We Were Supposed to Be Famous: A Letter to Millennials & The Discontent

I wrote a (different) first paragraph to this post and erased it because I realized I was starting to let the assumed perceptions of others shape what I actually wanted to say. It is hard for me to sit down and write one of these and not overthink how I want to articulate my thoughts well or want to be perceived as smart or clever or insightful. Instead, I'm just going to try to say what I've been thinking about:

I feel an incredible unrest in myself and in the culture at large lately, a sensation that seems only to have grown in the past months. One contributing factor is, without a doubt, the new president and the daily reports of actions and decisions that baffle the mind, but this is not a political post. More than that, I perceive that there are many people my age (or near enough) who feel incredibly lost, as if they are floundering through their days with uncertainty and climbing into bed each night with dissatisfaction, discontentment and a dazed sense of "What did I even do today?" I find this to apply to careers, various creative endeavors, family life and faith, among other things.

Everyone seems to be in transition. The things that once held us to a firm foundation are now in flux. Many of us don't seem to know if we like our jobs or if we're doing the right job, or even what the "right" job would be. Many of us have to come to an age of questioning everything and are either abandoning altogether or putting under a severe microscope the principles we grew up believing--the things our parents taught us--religious or otherwise. "Creative" has become an all but meaningless term that can apparently apply to just about anyone's occupation now, but for the sake of the following sentence, let's take it back to its earlier meaning, centered primarily around the arts. I see my creative friends (most, but not all) struggling terribly to find motivation, discipline and inspiration to simply do the artistic things which they love so dearly and at which they are so talented. This is notable because it did not used to seem to be such a struggle to get motivated about a project and simply begin. Why is this? Are they distracted? Probably, but who isn't? Are they discouraged? Almost certainly, maybe partially because they're beating themselves up for getting distracted. But do they have great ideas? Absolutely. But can they get those great ideas out into something tangible when the time comes to do so? Only sometimes.

What the hell is going on?

How many people do you know who seem to go about their day with a relative lack of concern, without general stress, without a roiling undercurrent of dissatisfaction from an uncertain source? My guess is not many. It's as if we're all going around in a constant state of being mentally nauseated--sick to our stomachs, except it's our minds--and none of us is sure just why, or how we got so far from that earlier version of ourselves that, so far as we can remember, didn't feel this way. What we do notice is--when we take pause long enough for self-reflection--that we just do not feel good.

I'll be the first to admit I'm generalizing and projecting a large portion of how I feel onto others, but from the people I've spoken to and the observations I've made, I don't think I'm too far off the mark. This, in my experience, seems to be primarily true of the Millennial generation, of which I am a part. I hate that term and I loathe most of what has been said/is being said about us, but I loathe it partly because I know a lot of it is basically accurate. It is a curious thing to be a person that is lumped into a term while the definition of that term is still being formed, all of which we ourselves have very little control over. I don't think Baby Boomers were called Baby Boomers in their twenties and thirties and had their individual integrity defined by the older generations with a lengthy bullet list of assumed characteristics.

An easy target in the criticism of people my age is that we were told we could do anything or be anything that we wanted to be when we grew up, and now that we are "grown up," we've discovered that--big surprise--life is very difficult, often disappointing, the majority of us aren't what we thought we would be and the ones who are what they wanted to be are finding even that isn't ultimately fulfilling.

While, to my memory, I was never actually told the above by my parents when I was young, there was an undeniable sense of freedom and opportunity afforded to me very early on. I was frequently told that I was "so smart" or "such a good artist" (in reference to drawing) or that I was "such an advanced reader." None of that is bragging, just reciting the overt encouragement that my parents gave which almost all loving parents also give to their children for various reasons. A few years later, I was told (in reference to the music I wrote or the videos I made) that I was going to "be one of the ones that makes it someday" or that I was "going places." People in high school would even say, with utter sincerity, "invite me to your first movie premiere" or "don't forget me when you're famous." While these are very nice things to hear, part of the trouble was that I began to believe my own hype, and I think others have dwelt too long on the praise they have received as well.

