8 Ways the Selfie Generation Can Honor the Greatest Generation
I used to think dying in a fire would be the worst way to go. I now believe selfie-related deaths top that. You’ve probably heard the stories: people falling from cliffs; slipping over waterfalls; getting smacked by trains, even electrocuted. For a photo that captures the perfect angle of their face.
This culture has weighed on my mind over the last week as the world recognized the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the largest air, sea, and land operation in the history of war. On D-Day alone, Nazis killed nearly 4,500 Allied troops and injured many more. In one day. And I keep asking myself: Are we living lives that honor that sacrifice?
I think we can do better. To live with more meaning, even in small ways. We owe the Greatest Generation more than presidents and prime ministers reading letters of remembrance. On the Postcard Academy podcast, I share some thoughts on how we can live lives worth dying for.
As nationalism rises around the world, experiencing new cultures and meeting diverse people has never been more important. Not just for our own enrichment, but to serve as informal ambassadors of our countries so people from other lands can see that we are not whatever negative stereotype they may have heard about.
Travel is the greatest form of diplomacy we have, so let’s be good diplomats. Represent our countries with honor while traveling and living abroad. Talk to local people. Learn their history and listen to their perspectives. I’ve had plenty of people say to me, “You don’t seem American.” And they mean this as a compliment.
By the way, I’m not anti-selfie — travel photos are a beautiful way to remember the journeys we’ve been on. But they’re a problem when people travel only for the selfie. As someone who is often roaming around Europe, I’m seeing a rise in this. Busses of tourists pushing people out of the way to get the perfect shot of themselves. Traveling for more than 1,000 miles and not seeing anything. Wasting their money and time on what must feel like an unsatisfying trip, and damaging their country’s reputation by being bad representatives.
Experience history at a deeper level
I confess that until recently, I didn’t fully understand what D-Day was or its significance. In the past, when I saw veterans in parades, I’d think, “That’s cute. Look at these old-timers getting together with their war buddies. That must be a nice reunion for them.”
And I love history. So much so that I immigrated to Europe nine years ago so I could live amongst it. But something didn’t click until I, an American, moved to the coast of England, where so many of those boys sailed to France on D-Day, which kicked off Operation Overlord, a campaign to free north-west Europe from the Nazis.
If I were here in England 75 years ago, I could’ve seen the shelling of France from my bedroom window. Back then, my town had a mandatory black out at night to make it harder for Nazi planes to target their bombs. Households hid behind black curtains. Street lamps stayed off, road signs were taken down. People hid in bomb shelters during air raids and carried gas masks. Iron gates were melted down for ammunition. They rationed food and everything else.
According to the Imperial War Museum in London, “the government banned the manufacture of silk stockings. Cosmetic companies produced colored creams which were applied to look like stockings, however many women made their own versions of ‘leg make-up’ using gravy powder and drawing a line up the back of the leg to imitate the seams of real stockings.”
When you travel to new places, visit the museums, hear the local stories you feel history on a deeper level. Books you’ve read come alive seeing architecture, tasting traditional foods, hearing seagulls or sounds of the city. All your senses are engaged. You see where the bombs fell. The memorials. You learn what life was like before the war, and after.
It’s the power of experiencing a place through all your senses that made me tear up on D-Day a few days ago, when last year I didn’t even know what it was. Not its full significance, anyway. But this year, I know what those soldiers saw as they sailed to France to fight the Nazis. I walk in their footsteps along the beach. I know how cold that water is, how wicked the wind can be. And how infinite and lonely the sea can feel at night.
I believe in bearing witness to history and have visited several concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Every time, the weather has been perfect. Sun shining, birds singing. And I think, “How can this be? Why isn’t it gray and cold?” And then my understanding of the place shifts. It feels more real and less like what I’ve seen in films. The questions I imagined running through the minds of the victims of the Holocaust change.
I’ve seen people taking smiling selfies in front of gas chambers, which obviously horrified me. But me giving them a mean look or telling them off isn’t going to do anything positive for either of us. However, if I instead said something like, “This place makes me so emotional. I can’t believe what happened here. What will you tell your friends about this place?” That will get someone thinking. No one wants to hear your bad opinion of them, or to be told what to do. They have to come to their own realizations.
Visit important historical sites, not only ones around the world, but in your own backyard. Join a walking tour to learn more about where you are, or find a book on local history from the library. Talk to someone who’s lived there for 50 years. Take off your headphones and fully immerse yourself in the place. Keep your phone in your pocket! If you see someone acting disrespectfully at a sacred place, intervene with intention.
