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Submission by Leigh Smith ’23

For my great-grandchildren, to be opened on their 18th birthdays.


Date: November 1st, 2019



Let me guess: right now, the world feels like it’s on fire.


There’s political chaos and partisanship the likes of which history has never seen before. International relations are fractioning and intranational ones are no better. Violence is rampant, diseases are spreading, people are desperately grasping at solutions but are blind to what’s actually good for them, and meanwhile everyone’s ignoring the slow shipwreck that is this planet’s environment.


Am I right? Don’t be too surprised. And even though it seems like apocalypse is just around the corner, you shouldn’t be too worried either.


That is probably not what you want to hear right now, but it’s true. Here’s why.


On July 28th, 1914, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg, were assassinated by Serbian nationalists, sparking declarations of war which quickly ignited the web of alliances in Europe. You may know this event as the first World War – “first” implying, of course, that there were more to follow. World War 1 is not usually looked at in my time as particularly devastating; sure, children learn about the new horrors of trench and gas warfare, but then they are told of World War 2, genocide, and the total devastation of nuclear weapons. Nothing could compare to such atrocities.


We forget that in 1914, there was no “first” World War; there was only the Great War. The Seminal Catastrophe. The war to end all wars. For my great-grandparents’ generation, it was the end of the world.


In 2019, there’s no Great War that I’ll have to go fight in Europe. But there is new and terrifying technology, gun violence threatening our schools and neighborhoods, a climate which will be irreparably damaged if we don’t take action in the next 10 years, and adults who don’t listen to my generation when we point out these problems.


There’s no Great War that I’ll be drafted to fight in, but I think I know how my great-grandparents felt. We all turned eighteen as the world turned upside-down.


Yes: I write to you at eighteen years old, having just left my parents’ house for college and become this thing called an independent adult. I’m not sure I know how to be an independent adult, especially when there are so many problems I want to try to fix now that I have the agency to put effort into fixing them. How can I justify going to school and just standing by while the world burns around me?


But more immediately: how do I vote, and pay taxes, and find work? I have to navigate building new friendships and maintaining old ones. (Not to mention my romantic woes, which we won’t go into here; I’m sure you don’t want to hear about your great-grandma’s love life.) I have to learn who I am away from my family, while simultaneously figure out what it really means to be a Smith. How can I handle these things and actually pass my classes?


If the 1910s were anything like now, my great-grandparents were grappling with similar problems. And I imagine that if the 2110s are anything like 2019, you’ve got the same questions to answer as well. 


Normally, now would be the point where I give you an amazingly simple solution that fixes everything and makes your life so much easier. Unfortunately, I don’t have any such sage wisdom. I’m eighteen, just like you, and just like you, I’m still figuring it all out. But there is one thing I can tell you: you know how this turns out for me.


You know whether I graduate college, who I get married to, what work I end up doing. You know that I settle down and pay taxes. You know which problems I try to solve and fires I try to fight. You know that my life works out alright, just like we both know that the Great War ended. You know that the apocalypse I felt pressing down on my head, and the apocalypse our ancestors felt, did not come.


I know that this time feels different. This time, you’re sure, it can’t be fixed. You’ll be the first generation to see your life fall apart; you’ll be the first generation that fails the world.


But we felt that way too, and we turned out alright.


The world is burning around me. It burned around my ancestors in the 1910s, and it’ll burn around your descendants in the 2210s. Earth does that sometimes. It’s terrifying, and overwhelming, and nothing can ever be as bad as this…then it’s over, and we can breathe clean air for a bit before we start to smell smoke once more.


The world is burning around me, one hundred years before you were born. My generation is trying to put out the fire. We won’t succeed in making the world fireproof, but we can contain the flames enough for our children, and then our children’s children, and then you, to take up the fight.


I don’t have any advice for you, but I do have a request: keep fighting.


You won’t put the fire out. You won’t ensure that the world will never burn again. But you have the power to stop it from being burnt to ashes; to turn the scorched soil into nutrients; smell the sweetness of daylilies; relish the warmth of the sun.


Then the fires will start again. And the fighting will go on.


On November 11th, 1918, a war which took 16 million lives is finally over. On November 11th, 2018, fires are raging in the hillsides of California. On November 11th, 2118, somewhere, someone’s world is ending. But someone else’s world is just beginning.


Don’t give up hope.




Grandma Leigh


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