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How does living through historic events and tragedies change us?

2020 was packed with unprecedented moments, and this year seems like it will be no different.
The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, joined other notable historic events in American history, including the coronavirus pandemic and Victory over Japan Day.
The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, joined other notable historic events in American history, including the coronavirus pandemic and Victory over Japan Day. [ ZUMA Wire, AP and St. Petersburg Times ]
Published Jan. 18
Updated Jan. 20

It’s been almost a year of living through a pandemic with a defined end still out of sight. This year kicked off with an armed mob swarming the U.S. Capitol and a second presidential impeachment. An entire nation is living through future excerpts of a history textbook.

And it’s exhausting.

“We are all uniformly experiencing not having a good day right now,” said Dr. Ryan Wagoner, vice chairman for clinical services at University of South Florida Health Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences. “I think that cohesion, and that everybody is going through it, that probably impacts your ability to see a solution towards the end.”

Experts say surviving national traumas can bring us together. But how will these unprecedented historic events shape the people who live through them?

University of South Florida historian Gary Mormino looks back to his father’s generation, which grew up during the Great Depression and went on to serve in the war. He remembers his dad withdrawing cash from a credit union, but refusing to take out a credit card.

“That was an entire generation that also was putting their money in their beds because there was a bank run in the 1920s and there was no federal insurance. If your bank collapsed, you lost your lifetime savings,” he said. “The question of my generation was ‘Where were you and what were you doing at the time of John Kennedy’s assassination?’”

For Terri Lipsey Scott, that first defining moment came when she was 9 years old. She still remembers the riots after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

This 1968 photograph shows the aftermath of a race riot in St. Petersburg following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.
This 1968 photograph shows the aftermath of a race riot in St. Petersburg following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. [ State Library and Archives of Florida (1968) ]

“It was very scary for me as a child, because that was one of the first times I had ever witnessed my parents’ tears,” said Lipsey Scott, executive director of the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg. “It shaped me in the sense of understanding the cruelty of the world.”

The 2020 killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd marked another major historic moment.

“We couldn’t turn our heads. We were laser focused on what was happening around us,” Lipsey Scott said. “The scab has been pulled back on a wound that we were hopeful had begun to heal.”

This time, she was in her parents’ position — trying to figure out how to talk about what was happening with her children and grandchildren.

“I don’t want them to see me cry. But I want them to understand the severity of what’s going on around us,” she said. “And how do I protect you from this? And the reality is, I can’t. I can’t protect you. This is the world in which we live.”

Profound moments can unite people in a generation, Wagoner said. He compared these events to being in a car accident — your senses become heightened, and you remember details well. There’s a reason why bringing up an event like 9/11 often is followed by the question, “Where were you when it happened?”

“Many people find these major events to be so important that it almost feels personal,” he said. “That kind of almost creates this sense, this connection, with other people.”

While events bond the generations who witness them, it may be harder to connect with later generations that did not live through the experience.

These days, social media makes living through big moments even more personal. We aren’t just following stories as they unfold on television or on the radio — we might be posting pictures, doom scrolling, live tweeting or direct messaging posts to loved ones.

Rioters climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.
Rioters climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021. [ JOSE LUIS MAGANA | AP ]

“If this is sort of a personal experience for you, and now you actually can get involved in the story a bit, you can see how that creates an even more personal connection,” Wagoner said. “And people feel even more emotions about it, because they are kind of participating in the event in the aftermath.”

Not all unifying events are tragedies, Mormino said. He called Victory over Japan Day, which marked the end of the second World War, “collectively the happiest day in American history.” The mass hysteria of joy as soldiers returned home set off a major cultural shift: Marriages and births skyrocketed, ushering in the baby boomer generation. The GI bill encouraged many to attend college. Car sales shot up.

The day Japan surrendered and World War II was over, people linked arms and marched down Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. An Aug. 14, 1945, photo shows a girl holding a special edition of the St. Petersburg Times.
The day Japan surrendered and World War II was over, people linked arms and marched down Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. An Aug. 14, 1945, photo shows a girl holding a special edition of the St. Petersburg Times. [ STAFF | St. Petersburg Times (1945) ]

Armistice Day at the end of World War I was equally delirious, and a dynamic creative decade followed. There was the jazz age, booming cinema, a literary renaissance and the rise of cities, Mormino said. There were also more sinister developments: the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and increasing racial violence. The ′20s in Florida were stained with two terrible tragedies: the Rosewood and Ocoee massacres, in which dozens of Black Floridians were killed.

So what determines if a major historic event, happy or tragic, will change us? It’s hard to predict how humans behave as a group, Wagoner said, but there are some things we can learn from the past.

This was the front page of a special edition of the St. Petersburg Times on Sept. 11, 2001.
This was the front page of a special edition of the St. Petersburg Times on Sept. 11, 2001. [ St. Petersburg Times ]

Singular events often cause that personal reaction that allows us to bond with others. Sometimes they usher in new policy changes. After 9/11, Americans had to adapt to new safety measures when traveling. Taking off shoes at the airport and going through extra security steps is now a regular part of life.

But singular events don’t usually change an entire generation’s outlook on life. Human beings are often stuck in their ways, Wagoner explained.

“How many things did you see change in daily life because the Challenger exploded? The answer to that is probably not many,” Wagoner said. “People were upset. There was a large focus on it at the beginning. But did that lead to major societal shifts? No, it really didn’t.”

Protracted events, like extended periods of war or economic distress, or a pattern of repeated events, like prolonged exposure to riots, are more likely to trigger generational change.

America is approaching its one-year pandemic anniversary, and the experience has already changed the way we think and behave. While mask wearing continues to be a divisive topic, the practice feels more normal than it did early on. Curbside pickup, grocery delivery and widespread working from home are also big changes.

Wagoner said the key to getting through these events is to not focus as much as getting back to how things were. Instead, try to find a way back to a consistent routine.

Related: 5 mental health tips as we wait for the pandemic to end

Lipsey Scott has guided her family members to look inward during this time of uncertainty.

“We can only be the light that we would like to shine brightly in the world in which we live. And that’s my message to my children, to my grandchildren,” she said. “Allow this little light of ours to be a beacon of hope. Who do we want to be? How do we want to be seen in the world?”

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Tampa Bay Times U.S. Capitol coverage

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EDITORIAL: The ugly spectacle perfectly captured the Trump-era GOP.

CLASSROOM TOPICS: Tampa Bay teachers, parents brace for tough conversations after U.S. Capitol siege

POLITIFACT FACT-CHECKS THE SIEGE: Here’s a look at the day’s short session, and the chaos that interrupted it.

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