By Donna Carter
19-year-old Emily thanked me, as she handed back a few pages she had filled with her answers to my questions. “That was empowering!” she said.
It was similar to a majority of the responses I got from the 18-22 year olds to whom I had asked to give me their opinions about Life, Love, Beliefs, and the American Dream. Some of them wanted to talk, others preferred to write down their answers. All of them had something to say. All I did was give them a chance to be heard.
“Empowering,” “Thought-provoking,” “Deeper than Expected,” “Thank you!” were all responses I got. They appreciated the opportunity to speak their minds.
It gave me pause. How many, my age and older, have simply written them off, completely unable to understand where they’re coming from, or what they are looking for? Based on appearances, the ‘music’ they listen to, or the manner in which they communicate, how many of us have turned a blind eye, and a deaf ear to the next generation?
I was at the mall Sunday afternoon, waiting my turn at the sales counter. Ahead of me were two teenage girls, also waiting. I watched as another attendant arrived at the counter, and although the girls reached forward with their receipt in hand to be assisted, the attendant served the woman behind them.
The girls’ frustration was evident – and not without reason. I commiserated that it wasn’t fair, and it appeared that the attendants were overlooking them. The only reason I could see was the age factor. The girls waited: polite, but frustrated.
“They don’t seem to have enough attendants,” I said, opening up a conversation with them.
“We’re just here to pick up a pre-purchase for my mom!” one of the girls replied with a bit of exasperation, but not whining, “Just pick it up… That’s all. We were here before anyone else was. We were on the other side and the attendant said we had to come over here, and then she went over to help that other woman first… and then this one… ” they indicated the woman who was presently being assisted.
“That doesn’t seem very fair,” I acknowledged. “You are just as much a customer as any of us. I’m sorry they haven’t helped you yet.”
The first attendant finished with her customer, and she turned to serve me. The girls and I were far apart enough to obviously not be together, and they had been there long before I arrived.
I tilted my head toward the two girls, “They were ahead of me,” I said. The girls were surprised and thankful, handing her their receipt. The attendant helped them, and they were on their way.
It made me wonder about other things the generations behind us have to deal with coming from the adult world they are growing into. Here they are, on the cusp of adulthood, learning where they are in the world – what they believe, what they hope, what they dream – and attempting to see these things in light of the reality around them. It is no wonder their responses to my questions were often jaded.
I saw considerable thought and frustration coming off of every written page returned to me. The American Dream, they said, was pie in the sky. An unrealistic fantasy. Nice to think about, do what you can to achieve it (or your own personal version of it) but don’t expect it to bring happiness.
Happiness, for the most part, came from their families and friends, and time spent with people – doing things together, making other people happy, and being productive. Listening to music gave them joy – and escape.
“It doesn’t have to be something big” one girl said. Others agreed: hot chocolate, a friend’s face, a smile, a good book, dancing, were added to the ongoing list, amid nods and laughter.
Talk of happiness morphed into love, which was defined as a feeling – a sentiment that varied according to whom it was applied: Parent/Child, Significant Other, Friends, Pets, objects… but “True Love” was unconditional, and required commitment, mutual respect, patience, and understanding. Lauren (21) wrote, “I want someone who loves every part of me – flaws included – but can also guide me and give me constructive criticism when I need it, and can accept that same love and guidance from me.” Everyone agreed with Michael (19) who said that love “feels damn good,” and that it was best when reciprocated.
Spiritually, their beliefs range all over the map. For some, God was the ultimate reason for their existence and there were no answers without God being a part of that answer or being the answer altogether. For some, God was not a part of their picture at all. Life was life – you live, you die. God either didn’t exist, or simply didn’t matter. For the majority, however, their beliefs were more amorphous in nature: God was not what is taught in church or parochial schools. God was more a spiritual force than a religious being: An higher power – the essence of life, and a very real and important part of their lives.
Their dreams focused on education and job opportunities, laced with some frustration about the economy making the situation almost impossible on all fronts. They are struggling, attempting to find ways to follow their dreams, but feeling lost and alone. “Life will be what I make of it.” “I don’t expect it to be easy”
All of them feel they’re being left a pretty big mess to deal with on every level, and yet they want to see the world become a better place. Most of them agreed that simply being more unselfish, and genuinely caring about others and their environment would help immeasurably – but despite their willingness to do their part, almost to the last one, they felt that no one else was willing to pitch in alongside them. They know that the single drop from their efforts to improve things will never fill the parched void of their world that so desperately needs to be saturated with positive change.
“It can’t be done alone!” They said, “I can only do my part!” “It’s impossible!” “Only God can change things!”
My thoughts are drawn back to the two girls at the sales counter. Surprised and thankful. How sad that it surprised them that someone would care to extend them some common courtesy.
The next generation is not angry, way underneath it all. They are frustrated. They are having to fight to be heard, so their voices have become harsh and brash and angry to break through that silent barrier – the blind eye, the deaf ear – the barrier that we – not they – have erected between us.
They’re clawing at that wall. It’s a lot easier for us: We only have to reach through and grab their hand to breach the gap.