My high school English teacher often laments when I come back to visit that, in the brief span between my time there and the current student population, "kids have changed." It's as though, in a matter of five years, a whole new generation and culture have come to the school, with a unique kind of problem that frustrates people like him, a veteran teacher, especially.
"Things were different with your class. You people actually seemed ready to do
something," he'll say. "But these kids..." he goes on; "To any one of them you could say, 'Hey, kid, your ass is on fire!' and he'd just look at you and say, 'Oh?'"
Each time I go back to visit, we have the same conversation, and he gives the same vivid description. The old man will conclude by shaking his head, and muttering, "I just don't know..." And each time I leave, despite being much closer to these kids he describes in age and experience, facing the same futile perpexity, unable to do anything but shake my head and acknowledge that there's something about this that I just don't understand.
This past weekend, across the globe, 750,000 people packed public parks and arenas for a concert series that sought to increase "awareness" about the issue of poverty and societal decadence around the world. Putting aside Live8's agenda, which is suspect in itself for its promotion of condoms as an effective means to stem the spread of AIDS in Africa (a stupid suggestion if ever there was one), I can't help but wonder if the idea behind this event has any real merit. Raising awareness? As I sat on my couch on Saturday, complacently munching Doritos and flicking through the channels, I happened upon one of the concert perfomances. It was Pink Floyd, who I like very much, so I stayed for a while, still snacking away. Only, when the screen image changed to a slideshow of pictures of starving African children, I got a little uneasy and reached for the remote. I knew that, with the push of a button, all those troubles would seem to go away. And yet, the images and the realization of the stark contrast between mine and the lives of those depicted haunted me. Currently, I'm reading a book partly about Dorothy Day, who championed the cause of the poor throughout her saintly life. Daily, in recent issues of the ZENIT dispatch and VIS, I've read about the Vatican's concerns with the poverty and war ripping apart the African continent. As far as Catholics go, I believe that I'm at least on par with the average level of awareness in regard to these issues. Yet I couldn't help but be unsettled by the experience this weekend, when, all of a sudden, I found myself urged to casually change the channel so as not to detract from my experience of American apathy, a poster child for the generation my English teacher so often decries.
I like to think I'm not a typical member of my generation. By no means do I do all that I can in order to stem poverty and promote the greater good, but I honestly do try. I am at least aware of my insufficencies and failures in charity, and I try to live a Christian ethic in this regard. I don't mean to be judgemental, but it seems that few others in my generation aspire to do likewise. I grew disheartened and cynical when I heard some celebrities this weekend hailing the Live8 event as this generation's march from Birmingham to Selma, or the Million Man March. As they panned the images of the crowd at the concerts, I couldn't help but scoff. The emblematic figure of the flower-power era, a college age ivy-leaguer with long hair holding burning draft card aloft, was nowhere to be found. In an odd juxtaposition, I saw the faces of frat boys, who, on any other weekend, could probably be seen holding a funnel aloft, overflowing with beer. This is not to say that I, a volunteer enlistedman in the Air National Guard, support the action of the aformentioned figure. But I notice a great incongruity between him and the latter, an inconsistency summed up in one word: apathy.
T.S. Eliot, in The Hollow Men
said that "This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang, but a whimper." I feel sometimes as though whimpering is all my generation is capable of doing. The social uproar and heated activism that peaked during the leadup to the Iraq War, or during the recent election year, seemed more like the whinings of children than the powerful voices of people like Malcolm X, Bob Dylan, and Lenny Bruce. It seemed like... well, it seemed like the youth of our nation had heard that "their ass is on fire" and could only eek out the weak reply: "Oh?"
I don't know the answer. But I feel that this, like all things, has implications and answers to be found in religion. It's as though the spirit of young Americans from the past has dies, and remains latent in the apathetic Generation Next-ers of today. It's not a matter of simply "waking up" the youth of our nation, either by Rocking the Vote or the use of any other gimic. It's a question of revitalizing that spirit that has for so long been a wellspring for creative solution and radical change in our great country. Raising the dead, bringing that which is lifeless back to the world of the living - we all know Who alone can do such things. I pray that the Church, under the leadership of Benedict XVI, will bring to my generation the life-giving and timeless wisdom that the Saints have taught through the ages, the Truth that is Christ. Only with this Truth - only with a foundation in the natural and moral law, and burning hearts for true justice and peace - will the whimpers of apathy gain wind and become as one a great cry of revolution. Only then will the voice of my generation finally be heard, and be fit to echo through the great halls built by the great generations of our past.