hipsters

Be ProLife for Millennials’ Sake

There is no end of opinion pieces proliferating the internet which decry millennials for their unique faults or puzzle over what exactly made them the way they are.  Poisoned by their parents’ failures to respect life, marriage, and children, they have no real concept of what makes healthy, stable families and relationships; porn and the hookup culture is the perpetual context for their love. Dealt a losing hand, they are often understandably dragged down by apathy, immaturity, and a myopic self-centeredness. Little or no social guidance and much cultural hindrance is offered to millennials trying to climb their way out of this quagmire.

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And that is why millennials are especially in need of a prolife culture. It is not just that babies in the womb deserve life, though of course they do; it is not just that abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women, though of course it is; it is that my generation needs these children who are most vulnerable, most at risk, most expendable and disposable in the eyes of the world.

Society asserts that children are to be regarded as an accessory: to be obtained, customized, or flaunted when desired, but absolutely not to be had about if inconvenient, and certainly not at the expense of other things, like careers or checkbooks, which bring more immediate gratification. This pervasive disregard for the broader value of human life has largely been adopted by my generation. Some millennials, in fact, are vehemently anti-child, opting not simply for child-free sexual relationships but demanding child-free lifestyles where children, with their noise and inconvenience and unpredictability, are forbidden to disturb the settled, manageable atmosphere of adulthood.

This is the darkest kind of ignorance about human reality. In insulating ourselves from the realities of childhood—just as, indeed, we often insulate ourselves from the realities of old age and death—we become hardened, blindly self-centered. No matter what else our interests or pursuits, such an anti-human attitude betrays a dangerously misanthropic turn of heart. If we cannot love children, we will never truly love Mankind.

Children are living contradictions to the millennial culture of cynicism and selfishness; they are both an unshakable sign of hope and a reason to keep fighting for ideals. Their innocent honesty and sense of wonder alone is a powerful antidote to the cloud of apathy that can settle around a millennial heart. Even the cries and annoyances of a baby challenge us to come out of ourselves; to pull out our earbuds, put down our phones, and attend to the needs of someone who is unable to help himself.

That is a challenge millennials especially need to hear.

Children, uniquely innocent and vulnerable, wake us to the tragedies and horrors we commit on other adults. When a child is caught in the crossfire of our petty political strife or serious worldly conflict, it shows up in one vivid flash our cruelty and hypocrisy for what they truly are. A hundred men may die in a given crisis before the world looks up from its agenda to do something about it; but the image of a toddler killed in their midst makes us stop in our tracks, reassess, question what we have done and are doing. Adults may be dying from starvation in a far-off country, and we will turn a blind eye; but the sight of a child dying from starvation is too tragic a thing for even the casual observer to really ignore.

Parenthood likewise demands that parents grow in maturity and responsibility; it challenges human vanity and pettiness. And the unpredictability or uncertainty that children bring—the personal struggle and commitment which raising them entails—is certainly something millennials need more of.

I do not mean by this that all millennials must get married and raise a family. For many this is simply a present impossibility. No, it is not only the potential millennial parents who need children in their lives. It is their millennial neighbors and siblings, their teachers and office workers, their relatives and friends. Single college students, busy young doctors and lawyers and contractors, and society at large all need children—to see them often, have them as part of their extended if not immediate families, and learn from their very existence that human life is at once both small and beautiful, needy and giving—and, most importantly, that we must bear always in mind what kind of world we will pass on, because there is a generation coming after us. These others, working in single vocations, need a world in which children are a real and powerful presence—whether or not they ever marry and make some of their own.

Neither do I mean to say that having children will instantly repair the damage done to millennials or cure them of their problems. There are, to be sure, wicked and foolish people who remain wicked and foolish after having children. This has always been the case in human society. But the transformative value of children in rooting human families, in strengthening family responsibility and morality, in shaping communities to regard the whole of human life, cannot be denied. Children challenge us to live better, more purposefully; we must blame ourselves, not children, if we fail to respond accordingly.

