“We’re so pretentious!” Thus spake one dear child after her first semester away at school. She was living the dream at an art school in Boston, where she swam in a sea of creativity and cleverness, and yet the very fact that she could joke about her pretentiousness assured me that she wasn’t taking herself that seriously. She might be immersed in that exciting environment of showy conceit shared by countless young adults across the ages, but at least she could detach herself enough to see how silly they could be.
But there is one element of the prevailing atmosphere among the young — and accentuated among artists — that is deeply troubling, and that is the deconstructive spirit of the age. It’s not new. I’ve just begun reading “Fathers and Sons,” a 19th-century Russian novel, which also, coincidentally, begins with a father welcoming his beloved son home from college. The young man brings a friend with him, a nihilist with whom he’s enamored, and thus the older men in the house find their entire culture scorned and derided. Even the most basic courtesies of dress and table manners are hard to defend against a man who believes in nothing, and the father is dismayed to find that he cannot come up with the most basic of explanations to win back his son.
Few, currently, are totally invested in nihilism, but the deconstruction with which many dabble comes perilously close. Artists love to play with the iconic symbols we’ve grown up with and place them in unexpected settings, or to strive for irony by undermining revered institutions, offices and personalities — or when all else fails simply to shock the viewer. Much of it seems lighthearted and draws upon frivolous emotions, but the deeper message is that nothing matters. Everything is a game, there are no rules, and there is no such thing as integrity.
Where it collides with reality is when it touches on the nature of the human person, who depends on certain truths for his stability. Fashion trends are one thing, but tinkering with family and the needs of children are another matter entirely. The problem is that when deconstructionists get to work, there are no sacred bounds. For example, whether a child lives with his biological dad or is being raised by two mothers, or came from the donated sperm of a total stranger matters little when fatherhood as a concept is bereft of meaning — and yet the child’s entire world hangs in the balance.
Our challenge will be to identify those things that matter and to defend them with our whole being. We must take note of the creeping tide of nihilism that gnaws at our culture, and to hold fast to those things that we cannot live without.
The best strategy is to consider each of our actions and inclinations, and to consider whether they are essential to our faith and well-being, or secondary. Does each one further charity or serve as a distraction? Do these ideas and pastimes deepen the bonds among people or alienate them from what matters?
Moreover, what can we promote that will really build a culture of love and respect among people? My daughter and her companions are enjoying themselves immensely as they critique the world, but they will find one day that the really hard work isn’t in tearing down but in building up — and what they choose to retain and use as a foundation in their lives will make all the difference. Let us all take care to choose those things with care.
[The Anchor 12.23.11]