God bless my daughter and all the young people for whom this year brings a first chance to vote in the U.S. presidential election. Despite a sense of normalcy in everyday life and an environment of faith and virtues nurtured by loving families, caring teachers, and stable communities, many of them grew up seeing and hearing that aspects of our culture had changed. Narcissism, relativism, secularism, and an uneasy coarseness showed up not only in the entertainment they watched, but in the real-life experiences of friends in town and newsmakers nationwide. Young folks often greeted these traits with resignation and a strategy of putting the best face on bad situations. Heroic points of contrast from the past, reflecting traits which had previously been predominant, often proved insufficient to outweigh the negative choices, to convince idealists about options for true spiritual and personal progress. Young optimists had to go looking for alternative stories and guiding lights, or they had to learn by experience to veer away when they saw darkness ahead.
Neither the young people nor their parents may have fully anticipated that the campaigns for President of the United States and other national offices would become cloaked in some of the darkness found in “reality TV” or violent, hateful movies or supermarket tabloids. Even though Hollywood had already portrayed dark worlds like “House of Cards,” we expected that our senior ranks of politicians could at least summon up their best selves–or mask their flaws with admittedly human hypocrisy–in order to be images of hope and instructors of virtue. We expected leaders naturally to rise above the norms in which they were immersed, to suddenly become chess masters after finding success in the much less reasoned world of video games. Some “realists” have come to anticipate the chronic chaos will abide election after election, constituting familiar territory where attack ads are simply a handy tool.
Alas, as Pope Paul VI wrote years ago, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” Just as Saint John Paul II became a “witness to hope,” too many of our politicians have emerged as witnesses to hopelessness. They are preoccupied with themselves and with personal gain, apparently willing to lie or deceive as necessary, and somehow at home in the chaos. They seem indifferent to a society’s responsibility for all people, especially for the marginalize and for future generations, like the upcoming generation of voters.
I pray and believe that today’s witnesses of hopelessness, gaining prominence in more fields and sometimes trying to define the hope of the hopeful, will wake people up to the need for renewal–and even awaken their own hardened hearts. Many young people are already awake and ready for a new kind of realism. They realize that the status quo of cynicism cannot go on forever. They want to find hope not in disruption, but in rediscovery of what works. Armed with information and values, they will be driven to diagnose the problems in our polity. They will actually search for the owner’s manual, at least for the manual’s “troubleshooting” section. The best troubleshooting will go beyond the quick fix and mature into a philosophical, theological, personal, and communitarian strategy to reboot and purge the cultural malware, returning to more reliable, proven solutions, such as statesmanship and servant-leadership.
Faith, hope, and love are the enduring solutions, and reality always wins. Witnesses of hopelessness who reveal the mess we’ve made will push us toward higher ground, whether consciously or not. We’ll discover and cluster around the witnesses to hope found in every generation. Saint John Paul grew up witnessing the darkness but set out to find testimonies of light. Pope Benedict said the overriding priority in our times of despair was to make the face of God present. I believe Pope Francis is another instrument for the Spirit, energizing not only designated survivors, but designated revivers, and sending forth the young–and the old–as witnesses of hope. God bless those who strive to follow Christ in carrying crosses and making all things new. Parents must be good stewards for their new voters, too, by recalling the noblest lessons of history and providing a robust witness protection program for our seekers of light until the gravest risks to hope have subsided.