Don't Look Down
Depending on who you ask, I belong to various generational camps. A young Generation Xer by some standards, the craggiest millennial by others. Laid down by sociologists as something of a bridge between these generations, I feel little need to defend myself or my people, whoever they might be. Instead, I sit forward in my seat and shake my head at the needlessly spiteful meme that crosses the information highway right in front of me.
This combative class of meme throws the same punch over and over again. Contesting the merits of millennials, it paints an entire generation as spoiled, emotionally needy, soft. The meme picks its fight by laying out a lengthy list of demands millennials make—of their parents, in the classroom, of society at-large—then holds up people of its own age as simpler, tougher, more virtuous.
I cringe in the presence of talk about how every age’s sin and spiritual condition is worse than the last. Often those with dark views of younger people put on their pair of rose-colored glasses when gazing at their own generation. Call it the discoloration of nostalgia. Call it denial. Call it what you will, but it leaves us all a little worse for the wear.
“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young,” St. Paul writes to his promising charge and son in the faith, Timothy. All this digital poking and prodding offers a socially acceptable way to violate the spirit of Paul’s letters.
The popular notion that our cultural feet keep sliding down a rapidly eroding slope holds little weight. My read on sin, salvation, and the shape of human history says there is no better or worse, only different. Every generation owns its particular sins. Some emerge, taking on fresh forms in the wake of new technologies or social advances. Yes, millennials manifest sin in ways that feel distinct, novel even. But every desire underlying the human condition remains the same.
The gospel critiques every culture, and every generation, condemning any anti-gospel spirit within. When you score cheap points by noticing the speck in another generation’s eye, you’re susceptible to missing the plank within your own.
Years ago, Jerry Bridges wrote an exceptional book titled “Respectable Sins.” The title sticks with me as much as anything within its pages. I bear witness as online friends decry the self-absorption, spiritual flatness, and supposed ignorance of millennials; rarely do they identify the sins of their generation with equal fervor—the white flight, the dissolution of families, the waste made of God’s creation. Perhaps these sins hold a more respectable ring. That any generation would view its sins as more respectable than another guides us to the edge of the true slippery slope. Talk of the “good old days” must include the question “Who were the good old days good for?”
Perhaps worst of all, generation-bashing denies our interdependence. It ignores the reality that we all affect one another all the time. Baby boomers and Gen Xers own a stake in the sins of millennials, and vice versa. The critique, sometimes pointed and powerful, passed from one generation to the next would carry more weight if accompanied by the acknowledgment that we’re all in this together. The generation that examines itself critically earns the right to turn to its neighbor and say, “Now let’s talk about you.”
Imagine how different the social fabric would look if, rather than view a younger generation as entitled nuisances, elders consciously chose to view them as teachers, as mirrors, as co-laborers. What I see instead is an interest in paying mind to the young when it’s convenient, with all rights reserved to swing away when it’s not.
Memes that paint millennials as a bundle of needs—rather than hardened souls who just rub a little dirt in their wounds—especially grieve me. Many people I know require more than a one-size-fits-all approach to education and discipline. If younger generations firmly establish the reality that humans are complicated and in need of holistic care, we all should thank them for the lessons learned.
Youth holds up a mirror to the human condition, regardless of age, background and circumstance. We live and die together, our destinies bound up with one another, our common welfare contingent on our ability to get our hands dirty growing more of the good things in life, and uprooting that which threatens to destroy.
Paul called on Timothy to “set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” He fully believes in the appeal he makes. If he’s right, then we should look to members of every generation for footsteps to follow. A rising generation won’t get it completely right. No generation ever does.
But don’t look down at anyone, through tinted glasses or a computer screen. Instead, take up the work of exalting and elevating your neighbors, young and old, so we can walk in the way of God together, our joy multi-generational, multi-dimensional, and complete.