Category: Society

What’s So Special About Your 20s Anyway?

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This is a guest post by my wife, who is a much faster reader than me. 

I first discovered Meg Jay when I was on kick watching TED talks. I found her talk, “Why 30 is not the new 20,” (see video below!), so engaging and clearly stated that my husband bought me her book for Christmas so that I could keep digging into the topic of the importance of your twenties.

As a twentysomething, I was interested to learn what’s so special about this decade of my life. The quotes below from Meg Jay’s book, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now (Twelve, 2013), are a sampling of her answer to my question “what’s so special about your twenties anyway?”. It turns out: A LOT!

  • “Eighty percent of life’s most defining moments take place by age thirty-five” (xiv).
  • “A colleague of mine likes to say that twentysomethings are like airplanes, planes just leaving New York City bound for somewhere west. Right after takeoff, a slight change in course is the difference between landing in either Seattle or San Diego. But once a plan is nearly in San Diego, only a big detour will redirect it to the northwest” (xxx).
  • “’Not making choices isn’t safe. The consequences are just further away in time, like in your thirties or forties’” (40).
  • “As a twentysomething, life is still more about potential than proof” (62).
  • “By the time we reach our twenties, the brain has gotten as big as it’s going to be, but it is still refining its network of connections” (139).
  • “Twentysomething plans help us think across the years and decades ahead” (141).
  • “’Inaction breeds fear and doubt. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.’-Dale Carnegie, writer and lecturer” (156).
  • “We now know that, of any time in life, our twenties are our best chance for change” (166).
  • “Feeling better doesn’t come from avoiding adulthood, it comes from investing in adulthood” (170).
  • “Compared to their twentysomething selves, women are about half as fertile at thirty, about one-quarter as fertile at thirty-five, and about one-eighth as fertile at forty” (180).
  • “’There is a big difference between having a life in your thirties and starting a life in your thirties’” (194).

Our twenties matter. The decisions of what job to take, what career field to enter and work to get into, and whether or not to pursue an advanced degree (and if so in what and where), matter. Who you date (or don’t date) matters because it can affect who you end up marrying and choosing to partner in life with. Meg Jay covers these professional and personal aspects of life well in the sections “Work” and “Love” of her book. She stresses how decisions made (or not made) in your twentysomethings significantly affect the trajectory of your life. She also presents very compelling biological information about how, physically, our twenties are a unique time in her section “The Brain and the Body.”

I loved The Defining Decade. If you’re in your twenties or have a loved one in their twenties, you should definitely read this book! It’s inspiring and motivating. I think Meg Jay would agree that her book is a call to action written for twentysomethings encouraging us to not put things off for later but really seize our twenties.

Memory and Technology: From Solzhenitsyn’s Brain to iPhone Notes

Lost ArtWhen’s the last time you committed a poem to memory? What about a phone number or an address? Most of us don’t need to do these things any longer. Google, our laptops, and our many smart toys have made the need to commit information to memory obsolete. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but perhaps it’s worth reflecting on this change and what it means for our brains and our society.

In The Lost Art of Reading (Sasquatch, 2010), David Ulin quotes from Eva Hoffman’s Time:

“On one level we are relegating more and more of our mental operations to various technologies, with digital devices increasingly acting as prostheses for our faculties. We entrust our sense of spatial orientation to satellite navigations systems; we give mathematical calculations over to the appropriate gadgets…we have less need to remember information ourselves when so much can be stored in our computer’s memory. The feats of memory recorded in oral cultures, or performed by Soviet poets and writers under censorship, seem hardly credible within our zeitgeist. Nadezhda Mandelstam memorized all of her husband’s poetry because it was too hazardous to write it down. Solzhenitsyn committed to memory each page he wrote when he was imprisoned in the Gulag, and the destroyed the evidence. Such powers of retention are unimaginable to most of us and they may become even more so, as we transfer memory to the many storage places available to us – there to be filed way, for instant and effortless retrieval” (89).

10 Things to Do on a Technology Sabbath

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In his extended essay The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Sasquatch, 2010), David Ulin offers one response to the problem of “communication overload,” taken from an organization whose aim is to “cultivate unhurried activities and quiet places, sanctuaries in time and space for reflection and contemplation” (86). Here are the ten principles of this “technological Sabbath,” which I find helpful, even pleasurable, as some of us consider ways of setting aside quality technology-free time by ourselves and with loved ones:

1. Avoid technology.

2. Connect with loved ones.

3. Nurture your health.

4. Get outside.

5. Avoid commerce.

6. Light candles.

7. Drink wine.

8. Eat bread.

9. Find silence.

10. Give back.

The Pursuit of (Something More Than) Happiness

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Have you ever paused to consider how much of our culture is influenced by that seminal phrase, “the pursuit of happiness”? I think it’s fair to say that before these words were penned into our Declaration of Independence, no nation had ever before staked its people’s happiness as one of its founding principles and a reason for being.

Today we see this fixation with happiness in many places, from the check-out lines where Cosmopolitan reveals its “7 Secrets to Happiness” to the Barnes & Noble with the prominent display of Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project (Harper, 2011).  But “happiness” is no simple proposition, and too often in its pursuit we forget that more important than mere happiness is the wisdom needed to negotiate life’s challenges and to know when to try to change one’s circumstances and when to accept, and even embrace them. This kind of wisdom produces not happiness, but joy and peace. Alternatively, does the absence of “happiness” indicate personal failure? Are those whose days are more characterized by difficulty and suffering than cheery happiness doing something wrong or missing out on a fuller and better experience of life?

