In late-2020, I spoke with a mother and daughter from Wisconsin. The daughter, Shelly, is in her early early-twenties and about to leave with an undergraduate degree in hospital administration with an emphasis on ecologically-focused management. Shelly is eager to enter the workforce, but anxious about what good she can do in her line of work. With her minor in this ecological mindset, she worried that her idealisms of environmental-consciousness won’t translate into her work. Shelly couldn’t be “like everyone else”. She remained at an impasse, feeling as though the rails she started upon will only lead her to a path of mediocrity without ideals.
Her mother previously worried that Shelly was carrying all of this environmental responsibility on her shoulders, causing undue stress on the undergraduate since she switched majors from engineering into this hospital administration career path. Angela reassured Shelly that she’ll find a good job that will make a good impact on the earth. But! Shelly should not stress out about changing the whole world, because no single person is able to do that.
“Sometimes you just need to make sure that your family and friends are healthy and safe, which is most important of all,” the mother said. Shelly didn’t respond.
I added to this. “I agree with your mother, family and friends do need to be taken care of. But if you do see environmental injustices in the world—even if you can’t directly change it all right now, you can still contribute to the larger conversation. So the least you can do is write and talk about it, and use whatever expertise you have to forward the conversation on what is wrong right now and what can be changed for the better.
I’d say that to really know that your family and friends are safe, you can work closely together to guarantee a healthy future for everyone in the family and local community. You have to write and talk first, or else there’s nothing for family, friends, and others to stand on.”
I didn’t expect much of a response. Shelly is testing the waters of life right now, and providing her the keys to a small but potent kingdom of local action can be overwhelming for someone that never grew up to believe in action. I believe that Shelly—like many of us—hope that there’s some organization that already exists that’s trying to do exactly what we want, thus making us redundant, able to wash our hands of a responsibility to organize action ourselves. It’s not out of laziness, but it is out of a shying away from any kind of boldness that needs to exist to enact change.
Shelly muttered a bit and went to bed. Angela stayed at the kitchen table and we spoke for a bit longer.
“You know,” Angela said, “I guess when we get older we tend to lose those idealisms. That’s why I just say “stick to friends and family”, because it’s something we know we can do. After a while, we see the people who are most active fail or just mellow out. So we mellow out as well. But maybe that’s not what Shelly wants right now.”
Angela’s observation gave me another: We are living in a decades-long age without parents. Yes, everyone has biological parents. But these biological parents share little to nothing with their children on how to experience life beyond navigating institutions set long before they were ever born. Hospital bills, taxes, real estate, stocks. These are the abstracted realities that our parents can provide light guidance on before we then pass those skills on to the next generation. But on experiencing a good life? They hope that college, a well-paid job, long, global vacations and a fruitful retirement will be the Frankenstein-ian recipe for a spiritually well-lived life.
I ask you: Do you envy your parents in any way? Maybe as a child: I remember my dad’s old girlfriend worked in a post office and at first it felt like an adventure: mail coming from all over the world, right here in Mount Vernon. Even all the office supplies felt like toys. Paper clips could become anything you desired. There was a rubber band ball that I could bounce and take apart. Paper was a canvas to draw anything I wanted. There was a time in childhood when work, no matter how mundane, appeared like play. Smiling, playful people all having fun enacting these roles as mailmen, clerks, sorters.
But then you grow up a bit more and you find that this isn’t pay: This is survival. These people are doing all of this to eat. And they may have been smiling at a child, but they’re not smiling anymore when they’re alone in a post office, and they can’t find someone’s requested parcel. Even the smallest pressures of mundanity feel like the world is ending—because in the scope of this job, it is beginning and ending of the world. Serving the Mount Vernon U.S. Post Service enables you to eat, sleep under a roof, and buy entertainment.
When you find out that your parents haven’t been playing this whole time, and merely surviving a system that they can barely comprehend, you lose that pride you had. No wonder why adolescents are so moody: They are falling out of love with the reality they’ve been given.
Right now, during this pandemic, I see predominantly white-collar parents trapped in their home, interacting with digital faces on Zoom and taking crackling phone calls on speaker phone. How could I ever envy this life? What examples should I follow from these parents? That the desk, the couch, the bedroom is the place to be for most of my life, except when I spend money for global and domestic vacations? That life is mostly boredom with fits of pain and happiness?
We are living in an age without ideological parents. We are raised by biological parents, obligated to feed, clothe, and house us. But very, very few of these biological parents feel as if their child can do better in experiencing life than them. So these parents are okay when their children accept the same routines, because it at least worked for this generation. Lacking any idealisms of what things should be, and without living the life to make it so, these parents provide children the basest minimum of spiritual fulfillment. I thank my parents for the okay childhood that I had, but boy would I never wish it upon my worst enemy; for I want my enemies to be spiritual equals, even if ideological foes.
I see on forums and news articles that people in China call their president “Daddy Xi”. In the United States some ultra-conservatives also call Donald Trump “Daddy”. In the Philippines there is a sense of patriarchal comfort with Duterte, even as he rounds up “lawbreakers” for executions.
In an increasingly global society, our biological parents feel more and more neutered. They appear as shambling, grumbling, complaining zombies all on a slow stampede toward lives mediated by institutions and systems that existed before them. Once a child questions these institutions and systems, they get riled up, for the child is questioning that which appears to keep the world intact. So the children attempt to find new, ideological parents like Trump and Duterte and Xi Jinping.
These generations of children without parents so desperately want a father and a mother that will lead by example. And lead by examples that are not held up by increasingly de-humanizing institutions and systems. Unfortunately, it appears only grifters and authoritarians have discovered this vulnerability in global society. These new “daddies” seem to act for themselves, their iron-grip starts to look attractive, because the children know the alternative: grumbling, shambling.
There needs to be third way, or a thousand ways, one that doesn’t concede to the authoritarianism of the few or to the meaningless toil of de-humanizing institutions and systems. Once we can encourage ourselves and our children to take charge again, and not just repeat tautologies and falsities like “life isn’t fair!”, “you have to because I said so!”, “no single person can change the world”, we may just make ourselves more than biological fathers and mothers again.