Generation Y is into social justice — so say generation gurus. This is often said in contrast to other generations, like baby boomers, who are supposedly into success. But of course, the boomers made their mark on the world with social justice. Our generation ended the Vietnam War and prodded the country toward civil rights. We even broached the idea of environmental care, which is now catching on. This legacy will be pretty tough to top, but Generation Y is probably up to it.
That Generation Y cares about social justice is linked to another aspiration: the yearning for significance. This generation wants to make a difference in the world, to work on things that matter, engage activities that change the world. Again, this is hype, since people in every era want this. But it is nonetheless something to celebrate whenever we find it.
But before we break out the champagne, we are wise to consider the seamier sides of this aspiration.
First, the yearning for significance can be nothing more than ego masked as altruism. As one young writer put it in Relevant magazine, "Based on my work among college students and young professionals, I will venture to say that the drive for significance in many young women today is rooted in the desperation to feel known and to know that our lives count. We're not just significance addicts, after all. We're hoping that if we can keep up with the big boys, then we will be truly worthwhile and interesting."
This is not exactly a Christian virtue but, as the writer, Shirin Taber, suggests, just another form of narcissism.
Second, the search for significance, especially if it requires changing the world, can blind us to the everyday tasks, the mundane duties, and the dirty work that is part and parcel of the life of discipleship.
I have a good friend who has been caring for his elderly mother. She sits in a wheel chair, complains a lot, and requires constant attention — to the point of cleaning her up after regular bouts of diarrhea. What my friend and his wife are doing is heroic, virtue with a capital V. But it is hard to see how it is "world changing" as we normally think about such things. Such an act doesn't even change the mother's life, only makes it less miserable. It's not even "significant," by our usual calculation, but "merely" an act of love.
When we think of making a difference, we think about making the world a better place for the next generation, not taking care of people who have no future. This is one reason we are quick to push the incontinent into "managed care" staffed with "skilled nurses." No question that this is indeed a necessary move for many families—I had to do it with my own father, sad to say. But let's face it. A fair amount of our motive is mixed. How much skill does it take to clean up excrement from an elderly body? Mostly it takes forbearance—and a willingness to give oneself night and day to something that, according to our usual reckoning, is not all that significant.
Or take the case of dissident Gao Zhisheng. He is a self-taught lawyer who has been described by The New York Times as "one of China's most high-profile human rights lawyers." He has been disbarred, detained, and tortured by the Chinese secret police a number of times after taking on human rights cases.
Those cases include defending fellow and religious minorities like Falun Gong and Chinese underground Christians. After one term in jail, authorities warned him not to mention the electric shocks and cigarette burns he had received. But within days of his release, Gao wrote an open letter on the Internet about his treatment. Many believe his disappearance on February 4, 2009, was due to that open letter. When he resurfaced in March 2010, he said he would no longer criticize the government, but apparently this wasn't good enough for the authorities. He disappeared once again on April 21, 2010.
Let's assume he is still alive (one can hope), subject to solitary confinement while the authorities try to figure out what to do with him. It is hard to imagine that alone in a bare cell—isolated from loved ones, unsure of his fate, for all intents and purposes lost to the world—he comforts himself with his life of significance or the way he has changed the world.
Naturally, we are tempted to wax eloquent about his stand for justice, affirming that his life will not be wasted. But let's be honest: Tens of thousands of dissidents have been murdered by governments brutal and authoritarian—from the former Soviet Russia to present North Korea—whose names are lost to history, whose courageous stands have gone unnoticed. It's hard to believe that many of us today—no matter our generation—would be willing to endure this level of suffering for the sake of making a difference. We want to be noticed, and regularly praised, for making a difference — not forgotten or forsaken. Besides, our idea of a life of significance must allow time to Tweet and chat on Facebook, or, in my case, play the occasional round of golf. A life of significance, yes, but with plenty of time for the insignificant, please.
We should honor any generation that strives for significance, especially if it is a longing to make a difference in the world. Better this than striving to make money and live a comfortable life! But the human heart is desperately wicked and the human soul subject to self-deception, and this colors even our highest aspirations. Even the best of intentions mask the mysterious darkness within, which is why we need to be healed also of our best intentions.
As usual, Jesus turns this whole conversation on its head. Economist E. F. Shumacher wrote a classic during the boomers' salad days (1973) in which he argued for using small, appropriate technology. The book was titled Small Is Beautiful. If Jesus were to have written a book on ethics, he might have titled it Insignificant Is Beautiful. His is an ethic that glorifies giving a mere cup of water to a thirsty soul (Matt. 10:42), praises the relatively worthless donation of an indigent widow (Mark 12:41-44), visits those who have disappeared from history, and honors the one who changes the diapers of the incontinent.