We are blessed with the curse of living in interesting times, and our duty is to bear witness.
Like the Greatest Generation, we are in the midst of a fight for our lives, and we don’t know yet how it will end. We are still Londoners in the dark days of the Blitz.
For our wartime parents and grandparents, the battles were furious and deadly, but the good guys won and democracy prevailed. Americans sacrificed together, mourned together and danced together on VJ Day.
Those of us born after the two world wars know about them because others told the story. In a strange and wonderful coincidence, the movie “Hamilton” began streaming online on July Fourth (of course). One line from it is, “Who lives, who dies, who tells the story?”
The creator of the show, Lin Manuel Miranda, speaks to being part of history, and at the same time observing the moment. We know about World War II because of writers like Stephen Ambrose, and we know about the founding of our country because Washington and Jefferson and Madison and Franklin and Hamilton took pen to paper. We experience the Holocaust on a visceral level when we read Elie Wiesel’s account of being a 7-year-old in Auschwitz in “Night.”
We know their stories because they were willing to bear witness to the history they were living. Perhaps they were compelled. Bearing witness is both a gift to the future and a psychological release. We talk about our trauma and the burden is shared.
Here, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the catastrophe of the Trump years, we must tell our stories. To use another famous line from “Hamilton,” we are all, every one of us, in the room where it happened. We have lived the Trump years day to day, and suffered the assault on our American values, the evisceration of the governmental agencies that have kept us safe and the disregard for the very earth that sustains us.
Whatever your talent or ability, keep chronicling these days so that others can know what happened during the pandemic. Write the stories, paint the pictures, take out your phone and start snapping photos. Build new furniture for this time or create new recipes that helped you cope. Begin a diary.
I am imploring my own grandkids to keep a journal of these days. Their experience is unique because this is the only childhood they know, and it is trapped in the constraints of pandemic protocols. They are observing how the grownups in the room are coping, and they are learning how to behave during a protracted emergency. Someday, we hope, their children and grandchildren will want to know how they survived this moment.
Whatever our skill set, we must bear witness, not just to the disease and how it shoved us, body and soul, so far off course. We must remember, and record for the future, the offenses of Donald Trump and his supporters.
We saw the run-up to the 2016 election. Enough of us Americans were willing to elect Trump to the presidency, despite his lack of leadership skills, despite his toxic attitudes toward women and minorities, despite his disregard for old alliances and friends abroad and despite his lack of basic decency. We did it for our “pocketbooks” or for a “shakeup” in Washington or because we heard the veiled racism and xenophobia in his speeches and it appealed to us.
We were all in the room when he got elected, and we have been languishing in that room these past three years. But while we have been stuck in a bad place, we have been recording events of the day and turning them into memories, and we can share these with generations to come so that our history will not repeat itself. Next time a charlatan comes to town selling snake oil, perhaps the public will be savvy and principled enough to send him or her packing.
When we wonder aloud “What could go wrong?,” when we think about electing another dangerous fool, perhaps we will be scared straight by an account of the pandemic of 2020 and the story of a president whose incompetence and indifference led to thousands and thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Bearing witness is an edge on immortality. We may be gone someday, but we won’t be forgotten if someone reads our book or sees our play or listens to our music.
Copyright 2020 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.