Last Christmas when I was discussing my visit to Russia to witness the fall of communism, my 94-year-old grandmother piped in, “Oh, yes, I remember when the Communists first took over [in 1917]. That was scary.” Being older than the century gives one a certain perspective: she had watched the full cycle as a powerful ideology appeared on the scene, burst into light, then faded away like a dying star.

As I probed my grandmother’s astonishing memory, I noticed a trend that seems almost universal in the reminiscences of older people: they tend to recall difficult, tumultuous times with a touch of nostalgia. According to polls, 60 percent of Londoners who survived the Blitz now remember that period as the happiest of their lives. Somehow a new spirit of community and patriotism sprang up to eclipse even the horror of bombs and V-2 rockets. In the U.S., the elderly swap stories about World War II and the Great Depression; they speak fondly of hardships such as blizzards, the childhood outhouse, and the time in graduate school when they ate canned soup and stale bread three weeks in a row.

For the last several years I have been writing the biography of Dr. Paul Brand, a missionary surgeon who is approaching his eighth decade of life and sixth decade of marriage. As I interview him and his wife, Margaret, about their years of life together, they too keep circling back to the crisis moments.

For example, there was the interval in 1946–7 when Paul had preceded Margaret to Vellore, India. In that year of independence and partition, unrest between Hindus and Muslims began spreading across the northern part of the country. In southern India, though, especially the region around Vellore, Hindus and Muslims lived together in reasonable harmony. ...

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