Rooting the Unrooted

“Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents.”
–Italo Calvino

“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
–G.K. Chesterton

Generation Y is getting older, but we aren’t quite growing up yet. In just over 30 days, I will be observing my 30th birthday, and the flood of people who graduated high school and university with me will soon be having theirs as well. In generations past, it would not be uncommon for somebody of our age to be looking at the immediate specter of their own children emerging into adolescence. For us, it seems we have barely left it ourselves, for ours seems to have embraced an ethos that is an odd hybrid of Peter Pan’s and the fare that might be expected of a high school graduation speech about our power to change the world. We crave impact and indeed believe we have made it, even in spite of evidence to the contrary.

We craft our life stories in the best light, spinning every experience into a harrowing tale with just a dash of self-abnegation in order to avoid the disbelief of our audience. Genuine, true failure cannot be expressed unless it has been followed by great success. For all of the talk of a culture that embraces failure, it is hardly true. We love the comeback kid, but not the kid trying to come back. Even less the graying adult trying to do so.

If the Baby Boomers were the tragically vain generation, ours is the farcical one. We no longer collect material possessions or even monetary savings, but stories and experiences, and we believe ourselves in this sense to be superior to our parents and Generation X before us. It is a parallel to our transformation of the rest of our life from the real to the virtual. How convenient for our vanity, as stories and experiences can be so easily forged, embellished, crafted, and perfected through artful blogging, tweeting, and Facebook updating. The moment we begin telling one of our experiences is the moment the truth of it becomes obscured, especially to ourselves. We do not even realize we are doing it.

Perhaps this is why we are a generation of tourists, perpetually on-the-go, attending conferences, designing vacations that will have the most impact when recounted through social media, and even building a career around the vaunted ideal of “location independence” so we can become nomads, darting from one exotic location to another. If we are honest with ourselves, we realize the veracity of the Calvino quote at the opening, that there is nothing exotic, only other people’s familiar, that once encountered, is incorporated into our own. Ultimately, this should be the aim of travel–for all things to dissolve into the familiar, as it is what unites humanity in a mutual understanding. But to actually experience that is quite different from crafting a story about such an experience, and all but the most discerning audience won’t be able to tell the difference between the two.

As long as we are moving, we do not see the cracks in our own artifice, and as long as we are interacting with people doing the same, they won’t see them either. We have utterly lost touch with the Genuine. The more we talk about authenticity, the more meaningless the term has become.

None of this is to say that travel cannot be uplifting, inspirational, or efficacious. It can and should be all of those things. But we are not travelers, as Chesterton observed, we are tourists. We see what we go to see.

Even when returning ‘home,’ we view it as nothing more than a brief interlude between stories, a time to tell of our experiences in vapid conversations over drinks. We no longer even have a working definition of ‘home,’ and it most certainly is not a physical house where we expect to reside for the next 20, or probably even 5 years. Our loss of this sense says much about who we are as a generation, but it is an even greater predictor of what we will become–or fail to become.

History has few examples of generations as privileged as ours, even better highlighted by the Great Recession, rather than being disproved by it. In the 1930s the jobless and poor were destitute. Living at home or having massive student loans and no job may seem like a drag, and a dashing of dreams, but compare it to the life of our great-grandparents. My great grandmother, who to my great blessing lived until I was an adult, told me of carrying buckets of spring water for miles every day, storing milk in the river, and sewing a pocket in her slip where she kept the $1,000 that was all she and my great grandfather had to their name. They had three children to support. The government made them kill much of their livestock while prohibiting them to sell it as part of the policy to artificially raise agricultural prices. They had elementary school educations.

Yes, I’d say we have it pretty good by comparison. We have been given more than previous generations could imagine having at the end of their lives. But we are squandering our inheritance. We are not investing our talents and resources for the long term. Our time preference is so high that we are spending the ‘capital’ given to us on things that will yield short term results, for our selves. There are exceptions, no doubt, but not many. At best we are telling ourselves that the reason we are focusing on these immediate (and usually vacuous) projects or jobs is so we can make enough money to set us up to do what we want to do–inevitably something more noble–rather than making sacrifices today to pursue those noble goals for whom the payoff is somewhere in the distant future.

Ultimately, we have become incapable of this way of thinking. We are so afraid of the psycho-spiritual realities we would be forced to face if we slow down long enough to examine our priorities that we busy ourselves with an ever-more frenetic pace. In order for a seed to put down its roots, it must first stop blowing in the wind. Stillness is a necessary prerequisite to rootedness.

Rootedness is the frightening concept our generation must come to terms with. It is not mutually exclusive to travel, or taking advantage of new opportunities, but it does mean making some difficult choices. It means casting our lot with some place and its people–the ones who aren’t continuously moving around themselves. It means investing in a future generation that will be attending nearby schools. It means investing in the broader societal infrastructure that will support those children as they come up in life–clubs, professional organizations, etc. It means saying “this is my home.” Most of all, though, it means the conscious decision to invest in human relationships and genuinely intimate friendships that will grow over time, relationships that are not predicated upon their utilitarian benefits.

Generation Y will only be a lost generation if we allow ourselves to be one. We will only fail to change the world if we continue trying to collect experiences that we can repackage as stories instead of dedicating ourselves to often thankless work building things whose rewards we will only see in middle or old age. A mighty oak tree cannot grow from shallow roots. Neither can remarkable human achievement.