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How to Make the World a Better Place Despite the Roadblocks and Naysayers

"The world was a cruel, unjust place and, far from saving it, I felt stuck in it. Then I learned that I should fight to change it anyway."

Adapted from Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, by Courtney E. Martin, Copyright © 2010. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

Save the world.

Where were you the first time you heard those three little words?

It’s a phrase that has slipped off the tongues of hippie parents and well-intentioned teachers with a sort of cruel ease for the last three decades. In Evangelical churches and Jewish summer camps, on 3-2-1 Contact and Dora the Explorer, even on MTV, we (America’s youth) have been charged with the vaguest and most ethically dangerous of responsibilities: save the world. But what does it really mean? What has it ever really meant -- when uttered by moms and ministers, by zany aunts and debate coaches -- to save the whole wildly complex, horrifically hypocritical, overwhelmingly beautiful world?

Social scientists and the media seems to have made an ugly habit in the last few years of labeling my generation as entitled, self absorbed, and apathetic. Psychologist Jean M. Twenge argues that, largely because of the boom in self-esteem education in the '80s and '90s, young people today “speak the language of the self as their native tongue,” in her book Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Tom Friedman dubbed us Generation Q for quiet in the pages of The New York Times, writing, “Generation Q may be too quiet, too online, for its own good, and for the country’s own good.” And morning shows can’t resist a segment on how entitled Gen Y is in the workplace and what their bosses can do to tame their positively gargantuan egos.

I think they’ve got it wrong. They’re missing a class analysis. And they’ve mistaken symptoms for the disease. We are not, on the whole, entitled, self absorbed, and apathetic. We’re overwhelmed, empathic, and paralyzed. The privileged among us, are told over and over that it is our charge to “save the world,” but once in it, we realize that it’s not so simple. The less privileged are gifted their own empty rhetoric -- American Dream ideology that charges them with, perhaps not necessarily saving the whole damn world, but at the very least saving their families, their countries, their honor. We are the most educated, most wanted, most diverse generation in American history, and we are also the most conscious of complexity.

InLet Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes: “Absolutism and relativism have ravaged not only the things of the world but our sense of the knowing self as well. We are whiplashed between an arrogant overestimation of ourselves and a servile underestimation of ourselves, but the outcome is always the same: a distortion of the humble yet exalted reality of the human self, a paradoxical pearl of price.” In other words, we know that -- simply by virtue of being born at this time, in this place -- we are privileged, and furthermore, responsible to share that privilege. But we also know that making good on either promise -- saving the world or saving our families -- is not nearly as simply as our kindergarten teachers or our aspirational parents made it sound.

We know that soup ladling isn’t enough, that Western values are sometimes imposed on other cultures in the guise of good works, that charity often serves to disempower a person in the long run, that too many nonprofits are joyless and ineffective places, that we have so much to give and yet so little. We’ve watched our own parents -- many of them immigrants with big American Dreams in bright lights -- be disrespected by the supposed promise land. We’ve taken human rights and women’s studies classes where first world arrogance was put in sharp relief to third world ingenuity. We’ve experienced the painful irony of walking our donation check, earmarked for Indonesian hurricane relief, to the mailbox in our own poor Oakland neighborhood, which we were gentrifying by our mere existence.

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