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The Drifters: a generation lost in space

Updated on July 26, 2014

You know who they are. You’ve seen them. They’re everywhere. On the roads. In the malls. In office buildings and grocery stores and parking lots.

There’s no way to avoid them. And there are more of them every day.

You know who I mean: the drifters.

They’re the ones driving just under the speed limit – 28 MPH in a 30 zone, not quite slow enough to pass and maddeningly unaware. They’re the ones walking through the aisles, down the halls, up the stairs, and across the floor, like Energizer Bunnies with batteries that have finally run down, refusing to stop but plodding along, sporadic, lethargic.

And it’s not just their lack of speed, not merely their dawdling. That we could live with, anticipate, and circumvent. It’s something much more than that – or much less.

They drift.

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Nowhere to go, no place to be

On the roads, they drift back and forth between – and often across – the lines, incapable of keeping to one place inside their lanes or keeping one lane to be their place. They don’t understand the concept of turn lanes at all, creeping into them by inches as they reduce speed even further until, at last, they come to rest half in and half out, blocking traffic in four directions as they wait for the moment when they are finally ready to turn, when not a single car remains visible on any horizon.

For that matter, the way they change direction to the right or the left can’t really be called a turn; rather, they describe long, sweeping arcs, beginning half a block before the intersection (which had been entirely empty of cars at the moment of their decision) and rolling so ponderously that oncoming traffic has to slow and stop and wait, creating backups halfway to the state line.

As pedestrians they are no different, meandering down the sidewalks, looking irresolutely for some hint of destination, knowing through some sixth sense whether you are trying to pass them on the right or the left and instantly changing tack – the only movement they are able perform quickly. They are particularly fond of doorways and stairwells, where they instinctively come to a stop, thereby causing the greatest possible congestion.

Perhaps this explains the current rash of zombie movies. The living dead – unseeing, unthinking, lumbering slowly but inexorably toward nothing in particular – are truly among us.

Where do they come from? Why are there so many of them? And are we in danger of becoming like them?

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It’s all about Me

In his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway popularized the term “lost generation,” referring to the men in their twenties who returned from World War I traumatized by the horrors of a war that stole the innocence of their youth, men who were unable to find their place in a world that wanted nothing but to forget the past. Confused and without direction, they struggled to make sense of the senselessness of their experiences.

But where the most profound psychological damage inflicted by WWI was limited to the youngest veterans of that era, a similar type of damage resulting from WWII may have affected an entire generation. Although the bloodshed in Europe ended in 1945, the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War years led to the discontent of the sixties, which metastasized into the Me Generation of the seventies, which spawned the culture of entitlement and self-absorption so characteristic of the world today. With few goals other than sensory gratification, with little patience and little discipline, we have become a whole society of wanderers, a truly lost generation drifting through life, ambling through our daily routines in search of we-don’t-know-what.

But as aimless as our drifting may appear, the silver lining is that we do seem conscious that something is missing. Caught in the paradox between the irresistible attractions of technology and the persistent yearning of our souls for a higher purpose, we look here, look there, look everywhere for something that will fill the hollow space inside us.

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Famous Hoaxes

  • The Cottingley Fairies -- In 1917, 16 year old Elsie Wright shot a photo of her 9 year old cousin, Frances Griffiths, surrounded by dancing fairies. The pictures captured public imagination and spurred passionate debate until, 64 years later, the two admitted to fashioning the "fairies" out of magazine pictures and cardboard.
  • Nessie -- In 1934, Robert Kenneth Wilson produced the so-called "Surgeon's Photograph," claiming only that he had caught “something in the water” on film. Widely hailed as the most convincing proof of the Loch Ness Monster, it was reveled in 1994 to have been a modeled serpent neck attached to a toy submarine.
  • The Protocols of the Elders Of Zion -- In 1890, anti-Semites in the Czarist government presented as evidence of Jewish conspiracies a booklet outlining the plan of rabbinic leaders to topple world governments in order to achieve world domination. Ultimately proved a forgery, the book drew heavily from an 1864 pamphlet, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, written by the French satirist Maurice Joly as an attack against the political aspirations of Napoleon III. Largely influential in developing the world view of Adolph Hitler, there are still those today who cite the Protocols as authentic.

Behind door number 1

Ultimately, it may not be so much where we look but how we look. This was the message of the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir when he said:

Do not look at the container but what is in it; for you may find a new vessel filled with old wine, and you may find an old vessel that contains no wine at all.

In modern parlance, we've learned it this way: don’t judge a book by its cover. The problem is that we do just that. Swept up by glitter and glamour, we spend much more time fixated on outer trappings than inner substance. If we would simply turn the cover or look inside the bottle, a whole new world of understanding would open up to us.

Tragically, too many of us don’t want to make the effort.

But wisdom is not merely acquired through diligence and discipline; wisdom is the source of diligence and discipline. A fool is neither a dolt nor an ignoramus; he is one who does not wish to become wise. And in a society that increasingly worships vicarious pleasures and superficial achievement, the motivation to acquire wisdom has grown as rare as the motivation to learn discipline.

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They have eyes but cannot see

There is no cure for intentional blindness. Neither optometrist nor corrective lenses can repair willful myopia. Only by listening to the inner voice pleading with us to step back from intellectual darkness can we begin to appreciate that the light of wisdom is within our reach. And the best way to reach it is by keeping company with those who have rejected the blandishments of modern entertainment culture in favor of pursuing genuine purpose.

Indeed, elsewhere in the Talmud, Rabbi Dosa son of Harkinas teaches that,

Late morning sleep, mid-afternoon wine, children’s chatter, and participating in assemblies of the ignorant remove a man from his world.

Don’t be seduced by the easy pleasures that sparkle in the light of popular culture. Seize the day, keep your mind sharp when there is work to be done, look to the stars instead of sinking to the lowest common denominator, and seek out people of quality and wisdom from whom to learn. Don’t be afraid of what you might discover, and don’t be dissuaded by the scorn of fools.

There will always be some who embrace superficiality, terrified of the consequences of commitment and the responsibilities of discovering true meaning. Don’t join in the company of those who drift through the days and years of their lives, indifferent to the timeless wisdom that could save them from themselves.

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