It’s that time of year when we are supposed to look back and bid a fond adieu to the year in the rearview mirror. There will be tribute montages on Turner Classic Movies remembering the stars we lost in 2018 and cable news outlets will be well populated with year-in-review specials. 

But, due to some large golden anniversary dates in 2019, it will also be a year with a lot of looking backward. It’s due in no small part to the number of pop culture and even historically profound incidents that were part of 1969.

The 50th anniversary of 1968 had its fill of monumentally joyful as well as catastrophic events and 1969 is no different — as if God had decided to let the tumultuous 1960s go out with a fitting bang to get our attention. 

The question that is always asked, but never satisfactorily answered, is whether he did get our attention, and whether we learned anything from the past. Sometimes we obviously do … I mean, the ill-advised global strategy of starting land wars in Asia seems to have made a lasting impression on us … so far. But other lessons we should have learned back in 1969 remain just as unlearned now as they were then.

In 1969 we put a man on the moon. The “scientifically” based contrarianism about manned space flight recently demonstrated by certain NBA basketball players aside, it is safe to stipulate the United States beat the Soviet Union in the great space race of the 1960s and completed the promise John F. Kennedy made earlier that we would put a man on the moon before the decade expired. 

We seem to be relearning that lesson as NASA has announced plans to finally return to the moon after abandoning it in the early 1970s. 

There will also be grim recollections next year about the year that was, 50 years ago. It will be the 50th anniversary (if you can call it that) of the Manson Murders. There are a host of lessons to keep in mind with this story. It was the sick underbelly of the steady diet of free love and free “thinking” and free everything else that society was force-fed during this decade. 

And, as so many great thinkers, whether Catholic theologians or just men and women with common sense have always warned, when people stop believing in God they will seek out other things to fill that void. 

Charles Manson was a master void filler. And when people go “all in” with a personality, things almost always go sideways. Did we learn? Based on the carnage of later decades from the likes of the Jonestown and Branch Davidian mass suicide cults, it appears not.

No generation has learned less in 50 years than the baby-boom generation. As a card-carrying member of said population group, I think I have a certain expertise in this field. Or at least as much expertise to comment on boomers as guys who dunk basketballs for a living have for making blanket authoritative pontifications on aerospace science. 

The baby-boom generation is the only generation that still believes what they believed when they were 18. Not exactly the definition of wisdom, but this pampered and indulged generation will be out in full force, or as full force as their walkers and canes and wheelchairs will allow to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.

There is even talk of a Woodstock reunion concert. Who would come? The Who is down two original members with their drummer and bassist having died before they got old. And many of the other acts have either been visited by the Grim Reaper themselves or have been relegated to nostalgia acts on the county fair circuit.

Strange that the memory of a drug-fueled, self-indulgent pop concert makes me think of the Divine … but it does. It’s the way old years go out and new years are anticipated that seem to magnify our shackles to time. As one year is going out and a new year is coming in, our imprisonment by time becomes acute.

We are never more aware of being prisoners of it when we look hopefully to an unknowable future or with nostalgic happiness to a past that never really was as good or bad as we imagine.

But at every Mass, Jesus draws a line right down the middle of that “circle of life” and it points in one direction unbound by any constraints. Time-bonded elements like wine and bread are transformed and we get a glimpse of the real future God has in store for us … and that future is now and forever.

Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.

SPECIAL OFFER! 44 issues of Angelus for just $9.95! Get the finest in Catholic journalism with first-rate analysis of the events and trends shaping the Church and the world, plus the practical advice from the world’s best spiritual writers on prayer and Catholic living, along with great features about Catholic life in Los Angeles. Subscribe now!