‘When All Looks Bleak, Keep Going, for What Else Is There?’ – The Generation of Dogged Persistence
The setting: my kitchen in the early evening, lights filtering through the window and the door open onto the hallway.
The atmosphere: cheerful but low-key, with a smidgen of excitement at the prospect of letting (reasonably) loose.
The occasion: like every week, it’s Thursday, and like every Thursday my roommate and I sit down at our kitchen table, open a bottle of wine and re-enact the immemorial tradition that is reshaping the world, ideas kick-started by worsening (or is that improving?) states of tipsiness.
There is a pattern to our conversations. With the first clink of our glasses, we raise a toast to the past week, either congratulating ourselves for its successes or consoling ourselves with the fact that we have, at least, got through it. We share our most recent news with the first few sips of wine, dwelling on the most important items until the glasses are nearly empty. By the time we are both ready for a refill, we have usually latched on to one or the other of our recurring preoccupations.
Sometimes it is an innocuous titbit which makes us segue into issues broader than our own personal dramas. A frustrated comment about the lack of organic produce on offer at the supermarket that week can lead to an hour-long debate which goes from denouncing and lamenting current agricultural practices to dismantling capitalism and its evil siblings: delocalisation and outsourcing. On other occasions, it is current affairs (always a safe bet) which take centre stage in our conversation: immigration, unemployment, a global pandemic (that’s new), social injustice… Very little about the status quo finds grace in our eyes, and if we had a magic wand we would not hesitate very long before using it to create a version of this world which is fairer, safer, kinder. In other words: better.
I guess we, and by extension our generation, are hardly original in that respect. What does, however, mark people who are 30 and under as unique is the knowledge that their reality is living in an increasingly hostile environment which we as a species have rendered toxic. Our planet has been poisoned, and we are repeat offenders: the most recent figures show the current situation is worse than any of the most catastrophic predictions made by climatologists. For far too long now a select number of people have been living beyond their means, spending earthly currencies which were never theirs to use, more often than not through the exploitation of others.
I wonder why I am repeating this when it has all been know, and deliberately ignored, for decades.
I am so angry and tired of living in a world where looking into the history of every item bought and every service provided comes with a load of guilt I am unwilling to shoulder. Two glasses in and I am ready for the rage to burst forth:
How dare you. How dare you hand us a world that you have pushed towards a cliff edge. How dare you hand us such uncertainty along with the responsibility of pulling us all back from the abyss, knowing all the while, tottering along the edge, that it may already be too late. How dare you leave us, white-knuckled hands clenched around the rope, fearing that we do not have the strength to keep us from falling to our deaths. How. Dare. You.
Anger demands action, and in the back and forth of the conversation we search for solutions. Some are based on facts; some are decidedly impossible to implement; all are tempered by a sense of hopelessness. History feels like a dirty dishcloth that has been wrung dry of possibilities, for what dream or ideology is there left that has not been tried and found wanting? There is no grand narrative left for us to believe in, only fragments of stories that we all cling to, disagreeing on what should be the overarching structure of the plot. Start a revolution? Against whom, against what? There is no single person who is the enemy we can get rid of before ushering in a time of social and environmental healing. I would like to believe that kicking the Xis, the Bolsonaros, the Poutins, the Johnsons, the Orbáns of this world (what a depressingly endless list) out of office would solve our problems, but that would be ignoring the underlying systemic problems that let them obtain and cling to power. After all, weren’t many of these heads of state elected? Does the blame lie with constitutions, institutions, electorates? What, exactly, must change to improve the world? Once you start to think about the matter seriously, the issue becomes a Gordian knot of frightening proportion and it is highly tempting to pick up a sword and hack at it, Alexander-style. If the past has taught me anything however, it is that taking up arms turns everything either black or white when all is decidedly grey. Worse, it comes with a steep price in blood and no guarantees of a happy ending. Just as prevalent on my mind is the fear of the divisions and the potential for violence that have become ever more tangible in the past few years. Thanks to the tailored realities that social media have fashioned for each and every one of us, we all hold different facts and versions of life to be the truth and refuse to see through the eyes of others. There are fires erupting all over this gasoline-drenched world and I refuse to light another match.
By the time my roommate and I have polished off the bottle, the same familiar conclusion has settled over us, one that we acknowledge with either tired resignation or muted anger. These talks, however cathartic they may be (and who doesn’t like a good moan?) have no concrete effect on the run of the world, nor can we find a reason to believe that the people whose opinions we disagree with will soon see reason. And then again, we recognise with another wry smile that, although not alone in our views and our frustrations, we – white, European, university-educated, privileged – cannot claim to be mouthpieces for everyone our age.
