Even after two years spent working towards a Bowdoin English major and thousands of hours curled in a ball in Massachusetts Hall reading Victorian novelists, African-American poets, French deconstructionist theorists and—my personal favorite—Indian writers writing in English, the passage that most resonates with me is still one I read in high school.
It doesn’t come from a novel that carries much intellectual cachet. It’s not old and dense like Joseph Conrad or Leo Tolstoy; it’s not postmodern and trendy like George Saunders or David Foster Wallace; it speaks more to naiveté than sophistication.
That’s part of what makes it so important, not just for me, I think, but for our generation.
The novel is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. It’s the quintessential book for angsty, disaffected teens, and although I was more happy-go-lucky and innocent than brooding and rebellious in tenth grade, I—like millions of high school students before me—was taken with its narrator, one Holden Caulfield.
I didn’t relate to Holden’s cynicism or his snark, quite the opposite, in fact. I identified with Holden’s dream job, which involves standing in a big field of rye and catching children before they fall from a nearby cliff.
The dream is pure in its idealism and its selflessness, rewarding in its simple, single-minded purpose, and—of course—ludicrously naïve.
The passage that jumped out at me—a passage I thought I understood then, think I understand now, and will probably understand differently in another five years—was the advice Holden receives from his former teacher, Mr. Antolini, whose words address this childish dream.
“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one,” Mr. Antolini tells Holden.
The Orient reported on September 20 that Counseling Services was changing its policies regarding appointments, partially to accommodate the record number of students who are seeking help with mental health.
In an interview last year, Bernie Hershberger, director of counseling services, told me that the most common problem for students of our generation is anxiety.
Hershberger—whose softly lit office, deliberate speech, and warm manner relieved me of any anxiety I was feeling at the time—explained that seniors in particular worry about their futures, not only about securing a job, but also about finding a meaningful one.
“Some of that comes from the privilege students feel that they’ve gotten in terms of their life,” Hershberger explained. “Their parents have done all these things for them, and they should now take that and do something really amazingly spectacular.”
Hershberger characterized this sentiment as “Millennial anxiety,” and although—as Holden would tell us—this worry is not unique to our generation, I think he is right.
The parents of many current Bowdoin students were the first in their families to attend college, and they faced different socioeconomic realities than most of us do.
Anxieties over grandeur and fulfillment were not luxuries they could necessarily afford.
For many of our parents, college was often a means to a clear end: a remunerative job, economic stability, and—here it is, the ambiguous refrain of the American Dream, the task that faces each successive generation of Americans—the chance to give us, their children, a better life.
So here we are, having lived the better life, wondering how we can possibly keep singing the refrain, how we can give our own children an even better life. It doesn’t seem as simple as it once was.
Landing a job and raising a family in a nice neighborhood with good schools won’t cut it for us Millennials. That was the progress our parents made, and they fought for it so that we could accomplish something more, something higher, something impressive—something that’s hard to describe and harder to achieve.
Think about the platitudes that you’ve heard at high school graduations and Bowdoin convocations, the assurances you’ve received from beaming grandparents and strangers who spotted your Bowdoin sweatshirt on the train. You’re going to do big things, they tell us. You’re going to change the world. You’re going to make a difference in people’s lives. You’re the future leaders of our country. You’re going to make the world a better place.
With messages like these, our parents and educators have cultivated in us a highbrow naiveté, the belief that our intellect and elite education will allow us to shape, change, and improve society, not merely slot into it.
This Holden-like naiveté prevents us from seeing the potential for happiness or meaning in the “ordinary” careers we’ve learned to scorn, the careers that 90 percent of us will eventually pursue. No wonder we’re feeling anxious.
Occasionally it seems that if I don’t become the next Paul Farmer—the global health icon who has spent his life toiling away in rural Haiti on behalf of some of the world’s poorest people—then I’ll be a failure. I want to be—all Bowdoin students want to be, to some extent—a catcher in the rye, someone selfless and consequential and pure and extraordinary.
Of course, Holden would tell us that Paul Farmer is a phony, someone who only does good deeds so that people will give him a slap on the back. That’s another issue.
Mr. Antolini’s advice resonates with me because it lets me know that I don’t have to become Paul Farmer or president of the United States or Superman or Mother Theresa (another phony, according to Christopher Hitchens) in order to find fulfillment.
I’ve started to think that I might be happiest teaching English at a high school, coaching the junior varsity baseball team, and advising the school newspaper. Sometimes I worry that this isn’t a grand enough ambition, that I’ll be letting down all the people who seemed so sure I would change the world.
How fitting then that I have another teacher, Mr. Antolini, to reassure me with a simple truth: there’s nothing wrong with living humbly for a cause.