Coronavirus and the Young-ish People

When Marie Curie was a young woman, the Russians conquered her homeland. They declared that Poles were racially inferior and that women were intellectually weak. Curie had no rights, was protected by no freedoms and was granted no equalities. In response, she gathered her courage, pursued an illegal education and, when necessary, endured starvation in order to pay the bills. The glory of Curie’s subsequent discoveries and the scale of her triumph made a mockery of the Russians, propelled her to loving and fulfilling relationships and benefits us every time we use isotope therapy.

Mucius Scaevola was an adolescent in the Roman Republic when King Lars Porcena of Clusium attacked. Possessing no rights and, as a soldier the effective property of the Republic, Scaevola volunteered to assassinate the enemy king. He snuck into the Clusian encampment but misidentified the king, killing a scribe by accident. When he was captured he told the king that he was as ready to die as he had been to kill, and that he was just the first of 300 Roman youths who’d volunteered murder the Clusian leaders. To prove his resolve, he thrust his right hand into an open flame. Porcena was horrified and sent him back to Rome where his countrymen rewarded him with both honor and prime farmland for his ancestors. As a consequence of Scaevola’s bravery, the king withdrew from his camp and made peace. The Roman Republic, inspiration for our modern democracies and source of much of our science, philosophy and ethics, survived at least in part due to his actions.

There’s a dude we’ll call JB who I met in school. He grew up in a sea of inspirational idealism. I know this because I was there with him, soaking up stories about how each life is precious, how we all are special and how freedom/rights/equality/whatever are human entitlements. Unlike Marie Curie, JB has never gone hungry or materially wanted for much at all. Unlike Mucius Scaevola, JB’s physical safety has never been in serious doubt. JB grew to be a quasi employed man, obsessed with the sufferings of oppressed people, a passionate believer in justice/rights/freedom/whatever and, unlike Curie or Scaevola, miserable. Judging by the things he’s said in public, it’s likely he kills himself before too much longer.

Mucius Scaevola had no rights, no freedom in his enemy’s camp and yet achieved a radically meaningful life. Marie Curie enjoyed no equality and endured terrible suffering and yet she achieved a radically meaningful life. JB is boiling alive in a cauldron of freedom, equality and comfort. He will likely die alone and unloved and there’s a good chance the people around him let out a sigh of relief when he does.

I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Millennials and the Dark Cloud

We millennials are dangerously close to becoming a lost generation. We are unable to form families, we are the most unemployed generation in American history and often low quality when we do get hired. We are very educated if you think education consists mostly of certificates but ignorant if you think education consists of real-world problem solving. But beyond these material factors, we millennials are teetering on the edge because, with each passing year it becomes more and more obvious that many of our lives just don’t mean anything.

Where our grandparents overcame the Great Depression, defeated the Nazis, crushed the Japanese butchers and flew to the moon, we battled for and against transgender bathrooms. Where our boomer parents overcame the Soviet Union and bound the world together into the biggest market, the biggest alliance and the biggest cultural sphere in history, we passionately stood up to the tyranny of cotton rectangles. Where our ancestors conquered and built, we leaned out. Where our ancestors attracted the greatest minds and hardest workers of other countries, we cowered in fear of rapists and prioritized the dignity of our weakest natives over the potential of everyone else’s strongest. Where they idolized heroic figures, we idolized victims. Even the cause for which we should be fighting – global warming – has consisted mostly of shrinking our lives, renouncing our positive goals and making a virtue of timidity. “Not fucking up” has replaced “doing good” as the moral imperative for many of us.

A lot of this isn’t our fault. We graduated into the second worst recession of the last 100 years. We grew up under the shadow of two generations that were both massively successful and extremely long-lived. We’ve been subjected to vile filth like Ayn Rand and the self-esteem movement. It’s understandable we’ve failed to launch, understandable that we’ve focused on justice-themed trivialities and not surprising that we struggle to lift ourselves up.

Unfortunately, understandable failures are still failures and nobody cares or should care if it’s our fault. The base fact is that, for many of us millennials, we could die without inconveniencing anyone. Our goals have been mostly unimportant, our abilities are modest and our integration into the social fabric has been tenuous. All lives do not matter, they never have, and they really don’t for people of our generation.

