My wife was flipping through a Vanity Fair the other day and came across an ad for a writing contest the magazine is sponsoring to answer the question "what is on the mind of America's youth today?" The ad juxtaposed a picture of college-aged Vietnam war protestors with one of a host of swimsuit clad spring-breakers on a beach, and asked why the youth of the last generation became passionately involved in their society while today's youth seem to be perfectly happy to sit on the side lines. Its a reasonable question, even allowing that the editors may be overestimating the involvement of America's youth in the civil rights and anti-war movements of their day. Today's youth are definitely less involved, less politically and socially aware and less likely to have thought deeply on any of the major issues facing our society & nation today. My wife suggested that I submit an essay to the contest, given that I just came off a job that had me intimately involved with youth and because I'm clearly passionate on the issue. The deadline is September 30th and I think I'm going to submit something, so over the next few weeks I might be working out some of my thoughts here - please comment and critique on what I write. If what I'm writing stinks or doesn't make sense, by all means, tell me; I certainly don't want to embarass myself! These may be considered rough drafts, or perhaps merely a mental sorting before starting a rough draft, but your thoughts are greatly appreciated.
So what do I think is on the minds of America's youth? The same things that's on everyone elses mind, past & present - joy. But I mean that in the Christian sense of the word; a deep, abiding feeling of security, fulfillment, belonging, of rightness with the world, trust, justice, love...and it goes on. I mean it in a sense that is infinitely deeper than our modern usage - a meaning rippling with subtle nuance and lingering impressions. I use joy in its eternal, active tense - not the pale noun we use to up-sell mere, fleeting "happiness."
But it is precisely this paucity of meaning that makes the lack of joy both so acute and so damnably difficult for us to define against the backdrop of our lives. Our minds are structured by language, shaped by it. We think in language, and if we are thinking in hollow words then we are thinking hollow thoughts. A language bereft of meaning, of poetry, of the eternal, cannot provide us with the tools to grasp the meaning of our lives, the poetry of our existence, the eternal dimension we all share. Thus, we lose the ability to articulate what we want and what we need. We become mute, though maddeningly, we can still hear the siren song of joy, but are now powerless to direct our course there. This generation, however, has gone a step further - they have lost the ability to even determine the general direction from which this haunting melody is coming, leading them to jump to every point of the compass to find it.
Today's youth are addicts through and through. They seem to constantly seek the next hit, the next high - whatever their "drug" of choice. And like an addict, what did it for them last time doesn't offer the same thrill this time, and so they seek after more. This is why there is so much excess and dissolution in today's youth culture. It is why celebrities are worshiped and wealth & fame are considered the highest calling. (Maybe joy is found in money and being loved by countless fans?) It is why sex and debauchery reign supreme. (Maybe joy will be found in sleeping with that hot guy/girl, by being the object of attention, by throwing myself into "love"?) It is why drugs are used so casually and yet so feverishly. (Maybe joy will be found in that high?) It is why the neverending cycle of consumption only spins faster and faster. (Maybe joy will be found in having the latest thing, in having better style than other people, in being the trend-setter?)
Even now, I am hesitant to use the word "joy" for this essay because it has become trite. People will take on look at the word "joy" and dismiss what I'm writing as, perhaps, an emotional appeal. Or worse, as a religious one. Thankfully, though, I think so many of today's youth, and hopefully the editors of Vanity Fair, are so divorced from any real spiritual heritage that they will likely not link "joy" with faith and therefore will not dismiss it as quickly.