There’s a reason that people paint with a broad brush. A broad brush covers more ground. A broad brush shortens the time that it takes to work. In short, a broad brush is efficient – especially if you, like me, are either too lazy or in too much of a time crunch to worry about details (or too bored by them to really be bothered).
I’m about to paint with a broad brush. Please forgive me. I understand that what I’m about to say may not apply to you, your experience, or your family. (But maybe it does.) I also realize that the paint I’m about to use is of a distinct negative hue and tint. That’s on purpose. Please bear with me, and understand that I understand that dealing in dichotomies is not a great idea. (Thanks, Jay. Good stuff.)
A couple of months ago, I had the privilege to participate and engage in a book discussion (not something I generally do, as a rule), along with an intimate group of others, on the invitation of a good friend. The book was Falling Upward, by Richard Rohr. I’m not going to provide a book review or summary, except to say that the book was both very thoughtfully written and thought-provoking. For all of its strengths and flaws, Falling Upward occupied a significant rent-free part of my brain both in the course of reading it and well afterward. It may be presumptuous to do so, but I would say that the same was true for the others in the group – at least the depth of our conversation about the book indicated a definite depth of impact resulting from its intake.
I don’t remember exactly how, but at some point in our discussion the topic turned to child-raising. (In short, the book is about moving from the “first half” of life to the “second half” of life, so the progression to this topic is logical, even if the precise steps to how we got there is not memorable.) Present among the group were members of at least three distinct American generations: Baby Boomers; Generation Xers; and Generation Yers/Millennials (there is raging debate over whether this last group of youngsters actually comprises one or two distinct generations, and in typical Millennial fashion, these folks just will not be pinned down – except maybe by them, or maybe not).
Anyway, as we talked about the challenges of raising our kids (or having already raised them), it was enlightening and insightful to hear the various perspectives of the parents with respect to those things that we hold dearly true about parenting (our confidences), those things that we are completely at a loss about (our fears), and those things that we acknowledge we were, are, or could be wrong about (our failures). All broad brushes aside, from my perspective it was particularly interesting to see how these confidences, fears, and failures tended to fall along generational lines.
So this got me to thinking about generations.
A few years ago, we were introduced to the concept of “The Greatest Generation.” (Thanks, Brokaw.) The reference, of course, is to the generation of Americans that lived as kids through the Great Depression, fought and defeated European Fascism and Japanese Imperialism, and then returned home to build the economic juggernaut that was America in the middle of the 20th Century. Sociologists refer to this generation as the “Traditionalist” generation. This “greatest generation” of Traditionalists also created the “Baby Boom” (this is logical, as nearly the entire generation was deployed to war, and the only real question exchanged between soldiers at war longing to be home is “what’s the second thing you’re going to do when you get there” – I sincerely hope you get the joke). Traditionalists strived to make sure their kids would “have it better than we did,” and in the process were never actually “present” for their kids.
This new generation of kids was known (shockingly) as “The Baby Boomer” generation, and the Baby Boomers, well, the Baby Boomers were rebels. Rock and roll, sexual freedom, rejection of establishment, peace over war, “chemical” experimentation, and fierce independence were their things (yeah, baby). In large part because of these characteristics, the Baby Boomers did not follow traditional family-planning structures and timelines, and so their offspring stretched over a few decades from the late 60s through even the 90s. Baby Boomers married, they had kids, they divorced (how they divorced!), they re-married, they had kids, and they divorced a little more. In short, the Baby Boomers rejected the world of their “greatest generation” parents, and strived to make sure that they would . . . have it better than their parents. And either on the front end or the back end of shame, the Baby Boomers respectively either released or doted on and spoiled their children so that they would have experiences that were better than theirs.