Compounding the bad historical luck, we millennials are poorly equipped to fight back because we, to an extent not seen in earlier generations, believe in rights, equality and being “precious for who you are.” Freedom in particular has been incredibly toxic because it’s taught us to make selfishness a virtue and loneliness into “independence.” These beliefs make us weak for a number of reasons:

  1. These beliefs are lies. Lies are, according to William James, bad because they reduce our ability to model reality. The dishonesty of rights becomes crushingly obvious each time a millennial, deluded by the lie of rights, tries to cope with the power politics present in all workplaces or, deluded by the lie of equality, attempts to declare himself equal to a happy or successful person. The inspirational lies, so long as we believe them, leave us completely unable to explain the world around us.
  2. These beliefs are passive and external. None of us can control “freedom,” whatever the hell that is supposed to mean. None of us can make the world equal or impose “rights,” whatever the hell those are supposed to be, on the world. We have to wait, passive and helpless, for the world to deliver us the fairytale nonsense we “inalienably have merely by virtue of being human.”
  3. These beliefs are literally the recipe for unhappiness. Everyone from the Buddha to Marcus Aurelius to modern psychotherapists agree that happiness is the state of reality surpassing expectations while unhappiness is the state of expectations surpassing reality. Many millennials, deluded by their teachers and mentors into believing that freedom/rights/equality/whatever is real and “inalienable” have such high expectations for the outside world that they can almost never be happy.  

On top of this psychological fragility and bad luck, we millennials are now getting spanked by Daddy Corona. Economic carnage is already here and more is coming, we are generally not “essential workers,” the virus is not going anywhere and we have very little in our rainy day funds. Like I said, it’s a very dark cloud.

That Very Silver Lining

I used to worry about the limits of my willpower but then I ran until my eyes stopped working. I used to tremble imagining pain but then I felt the bones break and crush until my forearm took on the shape of a question mark. I used to worry I couldn’t handle a heavy workload until I combined full time work with a full time PhD. I used to worry I’d crumble under pressure until I pitched my car sideways at 125 miles per hour, processed the way it felt, and then pitched it sideways again and again for an hour.

Through these experiences I learned that pain and fear, suffering and exhaustion are powerful teachers. If we choose to learn from these harsh teachers, confront them head on and attempt to overcome them we either get stronger, earn confidence and create meaning or we die trying. We get stronger because spiritual strength grows just like physical strength; through exercise. We earn confidence because the theoretical “I have the potential to do something,” subjected to pain and fear and strife, changes into a firm “I have faced monsters and won.” We create meaning through suffering and danger because suffering and danger are the fundamental materials required for a human being to start problem solving in the first place. If there are no problems, no solutions are necessary. And even if we die from these harsh lessons, we at least get to go down swinging, honor intact, life’s purpose in sight.

Marie Curie and Mucius Scaevola learned from their harsh teachers and solved problems of great importance. They suffered immensely and, in doing so, discovered their strength. They were without rights or equality and in being so deprived, learned that they did not require idealistic fairy tale garbage when they wished to impose meaning on the world. They expected nothing of the world – no human rights, no freedom from suffering, no dignity – and in so doing were able to feel genuinely grateful for the things they did get. They were blessed with vital, difficult and dangerous work and they made the most of it.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a survivor of Stalin’s gulags, illustrates the power of happiness hard-earned in his “Gulag Archepelago.”

“Those (letters) from zeks stand out unmistakably. Such extraordinary toughness they show! Such clarity of purpose combined with such vigor and determination! In our day, if you get a letter completely free from self-pity, genuinely optimistic – it can only be from a former zek. They are used to the worst the world can do, and nothing can depress them. I am proud to belong to this mighty race! We were not a race, but they made us one! They forged bonds between us, which we, in our timid and uncertain twilight, where every man is afraid of every other, could never have forged for ourselves.”

The coronavirus is like a fire consuming our old social fabric or a flood washing our economies into the sea. There’s going to be pain, there’s going to be tragedy and when it’s over, there’s going to be an immense opportunity for our thus-far lost generation to do something important. We millennials might yet find salvation. The corona virus has demonstrated unmistakably the folly of expecting rights, freedom and equality. It has, if we are wise, given us the opportunity to purge the inspirational lies and self-esteem garbage our teachers and parents told us and replace it with a life based on action. It has provided us, like Marie Currie against the Russians or Scaevola against King Porcena, an adversary worthy of the name, an important task to replace our micro aggressions, mask protests and transgender bathroom trivialities. It has given us the opportunity to matter.

For this we might give thanks.

5 comments

  1. As a member of generation X, I think you’re far too hard on millenials. Most of the ones I know have turned out okay. And you sound like you’re doing well. One constant of history seems to be that we always feel like the current generation is pathetic, and has lost vitality in comparison to the ones of old.

