Once upon a time, when many of my waking hours were spent with adolescents, I found myself at odds with the boss. To him, the young people in our care were best served by comforting them with the notion that “failure is not an option.” I, on the other hand, dared them to fail. I had a bulletin board and everything.
Adversity is a funny thing in America, today. We reserve our greatest celebrations for those who overcome it but then we spend a great deal of energy protecting ourselves from it. I am reminded of this now because so many of my fellow citizens—well, they look like citizens on TV, anyway—are facing adversity. With homes destroyed and floodwaters rising, whole communities rally to support one another.
On the other hand, despite gasoline and power shortages in the days after one storm where it was rather hot and humid, there were reports of children watching movies in their cars; the only place where the temperature could be controlled. This is America: we can rally in the face of the gravest threats but, as soon as some fossil fuel becomes available, we get right back at it.
I am convinced that the best way to get to know and care about someone is to share hard times and get through it together or, dare I say, fail together. I think this is why the Greatest Generation gets such a cool nickname. Facing down the twin disasters of the Great Depression and World War II, the measure of their greatness is the measure of the difficulties they faced. There is a downside to this, of course; sometimes adversity wins. That’s why they call it adversity.
Once things settled down and the Greatest Generation got around to raising kids, they seem to have forgotten everything they learned. As to the kids, well, one of the most difficult things the baby boomers had to endure was the greatness of the previous generation. Just ask those 70 million baby boomers out there how great their generation is. If you don’t know how to break the ice on this one, you might say, “So, sixty-something American person, what did you and your generation accomplish after being raised in the richest, most comfortable society the world has ever known?” Chances are he or she will be offended at the premise of your question; which means, of course, you will have made your point.
One of the finest stories about overcoming adversity in American history is the 1804-1806 expedition of the Corps of Discovery, planned by President Thomas Jefferson and led by Lewisandclark. Through preparation, skill, and a whole boatload of luck, the 33 permanent members successfully floated and foraged their way across North America; a two-way journey of over seven thousand miles that took almost two and a half years—without a map. And they took along a black guy and a [Native American] woman, too. He was a slave, of course, and she had been kidnapped; but it’s still pretty cool that they were there (“Undaunted Courage” by Stephen E. Ambrose is the finest telling of this tale).
These were the early days of the republic and control of the continent was in question. The Spanish had claims to the Southwest in what is now Arizona, New Mexico, California and part of Colorado. British trappers and traders had begun moving into the Louisiana Territory from Canada before it had been sold to the United States by France. At a cost of about three cents an acre, the ill-defined Louisiana gave the United States credibility up to the front range of the Rocky Mountains; this, however, meant little without the physical presence of American interests. Beyond the Rockies, claims were even more nebulous. The final destination of the Corps of Discovery was the western edge of the Oregon country and the Pacific Ocean.
At the time, Oregon was simultaneously claimed by Russia, Britain and the United States. Legitimizing these claims meant building outposts defended by a military presence, establishing and controlling trading relationships, and mapping the unknown vastness of North America.
In short, the trek across the continent was a quest for empire.
You’ll forgive me that I haven’t mentioned the actual inhabitants of the land being claimed and counter-claimed. I am white, after all. While President Jefferson jockeyed with Britain, Spain and Russia, he knew he would have to deal with the Indians. One of the goals of the expedition was to learn enough about the economics and politics of the various tribes in order to entice them into supporting and profiting from the development of a trapping-and-trading system. All the best American stories are about money.
In order for this to work, Lewisandclark informed the tribes along the Missouri that they must stop waging war on one another. While you might think that establishing peace and making money would be seen as positive developments, Lewisandclark learned that not all people think this way. Indeed, many of the young braves among the Shoshone informed them that, without war, they would have no opportunity to demonstrate their bravery. Like I mentioned earlier, war creates adversity and, most importantly, the opportunity to overcome it. For the Shoshone, those most brave in war became the chiefs.
If Lewisandclark had their way, peace and riches would leave the tribe untested and leaderless. This, of course, is exactly what Jefferson was after. Either way, I think those Shoshone braves had an important lesson for us all; and they weren’t even citizens.
Despite appearances, I have no desire to rain adversity down upon people and see how they handle it. I do, however, have a little problem with raising our children as if there were none forthcoming; that we have at least some small responsibility to teach them that sometimes things just don’t turn out so well; that, to live without the possibility of failure is not to live at all.
And, do we really need our houses blown down to get to know the neighbors?
Jimmy P. Morgan is a semi-retired History teacher who writes about World Affairs, Social Justice, Politics and Education. He can be reached at JimmyPMorganDayz@gmail.com.