My wife and I spent last Saturday afternoon with our three children exploring the famous and exotic art works on display at the LA County Museum of Art. Yet what caught the attention of our twin 10-year-old girls was a grainy oversized poster of two youths on a Berlin street heaving rocks at Russian tanks.
Why, Lucia and Antonia wanted to know, were they throwing stones? Wouldn’t the tanks fire on them? What happened to the young men in the photo?
Their questions forced my wife and I into a quick retelling of postwar German history, as we toured the exhibit of “The Art of Two Germanys / Cold War Culture.” Starting with graphic photos of the firebombing of Dresden, our explanations of how Germany came to be divided and how the two nations took such different courses raised many more questions than we could adequately answer.
The attention span of 10 year-olds being what it is, we eventually moved on to other topics. But later that evening, on a visit to Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena, the day’s collision with art and politics triggered a difficult conversation with my 12-year-old son.
Diego is a voracious consumer of fantasy novels, particularly those that feature dragons. It has seemed like a harmless phase; the spellbinding stories and gorgeously rendered natural histories of mythical creatures have enriched both his imagination and vocabulary.
Having forgotten to bring his own allowance money, Diego turned to me to buy for him A Practical Guide to Dragon Riding. I refused. Thinking of the young men and the tanks, I urged him to look beyond the seductive world of fantasy to the shelves of books on other topics. You’ll be needing a practical guide to the real world, I advised.
Diego, of course, was looking for a cash advance, not advice. But for me, our filial drama raised the curtain on the global drama coming soon to the theater of our lives. Everyone now knows that our children are going to be adjusting to tough economic times. But few are anticipating the global geopolitical upheaval that the financial crisis will inevitably unleash on their sheltered lives. The Four Horsemen follow in the wake of economic disaster, bringing conquest, war, famine and death.
I grew up with my parent’s stories of the Depression and World War II. It was impossible to escape the indelible imprint of those global catastrophes. History was not something that happened in books or to other countries – it was a dominant feature in their personal stories.
Today, only the governments of Iceland and Latvia have collapsed so far, but titanic forces are unmistakably stirring. The sickening roller coaster ride of volatile global markets, the accelerating shrinkage in world trade, and the rising demands of nations to protect their own will inevitably topple political structures with the same shock and severity that is now sweeping through our economic institutions.
In reality and in metaphor, young people are gathering the stones that will soon be hurled at tanks around the world. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the lessons of history. Parents obviously hope their children will live in a world of stability and prosperity. But our curse is to live in interesting times.
Neither children nor their parents are prepared for this. Neither my father’s father, nor the father of Anne Frank, nor the fathers of those anonymous Berlin youths could adequately explain to their children what was happening, nor provide them sure-footed guidance in the shadow of forces beyond anyone’s control. Still, parents today have an urgent responsibility to try.
Character and resilience are the only lasting legacies we can leave our children, and they will need both in the times ahead. As difficult as it will be, we can take heart from the words of Victor Frankl, the renowned thinker and concentration camp survivor. “The world is in a bad state,” he wrote, “but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
Rick Cole is the City Manager of Ventura, California, where he has championed smart growth strategies and revitalization of the historic downtown. He previously served as the City Manager of Azusa, and earlier, as mayor of Pasadena. He has been called “one of Southern California’s most visionary planning thinkers" by the LA Times.