Secular Answers

Dearest Rachel –

You might remember the many times that we would talk together about various issues of the day, and what’s up with the younger generation. Part of that had to do with one of my ideas for a YouTube channel – I was hoping to illustrate to a younger audience than ourselves (which, much as I hate to admit it, would be a reasonably large audience) that previous generations weren’t that much different from themselves – and that we shouldn’t be at each other’s throats, but rather learn from each other. Being from the same generation, we could agree with each other, but still have difficulty coming up with a way to present it to those younger than ourselves.

For my part, I’ve always been trying to find secular answers to the various questions “why?” in life. Honestly, it seems to me that young people are simply a collection a little pharaohs, who, when presented with the answer to a moral quandary through scripture, respond in the same manner as the ruler of Egypt, “who is the Lord, that I should listen to him?”

And while that sounds like I’m wagging my finger at them and saying, “Tut, tut, tut,” I would firmly deny that. For one, given the state of history education in schools today, I kind of doubt that any kid would get that joke.

For another, it’s not fair to label the younger generation as self-centered, narcissistic, egomaniacal little emperors. At least, no more than any other generation when they were young, including ours. Which, of course, had been the crux of my entire thesis.

So to complain about them would serve no new purpose, because that kind of activity has been going on since antiquity.

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.


The way I see it, their disregard for authority isn’t entirely their fault. Let’s start with the lack of any religious foundation to serve as a means to orient their moral compass. From what I can tell, that’s just part of a multi-generational trend. Their parents aren’t into their parents’ faith, and for the most part, have decided not to be hypocritical (which is kind of admirable… but not really) and force their kids to follow something they didn’t believe in themselves.

She was an atheist, and I was an agnostic, y’know. We didn’t know which religion not to bring the children up in.

Woody Allen

Of course, it could be argued that, if a hypocrite is keeping you from God, that hypocrite is still closer to God than you are, so…

Regardless, there are some things that kids need to learn about what is right and what is wrong. And without a moral compass, how do you orient yourself? So that’s why I’ve been trying to find secular answers, something you don’t have to be religious to go “oh, that makes sense” and either do or stay away from.

Because in a lot of ways, the dictates handed down on those stone tablets had more behind them than then just some divine “because I said so.” The tricky part is in trying to discern those reasons, and hand them down in a way that can be understood and accepted.

Our house is situated on a four-lane thoroughfare: two lanes in each direction, going at 40 miles an hour (never mind the posted speed is 35 – that’s human nature for you, after all). It’s the sort of place where it becomes clear pretty early on that you don’t play in the street. In the quiet subdivision I grew up in (and for that matter, the fairly quiet road you were raised on, despite its proximity to campus), we had actually learn to look both ways before crossing the street, because there usually wasn’t that much to avoid. But for Daniel, it was plenty obvious. And as a result, he really played in the front yard – or outside at all, for that matter.

Sometimes things are like that; a kid doesn’t really have to ask “why” when he sees a car pulling out onto our road without looking properly, and probably getting creamed by another vehicle going at speed. If a car gets that banged up by waltzing onto the street without paying proper attention, what chance does he have?

But that, unfortunately, is more the exception rather than the rule. Too many instructions handed down by parents or other authorities aren’t that obvious to a child at first glance.

Worse yet, children are discovering that their parents and other authorities aren’t really all that much smarter than they are, regardless of their claims to the contrary. You will remember watching the debates on television, and how certain people claimed that they would not trust any prophylactic measures towards the then-current pandemic blanketing the globe, particularly if they were introduced and endorsed by those in power at the time. Well, those same people who made such statements are now the ones in power, and they are all but insisting – to the point of suggesting a federal mandate – that the populace not only trust but take the same prophylactic measures.

And the little kid inside of me tilts my head, and asks “why?” Why was it scary and awful and dangerous eight months ago, and now, it’s an absolute requirement? It’s the same thing as it was before. Why was it dangerous then, but it’s safe now, when it hasn’t changed?

My guess is that, there are no adults in the room anymore. Either that, or the fact that some other person might have a few more years of experience or a handful of IQ points on me, doesn’t count for squat.

With that being said, I think this explains why the current generation of kids is uniquely handicapped in pursuit of a moral compass. They have no God to rely on, those in authority clearly don’t know anything, and they’re becoming increasingly aware that their parents are merely ‘winging it’ themselves.

So why should they bother to trust anybody?

