That annoying, smug dismissal grew popular among the young over the last couple of years and may have reached peak naivete in a few random Internet comments I read in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One comment seemed to identify the Russian invasion with the mentalities of earlier generations and to suggest that therefore no criticism of “woke” culture could be valid by comparison. Others said that what really is needed is for the older generations to die off so that the young can fix everything.
|Deacon Kyle Eller
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the impulse. I’m solidly Generation X, and as others of my generation, with typical sarcastic cynicism, have noted, we invented the art of rolling our eyes at Baby Boomers.
But it’s partly two aspects of that experience that render the problem here so clear to me. First, what was so annoying to us about the boomers? I think if you boil it down, it’s that we lived in the immediate aftermath of an illusion identical to the one we’re living now: "never trust anyone over 30," the old ways have proven a failure and must be overthrown, and all it will take to set the world right is for the old generations whose ways have failed to die off and for the new generation to set it right. (Duluth-born Bob Dylan, the “voice of a generation,” couldn’t have said it more plainly in “The Times, They Are A-Changin.’”)
Spoiler: It turns out Baby Boomers were made of the same stuff, good and bad, as every generation that came before them, and their utopia fared exactly as well as the ones that came before, which is to say that it came into contact with reality, and reality won, with lots of unintended consequences.
The second aspect of the experience is that at middle age, I’ve now lived long enough to see how well my generation fared learning from its parents’ mistakes and trying to avoid them. Would our jaded cynicism and ironic detachment fare better?
Spoiler: It turns out Generation X was made of the same stuff too, and if we avoided some mistakes, we found our own to make, with lots of unintended consequences. No doubt my children are learning from mine as we speak.
In other words, it turns out we all suffer from the effects of original sin – the reality that we come into this world with a certain brokenness.
“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved,” wrote the great G.K. Chesterton, in a passage I love. They, “in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street.”
Drunk on the myth of progress, we imagine that, with the passage of time and the growth of science and technology and mass communication and so on, the evils of the world must inevitably diminish and all will get better and better, so we are shocked to learn that greed and hatred and corruption and the lust for power and wars and atrocities and all the rest still persist.
But of course they do. We’re made of the same stuff, and all the bigger and better iPhones we can come up with cannot make it otherwise.
This has direct implications for how we approach our problems, whether it’s the global stage or the local city council or right at home in our families and parishes. In particular, it should inspire humility in us.
Russell Kirk, an influential conservative thinker of a bygone age, once wrote a list of ten conservative principles that, whether you find yourself in agreement or disagreement with them, are worth pondering no matter what political label you might affix to yourself. (And I think conservatives would benefit from this at least as much as progressives.)
Several of them are relevant here, but one in particular stands out: “[C]onservatives,” he says, “are chastened by their principle of imperfectibility.” He notes that human nature itself suffers certain grave faults and therefore “no perfect social order ever can be created.” We can work toward a “tolerably ordered, just, and free society” which still has imperfections, and even by prudent reform can hope to preserve and improve it, but start tearing down institutional and moral safeguards and “the anarchic impulse in humankind breaks loose.”
He closes the passage with this warning, as fitting today as it ever was: “The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the 20th century world into a terrestrial hell.”
As I write this, I am fresh from proclaiming the Gospel passage at Sunday Mass in which Jesus warns us to remove the log from our own eyes — our own sins and failings — before attempting to remove the splinter from our brother’s eye. The difficult truth is that it’s a lot easier, and generally a lot more comfortable, focusing our attention on the sins and failings of others than it is to do the hard work of rooting out our own.
True humility and wisdom recognize that we’re made of the same stuff, subject to the same limitations as everyone else who has come along and tried their best, and just as prone to wishful thinking and ideological blind spots, and that the real battle for progress takes place in the human heart, first of all our own.
And the deepest wisdom of all is that only in Jesus Christ can the wounds there even begin to be healed.
Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].