Where are we going wrong? A letter to my generation.

From the title of this entry alone, I can tell that I am in danger of sounding like some holier-than-thou adolescent who believes she’s uncovered some secret truth after watching one too many TED Talks. Admittedly, that’s partly true, but I want to begin by stating that this letter, if addressed to anyone specifically, is a letter to myself. As self-aware as I hope to be, I know that I am not exempt from succumbing to the pitfalls of 21st century living. Every now and again, I catch myself watching the world through my phone’s camera or comparing my reality to the cherry-picked moments of someone else’s social media. This post acts as a reminder to myself to pause and put everything back into perspective when the society I live in feeds off a louder, faster, harder mindset fuelled by capitalism and the rise of new technologies.

Our generation is clearly imperfect, but it is still clear to me that our generally liberal core values and progressive mind states leave us in good stead for a more liberated and equal future for our children. We were also fortunate enough to be born into a world where vaccines are developed quickly for deadly diseases, technology allows us to communicate across the globe and equal rights are fought for and vocalised when injustice occurs.

However, it is my belief that somewhere in between all of this technological advancement and societal progress, our generation may have lost something key. I have been made aware from a young age that I am somewhat of an ‘old soul’. I personally doubt that this is a random feature of my personality and more a product of my early childhood experiences, but either way, it has left me with a deep appreciation for the parts of life that I feel are often overlooked by the majority of people my age. Now believe it or not, this is not an attempt to sound ‘special’ or ‘quirky’ or something akin to the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope popularised in movies made by self-involved young men. But instead, this is simply an observation I’ve made within friendship circles and communities of people in my age group. The sad truth is, the simple pleasures that art and nature provide no longer satisfy our generation’s appetite to be wowed and entertained. Our new culture of instant gratification and online-influencer idols has somewhat numbed us to life’s innate romance. The idea of an eighteen-year-old spending her Saturday night reading a collection by Dylan Thomas, or waking up at 5am to watch the sunrise all seems rather twee and affectedly sentimental (examples completely fictitious of course and certainly not based on personal experience).

So, with all that said, the following notes are based on observations I have made as a young woman who has spent far too much time reading classic literature and yearns for a modern resurgence of handwritten letters, flower pressings in poetry books and painted sunsets.

Number 1 – Slow down and take your time.

Due to the nature of human life, we have been terrified by our own finite time on earth and mortality for centuries. The fear of wasting time or not reaching your true potential has made us easy pray for capitalism. Our worth has become dependent on how much we feed into systems, how much money we make and the social capital we accumulate. Life has become the ultimate “blink and you’ll miss it” trick as twenty-first century lifestyles become characterised by success and achievement measured by material goals. We rush through the moments, always considering the next event, whether mental or physical, without paying attention to the current one. We have gradually internalised our society’s mentality of achievement that breeds quantity over quality. The value of a day seems to solely rest on productivity – how many tasks you have ticked off a to-do list and how quickly they were achieved. If the result is satisfactory, then perhaps we can allow ourselves thirty minutes in the evening to do something we actually enjoy. Maybe then we can rest.

To me, there is a tragedy in this routine. We live but we are not present in our lives. We no longer make time for the small, grounding moments that make us human. I previously mentioned the arrival of new technologies in being a significant contribution to this generation’s lifestyle. I personally believe that this transition from analogue to digital technologies in the later half of the 20th century, has been detrimental to our relationship with the earth and our own individual sense of calm. With the rise in smart technologies invading every aspect of daily life, we no longer need to really consider our actions. The thought, time and energy spent on crafting a letter to a loved one, now only takes mere moments with the use of autocorrect and apps that suggest clearer and more concise ways of forming your sentences. We don’t need to spend time carefully handwriting sentiments in cursive, or looking up the spelling of a word before we proceed to write it down in all its inky permanence. Suddenly, the very purpose and soul of the letter is gone. If we need a question answered, instead of consulting a friend or interacting with those around us, we can type it into Google or ask the small black box in the corner of the room which swiftly responds in a monotone, robotic voice that says yes, Greta Gerwig did star in the 2013 film Frances Ha. Although we can achieve most things more quickly and efficiently through technology, there is nothing to take pride in. We can’t admire the neatness of our penmanship or feel chuffed that we’ve worked out an answer or solution. Most things can be done for us, so we let them be done for us.

I think this is why I find such a strong pull towards older machinery that requires time, patience and concentration. In recent years there has been a revival in these retro trends such as owning polaroid cameras, typewriters and record players; they have become embellishments to suit a certain type of aesthetic for 21st century youths. But I truly think there is something to be said for it. The switch from analogue and mechanical to digital technologies was such a fundamental change, the likes of which hasn’t really been replicated since. Therefore I understand why many people, myself included, yearn for a way of life that was so recent in our history, experienced by our parents and grandparents, and yet so unobtainable for us living in the modern world. During this year particularly, I have found that carefully typing out a freshly written poem on an Olympia typewriter, or placing a 12″ record on a turntable, slowly lowering the needle and waiting for the crackling beginning of a familiar song, makes an experience out of something that we usually do without thought. There is a ritualistic quality, a savouring of a moment where we can truly appreciate life.