Keep everything in perspective
The men who arrived in Normandy by sea didn’t conveniently pull up to the sand. They had to jump off their landing craft with heavy equipment strapped on their backs and wade through the freezing ocean before getting to shore. Soaking wet clothes clinging to their legs. Freezing before the sun made them too hot.
Think about how annoyed we get if our trousers get even a little bit wet. We spill a glass of water or accidentally splash through a puddle and it’s the end of the world. But for those men it was. Imagine soldiers drowning and getting shot next to you. All the confusion and noise. I heard a man say the sky turned black there were so many planes whirling in the sky.
More than 2 million people from more than 12 countries were in Britain to prepare for the invasion. First, around 20,000 airborne troops attacked by plane. Then came the sea invasion — 7,000 battleships and other naval vessels hitting the beaches of Normandy. The Nazis shot at them with machine guns as they came off the boats. Dead bodies on the beach, floating in the ocean. The Allies were expecting 50,000 casualties. And the 156,000 U.S., British, and Canadian forces (and some others) heading there knew that. They knew there was a good chance they’d never go home.
What’s the last thing you freaked out about? Was it worth it?
I stay off social media as much as possible because I’m still burnt out from the hysteria of 2016, when Russia infiltrated Facebook and pitted Americans against each other. I would stay off
Facebook altogether if I didn’t want to participate in some of the Groups.
So anyway, on Facebook the other day, I saw a friend post a furious response in support of another group posting a furious response to a petition. And I’m thinking, is the original protest even real? Who’s boosting the ads behind it? It felt like 2016 all over again, with lots of screaming, little listening, and a shadowy foreign power rubbing his hands with glee.
If I see anything on social media or in the news that’s designed to send us into a rage or to hide under our covers, I take a step back and ask what’s really going on. Who’s the source of this news? What’s their agenda? Governments have used propaganda to control people — and commit genocide and other atrocities — for a long time, and they’re not stopping anytime soon. Mediums might change, but not the message. Share good news and the truth.
Give yourself space to think
Psychologists say that boredom leads to depression and other health issues. But how can we be bored when we have more TV shows, films, books, podcasts, apps, video games than ever before?
We are overwhelmed by options and yet we only half pay attention to any of it. We scroll through social media while watching a show. Check our phones while our friends talk to us. We’re not giving anything our full attention. We’re not giving ourselves time to be curious, to dive deep into anything we’re passionate about. And then all of a sudden a year has gone by and what did we do? What excited us? What memories did we make that will stay with us forever?
Take off your headphones. Walk in nature. Talk to human beings in person. Ask an older person about the happiest time in their life. Stop multitasking — that’s just a way of doing multiple things badly at once. If you hate a book, stop reading it. If you love a book, finish it before starting another one. Focus on one thing at a time. Focus on what brings you joy.
Show up as your best self
I recently read Brendon Burchard’s High Performance Habits, which is excellent. After a car accident nearly killed Brendon, he started asking himself three powerful questions at the end of every day:
Did I live?
Did I love?
Did I matter?
In his book, he talks a lot about how we want to show up in the world. What do you want to feel today? What kinds of feelings do you want to create? How can you bring the joy to every interaction?
This involves thinking through your day: Who needs you at your best today? If you have an important meeting, how do you want that interaction to go? What might go wrong? How can you plan for that?
If you anticipate a fight, don’t spend all your time planning how you can win the argument. Think about the energy you want to bring and the mood you want to create. If you could be a role model to this person, how would you act? If you asked them for advice on how to end the fight, what do you imagine they’d say? Focus on a positive outcome and being a good person.
Make every day matter
Every day, I wake up and say, “You will never have this day again.” I want to make every day matter. This doesn’t mean I’m Mother Theresa or that I jump out of planes every day. But I wake up saying, “You will never have this day again” so that I don’t spend my entire day and night glued to my work computer. So that I don’t sweat the small stuff. So I don’t get sucked into the outrage machine that our media manufactures. I don’t want the year to go by with nothing to show for it.
The soldiers at D-Day didn’t die so we could obsess over how many likes we receive on Instagram. They didn’t die so we could walk down the street staring at our phones and acknowledge no one. They didn’t die so we could stay home, mindlessly flicking through apps and complaining about how much we hate our lives.
They made the ultimate sacrifice so we could live lives worth living, so that at the end of the day, when we ask ourselves, “Did I live? Did I love? Did I matter?” we can say yes.
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 8 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.