The Brooklyn-based band Wheatus released the song “Teenage Dirtbag” in 2000. A sped-up, chipmunk sounding version has had a renaissance on TikTok; users share pictures of themselves as teenagers while the chorus line “I’m just a teenage dirtbag, baby” plays on a loop. It’s lighthearted. Goofy. Who doesn’t have a few pictures of themselves that are laugh-worthy?
But it’s got me thinking.
I’m entering into the world of blogging again after too much time away. Various factors contributed to this unforeseen break. The amount of work required in seminary is no joke. Many days, I reach a point at which I simply cannot think straight and have to unplug. That makes writing for pleasure difficult. But the real thing that’s kept me away has been fear, because I tend to write about controversial subjects. No, it’s beyond that. I want to write about controversial subjects. My favorite question has always been, “Why?” Given that I live in the time and the place I do, I’m asking this question constantly.
I don’t like fighting, though. A hearty debate, sure. A free-flowing exchange of ideas, great. But not fighting. Not the insults and the screaming and the refusal to listen to another point of view.
I’ve also been afraid that perhaps someone might stumble across this blog and such stumbling might result in me losing my ministerial license. Edit, 9/6/22: By this, I mean that I fear being misunderstood or misinterpreted, not that I fear being asked questions.
But silence is just as much a response as words are. And sometimes it’s the right, wise response. But not when it’s borne out of fear.
I can’t ignore what’s going on in world anymore than you can, and, for better or for worse, this is my way of navigating the turbulence. I remain probably foolishly optimistic that online spaces can be ones in which healthy conversation and learning can happen.
So, I am back.
And I’m a Millennial dirtbag.
I was 16 when Wheatus released that song. Though the original bandmates themselves are Gen Xers, they might as well have been singing about my entire generation. I first read a piece complaining about Millennials when I was still in high school. People in my age range have been mocked and despised for the entirety of our adult lives. (Obviously I am speaking in generalities; not every older person loathes every younger person).
The vitriol really came out this week when the Biden Administration announced student loan relief measures. There is a real conversation to be had about whether this goes far enough in addressing predatory lending, the unannounced sale of loans between servicers, and the continually compounding interest rates. I don’t think this is actually a long-term solution. I’m also not angry that people I know are going to have some weight lifted off of their shoulders, even if my taxes do go up slightly in order for that to happen.
Because, you see, Millennials were told that we had to go to college, and this turned out to be pretty true as the requirements for jobs shifted to demanding a bachelor’s degree, whether that was actually necessary or not. If we didn’t go to college, we were stuck with either body-breaking manual labor (to be clear, there is no shame in manual labor ever) or other dead-end jobs that would never allow us to actually pay adult bills. So, we went to college. And we had to borrow money in order to go to college, because we’re not all trust-fund babies and the cost of schooling, even at state colleges and universities, has risen dramatically since the late 1980s. Then, we began to enter the job market in the early 2000s, just as all of the elements for the “great recession” were falling into place. In the two decades between then and now, our wages have remained stagnant while the cost of living has skyrocketed, and the interest rates on our student loans are such that we will pay back double and triple what we actually owe with money that we will, I guess, be pulling out of our butts.
I don’t know anyone in real life who doesn’t understand that they took out the loans and should therefore repay the loans. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to do that. But if it comes down to buying groceries or making a student loan payment, it’s going to be groceries.
The amount of vitriol I have seen over this stuns me. It probably shouldn’t, because that’s the post-2016 world we now live in. But nevertheless, it does. The rage that is leveled at my generation and those younger than me, it’s wild.
We didn’t create this system.
And so I wonder, what are we supposed to do? What is the logical, reasonable, rational solution? If it’s not some kind of student loan cancellation, then what? If we took the loans to go to school to get the jobs so we could have families and buy homes (which we’re in trouble for not doing, according to several think pieces), but then the jobs either weren’t there or don’t pay enough for us to do that – what are our options? I am seriously asking, because it really seems as if we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
In the end, though, the lack of logical, reasonable, rational solution isn’t even what truly gets under my skin. What I am most bothered by is that so many people who proudly wear the “Christian” label are so set against anyone being helped, ever. Again, there’s a real conversation to be had about what kind of educational reforms are necessary for us to ensure that this kind of situation never repeats itself. We can wrestle over approaches and methods. We can give space to the complex emotions of those who did not get such relief when they needed it.
What we cannot and must not do is indulge in the false “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” thinking. Our faith is built upon the fact of humans being completely unable to do this. No, I am not saying that there is no such thing as personal responsibility or consequences. I am saying that God rescued us when it was impossible for us to rescue ourselves, and that this matters right here, right now. It’s not just a “ticket to heaven.” The presence of God in our lives is to be so transformative that we cannot help but ooze love and mercy out of our very pores. Hate has no place among us. Despising others is foreign to us. The words on our lips or flowing from our fingertips are not to be ones of rage, but of thoughtfulness. The actions of our hands are to be ones of care for our communities, for the least of these, even for those we might be tempted to deem “freeloaders.”
Because all people are people whom God loves.
Who are the people continually stirring our rage? Who benefits from us hating each other? Who is glorified by that hate? Who does their best to push us to see our neighbors as enemies? Who attempts to cast themselves as a false messiah? Is it logical to feel disdain for a whole generation? Is what we are seeing on our screens and in ourselves reflective of God’s love?