Obviously, you do not need to invest in a record player or typewriter to experience this feeling, it’s just a good example of how sometimes, rushing through actions and events can be much less rewarding than tending to it with complete concentration and consideration. Make the quality of small acts mean something to you. Ultimately, life is a series of small moments, in wasting them, we are wasting life.

Number 2 – Put your life into perspective.

“The ingredients in our bodies were assembled in the hearts of long dead stars over billions of years and they assembled themselves spontaneously into temporary structures that can think and feel and explore and then those structures will decay away again at some point and in the very far future there’ll be no structures left. So there we are, we exist in this little window where we can observe this magnificent universe. Why do you want any more than that?”

Professor Brian Cox

I began writing this section before realising that all I was doing was dancing around this quote in a less eloquent way. Life can be cruel and disheartening and unfair but ultimately, out of all the possible human beings that could have existed, we are the chosen few. We have this rare opportunity to experience life in this universe for a finite amount of time, yet our generation seems to have forgotten this. The natural phenomena that is our existence is now simply accepted as a brute fact, something we do not explore or marvel at because it simply is. Look up at the night sky on a clear winter evening or watch the hazy sunset over a gentle tide. Once we begin seeing ourselves as a part of the natural world, we begin to realise that life is simply the means by which the universe attempts to understand itself.

In shifting our mindset and therefore our perspective, life’s trivialities and inconveniences no longer become priorities. This is by no means suggesting that in being so insignificant in the universe, our lives are made meaningless. Instead I align with the philosophy of optimistic nihilism. According to most organised religions, our individual lives would be considered meaningless without faith in a God or a higher power. However, in understanding that life is meaningless in terms of our significance to the continuation to the universe, we can see that the only things that do matter are the experiences we have and the things we ascribe importance to, which means that basically everything matters. What ‘matters’ is therefore subjective and there is no ultimate truth or overwhelming pressure to achieve. So… stop worrying about how many likes you have on Instagram!!

Number 3 – Train yourself into caring less about instant gratification.

Did you know that over-reliance in instant gratification literally rewires the neurones in your brain? And not in a good way! Our generation has grown up and thrived on a culture that allows instant access to almost anything. If you’re hungry you can click a few buttons and have food delivered to our door in minutes. If you want to meet someone new or just hookup, there’s an app for that too. Like I’ve mentioned before, technology plays a big part in this element of our culture. As it is now so universal, the majority of us have made habits and patterns based on the fact that we are used to having our desires met quickly, but this has taken a psychological toll. The majority of activities that promote instant gratification such as bad eating habits, substance misuse and endless scrolling on social media, are known to be unhealthy behaviours detrimental to a balanced lifestyle.

When we repeat a behaviour that brings us instant gratification, the neurological pathway that allowed the action is reinforced and made stronger, making it more difficult to break the cycle. The dopamine surge we experience from quick fixes results in powerful cravings which often lead to addiction; the seriousness of the addiction can range from a dependence on sugar, online shopping, gambling, or heroine. All are linked to our desire for instant-gratification.

Now I can admit that this is something I have really struggled with in the past. I would start learning how to play an instrument before quickly getting frustrated and giving up when I couldn’t play Piano Man by Billy Joel after my first week of practising. I would start painting my bedroom with small tubes of acrylic paint if I couldn’t find any wall paint in the shed. I would begin knitting a scarf and then discard it when it didn’t look like the ones I saw in the windows of John Lewis. If my efforts failed to manifest results quickly, I gave up the endeavour completely. Although it’s still something I work at and practice, this year I have begun giving my time to activities where the rewards are slow, gradual but ultimately transformative. The first time I practiced yoga or the first time I meditated or the first time I started a journal, I felt no real change. If anything it felt like a chore that I had to coax myself into doing. But now, I can’t imagine my daily routine without these activities. Over time, they have visibly resulted in physical benefits as well as mental ones and each time I approach them I know that this act of self care is benefitting me long term.

Ultimately, the more we overvalue instant gratification, the more power we give it over our lives, distracting us from more meaningful goals or pursuits. Scrolling through social media for 30 minutes may provide quick, easily-accessible entertainment but spending the same amount of time reading a book will benefit your cognitive skills, attention span, self-discipline and mental health in the long run. It’s all about having the patience to wait for the greatest results. The same theory applies to exercise and getting fit, learning a new skill or instrument, as well as investing in positive relationships. In the past, people simply didn’t have the option to have their needs satisfied instantly, so it will be a testament to our generation if we cultivate habits that benefit us in time, despite the constant temptation to indulge around us.

It’s like how our parents used to tell us that if we wait and save up our money to buy something, we’ll appreciate it more when we get it. Maybe that is the ultimate test for a generation surrounded by the championing of immediacy.

So there we go. This entry acts as my own wake up call, to return to whenever I feel myself falling into the void of ascribing importance and meaning to the wrong things. I hope it maybe gives you a little kick up the arse too.

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