Everywhere I look, I see young, already world-weary faces and wandering eyes. Girls with drunk-blushed smiles silhouetted by city lights at dawn. A motivational quote — “to the stars through difficulty” — inscribed on a faded picture of a stormy, rocky coastline. Another urgent click-bait article tallying the world’s human rights violations. The bar-wide sigh at Saturday night’s last call. Wherever I go, I find lost people.
You probably do too. The newly-minted grad who left America venturing out into unknown landscapes seeking spiritual solace and answers or simply a little more time before applying for the ordinary, entry-level job that she only joked about one day taking. The uplifting phrases that people post to get them through the tedium of everydayness, sharing their solitude with anyone that will listen. The social media activist’s silent call-to-arms from their desk chair soapbox. The exhausting work weeks that lead to fleeting weekends. Everyone seems to be a stranger in a strange world. When I see them, there is a moment of recognition; I recognize the lost because I see it in myself.
I experience the same sinking feeling when I read Fitzgerald’s stories about the crestfallen capitalist or the drunk socialite walking down a street crowded with other lonely people watched over by the all-seeing eyes of Dr. Eckleburg. I feel it when I read stoic Hemingway’s stories of all-too-human heroes, poised and gracefully resigned to fate. It’s in their tone. Between the words there is a sense of bleak acceptance of modern existence and its challenges; a sense of the world being too large and too chaotic for them to understand.
To be “deracinated” means to be torn up by the roots. The Lost Generation was made up of the 1920s’ 20s-somethings, young men and women that were deracinated by World War I. Lives were lost and the ideals of the past were lost with them. Whether or not they had fought on the European front, they were different after the war. The atrocities of war broke them, shattered their once optimistic view of humanity. Their homeland didn’t feel like home, and nowhere else did either. With no roots to secure them, they were free but without any meaning. I wonder, are we Millennials any different now?
We didn’t grow up during a World War, but September 11th had a similar effect on us. Terrorism destroyed our sense of security, of protection, and left us with a pervading feeling of uneasiness and instability. For those of us that were young when the attacks happened, we subconsciously realized that tomorrow was not a given. When we hit college, we started believing that “you only live once” in order to justify decisions today that would leave us with hangovers tomorrow. This is paranoia manifesting itself. Rather than cope with the fact that tomorrow is not promised, we don’t think about it. Furthermore, with technology and media taking such large roles in our lives, we have become hyper-aware. Videos of children strapped with bombs walking into crowds of people have desensitized us. We’ve made empty friendships based off of likes and filtered photos rather than honest conversation and shared silence. The economy is terrible and diplomas don’t assure us of anything. We flail and flounder through self-help blogs that after a while begin to say the same thing.
We are freer now than ever, yet increasingly dissatisfied with everything. We think what we want is more, but what we really want is meaning. In a post-modern world where meaning is assigned by the individual, we crack under the stress and anxiety of trying to determine what it is we want to do. And this cycle will repeat itself until we find a solution like the Lost Generation did.
And so what did the Hemingways and Zeldas do to overcome this meaninglessness? They admitted defeat. They gave up on trying to shape the formless and chaotic future. They stopped looking backwards at the painful past to provide answers for them. All that was left was the present moment and their selfhood, and so they worked with that. If they were going to navigate the modern world, they had to begin with themselves. By turning inward they cultivated rich identities and personas. They began to live for experiences that would shape them as a person. They traveled, drank wine, swam in foreign oceans, and used these experiences to define themselves as unique beings, as innovators that walked on the cutting edge until their feet bled.
But they didn’t stop there. They used these experiences to create. They poured the entirety of their existence into typewriters and found resurrection through catharsis. The war had turned cities to dust and fields to ash. Once the mourning was over, they started anew and created better, grander monuments that were testaments to life for the sake of life. They planted new roots in the burnt fields. They pulled out their splinters and shrapnel and with those sharp pieces built new cathedrals where the old ones had fallen. They treated life like an immense work of art, and because of this, they grew back stronger in the broken places. By expressing themselves through art they saw their true selves. And after all of this turmoil and creation, they glowed like a rising sun that illuminated their generation-wide dark night of the soul.
We must do the same thing if we want to stop feeling lost and directionless. We need to start by discovering ourselves. This process requires us to abandon what society and Facebook tell us we should be doing and instead do what brings us to life, what ignites us. Existence is not going through the motions of comfortable routines. We need to embrace the excitement and fear that comes from exploring unfamiliar places.
So dislodge yourself. Swear off complacency and security and live like a bullfighter, hanging on to each moment as though it were your last. Don’t settle for certainty. If we can do this, we will find and define ourselves. Only then can we create and contribute to the human experience so that others may find themselves as well. Treat your life like a work of art so that when you are gone others can look and see the beauty and bravery of your existence. This process will not be easy, but in the end, I think we will see that it was worth it.