I may have grown up in the middle of a continent, as far away from the sea as one is likely to get, but I do know a few things about maritime protocol. For instance, life preservers are absolutely necessary and they will save your life, given certain circumstances. However you would not use one – or even a huge pile of them – as an anchor.

That seems to be what’s going on now. Everyone of us is trying to anchor our lives to something. We all need to stand for something, because, as the saying goes, if you don’t, you’ll fall for anything. And nobody wants that. Yet, we’re using certain things – things that serve a good purpose when used properly- to serve a very different purpose from what they are intended to. As a result, we all wind up floating free, when we’re trying to anchor ourselves firmly in one place.

Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows,” from I’m Your Man, 1988
I first heard this in 1990, when I was dating other people – particularly theatre major Krista – and saw “Pump Up the Volume;” this was the de facto theme song for the (antiheroic) protagonist’s bootleg radio show. There’s a lot of cynical truth to this song, and while it belongs to our generation, I can see Millenials and Gen Zedders nodding along to the lyrics – probably even harder than ourselves.

Kids are not as stupid as older folks seem to think; they are aware of this. And they want answers. But again, without any authority backing it, how to direct them as to what to do and what not to?

The problem is that, as far as instruction goes, the most effective teacher is experience; except that the tuition for its teaching could well kill you. It’s why parents try to teach their kids what to avoid, so that they don’t make the same mistakes, and suffer the same consequences (or worse). But of course…

…they won’t listen. And why should they?

Back in the days when the Baby Boomers were the agitators rather than the ruling class, there was a story of a college class full of would-be student radicals (well, let’s be honest, this was university life in the sixties – it wasn’t just the class. The entire campus, like all campuses throughout the country, was full of students like that. Students who thought everything was wrong with the world, and they were going to be the ones to change it for what they considered to be the better – I leave it to you to decide what kind of job they did with that). The professor arrived to the lecture hall to find the words written in large letters on the chalkboard: “QUESTION AUTHORITY”

Unperturbed, the professor picked up the chalk, and underneath the slogan, wrote his reply: “If authority answers, will you listen?” His point made, he proceeded with the class.

Authority has been silent, or at best cacophonously confused. At some point, I want to see it I can find some answers worth listening to.

As always, honey, wish me luck.

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I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

3 thoughts on “Secular Answers

  1. Into The Woods: To be fair, part of the meaning by the end of the work was that children WILL listen – not necessarily to words, but to action and to demeanor.

    Which, in the end, may be the problem. They take their cues and learn the rules from us; our generation took their cues and learned the rules from our parents’ generation (You qualify as early Gen-X, iirc, which would make your parents likely Baby Boomers, or maybe late Silent Gen); our parents’ generation learned from the so-called Greatest Generation, which had to do Great and Terrible and Morally Questionable Things in the name of Saving the World.

    So what does it mean to Save the World? And to what Devils are people willing to sell their souls to save it?


  2. Quite right, children *will* listen, but only if we have something worthwhile to say. They can smell BS and hypocrisy, and they won’t listen to that, I assure you. If we can’t give them a good reason *why* they should listen and obey, they won’t. And they may screw up even more horribly than we did (I mean on a generational basis, not necessarily on individual one. I won’t say I’m completely confident that Daniel won’t turn into some horrible screw-up, I’m just reasonably confident.)

    An interesting take on the effects of the previous generations; yes, the Greatest Generation was, out of necessity, full of the Rough Men who had to Do Violence so that their children, etc., could sleep at night in freedom. I’ll be honest and admit I’m not speaking about my children – or our generation’s children in general – growing up into Rough Men. Frankly, that barely occurs to me; considering that they seem to take offence at every utterance, however anodyne, I find it hard to believe them capable of truly being Rough Men, even for the sake of Saving the World, whatever that might mean.

    One of my first thoughts was to – in future letters – simply discuss concepts as old as the Ten Commandments, and why even in a post Judeo-Christian society, following those rules are still the best course of action for an individual. Any one of them would take an essay in and of themselves, and not being a theologian, I may not truly be up to that sort of thing. But I think I may have an interesting take on one or another of them, beyond any sort of existential ‘just don’t hurt anyone else as you do whatever you please, mmkay?’ kind of non-instruction instruction. Yeah, you can tell I never understood existentialism. Nihilism, I think I understood – didn’t agree with it, but I understood it.

    None of what I might say will ever Save the World. But – to continue to borrow from your wording – it might prevent someone from selling their soul needlessly, and that’s all I could ever ask for.


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