What do Teddy Ruxpin, Monica Lewinsky, and the War on Terror all have in common? Supposedly they are all the defining moments of our generation…whatever we’re called.
It seems that no one has any idea what to do with us. It’s been nearly a quarter-century, and still there is no clear consensus on who exactly we are and what exactly defines us, let alone what exactly to call us. Is it a question of what we wear? What we watch? What events we saw unfold live on TV? Time and again, the task of deciphering what specifically motivates and sustains this group of America’s young adults seems to deteriorate into conversations about ninja turtles and cable television.
Some have called us the MTV Generation, citing the cable network’s supposedly substantial influence on our collective identity. (i.e. we are living in a material world and we are a material generation.) In fact, the implication of materialism and consumerism seems to be at the heart of a lot of the proposed generational titles. Whether we are using the term Generation Y or Millennials, on some level it eventually all seems to boil down to a question of who owned a Nintendo and when.
And I have to admit that we do love to love the 80s and 90s. If our generation has one favorite pastime it very well could be reminiscing about everything from the Fresh Prince to the Princess Bride. But does that define us? I don’t think so.
What about the world events of our time? We came of age amidst numerous scandals, tragedies, and cultural revolutions. We’ve lived through Iran-Contra and the Clinton impeachment; Oklahoma City, Columbine, and 9/11; the internet, and the culture wars. Could the roots of our generational identity actually be traced back to these influences and their impact on our common perspective? Popular opinion suggests that these events have left us generally detached and self-centered as a generation.
While I do think that all of these things mentioned above have certainly impacted us as a group in a variety of ways, both for the better and the worse, and may prove to be the catalysts through which we define our generation, I also think they fail to signify that which truly and essentially rallies us as a generation. The reason is this: these things do not actually pose a question to us concerning our purpose and dignity as a people.
Looking to the generations of Americans that have come before us, there are several examples of generations that defined themselves in response to a central question and challenge of their time. For the generation of Patrick Henry and Benjamin West, it was a question of liberty; for the generation of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton it was a question of the republic; for the generation of Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth it was a question of abolition; for the generation of Dwight Eisenhower and Ernest Hemmingway it was a question of humanity; for the generation of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, it was a question of equality. Each time presented its people with a dilemma over how to act together with a sense of purpose and dignity. The events of their time – whether they were wars, declarations, or marches – were the catalysts through which each generation responded to those questions and ultimately defined their generation.
True, this next American generation has been influenced by scandal, tragedy, cultural revolutions, and all the negativity that such things cultivate; but we also have seen Nelson Mandela’s fortitude rewarded in South Africa; we have seen the impact of compassion such as Mother Teresa’s; and we have seen the heroism of America’s civil servants in the face of unthinkable atrocities. This is all to say that this generation has already seen the full potential of humanity tested and proven in ways the world has never known. We have borne witness to the capacity for good that all humans, including ourselves, truly possess. And that is where our challenge as a generation truly begins.
It is the very simultaneity of these tremendous human triumphs alongside such human failures that presents us with the question of our time: does the future belong to hope or to despair?
Choosing despair is simple. And if our actions prove that we in fact are a detached and self-centered generation, it is inevitable. But if we respond to the realities of this world with a total and complete sense of engagement and collaboration, we will be the generation that demonstrated the power of hope.
Barack Obama understands the question of our time; but more importantly he knows how to answer it. He even speaks of it in terms of a generational call to duty. Last week in
Selma, Alabama, before a congregation gathered to commemorate the events of ‘Bloody Sunday,’ Obama outlined the calling of the ‘Joshua Generation’ – our generation.
Likening the generation of King and Rosa Parks to Moses, Obama said,
“I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation; but we’ve got to remember, now, that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was, despite all that he did, leading a people out of bondage, he didn’t cross over the river to see the Promised Land. God told him your job is done… We’re going to leave it to the Joshua generation to make sure it happens. There are still battles that need to be fought; some rivers that need to be crossed… The previous generation, the Moses generation, pointed the way. They took us 90% of the way there. We still got that 10% in order to cross over to the other side. So the question, I guess, that I have today is what’s called of us in this Joshua generation? What do we do in order to fulfill that legacy; to fulfill the obligations and the debt that we owe to those who allowed us to be here today?”
For Obama, the comprehensive work of the Joshua Generation begins by understanding where we come from, by looking to history in order to direct our own path and seeking more than material gain. On this Obama said,
“Moses told the Joshua generation; don’t forget where you came from. I worry sometimes, that the Joshua generation in its success forgets where it came from. Thinks it doesn’t have to make as many sacrifices… but if you know your history, then you know that there is a certain poverty of ambition involved in simply striving just for money. Materialism alone will not fulfill the possibilities of your existence. You have to fill that with something else. You have to fill it with the golden rule. You’ve got to fill it with thinking about others. And if we know our history, then we will understand that that is the highest mark of service.”
With increasing clarity, this generation is finally confronting the question of its time: the question of hope. And as we dare to choose hope in the face of so much terror, violence, and hatred in the world, we truly are wise to follow the words of Obama. He says that, “Throughout our history, there has been a running thread of ideals that have guided our travels and pushed us forward, even when they’re just beyond our reach, liberty in the face of tyranny, opportunity where there was none and hope over the most crushing despair. Those ideals and values beckon us still and when we have our doubts and our fears, just like Joshua did, when the road looks too long and it seems like we may lose our way, remember what these people did on that bridge.”
That thread of ideals he speaks of is what connects one generation to the next as each has rallied around the questions and challenges of their time. In fact, we owe our liberty, our republic, and our equality to that thread. Now, with all eyes watching to decipher what motivates and sustains the Joshua Generation, we must act together with a sense of purpose and dignity to ensure that the future belongs to hope.