My maternal grandfather fled Nazi Germany as a child. As an adult he went to jail for participating in civil rights sit-ins and again for being a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. My father felt the same about that war and spent his college years protesting, always with the threat of his draft number looming over him. Discussions across campus were infused with politics, and long nights in the dorms were spent considering the fate of democracy; longest of all was the night Dr. King was shot and the whole world seemed shrouded in darkness. Any of my relatives over age sixty can describe how it felt to be told the world was mere “minutes” from nuclear annihilation during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, though many still have trouble contemplating that horrifying truth. This is true of any family, whether they be veterans or protestors, politicians or blue collar workers: past generations have lived through some momentous events and incredible hardships.
I must admit to many times thinking—but never saying out loud!—that all the important issues have already happened, that all the just fights have been fought. That is exactly as ridiculous and erroneous as someone claiming that all the good inventions have already been invented, but I’ve thought it just the same. I can’t help it. To a directionless yet energetic youth the 1950s fight for civil rights or the peaceful protests during ‘Nam certainly seem pretty glorious—in hindsight. And how could it not be so, for the past is always more glorious than the present, always embellished and accented by historians and those who participated in it. But oh to have a righteous cause! To get lost in the passionate throes of justified rebellion! To throw my life down in front of injustice and sacrifice myself for intangible virtues! Where have all the good causes gone?
It is at this point that I finally slap myself and rein in my selfish whining. First of all, of course there are still plenty of important causes that need passionate people fighting for them! The fight for gay rights has not been an easy one, and there is still much work to be done convincing people to be as progressive as the new laws. Protecting our environment, combating climate change, and striving for sustainability is a monumental task that is really only just beginning. New diseases are developing nearly as fast as medical science, and our growing population makes the chance of worldwide epidemic ever more likely. Are these not worthy causes? And there are hundreds more! Gender equality, race equality, access to education, combating government corruption, and any number of more specific causes both domestic and international; the list is nearly endless and always growing. The one thing not in short supply in this imperfect world is work to be done.
On top of that, it is not like the glorious causes of the past are all said and done. Have civil rights been won? There were plenty of people that claimed that was the case after the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, and plenty more when the first Black president was elected in 2008, but anyone with a modicum of sense knows that such a claim is utter nonsense. Did the anti-war protests forever change US foreign policy? Ask the sad, angry, and confused families of the thousands of American soldiers killed in Iraq. Giving up on those causes—and any number of other glorified causes from the past—is ignorant, or lazy, or both. When the cause was mainstream (accessible and fashionable to be a part of) it was easy to join and rewarding to work for: when so little progress had been made, each victory felt more powerful and important. But to fight for a cause until it is 80% complete and then abandon it because the last 20% will take twice as long is lazy. Or worse, to give up on a cause because, naturally, it will never actually be 100% solved, is negligent in the worst way.
The truth is that if you have ever harbored thoughts such as these, you are fortunate in the extreme. It means your life is easy enough that you can afford to be bored, to be unhappy with your productivity, and to yearn for a purpose. There have always been people privileged in that way—those removed from the struggles that others are in by necessity—but perhaps what is a modern phenomenon is the burning desire to do something about it. If this desire manifests only as self-pitying whining for the past, then it is despicable and unproductive. If, however, it leads to social justice innovation (to rooting out new and worthy causes or pushing forward in fights that have not been fought in many years) then it can be a very good thing indeed. Joining a righteous cause because you are bored (or guilty) is not a noble endeavor, but doing so because you have untapped potential and pent up frustration towards the status quo certainly is. Maybe one day there will be a generation that justifiably yearns for a time when there were great causes to fight for, a day when the world’s ills really have been alleviated to such an extent that social justice is no longer a viable field of occupation, but until that far-off (and far out) future comes, if you feel the burn to grab your principals and fight then you need to do it. Count your blessings, acknowledge your privilege (everyone has some), and put your energy to good use.