If you’re not familiar, “This I Believe” is a project that encourages people to write about their core values in short essays. It was a popular radio series in the 1950s that was brought back recently by NPR. Anyone can contribute an essay, and NPR has selected some to be broadcast.
Three years ago (May 2006), I submitted an essay myself. I don’t know if many people know this or have ever read it, but because I’ve been talking about “belief” so much lately, it seemed apropos to resurrect my essay. (In the essay, you can tell I am using a version of “believe” that does not pertain to supernatural truths.)
Just some details to set the stage: I had just finished my junior year at Ithaca College. I had just been elected IC’s Student Body President. We were six years into George W. Bush’s presidency. I had been out as gay for almost two years. I was still 19 months away from identifying as an atheist, but you can tell I was well on my way. I was spending the first part of my summer coordinating a leadership conference for two hundred high school sophomores and juniors, where they would learn how to make a difference in their communities. I had a lot of time to listen to NPR podcasts, including the This I Believe program. And from the combination of those circumstances came the following essay. This 500-word essay evolved into the Convocation address I gave that August to the incoming Ithaca College Class of 2010. Wow… they’re seniors now. (I’ll share that speech at another time.) That’s probably all you need to know.
Here’s the essay. You can also read it on This I Believe’s website.
I want to tell you what I believe, but I’m not sure you really want to hear it. My experience has been that when you hear that I’m young, you will laugh at my naïveté; when you hear that I’m gay, you will cast me off as hell-bound; and if you’re around my age, you probably just won’t care. Yet here I am—Ithaca College’s third openly gay student body president in six years—and despite everything that has brought me to this prominent point in my life, this I believe: I’ve been screwed. Actually, I believe my whole generation has been. Some call us the “Millenials” or “DotNets”, but “Generation Screwed” seems to be an appropriate catchall, and as one of its exceptionally ambitious members, I take it personally.
I’m not saying it’s particularly anyone’s fault. In fact, I don’t think my discontent with society and the government is unique to my age. Living in the United States feels like a game of Monopoly that never ends, but little by little, my tiny pewter Top Hat is losing to that darn Luxury Tax. My beliefs, even those I’ve publicly editorialized, carry little weight—not because not enough people agree with me—but because not enough capital agrees with me. Clout is a luxury I can’t afford. I want to make a difference in the world, but I’m not personally wealthy, I’m not heterosexual, and oh dear: I don’t believe every word of the Bible. I’m screwed.
You might say I don’t have room to complain about anything. I won’t argue I’m living more comfortably than any before my time, but I had to pay for it: I’m supposed to act like the fight for civil rights is over; I’m supposed to believe that global warming is just a myth; and I’m supposed to trust in social security’s future. Right. In this century, those are prehistoric pipe dreams. Luckily, I was raised outside of this mind-control matrix of helicopter parents, but I still have my work cut out for me convincing the rest of my generation that they, too, actually can and should think for themselves. I hope they figure it out before oil peaks, the glaciers melt, and social security dries up. See what I mean? I’m screwed.
Believe it or not, though, I’m actually optimistic. I can laugh, for example, at the individuals who smoke cigarettes but claim to be pro-life. They get defensive when I chide them for what they to do to their bodies, but they have no problem condemning what other people do with theirs. This kind of hypocrisy is widespread and depressing, but I accept it. It inspires me, because I can remind myself that Roe v. Wade is 12 years stronger than I am and society is becoming progressively smoke-free. There is hope, and I still have the rest of my life to make my impact.
I am a representative of “Generation Sleeping Giant,” and when we awaken, I believe we’ll be able to start unscrewing the next generation.
Let me know what you think. Three years later, I still feel proud of what I wrote.