Navigating the Many Waters of Millennial Life
Current Events & Politics / Essays 2019
Today’s professional and social environment can be profoundly challenging, especially for young people taking their first steps in a chaotic world. In this essay, we will examine the fundamental difficulties facing the modern millennial attempting to simultaneously master career, culture, and identity. The popular responses and their pitfalls will be discussed. The Chassidic response of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s ma’amar “Mayim Rabbim” will be presented and examined. It will be argued that the Rebbe’s solution is uniquely suited to the struggling millennial on each of three factors: professional success, sociocultural success, and personal integrity.
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Somewhere in the disorienting maelstrom of postmodernity we have lost our ability to genuinely enjoy ourselves. It’s a strange thing, because postmodernity is full to overflowing with products and services to help you with precisely that: enjoying yourself. iPhones and Netflix and Amazon Prime are all geared towards consumer experience – whatever you desire for purchase can be on your doorstep tomorrow; countless brilliant TV series are a few clicks away – and when’s the last time you even had to wait a few seconds for a video to buffer? It would seem to all appearances that you can have it all, and you can have it now.
If your great-grandmother were to be shown a mere glimpse of such luxury, and based on her momentary glimpse to predict a generation of happy young people, she’d be entirely reasonable – and dead wrong. Surrounded by plenty, we are drowning in anxiety and depression. According to the CDC, antidepressant use has risen 65% from 1999 to 2014. Most young people live paycheck to paycheck, struggling to keep their heads above foreclosure. Everyone you know is in therapy, and it’s barely enough to keep them from collapsing.
Worse still, we are socially obliged to present a joyous image to the world. Our Instagrams and our Snapchats and our already old-fashioned Facebooks are carefully cultivated to display a life of near-constant celebration. We present the best, often distorted, slivers of ourselves: our brief moments at the gym or the coffee shop or the club or some vacation resort in a place with much more sunshine than here. If we do not lie, we at least present a very specific and deliberately chosen subsection of the truth.
But if we can’t be honest on social media, what can we be? If I am not myself, who am I? Venkatesh Rao of popular tech & culture blog Ribbonfarm argues in his longform piece “The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial” that modern social media – and, by extension, modern life – has become an elaborate charade. He describes it as being characterized by “consciously insincere pretensions to refined taste” combined with “sincere anxiety”.
Rao’s archetypal millennial character “Maya” isn’t really playing this role for her friends – all of them are savvy enough to see right through the act. After all, they’re playing near-identical characters on the always-on screen of public performance. So why go through the trouble? If Maya’s life is theatre, who’s the intended audience?
Firstly, she’s playing the role for her parents – the ones who actually lived the American dream, who may have really had the white picket fence, the three or four decades of stable work at the same company, and the gold retirement watch. It would pain Maya’s folks to know how badly their daughter is struggling against a job & rent situation that puts home ownership somewhere between “unlikely” and “impossible”. And they’d be powerless to change that: a few extra bucks when the rent’s due is hardly enough to dent the intractability of the situation. So why upset them, thinks Maya? Why not let them spend their twilight years enjoying their daughter’s seeming successes, rather than fretting over her brutally-real disasters?
Secondly, she’s playing the role for her future boss. If Maya does make it in the big city, it’ll be in no small part because she had the air of success already hanging off her when some headhunter happened to roll through her neighborhood; or when she happened to be invited to exactly the right party. If Maya’s head is down and her shoulders slumped when her big moment comes, her big moment is likely to drift on by without her. And besides: her future boss is one of the people pushing history forward, forging the new economy complete with – we pray – a new middle class that Maya Millennial just might get to join. So she keeps diligently Instagramming her overpriced coffees, grinding through her minimum wage job, popping her antidepressants, and smiling into the camera. What choice does she have?
Rao’s essay gives two alternatives to Maya’s life – the lifestyle maximizer and the hipster.
The lifestyle maximizer is the kind of guy who moves to Bali and runs an Internet business off his laptop. He might appear to spend most of his time sipping cocktails by a pool, but he’s probably working even harder than Maya is. He may make it big with his own online store, but it’ll take a decade of sweat to get him there; and by the time he reaches financial cruising altitude, his youth has left him – along with any chance of social or cultural relevance. A life by a pool in Bali may seem scenic and relatively cheap, but it is utterly isolating.
The other alternative to the lifestyle maximizer is the hipster. The hipster maintains her integrity and pursues her artistic passion – maybe that’s music, maybe that’s painting, maybe that’s artisan coffeemaking at the local trendy café. Whatever the art form, it’s about as likely to provide the hipster with artistic and cultural meaning as it is unlikely to provide her with anything resembling financial stability.
Rao concludes his think piece with a decided cheer in the direction of Maya Millennial: she may be false to herself and to her peers and to her parents and to her employers – says Rao – but she’s the type of millennial who’s walking a path that at least has an outside shot at both financial and cultural success.
Is that really it? A life of poverty, a life of isolation, or a life of falsehood? Is there no fourth option?
The Chabad response begins with an unexpected verse:
“Many waters cannot quench love, nor can rivers drown it; were a man to offer all the wealth of his house for love, he would be utterly condemned.” (Song of Solomon 8:7)
The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s ma’amar “Mayim Rabbim” (lit. “many waters” or “great waters”) draws on this verse to teach us a characteristically Chassidic perspective on the earning of a livelihood. Like the Rabbinic commentaries before him, the Rebbe understands the love at the center of the Song to refer to the purest and most refined of all loves – the love of the Jew for his G-d. To the Rebbe, the many waters in the first half of the verse refer to the material trials of life – the difficulty involved in waged labor, the anxiety of making rent, the frustrations of city living. These are the waters that cannot quench our love.
