by Erika Kivik
I was recently telling a roommate over breakfast that I often experience guilt over ‘never doing anything as well as I could.’
In fact, it seems that a sort of ‘performance anxiety’ follows gen Y-ers around, whether we like it or not. (Actually, I think most of us feel more comfortable with some anxiety. If you don’t agree, imagine a truly anxiety-free state of being for moment: …pretty stressful, isn’t it?)
…Later, washing the dishes, I began to muse: perhaps gen Y-ers are more likely to feel anxious today because it is no longer culturally acceptable to submit to authority?
Here’s what I mean: recently, in the West, we have collectively removed the power(s) of traditional forms of authority. Government leaders, monarchs, parents, teachers, and pastors are no longer permitted to speak from positions in which total influence is assumed by either speaker or listener. Now, undoubtedly, this provides our generation with many advantages: speeches delivered by ‘important people’ to crowds of graduates (or other kinds of listeners) no longer seek to provide trite words of encouragement (“The future is going to be difficult! There are tough times ahead! But don’t worry! [Insert goal here]…and you will be victorious!)
…Graduates have been educated too long on the topic of blind encouragement and its dangers.
Indeed, as a graduate of English Literature, what springs to mind is poetry that has sought to motivate, encourage, and inspire past generations. Written over a hundred years ago, Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” stirs up powerful and conflicting emotions. Beginning with:
Half a league, half a league,
half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
And concluding with sobering and poignant words:
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made,
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.
The poem is both beautiful and odious.
There are plenty of other poems falling into this genre (Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” is a good one). Others (if interested, begin with the poems of Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon), oppose war with equally powerful words. Remarkably, Owen’s “Dolce et Decorum est” is reacting to and dismantling the phrase Dolce et decorum est pro patria mori, words that speak in perhaps the most authoritative language possessed by the West (if language can be “authoritative”).
And yet…encouragement and inspiration are a vital human requirement. Lines such as Tennyson’s, which no one would dare preach to our generation (and, I think, rightfully so) are remarkably comforting. They are an answer to my soul which screams, “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it!!”
Contemporary ears hear blind encouragement as infantile and backward. There are any number of reasons for this (existential crises; “God is dead,” the postmodern sensibility, Green Day music videos, etc). But for now, it suffices to say that I am grateful that I don’t have to believe in something, just because.
But, where does this leave us?…It seems that we are totally responsible for our actions, everywhere, and all of the time.
Consequences weigh heavy on us, exacerbated by the pervasiveness of laptops and blackberries, which bind us even more tightly to our daily tasks, while Babel-esque desires for Divine efficiency erode what little peace of mind we have left.
I wish it wasn’t so. But, existential crises and performance-related anxiety are the products of our freedom. Perhaps we have unknowingly replaced explicit accountability to authority with an implicit accountability to our peers; or at least, we have projected our own angst-ridden fears of judgment upon one another.
For me, this presents a strange challenge: I know that it is logically impossible to do all things well; and moreover, that my ‘need’ to succeed is often a projection, a figment, or an over-zealous anticipation of what I imagine others think. Thus, to be the most authentic version of myself, I can’t please everyone. And therefore, to do anything well (though not perfectly), I am actually capable of doing much less (quantatively) than I thought I could.
So…why do I want to succeed, anyway? Succeed at what? Says who?…What were we made for?
James says, “What do you know about tomorrow? How can you be so sure about your life? It is nothing more than mist that appears only for a little while before it disappears” (James 4:14).
Nobody is “mistier” than anyone else; and nobody, I say nobody, is perfect.
So, I guess we should stop feeling so anxious.
(p.s. Here’s why it’s wonderful and awful to be a gen Y-er:
“Theirs not to make reply / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die, / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.”
The six hundred were not able to choose why they died. Thanks to our newfound freedom, we can.)