Thursday, May 31, 2007

Living happily ever after?

A few posts back, following the May 15 election defeat of the Portland government reform measure, I waxed somber. I rued that many changes I would like to see brought about in Portland simply aren’t going to happen in my lifetime.

Not that the charter revision measure was any great shakes. It failed to address the root problem with the current city government — its utter failure to provide representation for neighborhoods as vital civic institutions.

The measure, as it played out in the campaign, also raised the imagined omen of a “strong mayor”. Opponents were successful in linking the “strong mayor” concept to our problems nationally with a “strong executive branch” in general and our present disastrous administration in particular.

But at least the measure represented movement, so, after some public hand-wringing, I reluctantly voted for it.

Two young readers chose to comment on my seeming post-election doldrums. One assured me that I have more years than I imagine and that I might well see real change in my lifetime. The other simply said that the blog post was “morose.”

In response, I went back and edited the post to explain my feelings. Part of it had to do with Mayor Potter’s concession, in which he said he wouldn’t try again to reform Portland’s archaic governmental structure. That means that if he runs for mayor again and wins another term, the issue is dead for six and a half years.

I’ve had two subsequent thoughts about my mood.

First, I have a responsibility keep my own time-bound perspective from younger generations. They have enough problems to deal with already, and, if we can believe the experts, the problems (global worming, nuclear proliferation, religious intolerance) are only going to get worse, much worse, during their lifetimes. It isn’t fair for me publicly to abandon hope for change.

Recently I’ve been studying the remarkable life of Winston Churchill. His advice to the young late in his life was resounding. “Never give up. Never, EVER, give up!” he told a class of graduates from his “public” (which means private in Britain) school alma mater.

It’s good advice, if only because the opposite, giving up, robs our lives of purpose.

My second thought hinges on the classic fairy tale ending: “They lived happily ever after.” Read to us as small children, the Pollyanna phrase with its buoyant optimism sinks into our psyches.

How much does “happily ever after” shape us? How much does it deceive us?

In both cases, a lot.

For much of our lives, most of us do indeed treat our time here as lasting “ever after” — and I’m not talking about religious notions of an after-life. There also is a presumption that if only we work hard and do the right things, all will turn out “happily.” Jefferson even included the “pursuit of happiness” as a founding principle.

There is obviously no guarantee that we will live “happily ever after.” Indeed life can become very unhappy, even disastrous, in short order. And we mortals obviously don’t have an “ever after.” Our time on this small, blue pebble in space is short and precious.

What would it mean for youth to be spared such sugar-coating. I’m not talking about taking the fun out of childhood, but I am suggesting that we inject constructive, realistic challenges into it.

And at some point, early adolescence perhaps, we need to introduce the very real challenges to be faced in a brief lifetime. We would bury once and for all the “happily ever after” myth.

The change would be a huge cultural undertaking. The mass media feed on the myth of happiness and immortality. We are told repeatedly that if only we buy such-and-such product (a skin moisturizer, a new convertible, a fancy pair of shoes), we will indeed live “happily ever after.”

So one way to get real, as I have written many times before, is to connect to reality, to leave the couch and the TV and venture out the front door.

So am I morose? At 65, do I have plenty of time?

No and sort of.

My hope is that some of my sense of urgency will take hold among the young whom I teach and know. I hope that through my writing and work in media literacy, I will join with others who are teaching younger generations to create a culture of involvement and awareness.

I may not see that change take hold, but by the end of my life I would like to be able to say, as Churchill did, “I did my best.”

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