I’m a 22-year-old man who recently graduated from college. I’ve been blessed with a supportive family and their financial stability. My future looks like it’s coming up roses!
So why don’t I believe it is? I see the state of the world with this administration, the inevitability of Congress failing to address climate change, and the further politicizing of our courts. What’s the point of anything? So I can spend maybe 60 to 70 years watching my country be dismantled and ruined? The seas rising and people suffering? Why the hell should I be rushing to embrace this abomination of a future?
Do not embrace this future. Reject it emphatically! Neither this administration nor (in my opinion) the political dominance of the right will last for your lifetime. But you are right that your generation faces serious challenges, some of them existential. In the coming years, the climate crisis will likely continue to threaten human civilization and all living things.
What is the point of doing anything ordinary under such circumstances? Across the world, many students who are implicitly asking this question are going on strike every Friday to demand climate action from their governments. Why should you do the things that well-situated college grads usually do—a consultancy for McKinsey or a stint with Teach for America before joining Goldman Sachs or some hipstery hedge fund? You shouldn’t. There is, indeed, no point in such things.
That does not, however, leave you with a dearth of purpose. You’ve eloquently described what a scary moment in history this is. But it’s also an exciting one: For the first time in more than 40 years, significant numbers of Americans your age are naming the problems we face and taking action. Join other young people and find a Sunrise Movement group near you. Other possibilities include joining Extinction Rebellion, any number of grassroots efforts to fight oil pipelines, or a socialist organization—or working to defeat the Trump administration in the next election. If you were the only person feeling as you do, your plight would be hopeless. But you are not.
“What’s the point of anything?” is exactly the right question, but it also suggests that you might be suffering from depression. That’s understandable. It’s emotionally daunting to face the scale of the climate problem (one reason denial remains such a popular strategy). In addition to becoming more politically engaged, which I believe will likely help you as well as the planet, you may wish to seek treatment. I’d also suggest looking for support among peers grappling with precisely these issues. The environmental movement is growing more sensitive to this need; Extinction Rebellion now holds weekly Extinction Recovery support groups in New York.
I have a situation that many other readers probably share. My younger so-called Christian sister and I have gone back and forth on social media regarding basic morals and ethics. Last October there were two tragic shootings: Eleven Jewish worshippers were killed and six injured at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and two African Americans were killed at a Kroger grocery store in suburban Louisville, Kentucky. I posted, “Hate speech matters,” referring to the enabling consequences of having a president and right-wing media spewing racist rhetoric so often. Her response was, “Both sides,” suggesting that progressives and liberals have caused mass shootings by their hate speech as well.
My response was long. I said that she wasn’t living in the real world, her church was a cult, Jesus was a liberal, she lacked even a hint of empathy, and she blamed the poor for all her woes. Long story short, she said “goodbye” (as in forever) and unfriended me.
A month later, she sent an e-mail saying, “Once upon a time, a little sister loved her older brother. She still does.” I haven’t responded and just don’t know what to say anymore. She is 68 years old and is not likely to change her views, and I have no more patience for them.
I’m sure you are right that other readers are having this problem. Research shows that the election of Donald Trump and the accompanying rise in right-wing extremism are deeply affecting our relationships. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken a couple of months after Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, 13 percent of respondents said they had ended a relationship with a family member or close friend as a result of the election.
Social media is making it worse, giving us far more information, in real time, about the political opinions of those close to us, than anyone is equipped to handle. This relentless feed reveals—and forces us to confront—political differences that we might otherwise overlook.
Worse, when we argue with people on social media, we aren’t as empathetic as we are in person. (Even you, Empathetic Atheist!) Face to face, we often take measures to protect our relationships during a fight. Psychologist John Gottman studied couples over time, some for as long as 20 years, and was able to predict with over 90 percent accuracy which couples would stay together, based on how they acted during conflict. If they made jokes or showed affection or empathy toward each other while fighting, they were more likely to stay together. Behaviors that, in Gottman’s research, predicted that a couple would divorce are exactly the behaviors that we are more likely to engage in online: “criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.”
Although I don’t think anyone is ever too old to change his or her politics, I trust your instincts here. Your sister is likely stuck in hers. In any case, your considerable political energies would be better spent knocking on doors for a cause you believe in than arguing on the Internet with anyone.
However, your sister still loves you and wants to have a relationship. It’s fine to be fed up with her views, but given your life together as siblings, there must be something about her that you admire or remember with affection. We’re all better than our worst political opinions. And wouldn’t you feel bad if she died tomorrow without some reconciliation? Perhaps you can both commit to having an offline-only relationship with a crucial ground rule: no political discussion. Spend time together in person every now and then doing something you both enjoy—taking in a baseball game, baby-sitting grandkids—and never, ever friend each other on Facebook again.
Have a question? Ask Liza here.