Millennials' Search for Meaning

With Mercury in retrograde and the Devil card reversed in my purse, I went to Manhattan in March to meet three men twenty years after I had last spent time with them—when they were the boys in the next desks at our small Catholic school in Arlington, Virginia and I wondered if they would dance with me to the song from “Titanic.”

Life had stagnated for me in my second career as an attorney in Orange County, California.  As noted by meteorologists, climatologists, and disgruntled residents, it had not reached 70 degrees in the Southland in the entire month of February. I needed a break, so I booked a redeye.

What I didn’t know, and couldn’t know from the carefully curated window displays of my peers’ online presence, was that I wasn’t the only one at an emotional and intellectual crossroads, where my heart and mind, ever at odds and grasping for more, had to reach a détente and let my spirit, the true self, emerge in its highest form.  When the twins, Jake and Josh, Kevin, and I met that night, we stood on the brink of an existential abyss, peering into a lightless void, with a small voice echoing in the darkness, calling us not to fall infinitely into anhedonia, but to ascend.  Ascend where? That was the ultimate question.  First, we had to ask: with what wings?

We had all grown up with families that loved us and parents and siblings as extraordinary as we are.  We didn’t have perfect lives, but we had our material needs and developing curiosities met both by the people around us and the suburb we called home.  We took the Orange Line to field trips at the Smithsonian and dressed up at a one-room schoolhouse in Loudon County.  In the first grade, I met Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in Middleburg and then again in 2000 when he was playing golf and I, tennis, at Army Navy Country Club. (Such are the casual run-ins in our hometown.)

The twins’ father plays the French horn in the Kennedy Center orchestra.  They both inevitably pursued careers involving music. Kevin studied piano with their mother, not then knowing he too would have songs on Spotify. 

As we got older, we accomplished more.  Kevin got one question wrong on the SAT, a feat even the “Varsity Blues” millionaire cheaters couldn’t achieve for their kids.  I ended up with a choice between Dartmouth and Brown.  Jake flew around a Broadway theater as Spider-man in the notoriously back-breaking musical.  Josh played to a sold-out Hollywood Palladium as his first professional gig.  Mediocrity was never an option.

And then we turned 33 and found that something was missing at the center of our beings.

We could have ignored it.  We could have squeezed out our confined lives just well enough.  But there was no turning away from the challenge to find the deeper, wider, fuller, greater satisfaction for our very souls.

The world today is beyond the imagination of Gogol and Kafka, beyond the predictions of Zamyatin, Orwell, and Atwood.  “Dystopia” has become the word of the day and disillusionment is au courant.  Nothing is straightforward, nor is it how it was before.  We technically don’t “have” television, in that we don’t pay for cable bundles, but we watch more TV than ever.  Jake and Josh are excellent cooks who take great care with their meals. Kevin and I currently have no food in our apartments.  Take-out is for dinner.  The refrigerator is for leftovers.  But we all get by.

We’re well-informed, compassionate, open, tolerant.  We meditate, journal, work out.  We’re still close with our families and have support from friends.  We participate in our communities and love others profoundly. So what is the problem?

Why did I ditch my therapist for an intuitive counselor who does a tarot reading for me every month?  Why does Josh retreat to a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains?  Why are there so many podcasts about enlightenment, mindfulness apps, and soundbath playlists?  Why are we reading books about purpose and meaning or treatises on time and quantum physics?  Why did so many people forward David Brooks’ Second Mountain op-ed to us?

We light up when we do what we love, yet let our inner spark flicker out in the daily slog of necessity. What we desire is for it to burn brightly at all times.

It’s not that we want to be happy because happiness is just an emotion, a chemical reaction to a pleasant experience.  What we want is to be whole because that is altogether a state of being. 

 We are striving—not for success bred by the envy and ambition of the place we grew up.  We want to be of service to others and in doing so, replenish the reserves of our own self-caring.  We want to be in communion with others and we want romantic love without pretense.  We don’t want to be known for our resumes nor do we want to be adored for our incomes, accolades, or status in society.  We want to be, to crib from Rilke, more human human beings. 

It is not easy to decide at 33 that you want a life of conscience when for decades you were taught to live a life that looks good on paper.  Along the way there have been illusions, distortions, and grinding negative feedback loops.  There were people who guided us down dead-ends and dreams that fell flat from our own hubris. 

 But as I learned when I reconnected with Marina, my first grade penpal from a neighboring Catholic school—and in this small world, Kevin’s sister-in-law—there are also great spirits who were placed in our path early on with lessons still to impart. The world is fractured and our lives are increasingly atomized, yet fulfilling relationships that help us on our way to the heights of self-discovery are out there and always have been.

 When my Kindergarten friends and I met in March, it took but a moment to understand what is true and real: We are searching for the authentic “I” and we suspect others are too.