By observable and anthropological data, a human generation is roughly three decades. It’s by the age of thirty that people reach maturity (most, not all), establish growing families of their own, and begin the transitional phase of succeeding older generations in the workplace and community.
As time passes and one generation melds into another, the collective memory of a society changes. For example, a living American would have to be over 80 years of age today to remember the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of World War Two. That’s only about six percent of the current population. Thus, as a first hand experience of the American people, it will soon be forgotten.
While the percentages and demographics will fluctuate, other “unforgettable” events will one day live only in the stories we have been told and the history books which we read. The Apollo moon landing; the collapse of the Berlin Wall; the Challenger disaster; and yes, even the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Half a generation – 15 years – has now passed, and more than a quarter of the U.S. population has no memory of the event. It’s not that they “forgot,” they were simply too young or not yet born to have experienced it. Three such individuals live in my own home. My youngest son was only a glint in my eye in 2001, and my other children were preschoolers. When I speak of 9/11 they listen intently to be sure, but they have that faraway look in their eyes that I had when my parents spoke about the assassination of President Kennedy.
The solution is not to take our children back in time, as if we could. The solution is understanding and integration. We must help them reflect upon that dreadful Tuesday morning in September and grasp the geopolitical, religious, economic, and social causes of that day. We must help then recognize the equally complicated repercussions that have followed.
We can help them understand that they – like all of us – have inherited the blessings and curses of those who lived before us; and in turn, the generations to come will inherit their own failures and victories. So remembering is not an academic exercise. It’s not a test given during history class or a game of conjuring up the bygones of yesteryear. It is a necessary practice in building the future.
The Apostle Paul gave similar instructions to a generation of young believers who had not experienced for themselves the tragedy and triumphs of the past. Speaking of their collective past, he said: “These are warning markers in our history books, written down so that we don’t repeat their mistakes – they at the beginning, we at the end – as we are just as capable of messing up as they were.” Or, as articulated so well by George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is the perennial lesson of remembering: For the sake of tomorrow and the generations to come.