Thursday, May 22, 2014

Youthful confidence, reconsidered

In an editorial writing class 40+ years ago, I wrote an ode to our generation, the best educated, most activist, most affluent generation in history. We were going to end war, change the world and live happily ever after. A classmate pointed out that it all had been said before. Self-congratulation and self-esteem were hallmarks of us baby-boomers.

Decades later, the wisdom of aging has convinced me of how little I knew as a 21-year-old and how much like every new generation our generation was. When you're 18 or 20, you think you know it all, have experienced it all, and are ready for whatever life might throw at you. From the perspective of a wrinkled face and diminishing acumen, you realize just how ephemeral, how insignificant the transcending issues of the day really were. All the great events that seemed earth-shaking at the time — Woodstock nation, the Oct. 15 Moratorium, the Equal Rights Amendment, women in men's dorms, the draft lottery, Nixon's War on Cancer — have all faded into the fog of hazy memories, their impact on the world no more than a trivia quiz answer.

Every generation of teenagers thinks they can do better than their parents and grandparents have done in solving the world's problems. If, as John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you're busy doing other things," saving the world is what gets kicked down the priority list while you're busy providing for your family, raising children, planning for retirement and grieving inevitable losses of loved ones.

From the perspective of mature years, I see how short-sighted my confident, 21-year-old self was and how delusional my generation, the one with all the answers, was. Forty years later, the world is a better place, in many ways; in other ways, it is no better and perhaps worse than the world we decried. This world has a whole new set of problems — Islamic extremism, an exploding world population, climate change, environmental toxins, an epidemic of obesity, and so on. From the perspective of having been around the block a few times already, my not-as-confident generation can recognize these issues as important but not easily solvable. Our world will accommodate itself to most of these issues and will solve some of them.

But this world will continue. Few will ever hold the power or wield the determination to actually change much. The human struggle will continue, a Sisyphean labor that ends in the way every life always ends.

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