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Atypical “Your Generation” Conversation

Yesterday at lunch, the priest and I had a conversation about progressive, radical people. He said radicals lose their passion and radical ideas to conform to the rest of the world by the time they are 30. I disagreed and added some radical writers I know over thirty. He listened and even ended up adding a few. This eventually led to a reflection on my generation. One of the kitchen staff joined in. Both she and the priest came of age in the 60s and 70s. The priest started with, “I heard your generation called the ‘service generation,’ but I don’t see it. Am I just not encountering the right young people?” I had to think about this. I know a lot of young people who are passionate activists and like helping others in whatever way they can. I also know we are often in the minority on college campuses, so I waited to answer. The priest went on trying to better explain himself. He talked about how his generation really united to end the war and make positive changes. He said he doesn’t understand why that sort of movement isn’t going on strong today when there’s still plenty of unjust violence and war.

Before I could answer, the woman from the kitchen went on a rant about how they were actually about something bigger than themselves and that my generation is too caught up in worrying about ourselves. The priest warned her that was over-generalizing, but the woman continued on about how great “those days” used to be and what a mess everything is “these days”,” saying she doesn’t understand our apathy. I agreed that something has changed. I suggested it might be how “replaceable” we are treated in the job market. It’s expected an employee have a Bachelor’s degree. If anyone wants to take a stand about something and cause any sort of ruckus, they’ll replace him or her right away. My mom works in a public school system, so I’ve seen a little bit of an insider perspective that caused me to look into more school systems. It’s not just her system; it’s most public schools. People are laid off and replaced by kids like me, fresh out of college, desperate for a job and willing to work for just a little over minimum wage to start paying on student loans.

The woman from the kitchen said, “See. Everyone is just worrying about themselves.” The priest said, “But what happened to our generation? I think it’s something different about the time we live in, because why don’t we see old people protesting this war all the time like we used to? Why are we sitting back silently? Aren’t we, too, worried about our pensions and social security?”

I liked that he brought up this point, because so many times I’ve heard about how legendary the 60s and 70s were. I don’t want to discredit the powerful movements and icons of that time. I, too, look to leaders and artists from that era for inspiration. I’d just never thought that it could be a difference in social situations instead of someone attacking my generation. Not only do I hear complaints about activism being different today, but I hear complaints about the way we study art in school. I hope to pursue an MFA in creative writing, but many older writers talk about how the quality of writing as a whole is decreasing because institutions are trying to “teach” art in the same way they teach something like math.

From a young perspective, what other way (other than an MFA program) can I find a great writing community, have insurance, and a safe environment to pursue writing? My brother and I have talked many times about how radical the Beat poets were, but it’s just not feasible to drop out of college and hitchhike across country anymore. I know people who try to do that sort of thing, and it’s already been done. My friend Nik posted a link to that website called “things white people like,” and they had “Taking a year off” on there. This was aimed to make fun of people like me who do something alternative to working or going to school for a year. They talked about how many people have written books about their “year off,” and how very few people actually read them. I don’t take offense to this. It’s just a reminder that I need to be tactful about how I present my book, because it’s not about my year off. I’m taking the year off to write a book about my experiences of struggling with depression and spirituality because I got fed up with the mental health literature that either ignored spirituality completely or belittled the complexity, swearing “God” would save me.

I bounced these thoughts off my best friend, Laura, and she added an interesting perspective. She suggested it’s not that our generation is more selfish or naturally apathetic, but we’re burned out. We get news online just minutes after it happens. We hear about all sorts of injustices, war, genocide, deaths from hunger, sex slavery, HIV/AIDS, child soldiers, and we are paralyzed by grief and helplessness. How does one combat such huge issues? I confess I only recently started reading the news and getting back into activism since my depression two years ago.

As a self-defense mechanism, I had to shut out the negativity in the world and focus on my own life. I’d like to think I’m now more productive in making a difference after taking time for myself to heal. I’ve heard something called “Africa Burnout,” where Americans hear all of these horrid stories of injustices in Africa and the statistics and facts end up losing their humanity. We write it off as some place far away and beyond being saved, so we don’t think about how those statistics are human lives–each one with a story. How do we solve the world’s problems without paralyzing ourselves with despair? The answer: we don’t. There’s some quote Ashley Judd used…something about yesterday being clever and trying to change the world, but being wise today so trying to change herself. I forgot who is the author of that quote, but it’s profound. We can only do our best to rise above the negativity, preventing ourselves from contributing or enabling it and hoping to influence others to do the same. Some people might not see the point in pursuing peace if it’s not completely attainable. It reminds me of that old famous Buddhist tale about the heaps of star fish dying all along the beach. A man saved one by throwing it back in the water. The other one asked why he bothered, saying he couldn’t save all of them. The other man responded by saying, “Well, I saved that one.” I’ll keep taking it one day at a time, throwing star fish back when I can.