journey post 14: Grammar School of Freedom
If you’ve seen the movie “Braveheart,” you likely sat transfixed as I did, contemplating both the horror of the death faced by Scottish warrior William Wallace and the indomitable spirit of the man whose lips emitted that final cry. What men and women are willing to do to secure freedom for their own people has historically called forth the best impulses of the human heart and mind in self-giving sacrifice—and still does. That same spirit of sacrifice shown by those who fought World War II is why we call them “The Greatest Generation.”
I am a child of the 1960s. I remember sitting transfixed, contemplating that spirit as I read stories and watched movies or heard people speak of that generation. They were not so far removed from us then as now, for they were our parents, our teachers, neighbors, uncles and aunts, still in the prime of life.
The Sixties was the grammar school of my generation. Grammar school (or, elementary school) is the time when young children soak in the basic structural pieces of learning (the 3 R’s) that enable them to explore and think and verbalize the world around them. The beauty of the system as it was originally designed was that these building blocks would become internalized in such a way that those basics could be utilized without much conscious thought while continuing to learn.
And so it was that the stories of routine courage and doing the right thing to support the war effort (in jobs and “victory gardens” and innumerable other small acts of selflessness) was also a “grammar school”—those stories penetrated our minds and became such a part of our thinking that words such as “sacrifice” and “service” became closely associated with the word “freedom.”
It was a unique time in which to come of age. I graduated from Eagle Rock High (Los Angeles) in the summer of 1966. When I think of the Sixties, my head is usually crowded with pictures of turmoil, trouble, and tension: the civil rights movement and people being beaten by police and attacked by dogs, more casual sex, routine drugs, burning cities, anti-war protests, and, of course, our nation’s time (and my time) in Vietnam. Those pictures reflect the cultural memory of an era.
But it did not begin that way…. Contrary to that turmoil-filled snapshot, the decade began with calls to serve and to sacrifice, calls to selfless ideals worthy of the children of our parents.
The “Greatest Generation” had beaten back the Nazis and made the world safe to dream again. It was a time of high idealism, fresh starts. The words of our young President, himself a war hero, rang in our ears: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” This was not simply great rhetoric, but precisely captured the spirit of the time. Our teachers in high school echoed the idealism sparked by his calls to excellence and the vigor with which he pursued life. We were ready to answer the call to explore and conquer a “new frontier.” The Peace Corps and civil rights legislation were its natural accompaniment.
We were inspired, too, by freedom. “Let freedom ring,” as Dr. King proclaimed the dream from the steps of the Lincoln shrine. Folk songs also proclaimed the themes: freedom and justice for all, life and peace, help for the poor and oppressed and uneducated: “How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?…” Freedom was on the move throughout Africa and elsewhere: colonialism was dead, it seemed. Castro was a hero as he led his rebel bands against the powerful dictator Bautista.
Yet freedom took on new, darker, meanings as the decade progressed. The “free speech movement,” begun at Berkeley in 1964, was a harbinger of a new sense of personal freedom, an individualized independence whose time had come. It fit right in with our grammar school of freedom that seemed to put its imprimatur upon this more personal freedom. There was an increasing openness to free love (sex without commitment), and drugs (not so free)…. Even the sex life of our dead President, whispered at first then emblazoned in the tabloids, lent tacit approval (while dampening our idealism).
In mid-decade, Dusty Springfield had a huge hit that reflected the emerging acceptance of a more individualistic form of freedom (and love):
“You don’t have to say you love me
Just be close at hand
You don’t have to stay forever
I will understand
Believe me, believe me
I can’t help but love you
But believe me
I’ll never tie you down.”*
“You don’t have to say you love me” was probably Dusty’s signature song. It was also a signature song of the 60’s promise of freedom: “I’ll never tie you down.” It was the new definition: “I am free when I am free from impediments or obstacles to do whatever I want” (Tim Keller). The definition would be reflected in our increasing consumerism and insistence on personal rights, and our growing litigiousness. Hippies became Yuppies and generations since are labeled with variations of “Me.”
While “freedom” was shifting from other-centered idealism to a more me-centered practicality, our idealism was dying. Being in Southeast Asia at first seemed to be about freedom, but the value of sacrificing for freedom and our early idealism got bogged down in a quagmire that promised only more body bags and mistrusted body counts. 1968 was the nadir of the decade. The Tet Offensive left us stunned, and our trusted news anchor Walter Cronkite returned from a visit to South Vietnam with the verdict that we could not win. LBJ announced he would not run again, and the real prospect of a second President Kennedy was exciting. But it was not to be. Our idealism and hope finally crashed to the floor on a Memphis motel balcony and a Los Angeles hotel kitchen, and politics-as-usual retook the floor…. “Where have all the flowers gone?” asked Peter, Paul, and Mary. “Bye Bye, Miss American Pie….”
You may not agree with my analysis of the decade. Granted, I’m too close to it. I don’t claim it as objective history, and I’m more concerned anyway with painting a picture here of my own perspective, my context, for the statements I made at the end of last post. You’re likely wondering what the connection is between all the foregoing and C.S. Lewis, the “law of human nature,” the “great unease,” and the stuff about missing the implications of that law and my setting myself up to buy into a legalistic version of American evangelical Christianity. I have a lot to share about that in the next two posts. The connection is our desire for freedom: We were designed for freedom. But as the 60s drew to a close, I felt very unfree, though I was inceasingly intrigued by a promise that Jesus made: “If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). I was intrigued, but would remain puzzled about it for some 30+ years. That’s why I must write about it here before pronouncing a wrap on Lewis.
In the 1960s, we were chasing freedom, but we ended in bondage. Chasing freedom, I bought into more legalism. The Church did not make me a legalist: I already was that, long before. Legalism and its concomitant, the performance mindset, was a problem for me and for Christianity. But it was not peculiar to me or to the Church. It is a problem endemic to us all.
*English lyrics by Vicki Wickham, http://www.lyricsfreak.com/d/dusty+springfield/you+dont+have+to+say+you+love+me_20044060.html, (accessed 8/28/13)