“The fear,” she said. “And all this talk of decline,” she said. “For people living in a culture with so much leeway, so much freedom of expression, so much security compared to any other culture in history, there’s this level of anxiety that just doesn’t make sense,” Marilynne Robinson said.
I was sitting in the fifth row, up with the wagging sophomores and the musing retirees. Robinson’s right hand brushed her white hair away from her face. “Here we are huddled in these psycho-emotional bunkers,” she said. The retirees and tenure-holders chuckled. “There’s all this fear, but if there was ever a time to take a breath and enjoy, this is it.” No one under 40 moved.
She was perplexed at our fear. Not shaming—of course not, would the author of Gilead possess the ungraciousness to publicly shame? Not flabbergasted— I don’t think Pulitzer Prize winners are permitted to be flabbergasted. She was perplexed. The elders chuckled at her metaphors, admitting they’d nearly adopted this creeping, false view of things. But for the rest of us— the students, the twenty-percent grey club— her perplexity was not enough. Not enough to balance the fear.
She’s right, of course. We’ve had our liberal arts history and our graduate seminars. Though we haven’t lived through them, we know that America has come through civil war, slavery, rations, Vietnam. And most of us have walked through a silent concentration camp, a smoldering South American dump or an Asian airport peppered with berets and AK-47s. But it’s true: we didn’t grow up crouching for air-raid drills.
What Robinson wanted is for her students—for younger people, for us—to look through the mirage of desert and see the oasis that is all around. She wished us an inner confidence to parallel our outer security. It’s a kind wish.
But, we’ve had our liberal arts history and our graduate seminars. And the history included Sarajevo and El Salvador. Giving freezing American Indians small pox-infested blankets. Shipping HIV+ mothers in Africa free infant formula. Adopting Guatemalan children. Vietnam.
It’s not, as others have suggested, that we don’t desire to act on the world stage. And it’s not, as Robinson suggested, that we don’t have the courage to do so. We’re good students. Not always in learning the ways that our forbearers have learned, but we have been watching—and listening (and more often than many of our elders were able) smelling, and meeting, and touching, and speaking.
We have the desire. We have the agency. And, mostly, we know we have the power. What we younger Americans no longer have is the confidence that what we do in the world will be good.