Now that I’m in my 30’s, and at the eve of a major life transition, I’ve been thinking a great deal about my 20’s. Like most of my millennial cohort, I thought, as an earnest 18 year old coming of age in 2006, that anger would save the world. We called it different things — “passion” or “empathy” or such things, but it was anger. Strident righteous indignation, argumentation, those slogans that were our bread and butter — “this world needs your passion!” “let your voice be heard!” etc etc. Us earnest, self-righteous, social-crusading millennials did pretty much live up to our stereotype.
To be fair, it wasn’t always strident anger, there was also the occasional, weeping gentle-anger, but it was still an earnest upset-ness: that earnest empathy for the abused, the abuse described in graphic language as we stood with our little memorial march candles, sorrowing with the righteous fire of indignation still smouldering beneath.
Unlike most of my millennials, I was the conservative traditionalist version — while they cheered Obama I was signing petitions against the One Child Policy, and writing angry emails to foreign governments about old ladies and small babies. But we were all the same underneath. It’s a sort of melodramatic earnestness. The Post-mils are, of course, resentful of the earnest drama we have inflicted upon them, and they have been frenetically shitposting offensive memes with sixteen levels of irony ever since. It’s all a cycle really.
Sometime in my late 20s, I finally admitted that anger will not save the world. Honestly, when you count up the number of social evils solved by angry petitions, it isn’t much. Most great social evils (e.g. American Slavery, Holocaust, recent genocides) are not actually solved by emotional protestors, but rather by solemn killers. It’s the soldiers in the wars, with their guns and their PTSD, that actually stopped those things. The cost of freedom, of basic human decency, is always high and dreadful, with plenty of mess in its wake. But as President Abraham Lincoln said, standing on the field of Gettysburg recently cleared of its human carnage: “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
And while soldiers’ self-sacrifice may hallow the ground, it does not save the world either. It merely stalls the destruction of it. It is a tragic, last-ditch effort to stop great evils that have already spiralled out of control and claimed so many lives — and must claim even more, before the dust clears on the field.
What really saves the world is what happens after. It is in the littlest of things, the small acts of kindness, little everyday kindnesses, small acts of love.
I drove through a neighborhood today. There were a bunch of elementary-school-aged children playing in the street. Boys and girls, of different races. I weaved past them gingerly at 3mph in my big truck, and I could see some of them smiling. I could hear them laughing and talking, completely un-self-consciously.
They don’t know it yet, but they are saving the world.