Old book and eyeglasses

A few days ago, I caught a Lyft to Sea-Tac Airport from my home in Seattle. The driver was originally from Eritrea, as are many of the taxi and share drivers I meet here. He told me he emigrated to the U.S. in 1991, when he was in his early 20s. When I mentioned that I had spent reporting time in the refugee camps on the Sudan-Ethiopian border in 1985, we compared notes to determine if we had been in the same place at the same time.

The windows to his Prius were all open two inches according to COVID protocols. Once we hit the freeway, it was too noisy to continue our mask-muted conversation. But before we got to the on-ramp, he mentioned how sad it makes him to follow the news from Ukraine. “I know what it’s like to be forced to leave your home,” he said. “It seems we never learn from history.”

It wasn’t an original thought, but that made it even more poignant. As did his personal and cultural perspective. Here’s a guy who grew up in an embattled part of Africa, came of age in refugee camps and somehow found his way to Seattle — which is as far from either of those lifestyles as it can get. Or at least for most of us who aren’t living hand-to-mouth in the tattered tent villages that spread here like blackberries and bindweed. The Lyft driver no doubt is tuned into — and understands — international news better than most Americans.

Again and again, history repeats itself. Again and again, we forget the lessons it offers. The life expectancy in wealthy countries hovers somewhere around 80 years. Then isn’t it interesting that the farther we get from World War II — almost 80 years — Holocaust denial grows. It’s been 75 years since the Cold War started; 60 or so since children of my generation were taught to crouch under their school desks if the nukes were released. Now I watch new generations of the most extremely conservative Americans embrace Vladimir Putin’s Soviet-style leadership and accuse the struggling democracy of Ukraine as Nazi-ism.

None of us are immune to that forgetting; I remind myself often that I was just as ignorant of my parents’ experiences — the Depression, World War II, the first loud rumbles of nuclear threat — as today’s young people are of mine. Vietnam? No Title IX or birth control pill or Roe v. Wade? For that matter, no women allowed to run the marathon in the Olympics until 1984?

That’s hardly ancient history. But it’s abstract to anyone under a certain age. Even contemporaries can be detached from worlds that weren’t theirs. The civil rights struggles came to me on TV and in newspapers — not on the streets or in my daily routine. AIDS was something I covered up-close, but not something I lived.

Forgetting what we need to remember

So what do we do in the face of our unlearning?

That question nags at me every time a young — or not-so-young — journalist asks whether our work makes a difference. If we witness and write about horrors, and those horrors are ignored or forgotten, are we doing any good?

I have no great wisdom, and can offer no guarantees. Nor do I think analytics offer certitude. I can only trust that what we do has value beyond statistical measure. I believe the same is true of the value of teachers and social workers and parents and … pretty much everyone. Can we measure the cause-effect of some aspects? Sure.

But mostly we just have to believe in what we do and do it the best we possibly can in the moment. Beyond that, we can look to those who did this work and walked this world before it became our turn, and learn from them. Sometimes it helps to talk to the Lyft driver.


A version of this post was first published as a Storyboard newsletter on April 8, 2002.

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