Ranting the Millennium In
By Michael Ventura
DECEMBER 28, 1999: At the end of one Millennium and the beginning of another, "What can we do?" is a question that the young ask with an urgency that we elders find increasingly disturbing -- disturbing precisely to the extent that we've come to take the question for granted. But the young must ask it, and they have no one to ask but us. And they are correct not to forgive our reluctance to answer or our stammering when we try, for they have every right to an answer from their elders. And they know that homilies and career suggestions will not suffice. They feel as if they're being shot out of a cannon into an absolutely unknown and merciless situation, and they are right. They want an answer from us that is both definite enough to give them direction and open-ended enough to give them a sense of meaningful choice, and they can't help but feel that if we cannot give them such an answer we haven't really been paying attention to our own lives -- and they are right again.
Don't let their casual pop style fool you. What the best of them want is to be assigned a noble task -- something that will make their lives meaningful. Nothing less will count. And they want to be assured that we, too, however humdrum our lives may seem, are laboring under a noble assignment, something more than mere survival and security, something that will connect our history with their future. For it is such a sense of purpose, and not merely our age, that makes us elders; without such purpose, we are as weightless as they feel, and when they sense this they despise us for it. And again they are right.
The question, at this historical moment, became clearest to me one night several years ago when my boy -- his hair shaved close to his head and arranged in little spikes that would have been cute if it weren't also somewhat sinister -- came in way past his curfew, eyes blazing with anger and a question. But he didn't ask his question as though it was really a question. The young rarely do. Instead, he made a statement, an accusation, and, as a demand that he be heard, he laced his disguised question with obscenities. It went something like:
"It's all fucked, it's fucked out there, fucked. It's all shit out there. It's all pretending to be something and it's nothing and it's fucked."
Clearly, he was making me responsible for what was "out there" -- which is just. A parent is the representative of the history that has handed you your world; and in this sense, we are responsible. There's no evading that. His declaration of fuckedness was a way of asking what I thought and what I was doing about it and what he should do.
It would be no good telling him that it's going to be alright, because he knew very well it wasn't. And it was no good telling him to get good grades and go to college and hope for the best -- which, as a society, is all we seem to say to kids. Nothing I was doing or thinking had a prayer of fixing anything out there, and he knew that too. And, given the impossibility of a solution, what should he do?
That was his burning question.
He asked it on the couch, half-boy and half-man, his words on fire and his body tensely still. I answered agitated, pacing up and down, as much on fire as he -- for I was being put to the test and, whether I had an ultimately useful answer or not, I was at least determined not to stammer. His inner fire meeting my inner-fire with our lives on the line -- that's the Millennium, or it should be.
Suddenly it's my job, as it is every parent's and elder's job, to speak for the entire human heritage. In my case, that night, less to speak than to rant for the entire human heritage. It was everything I ever had to say, and it went something like this:
"It is all fucked, and it's not going to get better anytime soon -- not in my lifetime or yours or maybe your children's. Don't look now, but it's a Dark Age, which is one reason why so many people tell you how great things are -- a Dark Age full of shiny inventions that all just seem to make it darker and crazier. None of us knows shit about what's coming next, except that whatever's coming may well be darker than what's already here. If you're asking for solutions, I don't have any, and I don't know anybody who does. Compassion for one another is absolutely necessary, but that's not a solution -- in fact, it's probably, on a day-to-day level, just a way of getting yourself into more trouble. The question is: What does a Dark Age demand of a good person? And the answer to that depends on another question: What do you love?
"Not what do you like, or prefer, or want, but what do you love? What is there in this chaos that you can love?
"Those things that you can love are out there, and your first job is to find them. And that, in itself, is a dangerous task, and it can be a long and excruciating one. But then -- what do you do? Because discovering what you love is just the beginning -- that doesn't solve anything either. I mean, it doesn't solve the issues of your life. Once you find the things you can love, you've got to get to know them so that you can preserve them and live them and fight for them, and so you do not compromise them, no matter what. You don't sell them out and you don't sell yourself out. And that, too, is only going to make our life harder. Much. So why do it?
"Because the best and most dangerous task is to nurture what you love, without any hope of reward. To keep what you love alive, and keep the thing in you that loves alive so that you can hand on the things you love to those who come next -- even if that's just one person. You give the things you love all you have and all you are, because that, in itself, passes them down to someone, maybe someone you don't know and aren't even aware of. Because in a chaotic time, the end of which we cannot imagine, the important thing is to pass on what we love, so that somebody, someday, after this Great Madness has played itself out, will be able to have it and use it and add it to the world.
"Maybe that calmer day isn't coming; but maybe it is. And if there's any chance at all that it is, then we can't fail that day. We have to give all we love to that day. And I'll say again that there are no material rewards for this. It's dangerous, it'll get you into trouble and screw your bank account -- but it's the best job you can ever have. No matter what your profession may turn out to be, what I'm talking about is your job. And if you take on that job, every day will count. And if you don't, every day of your life will be wasted.
"I care about your security and your safety, but not as much as I care about your feeling that your life counts for something and making it count for something. Do you have the stuff to seek what you love and cultivate it and pass it on? And can I help with that? Because if you do that, then you will have lived. Then, whether your name is remembered or not, you'll be an essential part of what's to come and your life will have counted for something. Happy fucking New Year."
Well, like I said -- it was a rant. But my feeling then and now is that when people come to a parent or artist or philosopher or therapist or teacher or priest, what they are really asking is not so much to be cured or saved as to be ennobled -- to be reminded of their birthright as human beings, so that they can carry their part of the human heritage in the great human procession. Even if that procession now feels like nothing more than a rush-hour traffic jam.
In the great sweep of history; in the midst of a technological stampede that is changing everything we know; on the brink of a Millennium in which we feel the future usurp the past until all that's left is a chaotic present that justifies itself by claiming to be the only possible future; in a time of destruction that pretends to be a time of creation; in a world that claims to be more and more interconnected, while everyone is really feeling more and more isolated -- at such a moment, entering such a Millennium, there is still no ground but what one loves.
Only those who remember this will have anything to offer the Millennium.
The rest -- will be swept away.
Whether they are affluent or poor, whether they're online or on the street -- swept away. Their collective emptiness will be a force of history, but individually, it will be as though they had never been.
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