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May 21, 2013

Once more, with feeling

Our generation has a clear grasp on the problems it faces—now it’s time to believe we can solve them.

I sat in a professor’s office earlier this quarter, trying, in vain, to figure out what made John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address so extraordinarily powerful. I read the same passage out loud half a dozen times. “No, no, no,” the professor kept interrupting me. “Read it like you believe it.”

But I couldn’t.

As my every attempt to intone Kennedy’s sincerity fell flat, the professor said something I had trouble accepting: I couldn’t sell Kennedy’s commitment because I didn’t know what that kind of commitment felt like. Despite all the thinking I’d done, I had never really, absolutely believed in anything.

As I reflected on our conversation, I had to admit that the professor was right about my failure to believe, but also, and more overwhelmingly, that I’m not alone in this failure. In fact, I feel that I belong to an entire generation that doesn’t see anything as fully worthy of its energy and commitment. At the very least, we refuse to commit to anything with a passion and spirit that would match the dedicated generations before us.

This comes as no surprise, considering that we’re the first generation to be truly inundated with the past. Although each generation has inevitably failed to fully attain the ideals it sought, none before has had at its fingertips the complete chronicles of its predecessors’ failures. As Google and Wikipedia have replaced historical volumes, we have been forced to concede the benefit of the doubt: When we learn about John F. Kennedy himself, we might encounter the inspiring young leader—or the pill-popping, narcissistic chauvinist.

So we’re jaded by a past that we never lived. Everything once celebrated has become a liability. Doubt certainly existed before the Internet, but it was never able to extend its reach so wide and so deep. Our grandparents accepted history book accounts with a grain of salt, to be sure, but not with the absolute and all-encompassing reservation that paralyzes us today.

Simply put, we’re a generation of cynics, largely due to circumstance.

Being able to notice, analyze, and understand what’s wrong with our complicated world is a fine thing when it helps us dream up meaningful solutions. But today, we don’t see solutions. When we look at political candidates, ideologies, and distant goals, the intensity of their flaws blinds us. We cannot fathom commitment. Like earlier generations, we are painfully aware of the challenges that our world faces, but the solutions in which they placed their faith appear, to us, naïve and hopeless.

Like earlier generations, we see violence and poverty in our communities, and we want to combat them. But we no longer think of elected officials as problem-solvers working in society’s best interest. Instead, we fume as we envision slimy bureaucrats, catering to lobbyists and super–PACs while ignoring the needs of those who elected them.

Like earlier generations, we see millions of our fellow human beings living under oppression, and we want them set free. But we no longer imagine liberators as the valiant Allies who rescued millions from Nazi concentration camps. Instead, we remember our friends and neighbors who trekked to the Middle East to establish unwanted and unsustainable democracies, incurring immeasurable financial and human costs along the way.

Like earlier generations, we see distant stars and galaxies, and we want to visit them. But we no longer dream of landing on the moon. Instead, we shudder as we remember the Challenger and the Columbia shuttles being torn apart. Our burning passion to explore the cosmos fades to a cool, distant, and sheerly academic curiosity.

Any given answer would expose us to a dozen more problems. How could we resolve to pursue a solution that would be so thoroughly imperfect?

I myself am just the sort of cynic that I describe. My first reaction when a friend shares an optimistic story is to doubt its veracity, question its source, or otherwise assume the worst. I do so with a smile, out of some sense of duty to temper friends’ idealism and quash their unrealistic hopes. And, of course, this op-ed is, so far, doing the very thing it bemoans: Pointing out a problem in society without offering a solution. It’s what I am best at, and it’s what I’m most comfortable doing. After all, any solution I offer is liable to be criticized, by people like me, as naïve, flawed, or impractical. If I commit to it, that makes me naïve, flawed, or impractical too.

But I want to take that risk.

Each of us possesses an energy, a passion, and a spirit that beg us to commit to something—to believe in something. We’ve done the thinking; we already see what’s wrong with the world, and we want it to be better. Now, for a change, let’s start believing that we can make it so.

To be sure, our commitment won’t be—and can’t be—the same as our grandparents’. We simply know too much about the past to unquestioningly attach ourselves to those same unattainable ideals: The policy that single-handedly eradicates poverty, the ideology that needs to spread to every corner of the earth, or the one leader who will solve our every problem. Instead, our generation has the unique opportunity to begin evaluating solutions against the realities they stand to improve. We can notice the flaws in our policies, ideologies, and leaders and commit nonetheless, based not on blind faith or pure reason, but on our own variety of thinking—one that’s both critical and impassioned.

We’ll have to commit on our own terms; the solutions we envision might lie in the world around us, rather than in some perfect world above us. But that shouldn’t stop us from committing to them.

Let’s think about improving the world like we believe it.

Jake Smith is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.

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