Dear Mom and Dad,
I’m writing this as a letter because we’ve often had this conversation aloud, but this lets you return to it at your leisure. Nothing that I say here will be new to you, but I’m writing this so that others can read it, too. Because there’s something to the intergenerational warfare narrative of our moment, it is fitting to frame these issues as a grown child’s reflection on the status of his parents.
As you know, one of my colleagues, Helen Andrews, has a book out now about some of the Baby Boomers that helped make the mess we find ourselves in today. They are older than you, who are part of the tail end, almost GenX. Let me remind you that while the largest cohort in the U.S. workforce, I and my fellow Millennials born between 1981 and 1996 (older than you think) possess just 4.6 percent of the nation’s wealth. Your Boomers reportedly control twice the $28.5 trillion held by GenXers and more than 10 times the $5.2 trillion held by us. I believe it. If civilization is something received, held in trust, and transmitted—and it is—there appears to be a breakdown somewhere, certainly a decline, maybe even a collapse.
But that’s not what this is about, only the excuse for its form. You have not clung to your place on a ladder while younger people have sought to climb it, blocking their way. You have used your resources well and generously, mentoring the young. You have not contributed to a world of divorce and broken homes. You have modeled the perseverance of a marriage covenant, and I know you continue to pray for future in-laws and future grandchildren. You have let neither the good times nor the bad times make regular church attendance and habits of religious devotion slip into an apathetic spiral to “none,” as in no affiliation, or shrug, as in Easter and Christmas. For all this, I’m very grateful.
But the above pathologies exist in part because of something you are prone to, as we have discussed. And that is a preoccupation with what is happening over here, in Washington, D.C., often to the point of confusion about what is happening over there, at home, in your case the other, better Washington. Stop it. The Boomers cling to wealth because they cling to power, and in pursuit of power they point that wealth to Wall Street and K Street. And because that wealth is turned to Wall Street and K Street it does not end up on Main Street, and because that money is not spent on Main Street, local opportunity withers away, and with it, the prospect of a normal (or perhaps no longer that but only traditional) life, of marriage, children, religious observance, and the continued building upon what came before.
Maybe, if you were much richer, it would make sense to play the game, because you might be able to do something. Even that is doubtful when you reflect for a moment on the flushing sound of campaign finance and political action committees. Maybe, even if you had approximately the careers you have had, but, like I do for now, lived here in the Beltway—maybe then it would be only natural to follow national affairs closely, to shake a hand here or pass a word there in hopes of shaping things. There are people for whom New York City and D.C. are not just televisual displays but real life, not entertainment but the stage on which they act, and if they want to try to figure out the script then let them. But they are not you.
You, and every other person like you—middle class, educated, property owning, parents, naturally invested in the future of this country, not living in D.C. or working on Wall Street—need to take a deep breath, look out the window, notice the birds, and take a walk down your street. I know you do this all the time already, but let me affirm it and add that you need to notice the place around you while you are walking, your home, and that it needs to become the thing you think of when you think of “politics” or “the news.” You are only responsible for what you have power over.
Your vote every two years is not power, but a nifty bit of participatory liturgy. As you know, liturgies are not effectuated by the participants but are rather their cooperation with a higher effective force. Your vote is supposed to make things squared away and above board, and to entertain you to boot. It feels good, right? Doing your part. And it’s easy. You can just put your ballot in an envelope and throw it in a box.
Go ahead and keep doing it, if you want. But stop anticipating it for two or four years at a time and focus on what you’re responsible for. You are responsible for your home: for your house, your yard, your neighborhood, your church, your school, your city, your county, and your state, and only then your country (I’ll concede a little bit), in that order. You have power in these domains, and diminishing power as we extend the abstractions of law and the remoteness of geography. Your responsibility diminishes the same.
I would not be able to say this except that I have been taught to believe the sorts of things that lead to thinking these sorts of thoughts. I thank you for that. And it means that you are already doing what needs to be done and my advice is only mirroring the prudence you already possess. To spend your wealth on Main Street, to focus on home, means to do what you have done and are doing.
You labored for and invested in building the classical Christian private school of my k-12 education, and still do. You do not only attend church, but are a serving part of its ministry, too, hands and feet. Shrewd as serpents, innocent as doves, you have cultivated relationships with those who hold local authority and elected office. Always a patron of the best food and drink the region has to offer, you recently began to get involved in the area arts scene, the theatre and the symphony orchestra, and you have noticed the immigrant communities that care about these things, too, and how they are deliberate in building where they are, like you.
Thank you for being an example. Keep laboring. Keep making friends. Build on. Let me—over here in D.C.—worry about D.C., so that you and your community can care less about it, and care more about home.
I love you very much,