Let me clarify that I'm not calling Millennials (nor myself) victims. There are others who would say we are and I think that's a bit of an exaggeration. Rather, I see it kind of like someone else shot us in the foot, but they did it with really great intentions. We're not crippled, we're just kind of limping around with a bum leg because of this wound that didn't quite heal correctly and we're wondering when our "real life" will finally begin.

That was a realization I had recently that made me feel absolutely sick, but was also a necessary punch to the gut: I had been living as if whatever scenario I am presently in is not actually my "real" life, and that "real" life is somewhere yet ahead of me, when Josh Gaines is fulfilled and professional and healthy and creative and consistent and makes good money and has the adoration and respect of enough people to carry his ego and his bank account to the end of his life. That may sound incredibly silly--and it is, when I spell it out in such frank terms like that--but those are the things that define what I had subconsciously thought of as my ideal future. And I'm here to confess that that was utter idolatry and a dangerously distracting daydream that I, for the most part, didn't even realize I was participating in.

I say dangerous because, to paraphrase Thomas Merton, if we spend our lives pursuing success and if we only know how to be successful, we will forget how to live. This is a concept that I personally need to be reminded of on a constant basis and that I think my generation desperately needs to hear and absorb for the very fact that it is so counter-cultural to our present way of operating. My argument, in part, is that I think we are all so miserable not because we have "bad" lives in a literal sense (most of us are probably quite privileged), but because we live in a constant state of wishing for something better. It doesn't help that we're constantly seeing others on the internet who appear to be currently enjoying that kind of existence we're dreaming of. First of all, "those" people who appear to have great lives are almost surely insecure themselves and posting to social media only the best and most polished parts of what they would like you to see. They're hand-picking a curated perception of themselves to present to you. Secondly--and I think this is key--we have all become very, very talented at completely forgetting to have any gratitude or thankfulness whatsoever because we're so distracted by how much better everyone else has it (which is an illusion anyway).

Millennials often voice a desire to know their "purpose" or "meaning" in life, and nobody ever seems to have landed on what precisely theirs is. Have you ever thought about a young man or woman working in a grain field in Egypt 800 years ago and considered what they might have been thinking about in regards to their "purpose" in life? Their purpose, if they even thought about it, was to gather up food so that they would not die. That's a silly example, but it communicates a larger point: for thousands of years, human's lives were slower (literally), simpler and more boiled down to the bare essentials. They ate, they slept, they hunted, they told stories to each other, they did things together. Now, it seems like the more things we add to our lives to make them (allegedly) faster, more economical, easier, more interactive and "fun," the more stressed, anxious, depressed, neurotic, discouraged, jealous, ungrateful, angry, medicated, addicted and sad we become.

To summarize this convoluted and many-faceted post which is admittedly not well organized: I think that what many of us were told by our parents was misleading, but they had the best of intentions. That, paired with many of us growing up thinking that we would be these amazing adults with successful, flourishing lives and finding out real life simply is not like that most of the time,  we've gotten more and more discouraged as time goes on, whether we've realized it or not. Then, coupled with those two things, social media came along and gave us this wonderful new way to feel as if we were sharing experiences with others, which started out cool until we figured out that we could glean heaps of false affirmation from it. We started posting things that were sure to get Likes, Comments, Retweets, Shares and other intangible, momentary dopamine rushes so that we could have a fleeting online connection with other humans and, just for a few seconds, soothe the fact that most of the time we feel so incredibly lonely, worthless, unimportant and forgettable. Heaven forbid something we post gets no attention at all, which must mean that people do see what we're doing, but they're passing right by it without a double-tap because it (and we) are of no value to them. To top this all off, by the time most of us recognized we were feeling pretty bad about all of the above, we were also old enough to legally buy alcohol or weed or go to the doctor for medication to deal with the fact that we feel so crummy all the time or go to a counselor to talk about how everything in our lives makes us feel anxious and that we're just so constantly angry and hurt.

We're a mess, people. The good part is that we're not the first generation to feel this way, and none of the above is actually "new." We just happen to have new ways in which to damage ourselves and others the same way humans have been doing for as long as we've been around.