These children of the Baby Boomers became known largely as “Generation X,” “Generation Y,” and/or, to some extent, “Millennials.” Generation X – my generation – is the released generation of the Cold War, of MTV, of the X Games and Grunge. We, too, are fiercely independent – but this fierce independence is born of the realization that we have to make it on our own (because nobody else will be there for us – we call the release from our parents “neglect”). As such, we are proud, bordering on arrogant, and can be difficult to know. We assumed great amounts of debt, chased after professional success, dreamed of marriages grounded in unconditional, unfailing, unbreakable love – and when that fairy tale materialized, we had kids of our own (and also, far too often, divorced when the fairy tale dissolved). These children, partly comprising the Millennials and partly comprising a new generation of as-yet undefined toddlers and babies, have been intentionally and fiercely promised that they would have it better than their Gen X parents.
Conversely, the doted on children of the Baby Boomers – Generation Y – are known for their independent creativity, their “out of the box” approach to life (though they wouldn’t call it that – it’s such a Baby Boomer/Gen X phrase), their social consciousness, their technology (iStuff, Twitter, and Facebook, until it was co-opted by their parents, now it’s all, like, Instagram and stuff, are as much a part of their lives as water and oxygen). Gen Y, too, is fiercely independent, but this independence is grounded in the precious freedom to be who they are. This generation has been told that they are special, and they live like they are. They are princes and princesses from birth; they all got trophies (and deserved them!); they cannot be told what to be or where to be it. As such, in the midst of great, innovative social structures and norms, Generation Y is largely and ironically lonely. And they are now having kids, too, and are committed to making sure that their kids will have it better than they did – because, believe it or not, they also reject what their parents did.
Here’s my observation (among all of this broad brush painting): Regardless of how good they are and how well they tried, our parents really screwed us up; and regardless of how good we are or how well we might try, we are going to screw up our kids. Let’s face it: We all carry significant wounds from our parents, and our kids are going to carry significant wounds from us. This isn’t new to our parents, it isn’t new to us, and it won’t be new to our kids.
Now this may just be a Gen Xer talking out of the vast reserves of cynicism with which we are endowed and by which we are known (that broad brush admittedly slapped me pretty hard at some point in the ’80s), but I do think that, in the words of Bruce Hornsby, that’s just the way it is (aw, snap, Gen Xer showing his stripes!). In the process of ensuring that the next generation will have it “better,” each generation acts out of true and false fears and confidences, succeeds some, fails some, and instills in the next generation both good and bad characteristics. And the new generation looks back at the one before it and finds things that they hope to repeat and things that they strive ever so desperately to avoid, succeeding somewhat and failing somewhat in the process.
But here’s the deal: It’s okay. Really. It is.
King David was a man after God’s own heart, and boy did he screw up his kids. Solomon, one of those kids, was “the wisest man that ever lived,” and even though he is credited with some of the greatest fatherly advice that a father can give to a son, boy did he screw up his kids. And the cycle continued from generation to generation. All of those dudes mentioned in Matthew 1 probably looked back on the dude mentioned before him and said (in Hebrew or Aramaic) “I am definitely going to do things differently and make sure the next dude on the list has it better than I did.”
Until one of those dudes was Jesus. He was the hope of all of the failed generations before Him and continues to be the hope of all of the failed generations that have come since and will continue hereafter. It was the grace embodied by Christ that carried the generations before, carries the generations now, and will carry the generations to come. At the end of the day, we do our best; we rely on Grace. The “greatest generation” is simply the one that remembers and declares the works of the Lord and the hope of Christ, and if we are doing that, we are doing fine.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds, and I will declare your greatness.
They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness and shall sing aloud your righteousness.
Psalm 145: 3-7
The best part about that book discussion was realizing that in the context of my own confidences, fears, and failures, there was so much wisdom to glean from the confidences, fears, and failures of the other generations. Turns out, I – and my kids – need the Baby Boomers in my life, and the Gen Yers, and the Millennials, and all of the other Gen Xers. The ferocity of my independence is tempered by my great need; and I am very grateful that they commend the works of God to me and my kids. Otherwise, we’d be really screwed up.