‘The Greatest Generation’ is a term used to describe those who lived in the fraught era of the Second World War. Journalist Tom Brokaw popularised the phrase when he made it the title of his 1998 book, in which he argues that these men and women were remarkable in that they fought not for the recognition, but simply because it was the ‘right thing to do’.
Without a doubt, the Second World War had a galvanising effect on people, the likes of which have never been seen before or since. Entire populations united against injustice, fighting for the weak and the poor, for flag, queen, and country.
Victory came. On the 2nd of September 1945, the final surrender was signed and the fighting ceased. The allies had won. But time passed, and as the troops returned home, we found that the world had not really been fixed. We were left with a generation of battle-scarred men and political turmoil on a global scale. In the complex aftermath of victory, we lost our sense of unity and purpose. Disillusionment spread. As important as the war had been, it was over, it could no longer be our rallying cry. All the War had offered and fought for didn’t last, didn’t satisfy, and didn’t unite.
Many of our veterans returned with feelings of guilt or meaninglessness that weren’t acknowledged or understood for years to come, if at all. Victory had left so many floundering in a vacuum of purposelessness. It was hard to face the idea that so little had actually changed postwar, and even harder for many to admit that if ‘this’ is all they fought for, it didn’t seem worth it.
Each generation, it seems, has to learn for itself that it’s dangerous to ask the world for satisfaction. If even the great and noble cause of World War II did not satisfy, how petty seem our demands on money, sex, and success — or even purer pursuits like family, charity, and progress?
The Northern Irish philosopher Peter Rollins understands the problem of putting our hope for fulfilment in such causes, noble or not. He encourages individuals to aim high and achieve their wildest dreams, not to find happiness or fulfilment, but to ‘confront the lie of our fantasy’ . It is then that any meaningful philosophy can begin, once we have stared into the face of our emptiness and apparent meaninglessness.
Then we can admit that, as important as our family might be, they can’t satisfy us entirely. If we truly believed they could, then why would we take the job that forces us to move away? If we really believed our careers could satisfy, why do we look forward to the relief of the weekend? If it’s money, then why do the richest of us so often squander it on harmful substances to escape?
We all want peace and love and fulfilment, but we appear to want it in infinite supply and infinite duration. Everything we do is working towards that end with the hope that this time it will really work. This time the thrill won’t fade, the sacrifice won’t be a waste, and the hope won’t be in vain. It always is.
So what is the solution to our dissatisfaction? What could possibly be greater than the causes that have failed so many? Whatever language you use to describe it, there is only one cause that even conceptually stands a chance at satiating our hunger: God. Nothing else claims so boldly to offer real, eternal, satisfying hope. Without God, everything we fought for, everything that has ever meant anything to anyone, will be lost when their final breath has been drawn.
God is the only cause we’ve ever even dreamt of that death may not rob from us. Accepting this always results in a painful rejection of any hope apart from him. If you want real peace, hope, and meaning, you want Jesus. Anything else, no matter how noble, will only briefly distract us from our deepest eternal hunger. He is the only way.