    The problem is that many of the stories that give us this impression are legendary, heavily embellished, or simply shorn of humanizing details. When we dig into the details (if we can, ancient stories are generally unverifiable), we learn that these figures were often far more human than the legend.

    Anyway, the current disastrous leader of the US, along with most of the voters that put him there, are from the Baby Boomer generation. Millenials don’t have that high of a standard to live up to.

    1. Hey Mike,

      Thanks for commenting.

      I largely agree with you about my generation being soft/weak/vigorless. We’re really not. I mean, I don’t think we’re as tough as the Greatest Generation, or the generation of Koreans who came up in the 1980s, but we’re certainly no worse than the Boomers were on a spiritual or moral level. The only two large scale failings I can point to are as follows:

      1. We largely believed the self-esteem/libertarian freedom nonsense about virtuous selfishness, being special and getting “independence.”

      2. We treat the reduction of suffering as a primary good.

      Both of those faults are eminently reasonable. We believed in the self-esteem/libertarian nonsense because we believed our parents and teachers. Kids are supposed to believe their parents and teachers. We treat the reduction of suffering as a primary moral good because almost all the non-trivial problems we’ve grown up with have been best solved by “leaning out” or shrinking up.

      The stuff I was being hard on us about is generally not our fault. We’ve been unlucky compared to Gen X, the boomers and the Greatest Generation. My contemporaries and I graduated into the harshest part of the Great Recession, we embraced education at the very moment it both stopped being a rare quantity and got super expensive. Now, in what should be the beginnings of our economic primes, plagues and pestilence have swept the land.

      That all said, we’re adults now and determining fault is beside the point. We are, compared with previous generations, worse at pretty much everything. I believe this is true for two basic reasons:

      1. We’ve not had a real crucible in which to steel ourselves. People do not become noble until they stand against something horrible and painful and triumph. Before corona, we’d never had one of these. This is why I was painting the pandemic as an opportunity for my generation.

      2. We’ve been poisoned by the self-esteem nonsense into believing we have inherent worth. This, according to a TON of research, is not good for mental health and promotes fragility. The pandemic, with its harshness and destruction and utter indifference to rights/freedom/whatever, has the potential to save us from these delusions. It has already saved the younger generation in my observation of Korean school kids.

      That said, I’m curious as to the millennials you live around. I freely admit that my family is unusual – my parents met at a religious cult activity and got married after escaping from such – but I’ve been pretty far up and down the economic ladder and I haven’t seen a lot of millennial success stories. What I have seen:

      1. People from rich families depending on their family connections to tread water.
      2. People from middle class families treading water or falling into debt peonage.
      3. People from poor families being, with one exception, utterly screwed. The one exception is clinging to a lower middle class existence and he is both incredibly smart and incredibly lucky.

      As for me doing well, I am doing well relative to most millennials. I also got incredibly lucky, took many unsustainable risks and fled the country at my first opportunity. Let me put it this way – I had very good test scores and there’s no way I would have finished college if I hadn’t gotten so good at screwing people out of their money. If I hadn’t left the US, I’d almost certainly be in and out of jail. If I’d been 30 seconds quicker getting out of bed when I was 19, I’d probably be in prison for manslaughter.

      1. Thanks Ben.

        On the millenials I know, most are firmly middle class, graduated from school and started working, raising families, etc. They’re far from perfect, but most seem to be doing okay. They certainly don’t seem any worse than my generation.

        I do think millenials have a different mindset, as do most generations. I grew up without the internet and a interconnected world, at least not obviously so. As a computer nerd, I was in online environments, but they were isolated and mostly populated by other nerds. Millenials came of age with a connected world in place, which changes the way they think about work. (It’s even more pronounced for Generation Z, who have no memory of the prior world at all.) Although this crisis is forcing my and older generations to catch up.

        Anyway, we’re all human and end up muddling through as best we can. I’ve had some close calls in my life myself, not to mention a few episodes I’m not proud of, so I know to some degree it takes luck not to end up in a bad place.

      2. It’s a goal of mine to end up in a community as stable and healthy as the one you describe. Probably the biggest single reason I came to Korea.

        Good things are good, they’re not something to feel ashamed of. I feel like that simple truth was one of the things I had to learn and something a lot of the people I grew up with never did.

      3. Best of luck. I can’t say what I have is a community so much as a loose collection of old friends and relatives. Finding community these days is a challenge. The internet gives us the ability to find friends on other continents with similar interests, but knowing our next door neighbor seems much harder than when I was a kid.

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