Barbara Nicolosi Harrington vs. Generation Narcissus
BY Mark Shea
| Posted 7/22/10 at 8:36 PM
Here is my friend Barb, having way too much fun pointing out to Boomers that history neither begins nor ends with us. Yes, I am a Boomer, and, on behalf of my generation, I apologize to both my parents and my children and grandchildren for our sheer insufferability, self-righteousness, self-absorption, self-involvement, self-centeredness, SELF Magazine, self-love, self-concern and selfishness. Indeed, true to my generational ethos, I can’t even write an apology without making it all about Us, the Baby Boomers, toward whom all History has aspired and after whom nothing will ever quite as awesome—including our awesome, awesome faults which nobody has ever quite equaled because we are just more special than all other generations before and after.
Anyway, Barb points out that as a new generation of culture makers is arising, we are starting to see some departures from such beloved Boomer themes as Don’t Do Your Duty, Follow Your Desires! and Jaded Cynicism Conquers All and The Universe Owes Me Perpetual Pepsi Generation Adolescence and If I Can’t Have It My Way Then Let the World Burn. As she puts it:
The Boomers’ exit from cultural influence creates a two-sided pastoral challenge for the 21st-century Church.
First is the effect on the gargantuan Boomer generation of a lifetime of listening almost exclusively to their own voices. The movies being created by and for the Boomers today are a very unentertaining mix of “Never regret! Life starts at 70!” and “Life is a cruel joke, ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’” Movies like It’s Complicated showcase a bunch of grey hairs still acting badly, swallowing their shame, and ignoring their appropriate role as the wise mentors of the younger generations. The Dorian Greyish dark echo of this kind of story, are movies like There Will Be Blood and the chillingly titled No Country for Old Men, in which the characters’ lives of narcissism and greed devolve into cynicism and brutality.
As an institution charged with saving souls, the Church’s urgent outreach to fading Boomers must encourage them to face and take responsibility for the mistakes they have made. If they would be saved, the Boomer Generation must be guided into repentance for the way they self-righteously sacrificed all others as they fled from the simple heroism of adult human life. The rigid eradication of tradition, the gross materialism, the unbridled license, the embarrassing promiscuity—all always accompanied by shrill distortion and denial—have left our society disconnected, bloated, poorly educated, unable to trust, and simmering in resentment. I see many of my Millennial Generation students clamoring to set back the clock to a day before the Sixties, when there were grown-ups.
Amen and amen. One of the things that has most impressed me about the rising generation is the way in which so many Millennials have sought to look over the heads of Generation Narcissus and seek to connect with the World War II generation as models for how to be grownups. From the electric connection young people had with John Paul II, to the fascination (frustrating to Woodstock priests) that both Benedict and the Extraordinary Form hold for young Catholics, to the popularity of shows like Mad Men or Band of Brothers, what bleeds through is the sense that the rising generation longs for adulthood and maturity in its adults and in itself. Expressions of this are found, as Barb notes, in such unlikely places as The Incredibles (which celebrates parents acting like grownups and even the notion that happiness is found in exercising your unique gifts, not in outcome-based sameness) and in Knocked Up (where taking responsibility for one’s choices—not a favorite Boomer theme—is honored).
Barb also points out that the Church has an urgent pastoral mission to Millennials since the domination of Boomers has left a massive imprint on our culture, including on those who resent the domination of Generation Narcissus. Lots of Millennials can’t wait for Generation Narcissus to stop sucking all the oxygen out of the room. And one of the lessons the Boomers have taught incessantly is “Inconvenient people should be killed”. As Barb warns, that will doubtless be played out when Boomers get too old to change the Beatles CD and dominate the conversation with anecdotes about how superior we are to our parents and children. The temptation to euthanize us, while understandably strong, is still to be resisted. But in the comfort-worshipping world of radical individualism, worship of comfort, utilitarianism, and comfort-worship we Boomers have created and passed to our children, it is an uphill challenge to teach Millennials why this is so.
Part of the mission will be through culture and the sort of films and stories people like Barbara Nicolosi Harrington will be creating. Most people don’t read moral theology. They learn the elementary truths of life through story. A moral theory about something called “radical self-donating love” won’t move most people. But seeing Sam Gamgee carry Frodo up Mount Doom does. Most people don’t readily recite phrases like “the dignity of the human person”. But if they know the story of George Bailey, the little guy from the Building and Loan who finds out what the world would have been like if he’d never been born, they know in their bones more Catholic anthropology than 50 philosopher fools like Peter Singer. God bless Barb and her work in raising up a new generation off artists to embody the truth and beauty.s that my generation has done so much to obfuscate and uglify.
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