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Vanguard Generation

An Ironic Army
by Maura R. O'Connor

I was born fifteen years after the Summer of Love, in 1982. I didn't even exist on the same planet with John Lennon, who died two years before I was born, or Bob Marley, who died a year later. In other words, I missed the hippie boat by a long shot. But as I attempt to survey the spiritual landscape of young people today, I realize that landscape is under the shadow of this cultural milieu. The words “the sixties” don't just refer to a time in history to me. Instead, they connote a collective mood, one that was informed by idealism, originality, possibility, and the na´ve self-assurance and spiritual curiosity of thousands. A mood that was always just out of reach in my own experience growing up. And just so you know, I'm not one of those credit-card-carrying-Phish-show-attending neo-hippies who are trying to relive the sixties in their own ironic way. But there's no denying the nostalgia, intermixed with cynicism, that the period inspires in me, emotions I couldn't make sense of until this topic came up during a conversation with one of my favorite writers, the philosopher, teacher, and cultural critic Thomas de Zengotita. He said to me, “You not only have to live with the memory, you have to live with endless representations of it, which are diverse enough and rich enough that you can feel nostalgia for a time you never lived through. And that's a very strange position to be in. It makes it very, very hard for you guys to feel like, 'Okay, we can wipe the slate clean and start again.'” As it turns out, I've just got a case of postmodern envy: the envy of anything real.

Don't get me wrong. The question is not whether young people at the beginning of the twenty-first century can re-create the spiritual enthusiasm or cultural revolution of the sixties, but whether these lofty terms can attain new meaning and relevance for those of us born in the age of irony and relentless skepticism. Can we afford to believe in change—again? Can we afford to believe in anything, if what Zengotita called “our ironic defense against the possibility of being duped” has become our most useful asset, an impenetrable method of psychological survival? For a long time now, the answer has been no—and the characterization of Generation X as lacking moral fiber and spiritual ambitions, or ambitions of any kind, is a testament to that. But will the next wave of youth, my own Generation Y, follow in their footsteps, as we have done in so many other ways? Or will we stake new ground? Never before has this question been so critical. In their recent book, The World's Youth, scholars Reed Larson and T.S. Saraswathi write, “In the end the future is in the laps of young people. We are handing the next generation of youth a world rife with serious problems—global warming, looming environmental catastrophes, poverty, numerous international conflicts—just as similarly daunting problems were handed to us. Nothing less than a full mobilization of all young people to higher goals and ideals is required for humankind to make it through the new century.”

As the pressures of the present moment in history become more and more overwhelming to contemplate, our ironic defenses seem increasingly absurd in contrast. Faced with an unprecedented complexity of horrors, nothing could be more frightening than to think of ourselves as the vanguard generation, responsible by default for the future of the human race. In fact, it sounds like a joke. With originality and idealism left as luxuries that young people in the sixties were fortunate enough to enjoy, all we have in our arsenal as the most privileged youth on the planet is irony and a lack of purpose.

However, recently I've wondered if those qualities that characterized young people in the sixties—unabashed idealism, thirst for change, and a willingness to challenge the status quo—can really be gone. Isn't it more like we've stalled, so to speak, in the midst of the postmodern mood—a mood that Zengotita described as, “Hey! Wait a minute. Chill man.” And if these qualities aren't gone, then what is keeping them from reemerging, especially at a time when positive participation and change is so painfully and desperately needed? As Zengotita pointed out to me, “This mood in particular is very hard to overcome—it's like you can't be a virgin again. You know enough history to know how typical it is for human beings to fall into mass delusion and commit horrendous acts. This is what really shaped postmodernism to begin with.” The present mood of hyper-apathy among us has created terrible conditions for spiritual pursuits, to say the least. But perhaps we've reached a breaking point. Recently there has been a deluge of books about young people and spirituality, often written by those chill Gen X'ers themselves. In 2002, Radical Spirit: Spiritual Writings from the Voices of Tomorrow was published, containing testimonies written by, for example, Ocean Robbins, Julia Butterfly Hill, and Stuart Davis. Blue Jean Buddha: Voices of Young Buddhists follows the same anthology-style format, but is written by those who have followed the Buddhist spiritual path. Noah Levine, the 31-year-old author of Dharma Punx, is included in Blue Jean Buddha, as are other young authors like Diana Winston. And then there is an entire genre of Christian literature written by and for young people, including Red Moon Rising: How 24-7 Prayer is Awakening a Generation, and The Rock Cries Out: Finding Eternal Truth in Unlikely Music. Could books such as these be evidence that today's youth are beginning to want or need a larger spiritual context for our lives? I decided to investigate a couple of them and speak with their authors with one purpose in mind: to find out if the mood among us was shifting and, if so, to discover where it was headed.

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