Generation Overwhelmed

At my housewarming party last weekend there was vodka and tonic and indie rock, there were a few, inexpensive cheeses, and there were some 20-somethings with loose tongues and misunderstood hearts.

My friend Molly, an assistant in a big New York publishing house and a fascinating world-wanderer, had sent me the link to Thomas Friedman's New York Times op-ed, "Generation Q," earlier in the day. "So what did you think?" she asked. Molly and I met while studying abroad in South Africa together.

"About what?" asked my friend Daniel, a labor organizer destined for Harvard Divinity School next fall. A native of Paul Wellstone's Minnesota, he's spent the years since college on the Hill in Washington, in Harlem sky rises, and Los Angeles barrios and synagogues alike, trying to figure out how to bring people together.

"That Friedman piece where he alleges that our generation is idealistic and 'too quiet, too online, for [our] own good,'" I summarized, I admit, rolling my eyes.

"What's that?" asked Ben, a new friend of mine who works for the Clinton Foundation and who was a speech writer and a campaign organizer before that.

A lengthy, raucous conversation about outrage, its sources and manifestations, ensued. Until of course, we got distracted by a really good dance song ...

And this, it turns out, is what I'd like to talk to Mr. Friedman about. Not outrage. Not online activism. Not statues of long dead emancipators (which he invokes at the end of his piece as the symbol of what has been lost on us, the young and passive). But distraction. I think that he has mistaken my generation's sense of being overwhelmed, our absolute paralysis in the face of so many choices, so many causes, and so much awareness, for a mere quiet.

We are not quiet. Molly, the passionate environmentalist, Daniel, the bourgeoning theologian, Ben, the political communicator -- all of these kids have big mouths and lots of ideas. We don't hesitate to assert opinions. We are often outraged -- outraged, in fact, to the point of tears about the war in Iraq. I have lived this outrage since March 20, 2003. And I have had countless conversations with my friends, my mentors, my family, and my own pained conscience about what can possibly be done.

We are not apathetic. What we are, and perhaps this is what Friedman was picking up on, is totally and completely overwhelmed. One of the most critical questions of our time is one of attention. In a 24-7 news climate, it is all but impossible to emotionally engage all of the stories and issues you are taking in, and then act on them in some pragmatic way. So instead, young people become paralyzed. (It seems that all of us are a bit paralyzed. After all, what are Friedman's peers really doing? And aren't his peers the ones with the most straightforward kind of power?)

My generation tries to create lives that seem to match our values, but beyond that it's hard to locate a place to put our outrage. We aren't satisfied with point-and-click activism, as Friedman suggests, but we don't see other options. Many of us have protested, but we -- by and large -- felt like we were imitating an earlier generation, playing dress-up in our parents' old hippie clothes. I marched against the war and my president called it a focus group. The worst part was that I did feel inert while doing it. In the 21st century, a bunch of people marching down the street, complimenting one another on their original slogans and pretty protest signs, feels like self-flagellation, not real and true social change.

When Friedman was young and people were taking to the streets, there were a handful of issues to focus on and a few solid sources of news to pay attention to. Now there is a staggering amount of both. If I read the news today with my heart wide open and my mind engaged, I will be crushed. Do I address the injustices in Sudan, Iraq, Burma, Pakistan, the Bronx? Do I call an official, write a letter, respond to a request? None of it promises to be effective, and it certainly won't pacify my outrage.

In Friedman's op-ed, he actually hints toward this insight, but falls short of recognizing it. At one point he gives an anecdote of his daughter, who reads about the disappearing ice caps and expresses dismay: "What happened to that Arctic story, Dad?"

What happened is that it was buried in a mountain of other stories about the torture, murder, and blatant disregard for our civil liberties and environmental health. What happened is that none of us can psychologically survive if we pay too much attention or commit ourselves too passionately to affecting change in all of these areas. What happened is that the world became too big and brutal, and we haven't figured out a way to process it all.

We do our best. We pursue careers and seek answers to questions that we believe are important. So many of the young New Yorkers standing around my living room that night were professional activists -- social workers and teachers and nonprofit workers. We discuss the latest current events, send one another links to our favorite blogs or videos on the subjects, grab drinks after work and hash it all out. We study like hell. My generation knows so much about so much. We read everything and anything that we think might point us in the direction of some kind of political enlightenment and psychic relief.

But it's not enough. I know that. We know that. Friedman has, in his own patronizing way, pointed that out once again. He's right that our outrage is "in there somewhere." I just wish he and his intellectual literati were suggesting methods for unearthing it and channeling it into effective projects and processes, instead of shaking their heads at us like a bunch of disappointed schoolmarms for not imitating his heyday.

We can't be you, because we don't live in your time. We don't have the benefit of focus, the cushion of cheap rent, the luxury of not knowing just how complicated the world really is. Instead we have corporate conglomerates, private military contracts, the WTO and the IMF, school debt, and no health insurance. We are savvy and we are saturated and we are scared.

We are painstakingly composing our Facebook profiles because we did our daily round of news sites, and it left us feeling powerless and unsafe, like the only place to put our energies was inward. We are studying abroad because it feels like the only obvious way to interact with the world we care so deeply about. We are dancing at house parties on Friday nights because we talked about your op-ed, the war in Iraq, rape in Congo, but in the end, we just felt overeducated and underutilized.

You call that quiet. I call that coping.