By: Peter Denton

To quote one of my favourite poets, W.B. Yeats: “Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.”

It has been a tumultuous week for many, not just those people (mainly young) who still march in the streets of American cities proclaiming “not my president.” I have heard from many friends, from delegates at 22nd Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 22) in Marrakesh, Morocco; to people in Kenya; to former students in the Canadian Forces; and students at the universities here in Winnipeg. I have been disturbed by what they have told me about their anxieties and fears.

The last time I experienced something like this was after the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell in 2001. At least among younger people, 11/9 has awakened feelings similar to 9/11.

It’s not so much about losing the election — after all, nearly half of the American electorate didn’t vote and the rest of us never had the option. Nor is it even about the attitudes of the winner — one American friend observed it was hardly the first time a white male racist had been elected president.

It’s about something deeper and more upsetting. The people in the streets are worried because they feel they have lost their future, their dreams, their hopes of having a better tomorrow than the one sitting on the doorstep.

The United States has faltered even more than when Great Britain voted to leave the European Union a few months ago. Older people overwhelmingly supported Brexit, while younger people believed staying in the EU was critical to their future. Most distressing, 30 per cent of voters stayed away and did not choose at all.

Hillary Clinton narrowly won the overall vote, yet lost the electoral college — in a race that was surely the most polarizing one in living memory. But 47 per cent of eligible voters stayed home, undermining by their absence the future of American democracy, whoever happens to win any future election.

On the country map of younger voters, the colour was overwhelmingly blue. Older voters, not younger ones, voted Republican and thus for Donald Trump.

Two septuagenarians vying for president gives little choice to those who wanted to vote for someone younger.

But it’s not so much about age, either — Bernie Sanders is six years older than Clinton and captured the youth vote during the Democratic primary.

It’s about attitude, something I have come to understand as I have gotten older myself. Thankfully, I still spend most of my week with 20-year-olds, but the ones who reflected with me on the aftermath of 9/11 are now 35. They are raising young families as they contemplate the aftermath of 11/9 and life in a climate-changing world.

It’s hard when you get older to have hopes and dreams, to see each day as an opportunity full of possibilities. Every morning, you are confronted with evidence of decline, especially physical. Your mind might want to race down the road, but your body just can’t keep up.

Instead of new possibilities, doors are closing on what you used to be able to do. Each day is a struggle to hang on to what you know you are losing, fighting the clock but not being able to stop it, or to turn back the hands of time.

So perhaps we get a funky haircut, colour our hair something outlandish, persuade ourselves the extra rouge on our cheeks hides the wrinkles, but buying our clothes in a place that proclaims we are forever 29 doesn’t change our reality. Our society simply does not age gracefully. We might proclaim the value of wisdom, but we value the appearance, at least, of youth. We are a culture in denial, which goes a long way toward explaining the events of the past week.

“Make America great again” intends to take the U.S. back to the future, which is something that only happens in the movies. It is like pretending you are 20 years old, not 70 — a retreat into fantasy, in which time not only stands still, but goes backwards.

The people who stayed home, who didn’t vote, have lost hope that anything will change, that there are possibilities for a different future — and so they have undermined what otherwise might have happened. Life for them is about hanging on, not going forward.

If you no longer have dreams of your own, don’t tread on someone else’s dreams. Follow them, support them, and perhaps some day — however old you are — you will find the ability to dream again, yourself.

Peter Denton teaches the history of technology at the University of Winnipeg and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.

This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press.