And what of the worst of circumstances, those truly heartbreaking situations of poverty or abuse where one is tempted to see abortion as the only way out? It is precisely those challenges which millennials deserve the chance to meet, to solve, to aid. If abortion was taken off the table for my generation, we would no longer be able to think of killing children as a “way out.” We would no longer be able to suggest abortion to struggling young mothers, shrug our shoulders, and move on. We would have to remain in the thick of it, get up to our elbows in the gritty reality of dealing with these terrible problems. We would be forced to find other solutions—or at least to really try. We would be forced to face our fears, to take on the sobering burden of responsibility for our actions and uncertainty about the future; to step up to the plate and help those who are caught in desperate circumstances, instead of offering them permanent tragedy in exchange for temporary relief, under the excuse of convenience or the veneer of compassion.

There is no life free of personal suffering. There is no life in which human fulfillment can coexist with selfishness. Children interrupt and flatly contradict these two great lies, of escapism and selfishness; lies on which many millennial lifestyles and worldviews rely. Such lies are the crutch which enables my generations’ clinging to childishness; the foundation on which our self-centeredness and apathy rest. But such lies cannot last an hour in the same room with a living, breathing human child.

Be prolife for sake of all women and children; but also, let’s be prolife for sake of the millennials.

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A Society of Shawn Spencers

–my latest over at The Mirror 

When Psych aired its last episode ever in 2014, it finished its career as one of the most popular TV shows of the past decade. Following the hyper-observant Shawn Spencer and his friends as he fakes his way around Santa Barbara pretending to be a psychic and solving crime, the show was heavy on the laughs and light on the morals. Predictably, as the central character, Shawn pretty consistently reflected the image of what many modern millennial Americans think of themselves: fun, hip, informal; independent and free-spirited and not bound by the traditional rules of operation; but basically good at heart.

But if that’s the case, then it’s also the case that Shawn Spencer reflects a lot problems common to the modern 25-to-30-something American guy. He comes from a dysfunctional family. He’s immature and struggles to comprehend how to be responsible. He’s scared of commitment. He doesn’t know how to hold a serious conversation with the people he loves. And, in his own words, he totally sucks at relationships. The climax of Psych takes place when Shawn finally brings closure to all of the many broken and problematic relationships in his life; when he takes the time to apologize, to come clean, to admit love, and to propose marriage to the woman he’s cohabitating with.

Other popular shows (from Friends to Burn Notice to How I Met Your Mother) frequently feature characters that share similar personal dysfunctions: broken home life and a terrible track record when it comes to relationships. It seems to be the standard for our generation. Want a character the millenial audience can relate to? Give him a terrible relationship with his (divorced) parents and a crippling inability to commit himself to a loving and fruitful relationship.

This repetitious stereotype of the millennials might have more truth than appears at first glance. Although men often bear the stamp of the stereotype more heavily, the women are typically no better than the men. They often give their boyfriends sex without even introducing the responsibility of fertility or even expecting the commitment of marriage. They vaguely hope for marriage “someday” or tacitly expect that their live-in boyfriends will get more mature with time, but they have no problem inviting them into the bedroom until then.

And why would they? Why would millennials seek or expect a more faithful and permanent kind of love? They simply don’t know a better functioning way to relate to one another.

The popular TV show characters aren’t so much encouraging a stereotype as they are simply reflecting a modern reality. As Shawn in Psych confesses his faults, we get a picture of his generation: a generation that sucks at “the important stuff,” at “engaging,” at relationships; a generation terrified of commitments. Generationally, millennials are putting off serious life commitments further and further or forgoing them altogether—because this generation has “commitment” issues. Hookups and cohabitation are the norm, not because this generation is particularly cowardly or lazy, but because dysfunctional families have become ordinary to them, and they don’t know to expect something better.

The fact is, most millienials have grown up in a world practically devoid of real examples of functioning, successful, committed relationships. They just don’t know at all what it looks like in practice.

