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The Importance of Generational Knowledge

Several recent articles have called the millennial generation the most narcissisticofalltime. There are arguments for and against this judgment: in a November Atlanticarticle, Brooke Lea Foster pointed out that most young adults, regardless of the historical era, have been rather selfish in their youth. But Foster adds, “Perhaps today’s young people are products, rather than drivers, of the cultural saturation of narcissism… Maybe we’re all just a little more into ourselves than we used to be.”

Two weeks ago, I finished reading Middlemarch, by George Eliot, and I’ve hardly encountered a single character in literature more maddeningly narcissistic than Rosamund. She completely lacks the ability to see other people’s point of view. Everything in her life has a Rosamund hue. Everything is painted with her own passions and pains. It is a habit of youth, as Eliot explains so succinctly yet beautifully: “… No age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings, and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems final, simply because it is new.” The same is true of youthful pleasures and opinions: each we think authoritative, perfectly wise, mature. Yet in decades past, it was only a matter of time before circumstance and company would begin to humble and shape a character like Rosamund—before she would learn, through relationships and hardships, that the world did not, in fact, revolve around her.

This makes me wonder if some of the supposedly increased narcissism of young people could stem from the fact that we have largely segregated generations in modern America. The old do not mingle with the young nearly as much. Young adults (and indeed, many adults) are too busy playing with their phones and computers, and/or spending time with their peers, to sit still and listen to the stories of their elders. How does all this influence our ability to understand the world, and each other, in a more mature and compassionate way?

I just spent Thanksgiving in my Idaho hometown, and enjoyed several long visits with my grandfathers. One is a retired farmer, the other a WWII veteran. One tells stories of battles past, seeing friends die, watching countries battle brutally. The other shares stories of work and service in community, speaking of a time when people relied on each other for support and sustenance. Both have lived through the Great Depression and numerous wars. Both have lost many of their friends and loved ones. Their world is tinged with tragedy and hardship in a way mine has never been—yet hearing their stories gives me a deeper understanding of the world.

If we don’t have this sort of perspective, we can be lost in the ebb and flow of our own experiences. We lose a correct interpretation of the world. Without a long view, provided by the wisdom of our forbears and the writings of thinkers past, we don’t have the background or context necessary to understand our own world rightly.

I am as guilty of this sort of ignorance as the next millennial. Too often, I write with a bloated feeling of my own rightness, only to be (properly) deflated by an older, wiser person’s thoughts. I am learning, slowly, to make less black-and-white judgments, and to take my own opinions with a grain of salt. But it is only through the writings and sayings of my elders, people who are more learned and thoughtful than I will ever be, that this becomes possible.

Perhaps this holiday season will give some of us an opportunity to dialogue with people whose lives have been dramatically different from our own. Beyond offering an important opportunity to shape and build community, these encounters offer us a worldview that is decidedly wider than our own.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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