Monday, May 28, 2012

The Gifts that Earlier Generations Have Given Us

Almost three years ago, I wrote about the "new" generation of people who one blogger called "Generation 'M'." Recently, motivated by an article that was pretty disparaging to the younger people known as "Millennials," I assembled some thoughts about everything that has been given to us by those who have gone before us: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and other ancestors. Here are those thoughts.

People who know me well would recognize this observation that I often state among family and friends: In some significant ways, human life on this planet has always been a pain the ass, for just about everyone. There really is almost always something to complain about. About 2,600 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as "the Buddha" after his enlightenment, called the situation by a Pali word: dukkha. I know next to nothing about the Pali language, but I have seen and heard that word translated as "suffering," "pain," "unsatisfactoriness," "unease," and "misery." More profanely, I translate dukkha to mean "a pain in the ass." Our knowing that life is a pain in the ass is, in itself, still another level of pain in the proverbial posterior. Life is far from perfect. The sooner we get over it, the sooner we have a chance at finding more grounded, enduring forms of happiness.

Alright, that's enough about the Buddha and Buddhism; I have some more specific points to make.

First, I don't agree with that article's dumping on Millennials. Here's the link again for your convenience:http://oncampus.macl...-generation-me/

I don't see the people called Millennials as any more selfish or "generation me" than any other group of people. I'm not all "Rah-rah, go Millennials!" either. For example, I don't care for the music that many of them listen to, but tastes vary. My tastes in music comprise an arcane mix, so I may just be hard to please. Nevertheless, I don't perceive the selfishness, materialism, and reduced civil engagement that the article bemoans.

To the extent that the Millennials may be somewhat more selfish, more materialistic, and less engaged in larger civic causes, we have to be realistic and give them a break. Look at the shitty economy that we have as they are coming of age. The uber-wealthy have ripped, if not the guts at least some vital internal organs, out of the USA and world economy. And there's another wave of that kind of crisis coming with student debt. How is someone graduating from high school supposed to find well-paying employment? Many, if not most, of them are going to need advanced education for that. But who can afford college tuition these days? I'm guessing it is the same with trade schools, too, but I don't know that for a fact.

The cost of higher education has spiraled out of control, many times the rate of inflation. Someone who is graduating with $50,000 to $100,000 in student debt is already at a disadvantage compared to people who graduated in the mid 1980s like I did. Add to that a dismal economy and job market, and I think anyone can see the dark clouds gathering.

On the other hand, it's also bullshit to bitch and moan and blame everything on the baby boomers and say that our (or the Millennials') lives are awful because of boomer greed and excess. I say it's bullshit because it looks at just one side of the equation, the negative side or the downside. Let me explain.

Each of us comes out of our mothers' bodies and into this world as a wet, crying, needy, and shriveled-faced infant. Any abilities or talents we have are going to do no one any good until many years after we are born. We are dependent on our parents for survival a lot longer than the offspring of any other animal species of which I'm aware.

A tiny percentage of us grow up in the lap of luxury, filled with "the best of everything," silver spoons, and so forth. Some of us endure horrific childhoods riddled with poverty, abuse, neglect, and addiction. As different as those extremes are, we all have much more in common in terms of what the world gives us.

Before I launch into my litany of good things, let me say it again: life is not perfect. Nevertheless, just think about all the stuff that is here for us, when we exit our mother's womb and enter the world--all things that we did nothing to create, paid no price to earn, and are really there for our taking.
  • agriculture and the means of growing and distributing food;
  • our system of government and laws and heritage of (albeit imperfect) protection of individual human rights;
  • our language--whichever language is our native tongue--that has been developed over the course of centuries and profoundly affects how we think, speak, and act;
  • sports and fitness activities (how many of us have ever invented a new sport?);
  • science and mathematics and the technologies they spawn, including the Internet that is allowing me to share these words that you can read almost anywhere on earth;
  • the humanities--art, music, and literature--that enrich our lives and that we can enjoy without ever ourselves putting a paintbrush to canvas, a pen to a music score sheet, or words to a sonnet or novel of our own invention;
  • family wisdom and folklore passed down through the ages;
  • domesticated animals like dogs, cats, and other pets that become our companions, offering us much enjoyment, companionship, and even health benefits;
  • religion and spirituality, or a level-headed agnostic or atheistic worldview;
  • the means of building to house us, provide workplaces and recreation areas, and create other structures for our use;
  • the means of making clothing to clothe us and protect us from the extremes of the elements;
  • advanced systems of medicine that allow us to live with conditions that would have been fatal less than a century ago;
  • organized charities that help make life a little easier for our fellow humans, and maybe for us;
  • a system of social insurance to provide retirement and disability benefits (yeah, I know this is controversial);
  • systems of education to help us learn about our world;
  • a military infrastructure that encompasses the most advanced weaponry and defense systems ever known to man (yeah, this is another controversial one); and
  • so many other things that I can't think of right now.
Each of us, part of each advancing generation, will use these artifacts of civilization although we did not build them. We will make other contributions--whether variations or advancements on the items I have listed above, or inventions and wonders that will be classified in different groups--and will leave them for those who follow us.

Human progress depends on building on the work and creations of those who have gone before us. Yes, those earlier people did some things wrong--some grievously wrong--but I don't think it's fair or honest to assess our position in human history by focusing only on the harms done by previous generations without acknowledging the many good things they have bequeathed to us. Despite all of the gloom and doom (that I know is truly part of the current reality), there is a great deal of good stuff that we have that was given to us as a gift, free of charge. I think it's worthwhile to count our blessings and appreciate the good things that connect us to our ancestors and forebears from time to time. 

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