Yet the obstacles have at least something to do with our present reality and the forces that set it in motion. Long before we millennials were pursuing silly degrees and dreaming up fantastical futures en masse, someone somewhere began by whispering, “yes.”
In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, P.J. O’Rourke takes aim at one set of such predecessors, the Boomers. Speaking as a child of the late 1940s, a self-described “senior” of the set, O’Rourke wonders what the hands of his generation hath wrought.
Given the common criticism that it is millennials who are uniquely characterized by narcissism and self-importance, this particular bit struck me as an interesting hint at inheritance.
To address America’s baby boom is to face big, broad problems. We number more than 75 million, and we’re not only diverse but take a thorny pride in our every deviation from the norm (even though we’re in therapy for it). We are all alike in that each of us thinks we’re unusual.
Fortunately, we are all alike in our approach to big, broad problems too. We won’t face them. There’s a website for that, a support group to join, a class to take, alternative medicine, regular exercise, a book that explains it all, a celebrity on TV who’s been through the same thing, or we can eliminate gluten from our diet. History is full of generations that had too many problems. We are the first generation to have too many answers.
The origins of such high-minded and convoluted escapism are difficult to discern, to be sure. But of the many possibilities, O’Rourke points to one that seems particularly self-evident: prosperity paired with pride, and success secured, supposedly, by the self.
That’s not to say we’re a selfish generation. Selfish means “too concerned with the self,” and we’re not. Self isn’t something we’re just, you know, concerned with. We are self.
Before us, self was without form and void, like our parents in their dumpy clothes and vague ideas. Then we came along. Now the personal is the political. The personal is the socioeconomic. The personal is the religious and the secular, science and the arts. The personal is everything that creepeth upon the earth after his (and, let us hasten to add, her) kind. If the baby boom has done one thing, it’s to beget a personal universe…
…So here we are in the baby-boom cosmos, formed in our image, personally tailored to our individual needs, and predetermined to be eternally fresh and novel. And we saw that it was good. Or pretty good.
Alas, in the society where The Self is The Source, secularism is welcome to play its games accordingly. Just as idolatry of (Artificial) Community opens the doors to plenty of artificial community, idolatry of (Artificial) Man quickly descends into all that it aims to ignore. Advancement breeds pride and pride breeds detachment, resulting in a nasty individualism that leaves us wandering aimlessly and emptily after misconstrued notions of happiness, sensation, peace, success, and fulfillment — the varieties of which come pre-packaged with shrinks and cycle-spinning talk shows.
But though I agree with his general diagnosis, O’Rourke ends with a touch of fatalism that we need not accept, should we change our course. “Sooner or later,” he writes, “the 1.29 billion people making $1.25 a day, the way we were, selling ‘underground’ newspapers on the street in Baltimore, are going to figure out there’s a better way.” In turn, he supposes, the temptations of self-indulgence will lure and lick their lips as they have done with the rest of us.
Painting the bleakest of ends, one that remains an unfortunate possibility for many, O’Rourke concludes that “there is no escape from happiness, attention, affection, freedom, irresponsibility, money, peace, opportunity and finding out that everything you were ever told is wrong.”
Yet there is an escape, even for the wrong-headed and misaligned, the self-important and self-centered. Whether we are in our teens or in our twilight, the call to self-denial continues, and the path of submitting our lives — ourselves — in the service of the Holy One, is one we can and must continue to pursue.
Self-denial may prove trickier in the Age of Self-Help, but with God, all things are possible.
Watch P.J. O’Rourke’s speech at Acton’s 2013 Anniversary Dinner.