The first message to be gleaned is both descriptive and normative. The descriptive point is this: no matter how deeply a Jew may become involved in the physical specificities of life, the depths of his soul remains quietly ablaze with a love for his G-d. Merely contemplating this for a moment or two can prove profoundly calming and restorative. And the normative point, the life lesson, is this: one should conduct himself so that his focus is always on this deep love for G-d, regardless of the difficulty involved in material sustenance.
The second part of the verse drives this point home: true love cannot be bought, not even for all the wealth of a man’s house. If you have something out of reach of purchase, you have something of real and lasting value. Moreover: you have an internal place of repose and retreat prepared for when the external floodwaters threaten to drown your sanity.
The ma’amar proceeds to address the difficulties of making a living in a situation of exile, in economic conditions that resemble the depths of slavery. Here, again, the Rebbe cites a verse:
“If you eat the toil of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is good for you.” (Psalms 128:2)
The Rebbe points out that one must eat only the toil of his hands, not the toil of his mind or heart. A Jew should diligently perform the duties of his work; but he should refrain from obsessing or fretting over those duties. His mind and heart should be on higher matters: on the love and service of his G-d.
Here we come to the paradoxical solution to the millennial’s dilemma: so long as one’s existence and self-worth is defined purely in terms of one’s professional success, one is (G-d forbid) doomed to a vacuity of character, a persistent sense of inadequacy, and a limitation on one’s professional success. When one’s primary focus is instead higher than his job, he is given from the Heavens the integrity and breathing space to excel at his job without becoming a slave to it. It is not that his love for G-d is used as a method for avoiding his work: his duties are still attended to with the same or greater diligence. But his work becomes transitive, rather than absolute. A Jew integrates his work as an integral piece in the service of the highest good, rather than becoming mired in service to the false deity of professional success itself (G-d forbid).
The love of G-d is not merely an abstract spiritual concept, but an iterative methodology. The practical next step may differ for each individual: for one Jew, the next step will be to observe a Shabbat in restful tranquility; for someone else, it may be to establish a fixed and regular time for prayer. Yet another may find that her next step is to merely take a few seconds off from the frenzy of the rat race to turn her eyes skyward and whisper a genuine word of thanks. Whatever the specific next step for you, the entire path of Torah and Mitzvos – and her endless attendant blessings – beckon promisingly just beyond it. The next step may be precisely what’s needed to find the step after that. This is not merely a system to think about, but a path to live through. So long as the love of G-d is cultivated and maintained, and one foot placed after the other, the way forward is sure to unfold with gentle elegance.
How does this mode of being stand up against Rao’s three model responses to the millennial’s dilemma?
In terms of financial success, the love of G-d is astonishingly good practice. The dedication to something above your work allows you the personal freedom to attend to your duties with attention, zeal, and generosity. A worker who’s serving something higher than his boss or his bottom line is a worker who can be trusted with an open cash register or with an honest feedback report.
(On an anecdotal level: I have participated as a visitor in the mincha minyan at Goldman Sachs. I found afternoon prayers at this nexus of world banking surprisingly well-attended. I’d wager that most, if not all, of the Jews in that room leave their phones off on Shabbat – a seemingly massive setback in the world of investment banking. Yet when they turn their phones back on after each Shabbat, they still have their jobs at Goldman Sachs. It’s possible, of course, that GS hires religious Jews purely to abide by anti-discrimination legislation, but I’m not sure I buy it: there are ways to get around such laws where one’s bottom line is concerned, and a charge of antisemitism seems unlikely to stick on Goldman Sachs, of all places. If the trading floor is full of yarmulkes, it’s because upper management finds that to be a worthwhile investment. I invite you to spend a moment thinking about just how far ahead of the curve a worker has to be before he can stick to a schedule of 24-6 availability in a ruthlessly 24-7 industry and still keep his job.)
In terms of cultural success, it is hard to compare anything to participation in one of humanity’s oldest and richest civilizations. Judaism’s principal ideal of talmud Torah combines a deep reverence for education with a constant focus on spiritual self-cultivation. You don’t just read the texts: you internalize them, and grow with them, and embody them in spiritual practice. And as for social cohesion: no-one does community quite like the Jews. Once again, Shabbat is the exemplar here: who else in the fragmentary isolation of today’s big cities has consistent weekly communal meetings? Who else has an entire day each week dedicated to family, community, and spirituality?
And as for integrity, for sincerity? There is no-one more trustworthy than a worker who can look his employer in the eye with a finger turned skyward and say: “You are my boss, but He is my G-d.” Someone who can stand by that truth – even when the rest of the office is sycophantically hunting the boss’s favor – is someone genuinely irreplaceable. That is the kind of worker that cannot be bought: not even with all the wealth of a man’s house.
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This essay has addressed the challenge of today’s millennial in aligning career, culture, and personal integrity. First, we critically examined three of the common solutions described by blogger Venkatesh Rao. Next, we discussed the solution posed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the ma’amar “Mayim Rabbim”. Some practical steps for following his advice were suggested. Finally, we looked at the ways in which the Rebbe’s Chassidic directive addressed each key element of the dilemma and provided a uniquely well-suited solution to the professional and social challenge of millennial life.