I was older by at least 30 years than the next oldest person in the classroom. Bill, one of the facilitators, was of my generation, but he didn't count because one expects the facilitator to be old and wise. I had come to Arcadia University to participate in a weekend-long HROC training. The ambitious goal of HROC (Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities), a program developed by the African Great Lakes Initiative, is to create and support peace activities in the conflict-ridden Great Lakes region of Africa, which includes Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The intense three-day training focuses on healing from trauma and particularly from the trauma of civil unrest and genocide.
Twenty-three Millennials and one Baby Boomer watched a video of a recent HROC delegation to Rwanda. From half a world away, we watched 10 Tutsi survivors of the genocide and 10 Hutu perpetrators and relatives of perpetrators participate in the HROC workshop where they began the hard work of restoring normal relationships. During the course of their training they took their first tentative steps toward building a future together on a foundation of forgiveness and trust. Twenty-four of us cried all through the credits. A few participants had been to Rwanda for HROC. A few more plan to participate this summer. One young woman had volunteered in Tanzania. Most of these young people were pursuing careers in the areas of conflict resolution, restorative justice or related fields.
You get to know people fairly well when you are cloistered in a single room together for three days. The young adults with whom I shared this experience are committed to spreading the message of peace. Neither jaded nor disillusioned by their own experiences of trauma, they are marching forth to bring light into the void. They are the standard bearers of hope in what often seems like a hopelessly dark world. I was awed by their youthful determination to make a difference.
Arriving home on Sunday night, I was paradoxically both energized and completely spent. Not ready to verbally share the emotionally-laden experience, and unsure of whether or not I ever could, I settled in to read the Sunday New York Times and stumbled upon an article titled, "How to Live Without Irony," with the cheery subtitle, "Life has become a Competition to see Who Cares the Least."
The author, a professor of French at Princeton, stipulated that for the "members of Generation Y, the Millennial generation-particularly middle class Caucasians-irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt." She explains that irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices. Furthermore, ironic living works as a preemptive surrender and takes the form of reaction rather than action. "It bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation, and defeat." She was obviously not talking about the young people I met.
Nor was she talking about them when she claimed that the art of looking at people, the art of being seen and the art of being present have all suffered as we have focused on technology. She referred to this generation as narcissistic and wallowing in existential malaise. But has there been any greater image of existential malaise than newly-minted college graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) lying listlessly on a raft in his parents' backyard swimming pool in The Graduate? That was 45 years ago. What about Holden Caulfield? Jean Paul Sartre? Hamlet?
As for narcissism, I believe it was my contemporaries for whom the moniker "The Me Generation" was coined. Yes, there were hippies whose activism ended the Vietnam War, but there were also hippies who did nothing but smoke weed in their basements while listening to Joplin and Hendrix and gorging on Fritos. Beware of sweeping generalizations.
If 23 young people in Pennsylvania spent a weekend in the HROC program, there are surely 23 more in some other philanthropic program, in some other classroom, in some other college, in some other town. And there are 23 more somewhere else. Teach for America receives nearly 50,000 applications per year. Americorps is thriving. The green revolution is spearheaded by our youth who are understandably concerned about the health of our planet.
Yes, they often text instead of call, they like their art to be displayed on their bodies and they watch stupid television shows, but we wore go-go boots and watched The Monkees. Stupidity is not a proprietary commodity.
Dissing the younger generation is easy sport. Remember Mr. McAfee's lament in Bye Bye Birdie? "Kids! I don't know what's wrong with these kids today?" Yet every generation somehow produces unsung heroes. I have met some from the generation beneath mine. They may not save the world, but they won't screw it up any worse than we did. Hope is surely alive.