Occupy Pessimism

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There are two thoughts swirling around and around in my head today—two seemingly opposing view points, voices from members of my generation who see the world as it is and call foul. The first voice belongs to Thomas Day, an Iraq war veteran and graduate student at the University of Chicago. Last Friday he wrote a powerful essay for The Washington Post's "On Faith" section, entitled, "Penn State, my final loss of faith." The faith he lost is not in God, but, as he plainly states, "I have fully lost faith in the leadership of my parents' generation."

Day grew up in State College, benefitted from the work of Jerry Sandusky's Second Mile foundation, and, though he notes that he was never harmed by Sandusky, writes from a place of frustration and hurt, to great effect. He lists a litany of reasons that the leadership of our parents' generation has failed us. He notes that in the wake of September 11 when we needed strong direction, what we got instead was encouragement to shop. He references the downgraded credit rating, the millions of unemployed members of our generation, and the gargantuan debt we are strapped with. He offers these all in service of his point that the world we are inheriting is nearly unrecognizable from the one our parents were born into.

Day pledges to continue to respect his elders, but wants to "politely tell them, 'Out of my way.'" He is not looking for a Joshua figure to emerge from our parents' generation as, he concludes, "They've lost my faith."

The other voice I've been entertaining belongs to Rachel Signer, a friend of a friend who wrote a moving piece about her experience with Occupy Wall Street for the religion website "Killing the Buddha." Signer's starting point, a position of skepticism, very much mirrors my own initial posture regarding the Occupy Movement. But when Signer began attending Occupy Wall Street's General Assemblies and marches, she found a kind of community in Zucotti Park that she had been unable to find elsewhere. Though each night she returns home to her apartment, she notes that, for her, the OWS community is her true home. She writes of the park, "This place where there is nothing to do but occupy, which is really everything we need to do and everything you want to be; it's everything."

Day's reflection, which grows out of the events at Penn State, and Signer's, prompted by the Occupy Movement, start from the same place, the dissatisfaction that my generation feels with the world we inherited. Day's piece, however, seems to end on a pessimistic note. There are moments wherein it seems he may be rallying his peers, but he doesn't quite get there. Signer's piece, on the other hand, tries to land on an upswing, a found community in an otherwise fragmented world.

But the truth is that they are both equally pessimistic.

The Occupy Movement, which suffered a serious blow with the police sweep of Zuccotti Park this week, embodies the frustration that Day expresses, but it only gives off the appearance of doing something about it. We all agree that the world is not as it should be and so we write and occupy, we argue and complain, we chant and sing and march and, in the end, we don't actually try to change anything. Perhaps the most oppressing legacy of our parents' generation is that despite their best efforts to encourage us to be whatever we want to be and to follow our dreams, we turned out to be mostly pessimistic.

Thus, these two voices harmonize our frustration, but their song, which once carried promise, is coalescing into a drone, a monotone chant.

But then a third voice sounds. I begin to hear the words of my parish priest who, just this past Sunday, amidst the cries of brought-to-be-baptized-babies, taught on Jesus' parable of the talents, sometimes called the parable of the investors. In this difficult and depressing parable, a master entrusts three servants with some money. Two of the servants invest and reap a profit, but the third, afraid to invoke the wrath of the master by potentially losing his money, buries it in the ground. When the master returns he is pleased with those who have invested, and angry with the servant who did not.

It is easy to misunderstand this parable as an approbation of Wall Street and investment banking, but, as my priest explained, it is actually about one's outlook. The third servant takes stock of his situation and is afraid; he chooses to do nothing rather than risk facing his master's anger. And he is punished.

11/18/2011 5:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
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  • Jonathan Fitzgerald
    About Jonathan Fitzgerald
    Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is the managing editor of Patrolmag.com, and writes on the various manifestations of Christianity in culture. Follow him on Twitter or at his website, www.jonathandfitzgerald.com.