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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."
 
 
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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.

I marched against the Iraq War, along with upwards of six million other people across the world, and President George Bush called it a “focus group.” Despite all of my phone banking and wonky obsessing, he was re-elected for a second term. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq raged on. Abu Ghraib hit the headlines. The wealth disparity yawned larger and larger. My first nonprofit job was one long exercise in disillusion and freelance writing was often alienating. I felt as if I had been sold a bill of goods. The world was a cruel, unjust place and, far from saving it, I felt stuck in it.

Looking for solace, I had lunch with my favorite professor from Barnard College, where I’d been an undergrad just a few years earlier. Professor Dalton was the one whose gospel of a true calling or arête (Plato), of a social contract (Rousseau), of the power of love (King), had set me on fire at 20 years old. I would leave his class vibrating with grand notions of what it meant to live an ethical, examined life, and how I might shape mine to reflect all this learning. Just five years later, I felt extinguished. The real world was not a place of perfect forms and pat answers. It was messy, bureaucratic, painful.

But instead of soothing me, it seemed that my professor had his own desperation to battle. “Where is your generation’s outrage?” he asked me. He told me stories of lecturing on the Holocaust, only to have one of his student’s ask, “Is this going to be on the test?” When I visited his classroom, slipping into a seat in the back, I saw laptop screens alight with Facebook and Zappos as he spoke passionately about the “miracle, mystery, and authority” of Dostoevsky.

The conspicuous lack of outrage, however, was not limited to the privileged. Consumerism and celebrity worship distracted the students that I worked with two afternoons a week at a low-income public high school. They were more interested in brand name bags and tight sneakers than fighting inequity. They wanted to know how they could get rich, not how the rich perpetuate systems of oppression.

And I couldn’t really blame them. The political and cultural landscape circa 2005 prized status over courage, safety over innovation, and pre-professionalism over finding one’s true calling. Anyone stubbornly dedicated to social change was destined for a harsh lesson in what Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness” -- when one has grand expectations, and finds them repeatedly unfulfilled, the unavoidable next stop is Despair. It was a time when the wind was knocked out of our collective sails. I, for one, was left standing on the shore of my own good intentions wondering what ever happened to my dreams of “doing good.”

And then a new day dawned.

It would be hard to overstate Barack Obama’s significance in terms of his influence on young people and our notions of good works. I’m not talking exclusively about the thousands upon thousands of young people that joined his campaign, knocking on doors, sending text messages, descending on Iowa and Florida. Of course, those kids were transformed forever by their experience of standing up with a leader they finally believed in.

But there is a broader, even more profound effect that his leadership has had on us. It’s given us an opportunity to see our own sensibilities, our own idealism, our own complex identities reflected at the highest level. Barack Obama is the America we dreamed about when we were little kids sitting in that classroom with Dorito cheese under our nails. He is the grand symbol, the big victory, the fireworks that we so longed for.

Which is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, his election has made a lot of young people believe in the political process again, reflect on their own civic duty, and learn more about community organizing. On the other hand, all the hype that has surrounded his candidacy has revived one of our more dangerous delusions -- that “saving the world” is about heroics. In fact, the world will not be saved. It will be changed. It looks more like your mom -- her palm on your fevered forehead, her handwritten schedule for sharing childcare with neighbors, her letter to the editor to the local newspaper -- than it does your president. Activism is a daily, even hourly experiment in dedication, moral courage, and resilience.

We must abandon the “save the world” and American Dream rhetoric for a language that is still inspiring, but also pragmatic, a language that we can use like a bridge over the chasm between what our parents and teachers told us about good deeds, about success, and what the real world needs every day. We must transcend school-required community service and resume-padding activities in favor of the kind of work that keeps you up at night because you believe in it so deeply. We must resist paralysis and the sort of numbing our generation has made ourselves infamous for (drinking, drugging, shopping). We must soothe the critics and pessimists in their own heads and act.

Jane Addams once said, “We may either smother the divine fire of youth or we may feed it.” I believe that outlandish expectations, crushing bureaucracies, out-of-touch political leaders, doomsday media coverage, and empty rhetoric about service and success only serve to suck the oxygen out of our hugely promising generation.

Instead we must look to one another for the spark. We must integrate lessons from the visionaries and pavement-pounders of yesteryear, but not become burned by waiting for their version of social change to manifest. Nor must we be relegated to sanitized point-and-click activism alone. Technology aids us, but it doesn’t define us. Our work, our hearts, our ingenuity are what determine our legacy.

The strangest thing happened on the way to my thirties. I realize that I wasn’t going to live forever. And it made the prospect of paralysis -- the option of overthinking and wallowing in my own disillusion about what I’d been told, in contrast to what I was observing and experiencing -- all seem like a whole lot of wasted time. Certainly there is need for reflection, research, and self-examination before we just too enthusiastically into “doing good,” but we are also a generation with a tendency to stew.

We’ve learned how to analyze well, perhaps too well, thanks to our curricula in critical thinking and our hard-working teachers. We can intellectualize any solution into tatters with our finely sharpened swords of cultural relativity. And it’s honorable that we’ve got those skills and that we’re not afraid to use them.

But as George Jackson says, “Patience has its limits. Take it too far and it’s cowardice.” We must be fearless in our analysis and our action. We must accept that we will fail and try anyway, try to fail always more exquisitely, more honestly, more effectively. We must wake up in the morning naively believing in the power of our own dreams and the potential of our own gifts, and go to bed exhausted and determined to do it all over again -- with maybe just a bit of a different tactic, a little less ego, a little more help.

What else are you going to do? Give up?

Of course you’re not. You’re not going to do that, because you are part of a long line of people who didn’t do that, because you live in a country that was actually founded on the assumption that you would be audacious and rebellious and inexhaustible in your pursuit of a more perfect union. You’re not going to settle, because you’ve seen how that kills people, how resigning and consuming and forgetting are surefire ways to deaden a soul. You’re not going to give up, because it would be terribly boring. You’re not going to give up, because you owe the world, this nation, yourself, bravery in the face of suffering, vision in the face of stagnancy, and blood, sweat and tears in the face of injustice. The good failure is your debt for being here. Now. In this beautiful, horrible place.

We have the opportunity to live our lives consciously in spire of all the soporific influences, to act even when we know how complex the prospect of doing so is. Our charge is not to “save the world,” after all; it is to live in it, flawed and fierce, loving and humble. As children of the eighties and nineties, we are uniquely positioned to fail. The bureaucracy we face, the scale of our challenges, the intractable nature of so many of our most unjust international institutions and systems -- all of these add up to colossal potential for disappointment. No matter. We must strive to make the world better anyway. We must struggle to make our friendships, our families, our neighborhoods, our cities, and our nation more dignified, knowing that it might not work and struggling anyway. We must dedicate ourselves each and every morning to being the most kind, thoughtful, courageous human beings who ever walked the earth, and know that it still won’t be enough. We must do it anyway.

 

Courtney E. Martin is the author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, out this week on Beacon Press. She is also a Senior Correspondent at The American Prospect and an editor at Feministing.com.

 
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