THE BLOG
06/04/2007 11:43 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"It Was Forty Years Ago Today..." (Wah Wah): Will Boomers Reclaim a Radical Generosity?

So, yeah, I got drawn into the memory hole just a little bit last Friday when the folks who keep track of such things reminded us all that "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was released on June 1, 1967. My wonderment (has it really been forty years?) intensified on Saturday when I read John Colapinto's somewhat fawning profile of Paul McCartney's current life (and just imagine HIS flashbacks) in the June 4 issue of The New Yorker. But all this Beatles-memori-mania left me thinking more about the future than the past. It left me thinking about the deeper meaning of McCartney's celebrated add-on couplet: "And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

Here is the question I wrestle with more and more as the Boomer generation marches in its many millions toward theoretical retirement: How generous will we (here a personal note: at 59, I qualify as an "early" Boomer), who were treated so generously ourselves, behave toward those who come after us?

Obviously, I am not the first to ask the question. But I will add this twist, given who I am and what I do: How generous will those Boomers who pride themselves on their spirituality be toward those who come after? I don't just mean generous to their own offspring, although in the case of some self-absorbed Boomers, even that is a bit in question.

I ask the question of the self-described spirituals because it seems obvious that for many affluent Boomers, spirituality is just another thing to be consumed: cultivating spirituality translates into expensive sweat lodge getaways, Omega Institute retreats, and access to innumerable private gardens and groves in which to reconnect with Gaia, groove with the latest guru, etc. etc. The irony of this, of course, being that consumerism-fleeing existential anxiety through the talismanic power of the credit card-was supposed to be one of the main things we, in our Aquarian mode, were refusing and rebelling against in 1967. We were saying "no" to militarism, "no" to racism, "no" to sexual repression, and "no" to the bloated materialism/consumerism we despised in our elders.

Tom Frank, in his early Baffler days, described far better than I ever could how the anti-materialism and rebellion of the late 1960s itself became thoroughly commodified. With a little help from their friends on Madison Avenue, many Boomers over time mastered the art of wielding immense power and privilege while still affecting an attitude of disdain toward these very things-while striking a pose of rebellion.

I said many, but not all. Other Boomers, more than is usually supposed, built their lives outside of The System altogether. Still others made their accommodations with a regular job and a mortgage but managed to keep their critical edge-their ethic of suspicion-sharply alive in the midst of this American Babylon.

Possibly it's this third group, the group to which I mainly belong, for which the question of what we plan to do with the last third or last quarter of our lives is most urgent. Because we middlers have got both instincts going at once. Those of us who are reasonably comfortable really wouldn't mind staying within our comfort soon as we pass into retirement. Sure, we'll continue to stay involved in some kind of responsible civic way. Sure, we'll give as much as we can to worthy causes. We'll volunteer from time to time. And sure, we'll keep voting on the "liberal" side, even as we deplore the convergence of Democratic and Republican viewpoints when it comes to the virtues of unlimited private wealth in a country where one-third of the kids don't have health insurance.

But when I ask "Will Boomers reclaim a radical generosity?" it isn't this kind of normal, responsible giving back that I have in mind. What I really mean to ask is whether a significant bloc of Boomers can reclaim a generosity that holds within it an element of renunciation of middle-class privilege, or of what Christians would call kenosis-emptying out (the kenotic template being the self-emptying Christ of Philippians 2).

In a word, and given the fact that we face a world that is in demonstrably worse shape, overall, than the world we faced in 1967, will we rediscover our radical roots and pledge ourselves yet again to fight any and all domination systems, identify yet again with Frantz Fanon's wretched of the earth, and resolve (for the first time, because back then we didn't know very much about ecocide) to live as lightly on the earth as possible-and insist that others do the same-in the years we have remaining to us?

I made passing reference earlier to avoidance of existential anxiety as the root of consumerism. What we are all most anxious about, of course, is our own death. Boomers in general remain in a state of denial with respect to human frailty and human mortality.

As a Christian (though this truth is hardly exclusive to Christianity), I should by now have come to terms with the paradoxical truth that only those willing to lose their lives will find their real lives. Let's just say I'm still working on it. And my greatest wish is that many millions of us, born between 1946 and 1964, would keep working on it-and then breaking through to the space of radical freedom, so that (in the end, and thank-you Paul) the love we take is really equal to the love we make.