Not every past has a future. It’s hard to imagine anyone, even in San Francisco, observing a Summer of Love Centennial in 2067. Although we probably won’t be doing this again, it’s worth asking what we learned and what all of this will mean in the future.
This week, Garrison Keillor told me that he considered joining his cousin in San Francisco during the ’60s but changed his mind because he was suspicious of euphoria and wanted too much to be useful.
His earlier self might have been surprised that, 50 years later, we would still have young people dropping out and coming to San Francisco. The clothing, style, culture and ideals of hippies seem oddly persistent. Tourists still want to learn about hippies. That freedom from constraint and conventional responsibilities attracts us.
At the heart of what happened in San Francisco was a response to the war in Vietnam, which ultimately caused the death of 3.5 million people. The draft and the dishonesty of government officials led to a fear and distrust in American life that puts our own current anxieties in perspective. Many young people simply lost faith in the American Dream and wondered if there might be a better way to thrive.
Their desire for exploration and experimentation launched the global psychedelic revolution, which originated here in the days of Ken Kesey’s acid tests. I have seen so much suffering, addiction and death that followed after this new openness to recreational drugs.
But this summer, my friends Joel and James told me what it felt like to listen to bands like Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Charlatans at the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms. For both of them, the sense of unity among all the people there was a profoundly spiritual encounter that changed their lives. Although they may experience echoes of the joy and connection they felt back then, neither have been part of anything like it since.
Our spiritual life was changed by the events of those days. The poets Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder brought their interest in Buddhism to thousands of people at the Human Be-In on Jan. 14, 1967. Meditation and yoga practices, which used to seem exotic and strange, are today much more familiar ways to connect our physical and spiritual selves. In the Bay Area, we became more open to learning spiritual wisdom from new sources.
The flower children’s ideals of freedom and equality for all added energy to liberation movements that increased opportunities for women, people with handicaps, LGTBQ people and people of color.
Was the Summer of Love good for children? Did changes in our social mores around sexual experimentation and expression lead to greater human flourishing? Was it ultimately too much a part of the commercial culture that it seemed to criticize? Have the reactions against the excesses of those times made life today worse? We can certainly debate these questions.
Recent criticisms of memorials to confederate army generals put our recent commemorations of the Summer of Love in context. Rather than remembering a war, we are recalling an affirmation of peace. In the face of our rat-race culture, relentlessly committed to achievement, we need this reminder of a spirituality focused on happiness and connection and love.
The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral.