I do not do well with the feeling of helplessness. Maybe it has something to do with growing up in a generation with every possible answer to every possible question at our fingertips, but not knowing the solution to a problem is a situation I try to avoid completely. You can understand then why I have recently been hesitant to turn on the radio or scroll through the news. Most of the headlines as of late have kept me coming back to the same question, “What is the answer?”
Take the situation in Afghanistan for example. Either the United States stayed and continued to fight a decades-long war that cost over 2 trillion dollars and far too many lives, or we fled after years of entrenched American involvement, leaving survivors of the war to clean up after us. Picking one option is like pulling out the last block of a Jenga tower of foreign policy upon which international security rested, ensuring a tragic downfall no matter your move.
When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and had the option to avoid this dilemma in the first place, my friends and I were just learning to walk. Now, as we are stepping into the world on our own, it will be our responsibility to deal with the fallout of that decision.
In fact, I think understanding my generation’s role in the future will require accepting that much of what we will be dealing with are problems created long before we could be responsible for them. And I am not just talking about expensive wars. This is certainly the case for the issue of climate change. Decades of ignoring the effects of human behavior has left us in a situation where if net-zero carbon emission goals are not met by 2050, the planet will not be able to evade a threshold of catastrophe. We were born into a world dependent on systems that actively endanger our planet and environment.
In the face of such a daunting and rapidly worsening issue, I feel that same sense of helplessness. No matter how many times we do our little parts, there are still massive groups of people who do not believe the problem exists in the first place. How can we convince mass numbers of people to change their daily behavior if they do not see humans as part of the problem at all? There is a ticking clock on solving this issue before we have done irreversible damage, and it feels nearly impossible to do the work to negate our impact and attempt to change the minds of so many.
Time and similarly misinformed people constrain the COVID issue as well. The longer it takes to end this pandemic, the more people will suffer financially, experience long-term health defects, and tragically die. With vaccines approved and widely available, this pandemic is effectively preventable, yet many refuse to do their part to bring about its end. The county in which my college is located currently has a vaccination rate of only 35% percent of all eligible people. From the scene of maskless people in Walmart, you would think that the pandemic was a thing of the past. The reality is that COVID cases here are up by approximately 74%. Even in Oak Park, a known progressive bubble, vaccination rates have plateaued at less than 70%. It is not clear to me how we handle the group of people who are simultaneously at the most risk and most adamantly against doing the one thing that will protect them: getting vaccinated.
In a situation where our own safety relies on the actions and decisions of others but on which people are so greatly divided, where is the end? What is the answer?
This spring, my friends and I will be graduating from college and entering a world where these issues and many more will be ours to deal with. In reflecting on what that world will look like and the role of my generation in dealing with it, I feared that I would sound entirely pessimistic. I think I kind of did. But I also think that is OK. The issues currently facing our country are heavy topics that many of us carry with us daily. They are not things that can be wrapped up neatly and spun positively at all times.
However, I am also confident that my generation will not lie down at the feet of these issues and let them continue without putting up a fight. I have had conversations with friends with really ambitious aims for changing the world in all types of different ways, and I am completely confident that they will achieve those goals. I have witnessed campus groups organize student workers and call for divestment from fossil fuels. I have been educated by so many fellow students, both in and out of the classroom, about how to make progress with my own thinking and expanding my viewpoints. When we put our heads together, it seems we can make headway toward finding some of those solutions that often feel so obscure.
In my first column this summer, I wrote about deliberately trusting in my ability to do hard things. Now in my last, I am reminded of the same idea. Before my generation can deal with these issues, we have to acknowledge their difficulty.
Then we have to trust in our ability to cause substantial change.
Mary Hester recently completed a summer internship with Wednesday Journal. She is now back for her senior year at Kenyon College.