Sunday, October 16, 2011

'The Beautiful Struggle,' Occupy Wall Street, and the task of preparing for adulthood

Today I finished Ta-Nehisi Coates' memoir of growing up in West Baltimore in the 1980s, "The Beautiful Struggle," and found myself quite unsettled. Coates is of my generation, but his urban upbringing is about a million miles away from my rural Kansas adolescence. He had aging Black Panthers, the crack epidemic, and Chuck D. I had Friday night high school football games, spinning donuts in the county fairgrounds parking lot, and hair metal. And yet, in some respects, I identified: I too was often lost in a sci-fi fog, not really seeing the world around me clearly, and sometimes I got by on what other people perceived as my potential smarts rather than on clearly and efficiently applying those smarts to the tasks at hand.

Why would that unsettle me? Because, frankly, I'm not sure I've ever emerged from that fog the way Coates seems to by the end of the book. That troubles me for myself, but that also troubles me as I seek to guide my own young son in his growing process. I don't expect that I'll resort to the belt-swinging methods used by Coates' father. But for whatever reasons, the book has me questioning myself: Am I a purposeful adult? Am I setting the right example for my son? Do I know how to give him the tools he'll need to become a purposeful adult? How, frankly, do I raise my son to be a man—and yet to be a feminist man, a wise man, eschewing misogyny and false power and adopting real responsibility? (It occurs to me that a return to the Mennonite church might provide some support on the latter front, believe it or not. Too bad I'm an unbeliever.) I am full of doubt.

The book—and if you're a fan of Coates' blogging, you really should read it—also brought to mind another issue: The kids at Occupy Wall Street.

I call them "kids" even though the ones I've seen on video (or in my own excursion to Occupy Philadelphia) are adults: Folks in their twenties and thirties. And yet it's easy to think of them as "kids." You don't see many people who have children of their own, nor are many of them walking away from 40-hour-a-week professional jobs to join the protest. The relative joblessness is a reason for the protest, yes, but it's also an enabler.

It's easy to cherrypick the loons and and starry-eyed utopians, of course, and conservative web sites have done a fantastic job at that. But a closer look reveals that many of the protesters aren't the radical fringe, exactly: They're scions of privileged middle-class upbringings, people for whom college was a given—and then, at the very least, a reasonably lucrative, reasonably fulfilling career after that. They look at the country that's been left to them on the cusp of adulthood, and see that everything they prepared for—during childhoods in Internet-swaddled, SUV-wrapped formative years—has disappeared, and that what's left is something they're not prepared to handle.

Don't get me wrong: There are very real issues of income inequality and the damage it does to our democracy at stake in these protests, and I'm glad Occupy Wall Street has managed to push those issues to a wider audience. But I can't help but wonder if a necessary and sufficient foundation of the protests is that we, as a society, have failed to be good at producing actual adults. We've gotten good at creating expectations without expecting much in return.

Conservatives, in particular, like to point and laugh at the childishness of protesters who seem to expect something for nothing. I suspect part of the problem here is narcissistic consumerism unleashed by the markets that conservatives love so. But I do wonder if we shouldn't be asking ourselves—again, and some more, ad infinitum—are we preparing our children to be responsible adults? Are we offering them the right examples? Are we teaching them how to roll with the punches, both real and metaphorical? And is this a question left to individuals, or something we need to work out more broadly, as a society?

Ta-Nehisi Coates grew into a man, in part, because the streets of West Baltimore forced him to literally understand how to take responsibility for his very life at a young age. But I don't think we need to plant our kids in crime and poverty in order to engender a sense of seriousness in them.

I am rambling here. These thoughts are half-formed an unfinished, and it may be that I don't give enough credit to the thoughtfulness and responsibility of the protesters. (As I've mentioned previously, I have been impressed by their ability to spontaneously create an orderly community, at least in Philadelphia.) But my sense of things is that the Occupy Wall Street protests have the blessing of forcing us to wrestle with real issues, and the curse of failing to put away childish things. And I wonder about my own role in that dynamic.

Update: I won't claim this as my best-ever post. But Coates' book hit me hard somehow. And I'm struggling to articulate why that is or what it should mean. Sometimes I have to write to work things out. And sometimes that means embarrassing myself publicly.


leslie said...

This is a great, contemplative post, and I won't do it justice with a small comment. But here I go anyway.

First, I've had similar moments/years of anxiety about adulthood and childrearing, and I think this anxiety is probably a sign you're about to make some developmental steps yourself. Considering your recent summer, you'll probably get a double whammy of psychological growth. Embrace it! T is lucky to have a father who worries about such things. He's worlds ahead of most of his peers because of this.

Second, for OWS, I think most movements start with the 20-30 somethings without kids because they have the *time*. I for one am thrilled to see so many young adults engaged in worries over the greater good. Sure, there's ignorance there (partly because of failures of our education system and purposeful obliqueness of the economic system), but isn't the basis of the protest not that kids aren't as rich as they want to be, but because Wall Street has undermined our democratic ideals?

Andrew S. said...

Here's a dumb version of what you're getting at, maybe:

There's some kind of weird obsessive mythology that's sprung up around parenting in our generation, and it seems to be taking its toll mostly on parents. Speaking as someone who was parented but has not, himself, parented anyone, I'd say 99% of parenting is just not being an asshole. You've got that covered. You can't control the rest. People said the same things about the kids protesting the vietnam war and probably every other protest ever.

Joel said...

Leslie, Andrew, very good points on the nature of both protests and their critics. Andrew, I'm not sure the critics are *always* wrong on that count—and I think that's ok anyway. I'd rather have a bunch of spoiled hippies protesting Vietnam than not. And I'd rather have coddled middle-class kids protesting the injustices of the economic system than nothing.