Coming of Age in the Aughts

As this decade comes to an end, so do my 20s. For me and many of my generation, the past ten years have marked a series of experiments -- sometimes misguided -- in living ethically. The question was (and is): What does an ethical life look like in an era of terrorism, reality television, vast wealth disparity, and the Internet?

My generation's real political education began in a very concerted way on September 12, 2001. I was 21, just staring down my senior year at Barnard College in New York. In a matter of hours, my invincibility, my naiveté, my sense that there would always be enough time to do what I was supposed to do and be who I was supposed to be, was obliterated. I watched women in torn panty hose, high heels in hand, walk up Broadway with dazed looks and realized that the world was far more complex and dangerous than my political science classes had made it seem. Before, my generation had identified with Fight Club's description of the "middle children of history" with "no purpose or place … no great war or depression." Suddenly, we were violently initiated into war time. Depression, of course, would come later.

In my early 20s, I responded to this initiation with imitation. I'd studied the 60s in my Social Movements class. I'd heard my parents' stories about protesting Vietnam when they were just about my age. On February 15, 2003, I made my friends get up, get bagels, and hit the streets of Manhattan with me for the anti-war march -- promising that it would be like a big party. And indeed, it was a big party -- six to ten million strong worldwide by BBC estimates. We may not be a generation convinced of protest marches effectiveness as a political tool, but we took a chance.

In the end, America attacked Iraq anyway. Raised in the era of coddle-and-reward childrearing, my generation was shocked and awed that our protests hadn't worked. We were conditioned to expect rewards when we did something good. (Despite the fact that my poor dad tried to warn me with his frequent refrain, "Courtney, life isn't fair.") As I watched the television footage of the first explosions of light and fire in the dark over Baghdad on March 20, 2003, my journey with, as Martin Seligman puts it, learned helplessness began. Like so many of my generation, the most volunteering since our grandparents, I started trying on one "do gooder" role after another only to find that nothing "worked." I phone banked for hours to try to register single women voters in swing states and only managed to get a few reluctant ladies to take advantage of their inherited suffrage. I signed every last online petition that stuffed into my inbox, but legislation I opposed wholeheartedly continued to get passed. There just weren't enough visceral experiences of victory to make all the effort feel effective.

As the early 2000s ached on, I became more and more disillusioned, more and more convinced that there was nothing I could do influence the fate of the nation, and in turn, its effect on the world. My friends and I would commiserate about how crushing bureaucracy had become, how complex globalization was, how paralyzed we all felt. Every young person I knew turned out at the polls, but studies later reported that, though the majority of us opposed Bush, we simply didn't turn out accordingly. When the cowboy crusader was re-elected in 2004, something inside of me gave up.

I started talking about my desperation more frequently. In a letter to my favorite political theory professor dated February 8, 2006, I wrote, "This time breeds the cowardice in us all, not because we are actually cowards, but because we are sensitive and inept -- broken by a world too big and complex to save. Even the young grow old now, aged before their time by the rapid onslaught of information and the smallness of their own lives, their own voices."

And then something happened -- not in a flash, but slowly, over time. I started to shed my righteousness like the flaking of dead skin cells. I started to grasp that there was no guaranteed result for doing good. I started to understand that the just life was not a black and white proposition -- either accomplished or abandoned -- but a daily, hourly practice in trying to be kind in a time of normalized cruelty, thoughtful in a time of speed and overload, and creative in a time of destruction. The world didn't need saving. It needed good people to simply keep showing up.

And just as my wisdom was accruing, just as I watched the friends around me start to soften, sober up, and settle into a sort of late 20s humbling, a transformative figure captured our collective imagination. Barack Obama gave many in my generation their first experience of effective, elated citizenship. We acted and there were direct rewards on November 2, 2008. It didn't change our new understanding that political involvement doesn't guarantee raucous parties, but it did give us a reason to believe in our own power again.

January 20, 2009 was sweet in its overwhelming simplicity -- a nation, a leader, a realization of so many dreams. But nothing is ever simple for long. Everything that's come after has been harsh and complicated. The recession and the health care debate, Afghanistan and Copenhagen -- it all affirms the necessity of patience, of more listening and less shouting, of compromise that is not satisfying but nonetheless necessary for progress. Sometimes that's all you can hope for -- not a paradigm shift, but a seed planted. My generation has come to understand this.

We hope for less now. It's not a sad state, it's just a quieter one, one where we understand that we must try to make ethical choices every day (what to eat, to wear, to say, to spend, to do with our time), and know that we will sometimes choose wrong. We must try to be engaged citizens, to agitate for health care and climate legislation, and know that this nation's leadership may never achieve its lofty ideals. But we keep trying. Despite the fact that the way we live now seems to make abstraction and disconnection inevitable, we must continue to look people in the eye.

As this decade, as my 20s, come to a close, I'm relieved. It's been a violent time. There has been so much fear, so much divisiveness, so much corruption.

But I'm also excited. It seems like we are settling into a new era of acknowledged complexity and patient citizenship. James Baldwin wrote, "Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up." The same could be said of the attempt to live the ethical life. There is no possibility of perfection in it, just persistence, just intention, just growing up.