Spending too much time around Baby Boomers can be frightening for a youthful and optimistic Millennial like me. Their impulsive tendency to start talking about the 2016 election, and to pour out their despair and anxiety about it, can indeed be disheartening. They might even convince you that civilization as we know it is falling apart…as if the fate of the world were in the hands of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. If that were truly the case, I also would be cowering in fear along with some of my neurotic coworkers and family members. And yet there is something particular about my generation that allows us to watch Fox News coverage of the DNC/RNC for a few minutes and walk away laughing. What is it about us Millennials that lets us walk away from alleged turmoil with our sanity and sense of humor still intact?
It seems like most of that characteristic Millennial “freedom” is a result of apathy, or even a self-centered mentality. As long as my “bubble” is not directly impacted by what’s happening in the outside world, I don’t really care. Perhaps apathy is the ultimate trajectory of the American ideal of freedom conceived as pure autonomy and individualism.
To some extent, I prefer Millennial apathy to the Baby Boomers’ bewildered orientation to reality. Trump and Clinton know how to tap into something that my generation seems to lack awareness of: the savior complex. This is something inherent to our humanity: the expectation for the presence of “another” who can fulfill my desire for infinity by overcoming or redeeming my finitude. This complex can manifest in very different ways, though. For some cultures and generations, it appears that that expectation is projected onto particular people like politicians, activists, or revolutionaries. For my generation, it seems to manifest in rather ambiguous ways: sometimes through the ideals of success, “making a difference,” equality and justice, artistic expression, and even social media fame. It’s not exactly clear; but we seem to concur that there is not one sole source of salvation. Perhaps this is why we are impervious to the claims of Trump and Clinton. And yet so many Americans are convinced by Trump’s claim that he will save America, fix our limitations, and to make us “great again” (though the last time we were great I can’t recall).
Media coverage of the election also reveals the inherent savior complex that seems to pervade so many aspects of our humanity. As news networks become more openly polarized, they play up the drama of Good versus Evil by pitting the two candidates against each other, as if one candidate were God and the other a demon. Were Trump or Hillary to actually be God and a demon, I also would be terrified along with my elders. The disillusionment of my fellow Millennials becomes a grace to the extent that it keeps us from buying into the claim that a human being could save me and offer me infinite happiness. We know better. What is truly better, though, we seem not to care very much to discover.
As a Catholic Millennial, I am sometimes afraid of the morally repulsive course that this election has taken. I’ve wanted to vomit and hide in a hole the few times I attempted to watch either of the National Conventions. A cloud of doubt and fear are cast over my head by the fact that it is nearly impossible to discern which candidate is the “lesser of two evils.” I start to wonder to what extent Aristotle was right, that democracy is detrimental to the State. Leaving decisions in the hands of “the people” (demos) scares me if the people are ardently supporting the likes of Trump and Clinton. Perhaps we should reinstitute monarchies that leave power in the hands of those who are fit to make decisions, rather than the uneducated or ignorant masses. But I’ve tossed this idea out the window because…well, just try bringing it up in public and watch what happens (actually though, it’s fun to watch people’s’ response to that one).
Perhaps our response is already in our midst, that is, in the “cloud of witnesses,” the saints, in particular I’m thinking of St. Benedict and Dorothy Day. Benedict’s sixth century monastic movement was a response to the political turmoil in Rome that left him and others disillusioned with the civil and political authorities of his day. Opting for a new social structure whose foundation was totally predicated upon the atemporal realm, he proposed something that was genuinely “new”; something which blossomed and permanently impacted the trajectory of European culture and society. Dorothy Day, a third order Benedictine, also shared Benedict’s disillusionment with the temporal political order in which she found herself. She opted not so much for a total dedication to the Transcendent, but for an attitude that focused on bettering the conditions of the City of Man through pursuing the City of God. An advocate of Christian anarchy, she once doused the excitement the young (one day to be Cardinal) Francis George, who was celebrating the possibility of having a Catholic president, saying to him “I believe Mr. Kennedy has chosen very badly. No serious Catholic would want to be president of the United States.”
So while apathy as a response to the state of the temporal realm is severely lacking, an attitude that exalts politicians as salvific figures is hardly any more attractive. Thus the only way to avoid the bewilderment of my elders is by pursuing happiness in the City of God, and spending this time on earth as an opportunity to prepare for Its coming by witnessing to its imminence. We will only be free if we leave the drama between good and evil in the hands of God rather than a mere mortal who is hardly qualified to handle such a herculean task.
So then how do we witness to the coming of the true Kingdom while responding to the needs of society? That’s when the third party candidates come in. Call me crazy, but hey, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness for God,” and vice versa. My elders are often scandalized by such a blasphemous proposal, while contemporaries scoff that I’m “wasting my vote.” But maybe a wasted vote, or blasphemy against the “wisdom of this world,” is exactly what we need in such a frenetic time. Such an act against utilitarianism, efficiency, the measure of “this world,” can stand as a witness to our country that there are still people who refuse to compromise their desire for fulfillment and will not entrust their “savior complex” to someone who is ill-prepared to handle it. Trump probably won’t make America great, but neither will Mike Maturen, Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson-but that’s exactly the point. It may be a wasted vote, but it is still a vote. It’s a vote against a reduction of the human person, against efficiency and utility as the standard par excellence of society, against a political system that capitalizes on a dualistic notion of good and evil, against people who claim to be able to establish “greatness” on this earth, against the claim that human beings can save themselves, and ultimately against the exaltation of the temporal realm. It is a vote that witnesses to what really matters. It’s a vote that encourages others to seek to establish a society that allows us to and aids us in pursuing that which is truly great…again.