Mockingbird Fall Conference 2012 – Ethan Richardson

This is much more a reflection on the subjects that Ethan Richardson raised in his presentation than a review of his actual talk, in fact his session was far more profound than this post. Sorry Ethan! Two main topics jumped out at me: the plight of 20 somethings, and our use of electronic social media.

All the recordings for the conference are on mockingbird’s site:
C’ville Conference Recordings: Hope Amidst the Ruins

You can also read his own conference preview for the session here:
The iLife Pursuit and Adultescent Loneliness: A Conference Preview

I spent some time working with Neal Armstrong’s son on a project several years back, and I can tell you, he didn’t want to talk about his dad. Who could ever live up to it? Is anything he is doing ever going to be as substantive as being the first man to walk on the moon? We live in the shadow of those who came before us, and there is always the expectation that we will meet or exceed the achievements of our forefathers. I think something similar is going on at a societal level.

We are living in a time when America seems to be in an economic and cultural decline. In the previous generation, we discovered nuclear power, won a world war, invented miniaturized solid state integrated circuits and computers, produced the Beatles and Pink Floyd, and sent men to the moon; it was an optimistic time. Now we are worried that everything we are doing is destroying the general ecology of the earth, and we outsource virtually all of our manufacturing to China. There is not a hopeful feeling that America is ascendant, but rather that we are trying to prevent ourselves from falling into decline or disaster. Housing and college costs have skyrocketed to the point where no one making a normal living wage can really afford them. More twenty-somethings are staying home because it is really hard to understand in the current economic environment how to move on from there. Who can buy or even rent a house and start a family if you can only get a $15/hr job and you don’t want to go $100K in debt going to college with no credible hope of getting a job that is better afterwards? It doesn’t matter if you can think of exceptions to the rule, this is the prevailing wind. It is difficult to have hope if you are a 20 something forging your life and future in such an environment. Our concept of success is so transient that it is virtually undefinable, so I think it lends to a sense of malaise. Our best entrepreneurial success stories are not things like going to the moon, they are relatively silly things like internet startup businesses. It’s hard to be ambitious these days.

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This is one of those instances where it is wonderful to be under grace. We don’t have to live under the shadow of the WWII generation. They may have sent men to the moon, but in their industrious zeal, they have almost destroyed the world. We may feel the weight of their judgement on our meagerness, but they need grace more than any generation. Do we really want to live under the spectre of nuclear catastrophe and global warming and such? Do we really want to judge our success against such a generation of frenetic and thoughtless change? Maybe we could go for a bit of malaise and thoughtful slowness. It has become more sexy to be a small farmer selling to local markets than to be an engineer. As teachers and ministers of the gospel, I’m not sure this is so bad. We need a radical redefinition of success. I don’t think Ethan said any of this in his talk, but this is my own rambling rant on why 20 somethings are having a hard time finding their way.

Another issue that he raised is that of life in the era of electronic social networks. There has been a lot of digital ink spilled in pontification over this lately. I haven’t wanted to weigh in. They say social media is killing our ability to concentrate, killing our ability to lead real lives, etc. I personally think a lot of this is overblown, and that electronic social media really is a wonderful thing when used in moderation, just like any good thing like beer or cigars. I think the problem we do encounter with social media is that we not only put our best foot forward, but we begin to believe that our online persona is our real persona. It used to be that Disney only sanitized a few fairy tales, but now our very personal lives are so cleansed. No one posts things like “I ogled a woman while I thought no one was watching”, or, “I am feeling fatter than ever today.” We only record the best things, and post the best pictures, to make everyone believe that we have the very best and most adventurous and most spiritual life now. Even when we do post about something difficult, we post it in a way that makes us look strong and in control and dealing with it well. We wouldn’t post “got a ticket and burst out in expletives today.” You just don’t see that! It’s kind of like we are constantly dating the whole world. You’re just always trying to impress everyone. We tend to do this in real life as well, but social media gives us more of a chance to scratch our heads and really polish it up.

I noticed this myself with my listening habits. I got into a rut of listening over and over to Esperanza Spalding songs for a while on Spotify, which was set to share all of my listening choices on Facebook. I began to be embarrassed that I was listening to the same stuff over and over again, because I could feel that I was being judged for not branching out. It doesn’t matter if I actually was being judged, it is that my listening habits were being witnessed by the ungracious world of all the humans I know. Finally I turned that stream off, so I can secretly listen to the same damned song over and and over again without worrying about it. This constant sharing really does affect us.

I have been pondering why these two issues, the issue of 20 something malaise, and the issue of social networks, is linked. I am not exactly sure, but here is a thought: if we can make ourselves appear to be so grand in the world of the glowing rectangles, then why do anything more, especially when the real world seems so hopeless? Actors are more celebrated than math geniuses, and now we can all be our own little celebrity on the cheap! Being a success in a glowing rectangle IS success, so why try harder for something more? We can’t beat what’s been done anyway.

Grace says this: you are not a success, you are a sinner. Cozy up to it. Your online persona is a pose and your 20-something life really is a failure. Your forefathers really were awesome. But you are beloved, and in their zeal they have well-nigh destroyed the world and handed you the mess. They need grace as much as you. You need do nothing to be beloved and accepted, so serve gladly and rest in your gift. You are the great generation if you know Me and love Me. The zeal and industry and greed that came before you nauseates me, but you are the ones who know it is bankrupt. Seek the true and living God and enter the free gift world of the universe of grace! WAIT upon the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.

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