and in college in the early 70s. I remember campus unrest, demonstrations, protests, and Kent State. A time of upheaval, social change, and conflict.

Estella Clifford at her ivy-clad alma mater, circa 1975.

Lots of conflict. College administrations were part of the Establishment. Students rebelled, and hidebound administrations dug in, seemingly intractable. Therefore, it was startling to read a recent CBS News article about students protesting because colleges were bringing controversial speakers to campuses!

In America, white supremacy and racism conflict with our Constitutional premise that “All men are created equal.” So when I heard that students from at least five universities were against having white supremacist Richard Spencer speak at their institutions, I was initially heartened, glad they were rejecting his fascist, white supremacist ideology and rhetoric. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and their henchmen taught the world hard lessons in fascism, an ideology worthy of rejection in 2017. But when Bill Maher asked students, “Whoever told you, you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?”, he made a significant point. We can’t and shouldn’t avoid all conflict.

Free speech and debate are under fire at educational institutions, where students have protested controversial speakers on the right and the left.
(photo credit: CBS News)

A professor I know, a man with more than four decades of teaching experience, was castigated by an undergraduate woman for “making” her read a piece of literature that “upset” her, because someone died in it. “What did you make her read?” I asked, astonished. “Last Exit to Brooklyn?” (A troubling novel that provides a glimpse inside disturbed minds, both those of the characters, and the author, it is not easy to read). Well, no. This student had simply had to read a standard piece of college fare, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet. If a fictional character dying in a classic piece of literature upsets someone, I thought, how would they react to the front page of a newspaper?

Anti-Vietnam War protest at Kent State University. May 1970.

Today, even high school teachers search for literature that won’t “offend” students. Some schools have “safe” rooms, allowing students to avoid things that upset them. Yes, survivors of violent attacks (like Sandy Hook) benefit from such things. For most of us though, life does not have safe rooms. Life is not always comfortable.

What will safe room users do when they get a job, and get a less-than-stellar review? When they meet hate? When a guy on a street corner claims to know what God wants, and tells them to renounce (or worse) the people who do X, Y, or Z? Avoiding stressful situations will NOT teach anyone how to analyze, evaluate, and refute the preaching of charlatans.

Kent State. May 1970.

Students inherently don’t know it all. (Yeah, I remember being a teenager and thinking I was smarter than the adults. I was wrong.) Teachers and professors are there because they’ve already been around the block a few times. College is where, if you read something that disturbs or challenges you, it’s probably by design, to elicit questions and discussion and communication in the place to learn to deal with it. This is the safe space that is needed.

Sure, you can turn off the TV, ignore the news, and insulate yourself from the world, but that’s not living. You can’t avoid pain and hurt; they are inevitable. They are one of the ways we grow. If you don’t learn that you can get through something bad and survive, you don’t learn that it will pass, and you will emerge stronger.

Simply put, conflict is. Not intrinsically good or bad, conflict just exists. Use it wisely. Let the controversial speaker speak. Use the opportunity to listen, then use logic, reason, and examples to destroy specious arguments. Conflict is daunting, but if we don’t face our fears, if we don’t confront wrong, we’ll always be looking over our collective shoulder.

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12 Comments

    1. Thanks, Larry. The country is going through a bad patch. We got past Vietnam; I have to believe we’ll get to the other side of this one.

    1. Thank you. The idea that conflict just “is” that it is not good or bad, but just a fact of life really changed how I respond to it, in whatever area it arises. Maher’s quote reminded me of that.

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