In his recent book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (Penguin, 2013), Tim Keller writes that one of the major failings of modern society is that it fails to provide an adequate framework, if any, for understanding suffering. He explains that unlike in previous civilizations where suffering and trials were understood to be a crucial aspect of life which could better one’s character, many people today are more likely to see suffering as an accident of life to be avoided and removed from human experience.

More than fifty years ago Reinhold Niehbur wrote eloquently about this dilemma for American society, calling it “our difficulty as a nation.” Does this still hold true today? And has it gotten worse?

“The real question is whether a religion or a culture is capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than ‘happiness.’ Our difficulty as a nation is that we must now learn that prosperity is not simply coordinated to virtue, that virtue is not simply coordinated to historic destiny and that happiness is no simple possibility of human existence” (The Irony of American HistoryUniversity of Chicago, 1952), 52.

Reinhold Niebuhr and America’s Role in the World

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My work exposes me to difficult questions about America’s role and responsibility in the world community. Iran and the nuclear bomb. The use of chemical weapons against innocents in Syria. Billions in assistance to Egyptian strongmen who offend our democratic sensibilities but who ensure our national interests in the Middle East. These examples are the ones that grab the headlines, but there are many more like them that are no less complex.

Though I have no decision making responsibility over these matters, the people I work for do, and their responsibility forces me to consider the inevitable exercise of American leadership on the world stage. On the one hand we see the reality of this exercise – far from perfect, sometimes hypocritical, but, as I and many others see it, on the whole good and indispensable; and on the other hand we hold the ideal of this exercise – the promotion of the universal principles of liberty, equality and human dignity through our engagement with the world.

Too often in our discourse and our policymaking we lose the balance between the actual and the ideal: some jettison any notion of universal norms and humanitarian disinterestedness as self-defeating delusions that have no place in the exercise of foreign policy in the real world, and others would seek to wield American power to crusade against all injustice and, whether unilaterally or in concert with international bodies, seek to prevent conflict everywhere and usher in world peace. Two men exemplifying these two spectrums are Henry Kissinger, the brilliant realist behind Nixon’s opening to China, and Woodrow Wilson, the academic architect of the League of Nations who said he was taking the U.S. into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy.”

To this discussion Reinhold Niebuhr offers wise words which, though written 1952, remain as relevant and pressing today. Public intellectual, Christian theologian and adamant anti-communist, Niebuhr was clear-eyed about the shortcomings of our nation as it proclaimed its virtue against the evil of communism. In The Irony of American History, he shattered the illusion that we as a nation could keep intact our innocence and virtues and still fulfill our responsibility to the world. He understood that though this exercise of leadership is inevitably imperfect and sometimes tragic, the consequences of inaction and isolationism are worse still. Today’s idealists who call on our leaders to either retreat from the world stage or pursue a more innocent and pure foreign policy would do well to consider his words:

“They [the idealists of the 1930s] had a dim and dark understanding of the fact that power cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest, even when it tries to subject itself to universal standards and places itself under the control of a nascent world-wide community. They did not understand that the disavowal of the responsibilities of power can involve an individual or nation in even more grievous guilt.”

George Kennan and America’s Role in the World

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This country needs more men like George Kennan.

George Kennan is best known for his “X” article, which laid out the policy of containment that was to define decades of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. George Kennan (1904-2005) was an accomplished diplomat, a devoted husband (a marriage of over 70 years!), a natural teacher, a meticulous historian, and a gifted writer. But perhaps the best way to describe him is as “conscience of a nation,” as John Lukacs puts it in his excellent biography, George Kennan: A Study of Character (Yale, 2009). What made George Kennan invaluable as a diplomat was that he was the best kind of patriot: a man who so loved his country that he did not turn a blind eye to its faults and defects but shined a light on them, wishing the improvement of our character and conduct as a nation. He was deeply committed to the principles of liberty and equality and believed America should exert its influence in the world, but he deplored the tendency toward wrongheaded, righteous interventions and the increasing overextension of our military throughout the world. In this vein he often quoted John Quincy Adams: “We are friends of liberty all over the world; but we do not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” This posture earned him the ire of both liberals and conservatives, and so it should be, for he had “no doctrines, only principles.”

George Kennan led a long and fruitful life, leaving behind a mountain of writings on the role of the U.S. in the world. As our country faces many serious threats, it is worth recalling the lessons of this sober-minded and clear-eyed American, of which the most important may be, humility:

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“Remember that the ultimate judgments of good and evil are not ours to make: that the wrath of man against his fellow man must always be tempered by the recollection of his weakness and fallibility and by the example of forgiveness and redemption which is the essence of his Christian heritage.” (130, quoted from his 1953 address to University of Notre Dame).

Want to get a liberal education? Don’t major in identity studies

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From the late historian Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet:

“Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: ‘gender studies,’ ‘women’s studies,’ ‘Asian-Pacific-American studies,’ and dozens of others. The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves – thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine” (202).

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Here Judt aptly expresses a sentiment I have had often: that such programs, whether in the classroom or outside it, are counterproductive to the goal of integrated diversity. Rather than integrating minorities into their surrounding community, they reinforce the “minority” status that is so often accompanied by a low-level but embittering sense of victimhood which keeps us from transcending racial and cultural lines. Judt is right in saying this is inimical to true liberal education, for liberal education, properly understood, expands one’s view to appreciate the world around them, which has a wonderful variety of human experience, transcending what often are self-imposed boundaries of race and culture.