John O'Leary: Memorial Day lesson — Greatest Generation didn't just survive, they did this

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One conversation with my grandfather nearly 20 years ago altered my understanding of him, his generation and what real success looks like for future generations. With all that we are undergoing during the COVID-19 outbreak, we could benefit from remembering his lesson now.

I’d just graduated from college when we began our tradition of having lunch together once a week. The date— Sept. 17, 2001 — is unforgettable, since the world was still reeling from the attacks that had occurred one week earlier.

My grandfather and I spent most of that lunch commiserating over the great sadness of what had happened and the uncertainty of what might happen next. As we began our goodbyes, my grandfather shared that earlier that morning he had instructed his financial adviser to make a significant investment in two companies: Boeing and American Airlines.

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I was stunned. Could he not see what was about to happen? The entire market would drop (it fell more than 7 percent that day and 14 percent by the end of the week) and no individual stocks would be more negatively impacted than airlines.

With all the gravitas of a 23-year-old with a degree in finance, I asked, “Grandpa, why would you do that? You’re going to lose your money.”

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He calmly took a sip of his iced tea. “Do you know why they refer to my generation as The Greatest Generation?”

I awaited his answer.

“John, it’s not because we survived the Great Depression. All humanity attempts to survive even the most difficult of experiences. It’s not because we served in World War II, either. Who wouldn’t respond and step forward if their country, their very way of life, were under attack? And it’s not because we came home and built the most productive society in the history of the world.

“They call us the Greatest Generation because we never forgot all the lessons we learned along the way. You see, the Depression taught us to value the little things, to live within our means and to never take anything for granted. The war taught us what real evil looked like, what real sacrifice looked like, what real heroism looked like.

“All of these experiences and lessons prepared us not only to work together to create the world we live in today, but to prioritize the good of society over individuals.”

My grandfather wasn’t worried about short-term losses in a stock portfolio. His experiences had taught him to play the long game, invest in a way of life he had fought for, and rest well, confident the best days remained ahead. That conversation remains etched into my ethos now, more than 20 years later.

Because the Greatest Generation’s conception has much in common with the situation we find ourselves in now, we should hope that we can enjoy benefits growing out of these difficult days, too.

The collapsing markets and soaring unemployment witnessed by my grandfather evolved into the practice of appreciating the little things, living within their means, and taking nothing for granted. Likewise, we have the opportunity to shift into this mindset for the long haul, instead of shifting back to the over-scheduled, over-extended, avaricious society we found ourselves in before we were rocked by shelter-in-place orders.

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That generation’s battle against real evil showed what sacrifice and heroism looked like. Today, in the midst of the pandemic, we’ve witnessed first responders and health care professionals risking their health to provide care for strangers. We’ve witnessed those on the front line of growing, transporting and stocking our food, regardless of the potential hazard, as the essential part of society they’ve in fact always been.

There has been plenty of evidence of real heroism.

Undoubtedly, these are difficult days.

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And although the journey forward remains unclear, the Greatest Generation reminds us that what defines a society during adversity is not only how they respond in the midst of it, but whether they afterward apply the lessons they’ve learned from it.

Let’s not just get through these days together, but become far better in the days to come because of it.

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