Our parents and grandparents’ generations used contraception and divorce to take the responsibility and permanence out of the stable relationships which form the building blocks of society. They took life out of sex and love out of marriage and splintered and fractured the family unit in a million ways. For them, contraception and divorce made sex possible without permanence, without fidelity, and without consequences. Then, as millennial children were left behind to sort through the wreckage of these kinds of relationships, the digital revolution threw another stumbling block in their way. The widespread rise of porn made sexual pleasure possible without human relationship: sexual pleasure without any relationship to another person at all became a cultural standard.

But they know they’re not happy. They know these imperfect, even pathetic attempts at human relationships are not enough. Shawn (and his millennial fans) know the show can’t end without a happily ever after. They want love, and they want stability, and, somewhere in their hearts, they know the two need to go together.

Fragments Shored: T.S. Eliot and BASTILLE

In 1922, T.S. Eliot penned his now-famous poem The Waste Land, so cutting-edge in modern poetry that Regis Martin, in fact, recently called Eliot the “high priest of modernist poetry.” But if you have your ear to the ground in the world of pop music, you may be surprised to hear echoes of his sentiments coming from the indie rock band Bastille.

What do the 1920s American-English intellectual and the 2014 hipster band have in common? In a word: ruins. It may seem strange to suggest a rising rock star has an artistic gift comparable to that of a highly honored poet. Yet, there seems to be a certain uncanny similarity between Eliot and Bastille when it comes to their sensitivity to social collapse.

Eliot’s Waste Land is an eerie, confusing conjunction of rich images and obscure references, so bogglingly complex that most editions are heavily annotated with explanations. Shakespeare and Spenser, snippets of German, hints of Hindu literature, images of springtime in Europe, disjointed fractions of Psalms, and ancient Greek references are peppered through the poem alongside vignettes of modern life and details like taxis, horoscopes on demand, and contraception. Some readers complain that Eliot is simply showing off his knowledge of both Western and Eastern art and literature, making it seem almost incomprehensible to any reader less erudite than a studied intellectual like Eliot himself.

But the poem performs a valuable post-mortem on a Western world that has lost sight of its God. The keyword is fragmentation; someone once compared reading The Waste Land to sticking Chartres Cathedral in a blender and trying to make sense of the shattered fragments. The fragmentation of civilization—both in the sense of brokenness and of the dangerous compartmentalization of modern living—bears only the bad fruit of purposelessness, aridity, and an oppressive sense of ennui.

Both The Waste Land and Eliot’s doubly-depressing Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock reveal a deep sense of nigh-hopeless frustration at the emptiness of modern life, and a meticulous focus on ordinary, prosaic details to heighten the sense of lost meaning. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” observes Prufrock glumly. The shots of the daily lives Eliot highlights are acutely depressing: after an evening of joyless sex, a typist’s lover leaves and she turns on music to drown out her thoughts.

Some snippets of The Waste Land demonstrate this fragmented picture of the living hell of the modern world:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images . . . . .

I will show you fear in a handful of dust. . . .

“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?

“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”. . . .

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”

. . . .                         The hot water at ten.

And if it rains, a closed car at four.

And we shall play a game of chess . . .

The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights

Her stove, and lays out food in tins. . . .

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,

Hardly aware of her departed lover;

Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:

“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”

When lovely woman stoops to folly and

Paces about her room again, alone,

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,

And puts a record on the gramophone. . . .

I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

The broken fingernails of dirty hands.

My people humble people who expect

Nothing.

At the end of Eliot’s poem comes a hint of a happy ending, a salvation for these dead souls: an image of a king, a fisher king, emblematic of Christ, who brings fruitful rebirth and the chance to rebuild from the ruins: “Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?” Finally, the closing lines of the poem capture its purpose: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Witnessing the insidious destruction of the Western world in the hands of moral relativism, Eliot simply gathered up the pieces.

His insight was hardly shared by many of his contemporaries, but Eliot saw spiritual death eating away at the hearts of modern men like a rat at a corpse: cut off from the roots of faith and culture, they withered inside and sought all other remedies for their dryness—some cohesive force to hold together the broken fragments of their lives and give them meaning.

