“I’m sorry,” my Mother said, as we sat watching the 10 o’clock news. “It can’t be a very fun time to be twenty one.”
“I’m not sure,” I replied, without much thought. “It’s…” I began, before stopping and searching for the rational behind my resistance. Unable to find it, I took my 2,736th sip of canned Tennent’s Lager in this, my twenty-first year, and said: “I think it’s an interesting time to be twenty one.”
I don’t know why I felt the need to disagree with my mother. It was most unlike me (the ever-pessimistic chap that I am) to refute such sentiments of doom, and yet, for whatever reason, in that moment I found myself obligated to offer some sort of opposition. Having further assessed my attitude toward the current state of the world since then, a large part of me, I admit, leans towards hapless despair – the state my mother no doubt found herself in – however it coincides with an atypical feeling, I think people usually label ‘hope.’
This hope of mine, is, as I say, even at the best of times, foreign. It has not the best of times. I therefore understand why, as we watched the latest update in the ongoing saga of 2020, my mother was compelled to say what she said. It can’t be a very fun time to be fifty five either; after all, if none of us twenty-one year olds can find a job, it will be her generation who were finally on the verge of an empty nest, now stuck with adult-sized children, demanding food, shelter and 258 cans of Tennent’s Lager to boot. What is more, we now have opinions of our own, largely constructed to irk our elders, and not only do they still have to endure us, we now have the audacity to disagree with them as well! Listen to their well thought out conclusions, based on fifty years of experience? No! God forbid! Instead, time and again, though proven futile, we opt for the juvenile sensation of ‘hope.’
Now, more than ever, it may well be an entirely baseless sensation. In the two countries I am fortunate enough to call home, recession looms, political ideologies widen, and Covid-19 continues as re-opening efforts stutter. In countries further afield, without the medical infrastructure and access to information I so take for granted, Covid outbreaks seem almost impossible to contain. I consider myself a pragmatist as well as a pessimist, which only makes my present sanguinity all the more puzzling.
So, I ask myself, where does it come from? My optimism begins with many of the grievances which are now most pressing; grievances which, if ironed out, I believe would make for a much better society. “How idealistic!” I hear you say. “If only it were that easy!” I acknowledge, I am perhaps falling guilty to another common juvenile habit: naivety. I do firmly believe however, that we are oh so close to genuine improvement; progress which would be neither transient nor trivial.
We are living in an unprecedented era of knowledge. We know better. We know racial inequality is still rampant. We know an environmental overhaul is necessary, and that our existence is dependent upon it. We know in a world so connected, the potential of a pandemic is ever present, and we know, for all the praise we heap on modern medicine, its fragility when faced with unprecedented challenges. We know the ongoing risks of the internet, misinformation, and the influence held by large tech companies. We know that women are subjected to countless challenges, often sexual in nature, scarcely faced by men, and we know the same is still true for the LGBTQ community. We know the unparalleled access governments have to their people, and we know that we, in part, share and enable this access. We know how susceptible democracy is to international meddling. We know the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. While there are countless issues I have not mentioned, and some which no doubt remain outside of public scrutiny, we know more now than ever before. I’ll say it again: We know better.
I am by no means asserting that knowledge of these issues is entirely new. Some are indeed modern problems, which we are being forced to learn about whilst simultaneously combatting them. Others are tragically so ingrained into our world that the development in knowledge I now cite, is simply the widespread awareness of how they issues manifest themselves in our contemporary society.
It is this awareness, even from those who find themselves in disagreement, that gives me hope. Because the fact is: people will always struggle to adjust, even when they know they should. To quote the great James Baldwin: “Many, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger….Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s reality.” The upheaval currently being demanded is colossal. Necessary, but colossal nonetheless. In many facets of life, people are being asked to question the reality they had come to understand and adore. Prior comfort, let alone adoration, does not mean upheaval is unnecessary, it just means it will face opposition.
Inevitably, there will always be those determined to undermine and detract; to not just refuse to act on what they now know, but to disagree with this newfound knowledge altogether. Yet the knowledge exists, and we must have faith that truth will prevail. Before that happens, resistance must not be misconstrued as stupidity, or disagreement as hatred. It is crucial for this knowledge I have such faith in to turn into physical action, and point-scoring judgement only slows this process.
I concede, knowledge, awareness, understanding…none of it guarantees a thing. It does however, permit so much. Given the breadth of our knowledge, I believe it permits more than ever before, and because of that, I find myself hopeful; because of that, there is no other time I would rather be twenty-one.