The Next Greatest Generation
The depth and breadth of a crisis is never determined by the event itself. These boundaries are always defined by the quality and effectiveness of our response. Unfortunately, at a time when individual efforts need to be aligned to form a cooperative community response to an assortment of global crises, we instead find ourselves in panicked retreat, seeking the comfortable corners of ideology and nationalism.

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) spoke these words in 1933 amid the United States suffering its fourth year of the Great Depression. Then, as now, it seemed the scaffolding that supported the American dream had buckled. Everything once considered normal had collapsed into an unrecognizable heap of wasted effort and failed aspirations.

Like many, I have heard Roosevelt’s words numerous times. However, I must admit that while I understood their intent, until recently I never fully grasped the depth of their meaning or the warning they conveyed.

FDR understood that the framework for a better tomorrow is not constructed from the efforts of our past, but from our core values and our unwavering commitment to a better future. His statement acknowledges a simple truth: Fear is the kryptonite of our dreams. It weakens and atrophies our values and compromises our highest aspirations. It causes individuals, groups and, on occasion, entire populations to speak and act in a manner they would perceive as unthinkable were it not for fear. Fear diminishes.

It is common to hear our current circumstance referred to as unprecedented – it is not. Throughout human history there have been immense challenges that have tested humankind’s values, spirit and resolve. During FDR’s lifetime alone, he and his generation experienced World War I, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression and World War II. We have been here before. It’s only the relative calm of the past 50 years that has leveled us complacent, weakening our vision and resolve. Our memories have dimmed to the challenges and herculean human sacrifice required to overcome the unimaginable.

Yes, today we face unique, colossal and simultaneous challenges: climate change, environmental degradation, technical disruption, a pandemic and a battered global economy. But uniqueness defines every crisis, and the current circumstances are no different. What is more important is what they have in common with the catastrophic events of the past – they are global in scale. As such, no individual will escape their impact and no nation, no matter how wealthy or powerful, will be able to ignore them nor resolve them unilaterally. We, as individuals and as a global community, are in this together.

FDR and his compatriots are revered as the Greatest Generation. The reason: in the face of massive uncertainty, they stepped up and forward. In a globally coordinated effort, they risked everything they held dear in defense of a grander vision. In doing so, they delivered a future that would exceed all expectations, a future that we have had the privilege to live.

Now, it is our turn. Denial is not a strategy and retreat is not sustainable. The time has come to acknowledge the struggle ahead and step past our fear and toward our grandest vision of who we are and what we represent as individuals, as a nation, and, ultimately, as part of a global community. We have the knowledge, the tools and the capabilities to persevere. Only one question remains: Do we have the vision, the courage and the strength of character required to be the next Greatest Generation?

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Rick Thomas