Although Time magazine devoted a recent cover piece to the narcissistic self-absorption of the “Millennials,” the article was greeted with a shrug by many readers who believe it's merely the perennial complaint made about young adults. While older people have always had some measure of disdain for the usual defects attached to immaturity, the children who are presently coming of age are suffering from a moral free-fall that does make their generation unique.
The standard task given to young people is to sift through the inherited wisdom, social customs, and cultural conventions in order to decide how to calibrate their own moral compasses, and yet we would be hard-pressed to find another era in which so little was passed on in each of these categories. Between kindergarten's cozy mantra, “Believe in yourself!” and high school's admonition to “Reach for the stars!” our young people have been nourished with a broad tolerance of all things—except for the “confining” notion that truth exists.
Between one's nascent self and those distant stars, the unfolding drama of each life is to distinguish principles and boundaries, beginning with identity. Unfortunately, because of the current fragility and redefinition of family, and since motherhood and fatherhood are increasingly marginalized, the foundational identity of many youngsters is deeply unsettled. With homosexual themes pervading the media, “gender bending” activities being introduced in elementary schools, and traditional marriage under attack, the normal touchstones that children have relied on are vanishing.
Is it any wonder that young people are bewildered when, in all seriousness, adults ask them how they understand their sexual identity? Children—many of whose pathologies are a cri de coeur—receive a pat on the head (or a condom when they're older), while those desperately in need of loving guidance are given stones instead of bread. “Believe in yourself!” is a supreme challenge to those in an existential crisis.
Several decades ago, public schools exchanged virtues for values, and vice was repackaged as individuality. The wider culture, conflicted over authority, often shrinks from making even the most prudential judgements. Whereas the coming of age process includes testing existing strictures in order to find room to manoeuvre, presently those very strictures are disintegrating. What will young people do when there are no categories left to reject, when there are no remaining barriers to beat down, and when when even his “whatever” is lost on the neighbor absorbed in his own screen?
Once upon a time, sexual identity was a given, social norms were reasonably fixed, and a child's place in the universe was understood—even if not terribly secure. Now that most conventions have crumbled, each person has to create his own earth and sky, his own universe and natural law. Nothing can be taken for granted, for even personhood is no longer sacrosanct. Is it any wonder that our young people are tattooing their identity in all possible venues to establish themselves amidst a chaotic and distracted world? The new Cartesian twist seems to be, “I Facebook, therefore I am.” Social media—tedious as it is—is like the heartbeat of the fetus; if each thought isn't amplified and shared, the youngsters run the risk of being ignored as non-persons.
Contrary to the prevailing fear, our recognition of truth—rather than suffocating society—would free each person to live a life of love and meaning. Instead of groping blindly to define himself and the world according to his limited experiences and impaired sense of reason, he could spend his energy in less self-absorbed ways. Only when taught to believe in the reality beyond himself—with a concrete measure of good and evil—can he lift himself beyond his shallow horizon and discover why he is here.
We should have patience with these young people who seem so absorbed in finding ways to illustrate every mundane detail of their existence. Few have been introduced to the God who cares, or a culture that cherishes them for themselves. Imagine how exhausting it must be to recreate the wheel each morning because one cannot perceive the Grand Architect behind it all. Prepare a smile for them, for between the tweets and texts there may be a time for truth.