I tend to get anxious about and make excuses for my work the more I care about it.
I am a member of Generation X, the name given to people born between about 1965 and 1982. There was a lot of talk in the early 90s about our generation. We were the “whatever” generation, the “slacker” generation. We were cynical, apathetic, depressed and jaded. Our mantra, it was said, could be summed up by the lyrics to a song by the famous Gen X rock band Nirvana. “Oh well, whatever, never mind.”
These were generalizations, of course, but there was no denying that we, as a whole, seemed a whole lot more morose than generations before. We were the children of the Baby Boomers. Most of us weren't old enough to remember Vietnam and none of us came of age under the threat of a draft. We were more likely than other generations to have moms who worked outside the home, and we were more likely to have been raised by television. That's what Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain was referring when he composed the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which contains the lyrics mentioned above. Teen Spirit was a deodorant brand, and commercials for it inspired Cobain's anthem that, if you could understand the lyrics, complained of the way in which advertisers were trying to force a special kind of consumerism on young Americans. “Here we are now,” the song said, “entertain us.”
Generation X is all grown up now, and the voice of our generation is dead. And I think that the problem of apathy isn't, and never really was, specific to us - I think our artists were just louder about it.
Apathy is indifference, but I don't think it comes from truly not caring. Maybe it comes from caring too much about too many things.
The reason we spend time on things that we consider a waste of time, I think, is because we're so overwhelmed by all of the Important Things we want to do, so disappointed in ourselves over what we haven't yet done, that our inclination can be to say “Oh well, whatever, never mind.” At the end of every work day, I think of all the possibilities that the afternoon holds. I want to go out and take pictures; I want to work on my novel; I want to, I don't know, finally scrape that schmutz out of the inside of my microwave. But then there's the iPad and the TV and all those cat videos... and the thing is that writing is hard and I'm not even sure it's going to work out. And the microwave? What's the point of cleaning out one appliance when the whole house looks like it's been ransacked? Trying and failing is hard. Succeeding at not trying is really, really easy.
I think that's why it's so easy to let your financial priorities get screwed up too. It's not that you don't want to donate to charity, save for retirement, help keep the church up and running. It's that when I donate an extra ten bucks to church, it doesn't even buy a hymnal. When I spend an extra ten bucks on a fast food dinner I'm at least full for a couple of hours.
And that's the whole problem in a nutshell. When we see the enormity of all the things we want to do, of all the things that need to be done, it's just so easy to say never mind. I'll sit this one out, thanks. I'll just watch this Law & Order marathon today, and I'll go to the Canton Sunday picnic next week. I'll make a big old donation to my favorite charity after my tax return comes. I'll take a class next semester. I'll write that novel after I retire.
Oh well, whatever, never mind.
But it isn't enough. Much as we'd like to, we can't absolve ourselves of our responsibilities - to our own lives or to the web of all life - by just not caring - or pretending not to care. It didn't work for the voices of Generation X. The surviving members of Nirvana have gone on to become dads and philanthropists; they recently performed in a benefit for the survivors of Hurricane Sandy. Fronting the band in place of Kurt Cobain was a performer whose band's message was antithetical to Gen X's old mantra - Sir Paul McCartney. Instead of “never mind,” the Beatles told us to go out there and DO something. They told us, “There's nothing you can do that can't be done.”
The reason, I think that Generation X was so full of ennui is that, try as you might to give up caring about anything, you must care about something in order to survive. Nazi death camp survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl speaks of the sickness, if you will, that results from a lack of meaning, which he calls give-up-itis. He says it is as true in normal life as it was in the death camps - that when a person loses his or her sense of purpose - whether because the task became too hard, or they lost the tools to complete the task, or just because they got too exhausted to carry on - they lose their reason to keep on fighting. Frankl says that people who “have enough to live by and nothing to live for,” have means, but no meaning. He says that this condition, then, results in depression and, eventually, in the losing of the will to live.
Frankl says that the only way to handle this is to find meaning. For this, he says, there are three main avenues. The first is by doing work or completing a deed. The second is by loving - that loving others alone can be a reason enough for going on. The third, he said, is by turning tragedy into triumph. This, he says, can counteract “unhealthy trends” in the culture, where a person who is suffering is given no opportunity “to be proud of his suffering and to consider it ennobling rather than degrading...” That the culture, too often creates a situation in which those people who suffer from a loss of meaning are made to feel guilty for being unhappy.
I think that's incredibly true. Look at the way so much of society looks at people who are poor, people who are unemployed or under-employed. Society calls them lazy, treats them as if they have no worth because they are not producing something, not contributing something. But the ability to keep a strong sense of self during hardship is a contribution in itself.
And I think that's the struggle we're all in today. The reason it's so much easier to watch TV than to do the things you genuinely want to do with your life. We think that unless we're producing something, unless we're doing something Important, our lives lack meaning. But I think in order to produce things, in order to do something Important, we have to first have a sense of meaning.
For the first time, I'm starting to understand what Paul meant in his letter to the Corinthians when he said that if we are smart and wise and gifted and do great things, but have not love, we are nothing. I think the first step toward finding meaning, is finding love.
I sometimes get stuck on this notion that in order to love myself, I have to make myself worth loving. If I volunteer more, write more, am a better wife and a better friend, then I will love myself more because I will have earned the right to do so. I just realized that that's pretty silly. Do you require your children to earn your love, to make themselves worth loving? No one would say to a person with Down's Syndrome, “Why don't you get a job? What have you done to make the world a better place?” One doesn't need a resume to be worthy of love.
And so the idea of earning the right to love yourself doesn't make a lot of sense. Love, real love, is unconditional.
So I guess what I'm saying is that maybe the first step to losing the ennui and becoming enthusiastic again is not working harder or finding new behaviors to justify your own existence. Maybe the first step is to understand that you don't need to justify your existence with good deeds and hard work. You become a being who exists to love. You learn to love yourself unconditionally, and then you become aware that you are capable of anything. And if you're capable of anything well, then, your life's work isn't so much work as just an extension of self.
When Sir Paul McCartney was asked what he thought the lasting legacy of The Beatles was - what the most important message they gave to the world was, he said without pause, “all you need is love.” I think that the opposite of apathy isn't... “pathy.” It isn't caring either. I think that the opposite is apathy is love. I think that living in love, bathing ourselves and those around us in love, not only makes it easier not to give up. I think it also makes it impossible to say those words that were once the legacy of my generation - “oh well, whatever, never mind.”