A Fatherless Generation

I continue to slowly re-read Nouwen’s Wounded Healer.  This is one of the best books on Christian leadership I have ever read.  It feels like Nouwen is peering into the window of my soul as he writes and perfectly describing the human condition as I experience it.

In the second chapter, he attempts to characterize the nature of the rootless generation that was emerging in a post 70s world.  He says that we share the following characteristics:

  1. We are an inward generation — “it is the generation which gives absolute priority to the personal and which tends in a remarkable way to withdraw into the self.”  “It is the behavior of people who are convinced that there is nothing ‘out there’ or ‘up there’ on which they can get a solid grasp, which can pull them out of their uncertainty and confusion…so, perhaps there is something meaningful, something solid ‘in there.’”
  2. We are a fahterless generation — “We are facing a generation which has parents but no fathers, a generation in which everyone who claims authority — because he is older, more mature, more intelligent or more powerful — is suspect from the very beginning.”  “Today, seeing that the whole adult, fatherly world stands helpless before the threat of atomic war, eroding poverty, and starvation of millions, the men and women of tomorrow see that no father has anything to tell them simply because he has lived longer.”  “Instead of the father, the peer becomes the standard.  Many young people who are completely unimpressed by the demands, expectations and complaints of the big bosses of the adult world, show a scrupulous sensitivity to what their peers feel, think and say about them.”  “if youth no longer aspires to become adult and take the place of the fathers, and if the main motivation is conformity to the peer group, we might witness the death of a future-oriented culture or — to use a theological term — the end of an eschatology.
  3. We are characterized by convulsiveness — “Many young people are convinced that there is something terribly wrong with the world in which they live and that cooperation with existing models of living would constitute betrayal of themselves.  Everywhere we see restless and nervous people, unable to concentrate and often suffering from a growing sense of depression.  They know that what is shouldn’t be the way it is, but they see no workable alternative.”  “They share a fundamental unhappiness with their world and a strong desire to work for change, but they doubt deeply that they will do better than their parents did, and almost completely lack any kind of vision or perspective.”

Nouwen goes on to say that in response to this the leader of tomorrow needs to be 1) an articulator or inner events, because the God within asks attention as never before, 2) a compassionate person, because the fatherless generation is looking for a new kind of authority, not someone up there but someone who suffers with us (com = with, passion = suffering), and 3) a contemplative man, because as a contemplative critic he can call out what is broken in the world and lead people in a different way.

My Thoughts

The characteristic that resonated most deeply with me was the fatherless/compassionate leader combo.  I have a wonderful father so this is no reflection on him.  Rather, it is a reflection on the lack of hope that is pervasive in our culture.  We are an apathetic and despondent group that has in a sense lost our future-orientation.  We don’t trust those who have gone before us, our elders, while at the same time we don’t have hope that we can do it any better.  We suffer for a sense of historical dislocation that also sabotages our hope in a better tomorrow.

I think Christians can be hope-filled people.  The wrongs of this world will one day be put to right.  Sin will be eradicated.  All will be healed.  In the interim, we still live in a broken world, but the reality of a future hope is available to us in bits and pieces here and there.  God’s future world is breaking into our lives now.  Both because of the ultimate future restoration and the healing we experience in part now, we can be hopeful.

But the problem with Christians who try to be hope-filled is that they come across as having all the answers and being judgmental.  I can recall numerous conversations with people in my past that have left me feeling awful about myself.  One stands out.  I shared about a hard patch I was going through with my spouse in our first year of marriage.  We were at each others’ throats, and I was longing for healing in the relationship.  I shared this with a friend, and he told me I needed to work on that.  He suggested that I abstain from ministry until I smooth things over with my spouse.

Nouwen says this shouldn’t be!  Hope about the future should lead us to be compassionate, not judgmental.  Because we know how things are meant to be, we can mourn the way their are. We are hopeful about the future, but honest about our present pain.  We recognize the brokenness in the world, because we know the way things will look when all is made right.  Being hopeful doesn’t mean we do the Christian thing and sugar-coat the pain, it means we can speak honestly about it.  And for those of us in leadership positions, it means we can come alongside those who suffer, because we suffer too.