The two soldier students didn’t choose their school, profession or companions. In 1945, the Army tested them in order to designate them as engineers, field intelligence officers, or physicians. Andrew’s dad thought of being a pastor. My dad was a history major in college, and wrote his mother that he hated math, so hoped he didn’t have to become an engineer. He had never thought of being a doctor. Field intelligence was his hope. They both tested into the medical school cohort. My father then wrote that he wanted to be sent to Ole Miss. The tennis was good there. He got sent instead to Medical College of Georgia. Daniel A. (DA) McLaurin and Nat Smith met at medical school–DA gave Nat a ride home on holidays, dropping him in York, SC before going on to Mooresville, NC, where his family lived. Both men had much of their future career determined for them by those few years in the military.
So much that we don’t choose shapes us in extraordinary ways. Andrew and I chose each other. My life is so deeply impressed with the imprint of his love. Yet, we wouldn’t have met if we hadn’t been drawn to the world of medicine, a world we knew in part through our fathers. Andrew very intentionally followed a career influenced by his father’s example. I was mostly struck by my father’s interest in public health and universal access to care. He liked learning about other cultures, something he was drawn to in war time Korea, Japan, and Panama. I want to know all about the cultures of others, too.
We didn’t know our fathers were classmates until we were engaged. It came up out of the blue. “Where did your dad go to med school?” We both had the same answer, then followed the trail back to their shared history. It seems like an amazing coincidence, but there are so many connections and subconscious forces that attract us, like a magnet, to the places and things we cling to. It’s a strange mix of individual free will, collective cultural-familial patterning and genetic predisposition that ends up looking to us like a life’s solitary path. Autonomy, that prized American value, really is fleetingly, if ever, real.
Our fathers’ generation has been called the greatest. But they too, lived in a communal world made up of their grandparents, cultures and impulses. We all belong to every generation. Genesis, a word about beginnings that bear fruit, is related to our word generation. Generation is always a forward-moving idea, producing a continuity and a security for a future unseen time.
Perhaps we hark back to the idea of a greatest generation because we have lost some of what has always connected us to all generations, to the very beginnings of creation and to each other. I wonder about that when I see adolescents in clinic whose histories have been defined for them by their self-understandings of the past fifteen years, a time equivalent to half a generation. Their stories are distressing–homelessness, bullying, drug-addicted parents, foster care and trauma overshadow many of their childhoods. This week, as I listened to several new patients, they told me how they didn’t trust people, didn’t celebrate holidays and didn’t want to be like their family members.
They hope to make a fresh start, to begin a new generation that is loosed from the past. They want to create, to generate. Most have few skills for such a task. For them, autonomy would lead to chaos. They need dependence and interdependence, and even that maligned word, codependence. They need to be tightly connected to people who can model for them the kinds of lives to which they aspire. They need to be able to cross generations and cultures and genetics, and grasp hands that are older and wrinkly and differently colored than theirs. They need stories, ones like Genesis, that will root them in world history and also in eternity. They will need all of us to be present with them.
I tell them their stories are not complete. Their biggest truth now may change its meaning. I don’t know how much of an impact we are making at the clinic, but I pray for these members of Generation Z, or whatever label someone else puts on them, to know a love that is wider, deeper, broader and higher than any they have imagined. And to know that as a child of God, they belong to all generations and to all of us.