June 6, 1944 (D-Day) is a day that epitomizes the character of what we now call the greatest generation. I tend to believe there is much more in common between generations than different. The greatest generation was characterized by such expressions as "aw shucks, just doing my duty" or "gung-ho" and they spent very little time talking about the considerable efforts accomplished in World War II. Some recent events lead me to to think the cultural fulcrums are changing.
People in power have always had the temptation to use their position as an excuse for ethical foibles. The current episode of Arnold Schwarzenegger is not merely a case of "oops that was a dumb move." The (now revealed) son, fathered with a household employee, and a child born to his wife, Maria Shriver, came into this world within days of each other. The very least that this dizzying event reveals is a clear detachment from any sense of accountability to the most fundamental of civil commitments (while governor of the most populous state in the Union).
The charmed life of (former) IMF director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, finally ran out of luck as he got in a ridiculous episode revealing his tendency to think his position gave him a free pass with women that now seems to have been known to be a long-term pattern. This time, he got caught and may not be able to nuance his way out of this tight squeeze. Here is a man who very well could have been the next president of France whose sheer audacity is stunning and will cost him dearly.
In addition, we now hear of former Senator and presidential candidate, John Edwards, being charged by the federal government for using campaign funds to pay a lady with whom he fathered a child during the "heat" of the campaign while his wife (now deceased) was fighting cancer. When he finally came clean about this sorry episode, he admitted his responsibility, but also used an "it just happened before we knew what was going on" explanation. (And then yesterday, the Anthony Weiner Twitter episode adds insult to injury).
NPR recently reported on a study regarding the effects of power in business settings. The study concluded that the higher a person rose in the ranks, the more likely they (men or women) were to consider or commit adultery. The study posited that power breeds a particularly blinding arrogance that borders on entitlement. I am not suggesting that the greatest generation was immune to the same temptations as the people I just cited, but Abraham Lincoln had it right when he said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity-but if you want to test man's character, give him power." Some things never change, but the actions of boomers like Schwarzenegger, et. al. are increasingly destructive.
But does the future offer much relief from this integrity slippage? A recent LA Times editorial by a Yale doctoral student wondered out loud about the significance of youth celebrations on Ivy League campuses after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Craig Fehrman observed that the celebrations at Yale, outside the White House, or at Ground Zero really were not about remembering 9/11, though the media tried to make it out to be a defining moment for millennials. Fehrman suggests media's spin has been uncritically accepted, but it does not measure up to the statistics. When asked by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute in 2000, 28 percent of college freshman said that keeping up with political affairs was very important. That spiked again after 9/11 and the 2008 election when it reached 39 percent, but this is nowhere near the 60 percent of college freshman who answered in the affirmative in 1966 when the survey was first conducted. Fehrman said the post-bin Laden parties were really about millennials deciding to join the latest flash mob gone viral. He said that these celebrations were not really about cheering the demise of a scheming menace to the world, but rather an occasion to a make a significant event simply about having a good time.
David Brooks of the NY Times recently wrote that this year's college graduate represents the most supervised generation in American history. He observed that if you were to monitor a sampling of commencement addresses you would hear a litany of "follow your passion," "chart your course," "march to your own drum," "follow your dream," and "find yourself." Brooks concludes that our current climate preaches the self as the center of life. Then, Brooks gets downright preachy and says, "Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it's nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It's to lose yourself."
My observations could be dismissed as merely the results of gray hair and the fact I have more years under the bridge than to look ahead to. I simply think that every generation faces its contemporary challenges, all too often, framed solely and uncritically by cultural realities. Without a clear awareness of the influence of those "powers" that rise up from our culture, we end up with slogans and caricatures that some "expert" offers as explanations for our fast moving world.
If both millennial and boomer editorials, from coastal elite newspapers, can name the "disease" that afflicts us all, then maybe followers of Jesus need to weigh in with a bit of biblical insight. Isaiah's foretelling of a Messiah is not merely about someone who will make us feel better, liberate us from our dysfunctions, or get us a free pass out of jail. Isaiah's clarion description of our need is all-encompassing. He says, "All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way, but the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6). The description is of a Savior who would come and take on Himself the "iniquity" of us all. That's because we've lived a life that assumes no need for a transcendent force that would rearrange the very direction of our futures away from self-destruction. So powerful is that default position in humankind that we needed a Savior, not merely an attitude adjuster. So deep is this gravitational pull toward self-rule that only a Redeemer God could provide a solution. Every one of us has established the throne of our personal kingdoms squarely within our purview and control. That is not only an affront to our Creator, it is a death wish.
Wringing our hands and whining about what a mess this world is in may be cathartic, but it's a worthless use of time. Separating out generations as either people to emulate or scoff, offers little to the daunting reality that everyone needs to be jolted into. We need awareness that only eternal resources will resolve the abiding trauma from which all humanity suffers.
Byron D. Klaus