Growing up in the US, my heroes (apart from athletes, rock stars and fictional characters) were men and women from the aptly named “Greatest Generation.” This was somewhat counter-intuitive at the time, considering I was two generations removed from them, and they were considered “old” and “uncool” by most kids my age.
However, in my bones I always felt an aura of strength, regality and honor effortlessly emanate from many of them. In my mind that made them beyond cool, even transcendental, and set them apart from Baby Boomers and my generation.
Although I couldn’t effectively articulate at the time what it was that made them so special, their almost otherworldly grace and gravitas was undeniable, and I knew that they were somehow elevated.
In retrospect, I believe this was because they were raised during the Great Depression and World War II. By definition, being brought up in such harrowing times required discipline and an acute understanding that one should be grateful for what one has – and perhaps even more importantly, that individuality and the pursuit of self-grandeur were anathema to the necessary greater good, which required sacrifice and teamwork.
For example, I vividly remember listening to fascinating stories from my beloved grandfather, Merril, a true product of the Great Depression, about making the most out of a bad situation, helping others any way he could, and not complaining because someone always had it worse.
How his father, Kalman, an immigrant from Minsk, taught himself English and became a physician in New York City, where he cared for minorities whom other doctors refused to treat – and frequently worked for no fee or accepted chickens as payment – all the while saving what little money he could to send back to his family overseas so they could come to America one day, too.
It is this profound ethos and selflessness that enabled them to pull themselves up by their boot straps, win an ungodly war, and make America truly great. Indeed, it is what will always separate these unique men and women from other generations – giving them an irrefutably elevated distinction in the annals of history.
NOW, LET’S cut to the present.
If ever there was a coddled generation defined by self-interest, narcissism and general solipsism, it is this one.
As a still relatively young 39-year-old, the last words I ever thought would be coming out of my mouth at this stage in the game were “these kids today...” (Lest I sound like the famously curmudgeonly late 60 Minutes
commentator Andy Rooney, irony not included.)
But what can I say? I can no longer help myself: Rooney was right.
Beyond the obvious benchmarks of self-absorption – including micro attention spans for anything that doesn’t directly involve them – I think my breaking point came after around the hundredth time I tried to explain to a thoroughly perplexed Westernized kid born after 1990 why I gave up a plush lifestyle in New York City to live a decidedly modest existence in Israel.
After repeatedly explaining in simple terms why I joined an existential struggle that has great meaning to me, my family and many others – but has left me stripped of a once far better standard of living – every single one of them has looked at me like I was an escaped mental patient.
Indeed, in their eyes people with lifestyles and values like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian made far more sense, which definitively made me an oddity to them. Some of them even said as much. God bless their honesty.
Here’s the thing: There should be nothing remotely odd about anyone’s commitment to an important cause he or she dedicates themselves to over self interest. But the sad truth is that the righteous mentality that the Greatest Generation came to embody during the worst of times has become as antiquated as Morse code.
To be sure, there has been a complete paradigm shift in the Western zeitgeist, once built on an uncompromised gold standard, now replaced by fool’s gold. The very type of shift that brings down great empires – built by the hungry and hard-working – by their overfed, lazy descendants.
And it’s beginning to take its toll on the foundation of a society that was durable and well-made – but is now being replaced by a cheap, synthetic substitute, outsourced to children in sweatshops in Bangladesh for 10 cents an hour, that’s not fit to keep a sand castle erect.
I DON’T blame young people for this. I blame sycophantic, enabling parents and the incomprehensibly thoughtless mass media, which have seemingly colluded to create a cubic zirconium, instant-gratification culture based on self-aggrandizement above all else. A culture defined by how many Twitter followers and Facebook friends one can accumulate – along with the amount of undeserved kudos and trophies one can amass, without the hard work of actually earning them.
Indeed, “kids today” may as well have been parented by the editors of Us Magazine
or Paris Hilton, irresponsibly taught that the world is theirs
to conquer because it sounds cool – and hey, it’s a lot better than sharing it, right? They are taught that they are preordained for a greatness that used to be reserved for those who embodied sacrifice, diligence, teamwork and humility.
In short, now it’s all about them.
They’re in for a profoundly rude awakening.
Of course there are outstanding parents out there who keep their kids grounded and sensitive to the world around them, but they have become a minority.
The bottom line is that traits that once defined the best of the best four generations ago – traits that are fundamentally incontrovertible in the pursuit of a better future – have become punch-lines in a rat race that uses words like “selflessness,” “teamwork,” “community” and “integrity” as lip service in college-admission essays, political campaigns and inflated quarterly reports.
MAKE NO mistake about it: this irrefutable shift from the greater good toward unabashed solipsism is nothing short of an apocalypse – albeit an apocalypse of the soul, and society itself. And the implications, which we’re just beginning to see in the form of the ongoing decline of the economy and once unrivaled Western institutions, are extremely dangerous and far-reaching.
Indeed, the once respected “Made in the USA” stamp is becoming a relic, replaced by outsourcing, cut corners, fast money and style over substance. Replaced by a cubic zirconium mentality that is shiny, and quickly made, but utterly worthless.
Ultimately, what is the endgame of solipsism – of this ubiquitous self-entitled mentality?
In the impressionable minds of kids being bombarded by countless messages from an anemic and vapid culture, it appears to be this: He who dies with the most toys, accolades (and perhaps a reality show, clothing line, perfume, cologne, sneaker or vodka named after them), wins.
This is the present milieu our kids are being raised in, and it’s tragic.
And why should they think otherwise when every conceivable medium is programming them to think this way – as if they were Alex being de-programmed with his eyelids pried open in A Clockwork Orange.
It is inescapable logic that if an entire generation is being taught to look out for themselves, and not the bigger picture of our shared fate, the only legacy they will leave behind will be a vacuous shell of what once was.
A fake empire.
Believing that a person who doesn’t have a just cause he’s willing to fight or die for, apart from himself, has nothing to truly live for, shouldn’t make someone an anachronism.
Indeed, if we don’t return to The Greatest Generation’s once noble culture of selflessness and integrity, it may be too late for the next generation.
So, tell your kids to talk and learn from them before they’re gone. Some are still here and have much to teach us all, if we’ll just listen.
I know this much is true.
(Even if I do sound like Andy Rooney.) firstname.lastname@example.org
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