In the winter of 2011, a time that felt like the first breath of spring, when people were beginning to say and do exactly what they wanted to do all along, I remember going to the grocery store at night and seeing a young black man helping a middle-aged white woman load groceries into her car in the parking lot.
It was a moment that imprinted on my mind both because of how much it reminded me of all the simple, spontaneously kind gestures that I have seen of my generation – in real life, online, here, around the world – as well as everything that happened in the past few years.
The years of 2013-2016 have been such a horrifyingly cruel, dark time.
It has been so much more violent than what I ever expected and what I remember from my childhood in the ‘80s and ‘90s. For me, nothing prepared me for this. Not stories, not history, not anything. It was the randomness of it, and how irrational and unprecedented it was, the scale and frequency, everyday. The sensory and emotional winds shifted on a daily basis, and there was so much fear and confusion in the air. It seems like everything and everyone was made to walk through the tightest tunnel, the most intense test these past few years.
People were killed out of misdirected rage, out of carelessness, out of an insane, simultaneous hunger and hatred for them. Innocent kids. Good people.
For a while 2014 to 2015, there was very little kindness anywhere. When doing nothing wrong got you killed, nevermind being kind to a stranger. Nevermind letting a stranger anywhere near you in the dark. People were closed up, kept to themselves, directionless, confused.
I hope that my generation will not let go of this kind of openness, or let this kind of goodness go into politics or business or some form of safe, contained organization and stop engaging with each other. I hope we’ll always work on keep seeing the person right in front of us, and laughing and being joyful, even when times get hard.
It’s interesting that in dark times, there is such an intense appreciation of beauty, and a ton of laughter. A post on Tumblr: “Such dark times, so much creativity.”
Everywhere these past few years, there was such an abundance of emotion and thoughts, wisdom and insight collected from everyone from bell hooks to “anon” expressed passionately in photos, drawings, GIFs, little sayings, funny little protestations, Vine videos.
Just little moments. The feelings of one day, gone the next.
Favorite online memories of mine from these past few years: Song lyric chains. People’s fascination with deep holes in the ocean – they are terrifying. People loving cute snakes. Crows playing in the snow. Dogs playing in the snow.
And in real life, sunsets and rainbows. So much beauty, it felt wrong to take pictures. Desserts. Chocolate everything. Lemon bars. Watermelon milkshakes. Chai lattes. Sushi. Chicken lo mein. Pizza. – Food, food, dessert. Food.
People’s sense of humor. Boomers ask why Millennials are so obsessed with food. A Millennial responds: “Need it to live. Next question.”
Someone wrote in 2014, “I can’t believe it’s 2017.” It has more than 500,000 notes. “Only 3 more years.”
It is so, so healing to laugh.
We’ve just been laughing-crying, and appreciating our way through this. And eating a lot. And that kept kindness around, kept us soft.
To me, this time, with all the violence and all the beautiful moments, has been the end of the ‘60s.
It seems we have used this time to sew up the threads that were left behind by previous generations. Every murder and piece of unjust legislation led to people saying, in one way or another, “This needs to stop. This will stop.” And along with that, a taste, a particular kind of beauty, is also gone.
It seems this is how every generation teaches future generations. Here is the pattern:
The generation before our parents are our spiritual godparents. Millennials look to Silent Generation figures like Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Gloria Steinem, and so many more, to their toughness, gentleness (“the soul of a butterfly”), and all the questions and answers they left behind.
They were our spiritual godparents. But the most relevant lessons of how to live in the world are passed to us by our parents’ generation, Boomers for Millennials. And the strength and the skills of the generation immediately before you, Generation X, help you do something new.
I wonder how the Centennials, the generation born after 9/11, will grow. The oldest among them will remember the energy of the 2000s, all creative and sensual. How will they grow, I wonder. What will they do?
And then there are works of art, writings and artifacts across all parts of society, that have been passed down, that show that people in the past have lived through a similar time, or intuited it, foreseen it.
There is a Frida Kahlo’s painting, “On the Border Between the U.S. and Mexico,” 1932, in which she depicts herself standing between the two countries, on one side, Mexico with temples, plants, the sun, the moon. On the other side, an America with factories, smoke. The real life context her travels to America with Diego Rivera.
Eighty years on, what the painting itself expressed to me was this change from a vibrant and sensual, natural place to a place of power, modernization, too much change. The woman stands in the middle, holding a flag, her loyalty to a symbol.
The year of 2012 signaled a change. You could see it in people’s frozen faces. It was an interior journey that was happening as we started to move away from familiarity to chaos, to leave behind a particular kind of beauty, complexity, sensuality.
This happened everywhere, all at once, from the more mundane that in all their little details signaled a major shift – like graphic design, that suddenly went sans serif everywhere and shouted in 64-point font – to the loss of nuance, balance and reflection in journalism.
And the more permanent, more tragic: The destruction of Aleppo.
There are new kinds of beauty, new kinds of naturalness, sacredness, though it remains to be seen what will replace the sensuality we had before.
But modernization, change, is not necessarily a bad thing. So perhaps we are all a little like Kahlo, carried away by change, following her love to a new land, a new adventure.
I’m starting to see kids riding their bikes on my street again. And cashiers at the grocery store actually being nice. And maybe people will help each other out again, help someone carry a heavy box, give someone a ride.
It’s almost 2017, that time foretold. My generation, what will we do?
By Monica Chen