Things Were Going to Be So Much Better

Young people in particular are feeling the burden of living in history. On the upside, things can only get so bleak.

Katie Martin / The Atlantic

In moments of crisis and civil unrest, people always say that things will never be the same. But the act of living is a bit more circular than we give it credit for. Things might never be exactly the same as they once were, but they do tend to at least return to some previous and somehow tolerable baseline. Human beings, facing crisis, find ways to adapt, sometimes ingeniously. Life, otherwise, would be unbearable. To carry on through and beyond tragedy would be impossible, and the only thing more common than tragedy is death.

In Peter De Vries’s novel The Blood of the Lamb, published in 1961, the protagonist, experiencing the (temporary) remission of his daughter’s leukemia, marvels, “It seemed from all of this that uppermost among human joys is the negative one of restoration: not going to the stars, but learning that one may stay where one is.” Faced with the finality of death, the mere return of what had previously seemed normal and unremarkable was utter joy.

Then again, the knowledge that circumstances could be much worse comes as little comfort to those who, as recently as a few months ago, might have believed that life was about to get better. Just as the arc of history bends, so too do human lives, particularly for the millions of young people expecting to launch into new careers—and adulthood—this spring and summer.

Looking back, I think I made a mistake. In March, I argued here in The Atlantic that the pandemic would make people content with a return to normalcy. Perhaps they would even long for it. Yet although the novel coronavirus has receded into the background—not quite forgotten, but relegated to the ambient mood music of our new lives—the psychic energies that were gathering for months have clearly found expression in both new anger, which can be good when it leads to reforms long overdue, and new resentments, which probably aren’t quite as good.

Politics—particularly when concerning matters of life and death—always seems to loom large in the moment when you suspect you are participating in history. That moment occurred for me, although it would extend to months and then years, nearly two decades ago, when I started my freshman year in college. I was away from home for the first time, trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be, which was difficult enough. But then, just two weeks in, the September 11 attacks happened. I saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon from my dorm. It was a double tragedy for me—first as an American, but also as a Muslim seeing people committing such acts of horror in my name. To say that my life really was never the same again wouldn’t be an exaggeration. My career trajectory changed. I decided to study Islamists and Islam, when I could recall, just months prior, a dishonorable if fleeting desire to make a lot of money.

As crazy and destructive as those events were—the debacle of the Iraq War followed 9/11 rather quickly—we had the advantage of not having social media. I didn’t watch television, so my primary access to information was the homepage of The New York Times and a few blogs that were starting to sprout up then—as well as guest lectures, anti-war campus teach-ins, and maybe also the odd, occasional chain email indulging in a conspiracy or two. Both earnest and righteous, we were probably insufferable. No one, at least not right away, told me that reading Noam Chomsky and thinking he was something akin to a prophet was a rite of passage, and that it was likely to pass in time.

What was true then is true now: Human motivation has a darkness at its core. Being outraged feels good, having an enemy feels better, and having a scapegoat always helps. All three of these things are aided considerably by the democratization of information—when, as the author Peter Pomerantsev put it, “nothing is true and everything is possible.”

So this time around, everything will be different, and it will also be the same. This year’s high-school and college graduates are being propelled into a world that is frightening in its uncertainty. In economic terms, this is a summer that could scar them for life. In political terms, they will find themselves living in a more polarized media landscape, and social circles that are self-segregating, if not necessarily by race, then by ideology. The liberal sensibilities that, for all their faults, saw freewheeling and uncomfortable debate as both right and necessary seem stodgy and antiquated today. Safety and security are preferable now, but to seek them doesn’t mean to find them.

I’ve generally been a pessimist about who we are as mere human beings, broken by sin, but an optimist about how our human darkness can be channeled peacefully and perhaps even constructively. My view has not required that Americans individually would behave in ways indicative of greatness, but I did believe that our country, buttressed by institutions, was resilient, strong, and prepared to fight back against the worst to come, if in fact the worst did come.

But even I’m losing faith. Could this spring and summer, with their odd and tragic confluence of unlikely events, be a “turning point,” to use a cliché? I’m not old enough to know what living through the 1960s, the last period of social tumult in the United States, felt like. I was in Tunisia and Egypt for some of the Arab revolutions of 2011, but those tell me only so much; they weren’t happening in my country. I would always be an outsider observing from a place of emotional and intellectual distance. Even if those revolutions succeeded, they would never be mine.

My more grounded friends tell me that things will probably be okay—for the United States. Young Americans, however, may never see a full recovery. As The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey wrote recently, “The pandemic recession has thus thrust Gen Z, as a cohort, into a deep state of financial precarity. The effects are intergenerational.” Their earnings will likely be depressed for, quite literally, the rest of their life.

But here it may be worth returning to an insight from De Vries’s novel—published before the world got better, but also before the world started ending: Things are never as good as they seem, but they’re usually not as bad as they seem, either.