Differing opinions aside, what my generation does share is a pervading feeling of apprehension. Interconnected as we are, we cannot help but be aware of every sign, near or far, forecasting unstoppable change and uncertainty. And so we collectively draw breath before impact. Impact against what? We do not know, not yet.
Therein lies, perhaps, one lesson that I and my generation are pushed to learn at a younger age than our predecessors. Our exposure to news and events from all over the world means we are very much aware of all that is out of our control – lack of control may actually be the very quality which defines us. Highly conscious that what society demands of us is flexibility and adaptability, the message has been hammered home neither to expect linear careers, nor to settle down too permanently as we can easily be uprooted. We have been told to fluctuate with the turning tides and the shifting winds, not knowing what we will have to embrace next, or even if there is always going to be a ‘next’. We adapt, out of necessity; that does not mean we are happy. It is only too natural that what we yearn and strive for, then, is to make what we can control all the more significant. With uncertainty about the future always hot on our heels, we are pressed to carve out lives that hold meaning.
This exigency, however, has its flipside. After all, if it is all going to go up in flames anyway, why bother changing? We should all be rushing to enjoy the privileges of our Western lifestyles (travel, cars, exotic food, a viable planet) because the urgency lies in making the most of the good things before they run out. It is a selfish attitude which makes me blisteringly angry, but I get it. Worse: there are times when I share that impulse. We have grown up with certain expectations; it is not our fault that these expectations, unsustainable at their core, cannot be met. Nonetheless, our right to anger does not absolve us from our duty to care.
Let me be clear: caring is exhausting. It is hard enough to tend to one’s family and friends; no one person can then shoulder the grief of an entire world. When faced with the overwhelming nature of the task, letting go of the rope and dancing off the cliff seems like the only sensible option. It is shameful to admit, but we have all heard that voice within us – I cannot deny its allure.
But there are other voices calling. I recently went to listen to a concert, the first in over 18 months (thanks, Covid). It was hardly the best I have ever been too (for one it featured an organ, decidedly not my favourite instrument) but that is beside the point. What struck me was that I was witnessing first-hand a positive, collective human endeavour for the first time in ages. Here we all were on a Saturday evening, musicians and audience, sharing an experience that caused no harm. That seems like such a low bar, but nowadays it certainly isn’t. I found it profoundly heartening.
Similarly, I often revisit a memory that does not even belong to me. My maternal grandfather died before I was born and one of the most repeated stories about him is how, on the day of his funeral, every single person attending the service mentioned how kind a man he had been. Isn’t that extraordinary? It sounds so deceptively simple, but don’t we all know just how difficult it is to be truly kind, day in and day out? I am awestruck by the picture conjured up in my mind of a life brushing against so many others, leaving behind a gentle glow. That, to me, should be how we give meaning to our existence and how we work towards forging a better world.
And yet. Even to my own ears what I have just written sounds decidedly trite and naïve. It is almost like wearing the mask of optimism when pessimism is the true face hiding underneath. It is tough to distinguish realism from cynicism when the future feels like a long run of disillusions waiting to happen, for isn’t the situation worsening regardless of the changes we try to implement, both on an individual and political level? This feeds a heavy hopelessness in the pit of my stomach which I see reflected in the eyes of my roommate every Thursday evening. It hurts, deeply, to helplessly consider and care about the damage that shadows each step of the human race.
We are so weary. We are so young. Ultimately, however, it comes down to choosing the path which will make us proud. What we must fight for is clear, and so it is with eyes wide open that we have taken a hold of the rope and that we are giving it all we’ve got. The past and present which have been handed to us may not be of our making, but there is no denying that we are the up-and-coming force, the ones clamouring for a different future. We may feel disillusioned, we may feel we are fighting for a lost cause, but we are determined. Determined to be resourceful, determined to make a stand, determined to build the best life that we possibly can. In all of us resides such a capacity for joy, for tenderness, for moments of communion. As long as we are here, as long as we still care and notice and are outraged or moved by what we see and do, there is still a chance for us to step up and act like the curators of the Earth. I’ll drink to that.
Marie McMullin is a writer whose work has appeared in several anthologies (published by Oprelle Publications and City Limits Publishing). Her short story Garden Musing won the first prize in the ‘Voice of Peace Competition’ organised by the League of Poets. Her non-exhaustive list of interests include history, quantum physics, etymology, trees and translation. She is happiest with a book in her hands.