Cape Cod, Mass. -- Like everyone else old enough to remember, I am marking this week the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy. The other day I stopped by the J.F.K. Memorial in Hyannis (see picture), so near to where the Kennedys even now still have their summer home, and spent some time there, all alone, early on a Sunday morning after church. I thought back: I was in the Eighth Grade when it happened. The principal, Sister Gabriel, I believe it was, marched us over to the church to pray for the president and his family, and for the country. But this kind of reaction happened everywhere, I am sure, and if we are old enough, we still bear those memories. I have nothing special to add.
But what struck me most this afternoon, as I stood on the very chilly beach watching the sun settle into an ocean unobscured by any cloud whatsoever, is that now it is 50 years later. That is a very long time in a human life. Perhaps for some readers, the assassination was not the earliest public, outside-the-family event that permanently marked your life. But for me, now 63, I cannot think of anything before that day that has stayed with me in so palpable, poignant and disruptive a way. We know so much more now about Kennedy and his life and administration, and from the sensationalized and cynical perspective of 2013, it might be hard to imagine how dismayed and thrown over we were back then, as if there innocence had been lost. As if there was something called “innocence” on a national level. We now know that 1963 wasn’t Camelot in any simple sense (though the sadness of the Arthur story still rings true), but then it did seem as if something perfect and God-given had crashed to the ground. At least, so it seemed to me at age 13.
Fifty years later, of course, my life has been rocked by other public disruptions: the Vietnam war, the internecine turmoils of the post-Vatican II church symbolized by “Humanae Vitae” and the denial of equality to women, a dawning realization of the cruel inequalities of the global divide between haves and have-nots, all the way up to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and still more recent disruptions large and small, like the Sandy Hook School slaughter of the children. Others may come to your mind. These are scars we all bear, reminders seared into our psyches telling us that we are frail vessels marked by what we do, hear, experience, year by year. At our best, as we age, we make our way across an uneven terrain marked by dark days like Nov. 22, 1963. But we don’t forget or stop feeling those events, no matter how long ago.
Nothing from November 1963 could foretell in any sure fashion how I would end up: there is no direct path from that day to my being a Jesuit, at Harvard, scholar of Hinduism, and so on. But the fact of that day, early in my life, did leave me disposed to imagine a world where the charm had broken, where no single story could be told beginning to end without a recognition that it might well go wrong, or had already gone wrong. Memories of that day still dig deep now, late in my life, telling me a lot not just about Dallas that afternoon, or our presidency then and now, or the increasing harshness of American life, but about myself most acutely: living in hope, yet in a darkened, disenchanted world.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., of course got this right too:
Spring and Fall: to a Young Child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.