Off the Cuff: September 2013

With our country adrift and our cultural center quickly vanishing, it's a strange time to be alive in America—no matter what generation you're a part of.

“What a strange time it is to be alive in America.”

September always makes me think about renewal, a new beginning. That’s a feeling that stems from my youth, when we were students and the school year was about to begin. Yet as I’m about to launch into another fall, something has been bothering me—a feeling of uneasiness about the future. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it—until I read a recent column by Henry Allen in the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Allen, a former writer and editor for the Washington Post who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2000, has been observing the American landscape for a long time, and he, too, has suddenly come to an uncomfortable place: For the first time in his life, he has no idea what is happening to the culture, or where it’s headed.

“It’s not that I see things changing for better or worse, for richer or poorer,” Mr. Allen writes, “or even not changing at all. It’s something else: The most important thing in our culture-sphere isn’t change but the fact that reality itself is dwindling, fading like sun-struck wallpaper, turning into a silence of the dinner-party sort that leads to a default discussion of movies.”

This reflects what I’ve been feeling, and when I speak to people of various ages, they feel it, too: America is adrift. It might be worse than the cultural center not holding; the center may no longer exist.

Which makes renewal, as September hits, a strange concept. Renewal toward what, exactly? Mr. Allen’s column has me thinking about this. It falls especially hard on young people, on students returning to building their futures.

In the past, I’ve been hard on high-school and college students, on how they seem generally disinterested in learning about the world, or about much of anything, for that matter, outside of their latest update on Facebook.

But I’m now wondering if the problem with young people is that they’re feeling the same as the rest of us.

“We’ve lost our sense of possibility,” Allen writes. “Incomes decline, pensions vanish, love dwindles into hooking up, we’re not having enough babies to replace ourselves.” Which is just the tip of the iceberg, of course.

Why would a 20-year-old bother learning about world history if the world is a place too vast to really understand, and that knowledge doesn’t connect in any way with all the problems dropped at his feet? Or to a future that is utterly unpredictable. Perhaps most young people cannot articulate their anxiety in those terms, but certainly they must feel it.

Although I agree with Mr. Allen; it’s not that everything happening now is bad. In fact, there is much to laud in the present landscape. But everything comes with an overwhelming complication: The age of information has given us far too much of it. A more equitable and just society only seems to ramp up the noise over something like the Trayvon Martin killing; great breakthroughs in medicine are hamstrung by a health-care system that seems increasingly messy. These issues and many others are producing an even more severely polarized society.

I am not hoping we could return to a simpler time—that’s the folly of nostalgia. But I do wish I had something to offer, in the way of advice to a young person just beginning to find his or her way in the world. Perhaps the best I can do is this: Find something to care about, work hard at it, and if you have any energy or time left, give something back.

If that seems like a narrow view, well, I’m being cautious. Because I agree, once more, with Henry Allen: It’s a strange time to be alive in America.