Written by John W. Whitehead
"We need to be the change we wish to see in the world."-Mahatma Gandhi
I have a lot of sympathy for graduating high school and college seniors. The world around us is a mess, and this next generation is not going to have an easy time navigating it.
Those coming of age today will face some of the greatest obstacles ever encountered by young people. They will find themselves overtaxed and struggling to find worthwhile employment in a debt-ridden economy on the brink of implosion. Their privacy will continually be violated by the emerging surveillance state. They will be the subjects of a military empire constantly waging war against shadowy enemies and on guard against domestic acts of terrorism, blowback against our military occupations in foreign lands. And they will find that government no longer exists to serve them but to be served by them.
It's a dismal prospect, isn't it? Unfortunately, we who should have known better failed to guard against such a future. Worse, we neglected to provide our young people with the tools necessary to survive, let alone succeed, in the impersonal jungle that is modern civilization.
We brought them into homes fractured by divorce, distracted by mindless entertainment, and obsessed with the pursuit of materialism. We institutionalized them in daycares and afterschool programs, substituting time with teachers and childcare workers for parental involvement. We turned them into test-takers instead of thinkers and automatons instead of activists. We allowed them to languish in schools which not only often look like prisons but function like prisons, as well-where conformity is the rule and freedom is the exception. We made them easy prey for our corporate overlords, while instilling in them the values of a celebrity-obsessed, technology-driven, Godless culture. And we taught them to believe that the pursuit of their own personal happiness trumped all other virtues.
We botched things up in a big way, but all is not lost. Not yet, at least. Faced with adversity, this generation could very well rise to meet the grave challenges before them, bringing about positive change for our times and maintaining our freedoms, as well. The following will hopefully help them on the journey that awaits:
Be an individual. There is a reason you are alive. You are a unique person. You are not like everybody else. You can be different. You can stand out. Don't go with the flow. And don't relegate yourself to simply being one of the masses. For all of its championing of the individual, American culture advocates a subtle conformity. Young people are sedated by the flatness and predictability of modern life. "You can travel far and wide and have a difficult time finding a store or restaurant that is even mildly unique," writes Thomas More in The Care of the Soul (1992). "In shopping malls everywhere, in restaurant districts, in movie theaters, you will find the same clothes, the same names, the same menus, the same new films, the identical architecture. On the East Coast, you can sit in a restaurant seat identical to that you sat in on the West Coast." In other words, repetition is the death of individuality, but that doesn't have to be the case.
Resist the corporate state. Don't become mindless consumers. Consumption is a drug. It makes us unaware of the corruption surrounding us. As Chris Hedges writes in Empire of Illusion (2009):
Corporations are ubiquitous parts of our lives, and those that own and run them want them to remain that way. We eat corporate food. We buy corporate clothes. We drive in corporate cars. We buy our fuel from corporations. We borrow from, invest our retirement savings with, and take our college loans with corporations and corporate banks. We are entertained, informed, and bombarded with advertisements by corporations. Many of us work for corporations. There are few aspects of life left that have not been taken over by corporations, from mail delivery to public utilities to our for-profit health-care system. These corporations have no loyalty to the country or workers. Our impoverishment feeds their profits. And profits, for corporations, are all that count.
Realize that one person can make a difference. It's always been the individual-the ordinary person doing extraordinary things-who has made a difference in the world. Even Mahatma Gandhi, who eventually galvanized the whole of India, brought the British Empire to its knees, and secured freedom for his people, began as a solitary individual committed to the idea of nonviolent resistance to the British Empire.
Help others. We all have a calling in life. And I believe it boils down to one thing: You are here on this planet to help other people. In fact, none of us can exist very long without help from others. This is brought home forcefully in a story that Garret Keizer recounts in his insightful book Help: The Original Human Dilemma (2004). Supposedly in hell the damned sit around a great pot, all hungry, because the spoons they hold are too long to bring the food to their mouths. In heaven, people are sitting around the same pot with the same long spoons, but everyone is full. Why? Because in heaven, people use their long spoons to feed one another.
If you want to help the country, you need to learn your rights. It's easy to complain, throw up your hands and just accept the way things are. Unfortunately, for all the moaning and groaning, very few people take the time to change the country for the better. Yet we're losing our freedoms for one simple reason: most of us don't know anything about our freedoms. Lest we forget, America is a concept. You have to earn the right to be an American, and that means taking the time to learn about your history and the courageous radicals who fought and died so that you and I could live in a free country. At a minimum, anyone who has graduated from high school, let alone college, should know the Bill of Rights backwards and forwards.
Speak truth to power. Don't be naÃ¯ve about those in positions of authority. As James Madison, who wrote our Bill of Rights, observed, "All men having power ought to be distrusted." We have to learn the lessons of history. People in power, more often than not, abuse that power. To maintain our freedoms, this will mean challenging government officials whenever they exceed the bounds of their office.
Don't let technology be your God. Technology anesthetizes us to the all-too-real tragedies that surround us. Techno-gadgets are merely distractions from what's really going on in America and around the world. As a result, we've begun mimicking the inhuman technology that surrounds us and lost sight of our humanity. If you're going to make a difference in the world, you're going to have to pull the earbuds out, turn off the cell phones and spend much less time viewing screens.
Give voice to moral outrage. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter." Tragedies abound. Genocide is occurring in Darfur. AIDS is ravaging Africa. Countless millions of people around the globe languish under authoritarian regimes. At home in America, some 14 million young children go to bed hungry every night. Homeless people litter the streets. There is no shortage of opportunities to stand up for the less fortunate and those who are oppressed.
Cultivate spirituality. When the things that matter most have been subordinated to materialism, we have lost our moral compass. We must change our values to reflect something more meaningful than technology, materialism and politics. As Martin Luther King Jr., standing at the pulpit of the Riverside Church in New York City in April 1967, urged his listeners:
[W]e as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motive and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
We didn't listen then, and we still have not learned: Material things don't fill the spiritual void. Unfortunately, our much-vaunted culture of consumerism and material comforts has resulted in an overall air of cynicism marked by a spiritual vacuum, and this generation of young people is paying the price. For example, at least one in 10 young people now believe life is not worth living. A 2009 survey of 16- to 25-year-olds by the Prince's Trust found that for many young people life has little or no purpose, especially among those not in school, work or training. More than a quarter of those polled feel depressed and are less happy than when they were younger. And almost half said they are regularly stressed and many don't have anything to look forward to or someone they could talk to about their problems. No wonder many young people have such a pessimistic view of the future. But that can change. As King said, we have to start putting people first.
Pitch in and do your part to make the world a better place. Don't rely on someone else to do the heavy lifting for you. As Martin Luther King Jr. noted, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
Finally, you need to impact your government, be part of the dialogue on who we are and where we're going as a country. It doesn't matter how old you are or what your political ideology is. These are just labels. If you have something to say, speak up. Get active, and if need be, pick up a picket sign and get in the streets. And when civil liberties are violated, don't remain silent about it. Take a stand! The only way we'll ever achieve change in this country is for this generation of young people to say "enough is enough" and fight for the things that truly matter.
Please visit www.rutherford.org/OnTarget to view Whitehead's weekly video commentaries.