Believe it or not, this post is not supposed to bum you out. What I hope is that it can wake you up a bit, and I'm saying that as much to myself as to you. I think there's hope, but we have to make a conscious, uncomfortable, vulnerable effort. We have to be the exceptions to those around us. We have to actually make changes instead of talking and complaining about how somebody ought to change how things are going lately. I'm saying nothing new here, only reiterating what has been said better elsewhere and trying to mimic it myself.

Reminders of Self Worth:

  • Recognize that, never, ever, ever has your value as a human being been added to one iota from what you've done, what you've made, how much money or notoriety you have, how creative you are, how much attention you're receiving at any given time, how many followers you have, how attractive or fit you are or how talented you are at doing something. All of the above will fade, pass away from this world and be forgotten at some future time, yet you are still worthy of love without any of it.
  • Volume of activity does not equate quality of life. Staying busy can often be the same as running from things in your heart of hearts that have not been dealt with, and you may be seeking out affirmation, acceptance, self worth, value or love from people, places and things that will never satisfy that desire fully or continuously. So don't stay busy just for the sake of staying busy, and search your heart to see if you're doing so to run from something.
  • No matter how much or how little you own or where you work or much pain and suffering you may have endured, find reasons to be grateful for your position in life. It is amazing how thankfulness can obliterate envy and the unhealthy way in which we compare ourselves to others.
  • Don't idolize celebrities (or anyone who seems happy because of their large following or successful business). No matter how confident those people seem on the outside, they are just as scared, hurting and uncertain as we are, but the attention and praise they are constantly given may be masking and soothing their insecurity. When they are no longer relevant, the foundation they thought was holding them is going to crumble.
  • Pay closer attention to the words and expressions of others. Actually listen when you're spoken to. Many (or most) people are dying to be heard well and understood. Many of us are mostly lonely and mostly hurting most of the time, but we find extremely few who listen well enough and are safe enough to actually share these things. Be that person to someone else and I believe your own needs will find a way to be met.
  • Sit in silence, quiet your mind and evaluate your heart. Go against our tendency to move from one distraction to another from waking until sleeping. Dig up the things you've been avoiding and stare them in the face, then find a way to deal with them. This won't be easy, but it is of incredible value and worth the effort.
  • Recognize that most (or all) of us are projecting an image of ourselves out into the world that is mostly or wholly a lie. We've been brought up to put on costumes and facades in order to hide our inconsistencies and posture a false perfection. This has existed forever, social media only made it far more apparent. Realize that no human ever has been actually perfect because humans aren't built that way, then relax and move on to pursue a more realistic and whole way of being.

In closing, those who know me well may have noted that not once been specific about my faith in all of this, and while you may not believe me, I say with utter sincerity that this post was not begun as a sneaky call to faith and I did not intend to write the ending you are currently reading. I am admittedly afraid and hesitant to even bring this up (again, for fear of what others will think of me and that all of the above will be dismissed as a very long, messy alter call), but for sake of full honesty I must.

I am of the belief that much of this work, personal growth, self confidence, security, joy and peace can only fully come to light when one is in some degree of relationship with God. Otherwise, it all boils down to us simply trying very hard on our own efforts to make ourselves better, and while that in itself is an excellent practice and a wonderful thing to be aware of, we will all ultimately fail. Also, there is no satisfying conclusion to the life long process of doing so, other than we might be some percentage better humans when we die than when we began, but that's about it.

In Christ, wrongs have been set right, failures are absorbed and forgotten, all things are being made new. This gigantic piece of writing above is not at all saying we should "be better so we can go to heaven." That isn't how Jesus operates. We can't be good (no matter how much we may fool ourselves into thinking we can), which is fine because He already was for us, so that now we are freed to move forward through this life together with Him being a part of the redemption and renewal of all things, part of which involves the restoration of this world happening in and through us. This concept is absolutely as relevant as ever in 2017 and will be until this world is finished existing.

Take what you will from all this. Take it with a grain of salt. Dismiss what you may consider to be the "religious" element, if you like. Just know: I'm on this path with you and I don't have any clue what I'm doing and in all this I'm not saying I'm right or have figured anything out, I'm only calling it as I see it in hopes that it will shed some light on our shared experience.

-josh