Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Generation Me?

I was browsing the "Buy 2, Get 2 Free" table at Barnes and Noble the other day, and amidst the Dale Carnegies and Marilu Henners, I came across a book called Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled-and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Ah, perhaps here was the Hammurabi's Code of young adult education- a primer for making sense of the passionate and paradoxical people-in-progress with whom I've been so deeply involved these past two semesters. I felt very drawn to this book, and to these adjectives. They've come up a lot in the last year. They came up again last week when I found myself sprawled on my parents plush couch bellowing "MA! Did you get me some peaches? And stamps??!!" It turns out that "Generation Me" includes everyone between the ages of seven and thirty-six- the children of the seventies, eighties and nineties. We of the infinite potential, the astounding privilege, and the limitless choices (unless, of course, you are not also privileged by socioeconomic status,nationality,ethinicity, gender or geography- then, perhaps, you are a member of "Generation What About Me?").

So here I am, exactly where I've long suspected myself to be- a senior member of "Generation Me", hoping that my current job is not simply an exercise in the blind leading the blind. Because yes, I do behave as though I am entitled to inspiring work, beautiful vistas, fulfilling relationships, and inner peace, with relatively little compromise necessary on my part. I absorb the images of adventure and freedom obligingly manufactured for me (by the media and my own rabid imagination), and assume that I will somehow be able to have every ounce of that, plus the financial security and deeply committed relationships that generations before me had to earn through sacrifice and tough choices.

I was raised with more love and acceptance than many people get in a lifetime, and though my lifestyle choices often leave my family baffled and anxious, I never doubt that I have a place amongst their raucous, mostly right-wing number. Despite this, my membership in "Generation Me" is not simply a by-product of chronology. I have made a lifetime practice of asking myself "Who am I, and what do I want to be?" In my defense, "and how can I help" is also part of that equation, and so I continue to try to find ways to help others engage these questions for themselves. An addict doesn't like to drink alone. My family and friends have never questioned my right to live this way, or the validity of the choices these questions inspire.

I'm lucky, and I wonder if this is also a perk of "seniority"- being the product of a fairly "traditional" household, where love and encouragement were well-tempered by discipline and responsibility. Many of the students I work with have never been given models or tools for discipline, consistency, and integrity. Instead, they've been given permissiveness, and volumes of self-help jargon to justify flexible morality. Oh, God, I just said "flexible morality". Somewhere, my mother is offering a grateful novena to Rush Limbaugh. Really, though, what tugs me towards this type of work is the fact that many people go their entire lives without asking themselves (or being asked) "Who are you and what do you really care about? Who do you want to be?" I was thinking of this the other day, as I was cinching and stuffing my supplies for the next four months into two carry-ons (my mantra has regressed from "Om" to "I will NOT check baggage for a domestic flight"). It felt like trying to coax a wild boar into a cat carrier. "C'mon, you're an itty bitty kitty cat, aren't you? Get IN!!"

Lots of us get this type of message growing up and into adulthood, that we need to shape ourselves to fit a certain mold or set of expectations. I am not so attached to my wild boar/kitty cat metaphor that I felt guilty sashaying onto my Delta flight with no checked baggage, but I am driven by the image of young, round dreamers like myself being notched into wildly inappropriate square holes. Besides which, if I ever reproduce, I wouldn't feel all that great about leaving my offspring to fend for themselves in a world run by people who don't know who they are.

And so, though I sometimes feel like the industry which currently employs me is more about "transformational tourism" than the inner journey, to say nothing of selfless service, these misgivings haven't yet outweighed my compulsion to be on the front lines when those questions get answered.

P.S. Re: Am I Just the Relish?- My Dad does have a good memory when it comes to many things (not related to my current job, the reasons I don't want to be a tenured college professor, or what constitutes one serving size). O.k., Dad?


  1. hey julie, thanks for this blog. your honesty is inspiring.

  2. Julie- Micheal Swanberg shared your stories with me because he knows how I love India. Love your style, wit and insight. Hope they turn this into a movie and you make tons of $$ so you can check your bags next time around. If I could find work like yours I'd be there in a heart beat. If you get to Mysore, go visit Datta Peetham Ashrama (Swami Ganapati Sachchidananda) -everyone's welcome and it's my heaven on earth. Can't wait to read more! Namaskar. -Rosemary

  3. thanks rosemary and naveen, for your kind words and wishes. it gives me added incentive to keep trying to make sense of things...