Seek That Which Is Above, published in 2007 by Ignatius Press, is a compilation of addresses Cardinal Ratzinger gave in Munich during the 1980s. For the most part, they are reflections on certain events in the liturgical calendar. In his reflection about Advent, he refers to two events, one fictional and the other historical, both of which teach valuable lessons.
The fictional account comes from a Christmas story by Charles Dickens. In it, the main character has lost his ability to recall the feelings and emotions he had experienced when he was confronted with human suffering. His loss is presented to him as a great liberation, an escape from the pain of the past. But he soon learns that he has drastically changed for the worse. When suffering comes again, he is incapable of recalling any kindness in his past, nor is he able to show kindness to others. Ratzinger writes, “He has become cold and spreads coldness around him.”
The historical account comes from the German writer, artist, and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe attends the first celebration of the feast of St. Roch since the beginning of the Napoleonic wars. It is a joyous occasion, and he observes the faces of the adults and children. There are warm smiles reflective of such a happy event. But with the young people that was not the case. Ratzinger writes,
“. . . they were unmoved, indifferent, bored. And he [Goethe] gives an illuminating explanation: they were born in evil times, had nothing good to remember and consequently had nothing to hope for. In other words, it is only the person who has memories who can hope. The person who has never experienced goodness and kindness simply does not know what such things are.”
Ratzinger goes on to share the wisdom of a counselor who once told him that if can get a person suffering from despair to recall a good memory in his life, he may yet learn to hope again. Ratzinger concludes, “Memory and hope are inseparable.”
All of this made me think about the young people in our nation today. I wonder how many good memories they have. Have we created for them a society that provides few, if any, good memories?
Most of our young people have grown up in a world where marriages have been temporary and often filled with anger and infidelity, eventually ending in divorce. These young adults remember spending alternating weekends with one of their parents or losing one of their parents (usually the father) for the rest of their lives. Is it any wonder they don’t see marriage as a road to happiness and choose shacking up instead?
Which leads, of course, to the bad memories created by moving from one sexual partner to another. There is no commitment, and without commitment, there is little effort to retain a relationship when difficulties arise. Sadly, a child might be the result of such a relationship, but single motherhood is the expressway to poverty, and here, too, good memories are hard to experience.
But let’s say a young adult avoids the above pitfalls. He graduates from high school and perhaps even college. He wants to work hard and make a good life for himself. Yet what does he find waiting for him? Massive unemployment ranging from approximately 8 to 15 percent, depending upon which labor statistics one wishes to study. A new report issued by the John J. Heidrich Center for Workforce Development, at Rutgers University, states that almost half of last year’s high school graduates are still looking for full-time work. Professor Cliff Zukin, who co-directed the study, says, “This is a huge swath of American youth that have no economic prospects right now for doing anything better than marginally eeking out a living.” Valerie Peterson, 23, who works the night shift at a gas station, undoubtedly speaks for many when she says, “When I was 18, my dreams were what I want to become and what I want to do. And now the only thing I’m looking for is to get by.” Zuken draws a sad conclusion when he predicts that this generation will probably be “permanently depressed.”
Is it better for college graduates? The Economic Policy Institute reports that this year’s college graduates face a “grim” market and that last year’s grads under 25 have an unemployment rate of 9.4%. Also, 19.1% of those students do have jobs but are overqualified for them. A Harvard study found that 75% of college students believe that they will have a difficult time finding a job. An April, 2012, article in the Associated Press declares, “. . .the job prospects for bachelor’s degree holders fell last year to the lowest level in more than a decade.”
Even the newborn child cannot escape the prospects of a dreary future. Given the enormous debt (currently $16 trillion) this nation continues to produce, each child born in America today will have a $50,744 tax burden on his little shoulders. Veronique De Rugy, an economist at George Mason University, wrote the following in Reason magazine in 2011:
“But the main reason why deficit and debt matter is that American families will be the ones on the receiving end of economic uncertainty, higher interest rates, lower growth, higher unemployment rates, and lower standards of living. Maybe even more important, future generations will have to pay today’s deficits. We are about to embark on the most massive transfer of wealth from younger taxpayers to older ones in American history. It will not be just unprecedented but also unfair: Our children will pay for the decisions we make today.”
Children born today will live in a nation that will make it almost impossible for them to have the same standard of living as their parents enjoyed. College costs will prevent many from reaching their dreams because they will not have the education requisite for the careers they seek. Millions will find it difficult to find employment, and should they find work, the tax burden will make it difficult to have more than one child, and home ownership will be a pipe dream. Life will be a never-ending struggle, and with the inevitable disappointments and failures, how many good memories will be made?
Of course, true hope can still be found in one’s faith and family if both are strong, but if an individual believes he can find hope in a decadent culture or in a dysfunctional government, then he is truly on a fool’s errand.