Since Eliot’s Waste Land dates from 1922, it is somewhat surprising to hear similar sentiments coming from the hipsters of today. The increasingly-popular British rock band “Bastille” can count a number of hits to their credit, including, “Flaws,” “Pompeii,” and “The Things We Lost In the Fire.” It is certainly a hopeful sign when a modern artist, writing what may be called poetry in its own way, shows enough artistic insight to notice some of the same things Eliot did.

Like Eliot, Bastille demonstrates an acute sensitivity to mundane and ordinary details and their cosmic importance to human life. In “The Things we Lost in the Fire,” which appears to recount the effects of a total and sudden loss of material possessions, the speaker focuses on the more personal, if commonplace, details that reflect a deeper loss:

Things we lost to the flames

Things we’ll never see again

All that we had amassed

Sits before us, shattered into ash. . . .

I sat and made a list of all the things that we had

Down the backs of table tops

Ticket stubs and your diaries.

I read them all one day

When loneliness came and you were away.

Oh, they told me nothing new,

But I loved to hear the words you used.

These are the things,

the things we lost,

the things we lost in the fire, fire, fire. . .

Similar thoughts can be found in Bastille’s “Pompeii.” Like Eliot’s Waste Land, “Pompeii” draws heavily on a foreign, ancient, and almost obscure reference, something that probably would not occur to most people when they sit down to write a pop song: an ancient tragedy, a city and it’s inhabitants suddenly reduced to a smoldering heap of fire and ash from Mt. Vesuvius.

The suggestive power of these images and their affinity to Eliot’s phrasing indicates that Bastille’s songwriter Dan Smith may be tapping into something more than merely hipster angst: a desperate sense of disappearing cultural and civilizational identity and an existential awareness of the brokenness that results from such a loss. A sense of fragmentation permeates their songs: Bastille can sense, as Eliot did, when the world is somehow falling apart, and their songs grope about searching for cohesion.

“Pompeii” exudes a particularly powerful sense of hopeless but ineffectual frustration at continuing communal disintegration, of abandonment and loneliness:

I was left to my own devices.

Many days fell away with nothing to show.

And the walls kept tumbling down

In the city that we loved.

Great clouds rolled over the hills bringing darkness from above. . . .

We were caught up and lost in all of our vices

In your pose as the dust settles around us

And the walls kept tumbling down

In the city that we loved.

In this wasteland, the speaker feels moral responsibility and the need to begin again: “Oh, where do we begin,” he sings, “The rubble, or our sins?” To have a sense of sin is actually a rather radical statement in the modern world. (As G. K. Chesterton once said, modernity’s response to the sin of, say, skinning a cat is to deny the existence of the cat.) After decades of expansive social engineering to justify, normalize, and even legalize sin, Bastille’s sense that we are sinful, that we actually have to take the blame for something and “begin” again afterward shows that no amount of social change can fully expunge a sense of man’s sinfulness from the human heart.

Still, Bastille’s reaction to the dire situation they face in “Pompeii” is almost desperate escapism: “But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all / and if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?” Even here, the speaker must admit the situation is grim, and doesn’t have an easy answer: “How am I going to be an optimist about this?” he asks, repeatedly.

Whatever Bastille’s inspiration or personal beliefs, their lyrics show hints of an authentic artistic insight which points to the same reality that Eliot outlined in The Waste Land. Like Eliot’s protagonists, they live in a postmodern problem, the Waste Land: a socially post-apocalyptic barrenness of cultural waste, things that have been lost in the fire of turbulent change, things which distance modern man further and further from what gives him meaning, his (Christian) roots.

But one thing, at least, very clearly distinguishes the psyche of the rock band from that of the 1920s intellectual:

Eliot knows the answers. Cultural renewal and rebirth from the Kingdom of Christ alone can heal the infectious wounds and deadened souls of the postmodern Western World.

But Bastille can only ask the questions, and eerily return to a sad and desolate refrain of fruitless search and denial: “How am I going to be an optimist about this? . . . If you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?”