"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers."
Stop nodding your head in agreement for one minute and guess who said this. Was it Andy Rooney? Archie Bunker? The old balcony guys from the Muppets?
No, it was Socrates. About 400 B.C. Just in case you thought there was anything new or original about this feeling. Just in case you thought the current generation of young people is somehow uniquely annoying to wise, distinguished gray-hairs like you and me.
It's debatable whether every generation of young people are actually lazy, irreverent monsters. But it seems a hard fact, at least according to this, that old people have believed them to be for at least 2400 years.
Which says far less about the young than it does about the old. Namely, that we older people refuse to admit that generational dynamics have always been pretty much the same.
Which is also to say, then, that we were once the young people we now criticize.
Which is also to say that all of our disgrunting and cormudging about them is probably not based in reality, but in envy. It's not that today’s young people are somehow worse than we were. It's just that we're not them any more. Their lives are ahead, ours are behind. Who wouldn't be jealous of that?
This is the real energy behind our griping, I think. This is the hard truth that even the wisdom of Socrates somehow missed.
"But Millennials!," you cry. "With all their participation trophies, Uber-scooters, and Google-pods! Aren't they definitely the worst generation ever?" (Wow you really sound old. Stop talking.)
I can't speak about all millennials. But I can tell you about eight of them.
Somehow my woodworking class this semester was filled only with people in their twenties and early thirties. I didn't know this until they arrived, before then they were just names and email addresses. "There must have been a mistake," I thought the first night, looking out at their young, bright faces. "Where are the bald just-retired guys, ready to get started on that new retirement hobby?!"
It was when I realized it wasn't a mistake that all the millennial stereotypes wrapped up like fingers in a fist and punched me in the gut. This is not going to be easy. They will probably show up late, or not at all. They will be completely unable to do anything that's not on a screen, like, say, operating woodworking tools. They will be reckless and make a joke out of everything. I'll have to scream to pull their attention away from their phones any time I want to teach them anything. They will want me to do all the work for them, and they'll expect heaps of praise when it's done.
I started the first class, as all nervous/insecure/introverted craft teachers do, by asking them to go around the room and introduce themselves and talk about why they want to learn woodworking. It was in my notes to do so, planned beforehand as a desperate attempt to take the spotlight off of me and make them feel as vulnerable as I do, if only for a moment. Thus feeling equally terrified and insecure, we could begin working with dangerous machinery.
But the question was planned for old men. I expected certain answers from these old men, and none of them would surprise me or make me want to know more.
“My wife has always wanted me to make her a blanket chest, so I figured this would be a good place to start.”
“My granddaughter is due in March and I want to make her a crib, so here I am.”
“I need a nice wooden box to hold my dentures.”
But these people in front of me had different answers.
"I want to make furniture as a new career," one said.
"I want to make small boxes I can sell on Etsy."
"I want to learn to restore old furniture and eventually start a business selling beautiful rejuvenated pieces."
Huh. Forward looking. Ambitious. "Very cool," I said, with little time to think more about it. "So...let's get going!"
I talked about shop safety and they took notes attentively. We opened the plans for our first project and they understood them clearly, immediately. I showed them the compound miter saw and they took to it with no hesitation and cut their parts perfectly.
Then, eventually, they were working together and I was just watching. That’s when I found myself looking around, wondering about their answers to my ice breaker. They had all taken the question to mean “What do you want to learn to make?” and answered accordingly.
But I wanted to know more. I would need a new question.
At the break, about two hours in, I came up with one and wrote it on the marker board. Similar to the first, but a little harder to answer while staying safely in the shallow end. "How does your decision to learn woodworking fit in with the big picture of who you are?" The minister in me, years dormant, was now peeking its head out. Now we'd get to it.
"I'll answer this week," I said, "and then I want each of you to answer in the weeks ahead. One per week. Cool?" They nodded with slightly confused faces.
I told tale of my journey into the world of woodworking. How I became disillusioned with my first chosen path, Christian ministry, and I longed for something that felt more concrete, more true. How I’d found myself often confused about what truth is, and how it sadly always seemed to be the property of the most persuasive person in the room, whether the room was a huge worship service or a small elders’ meeting. How I needed a career with a metric, a measure, to decide what is true and what is not, beyond argument and opinion.
And woodworking, with its cruel and simple tape measure, was just the thing. You can’t argue with the little red numbers on the yellow strip. I know. I’ve tried.
I told of how woodworking has, because of its solid nature, drawn me back from the edge of insanity many times. How it was my anchor when my father died, my solid ground during the divorce. It was always, and always has been, where I go to find something undeniably, reliably real.
And that’s how you answer thatquestion, I thought. My small group training had taught me that first you pose the question, then you answer it yourself, to show the group what sort of answer you’re expecting. It helps them decide what to say, how deep to go, how long to talk.
But in this case, I conceded, they can’t be expected to have thoughts as profound as mine. I’ve been at this twenty five years, after all, and I have all this wisdom. I figured there’d be a lot of shrugging and “I dunno, I guess I just like it?”
They proved me wrong.
“I always wanted to be an artist of some kind,” the first one said, “but my parents saw absolutely no value in it. I got a good degree and a good career, and they were proud. But I was -- I am -- unhappy. So I’m trying this. They don’t know, and I’m not going to tell them, because I know what they’d say. This is for me.”
“I suffer from crippling anxiety, like to a clinical degree,” said the next student, “and I’ve been doing intensive therapy in order to get past it. Taking this class is a very important step in that process.”
The next week, “I moved to Austin from Dallas, terrified and clueless about what I’d do when I got there, just because I wanted to learn woodworking. I didn’t know what else to do!”
Another, “I have really bad, really low self-confidence, and I want to see if woodworking is something I’m actually good at, and can actually make me feel better about myself.”
Next, “I have headaches, and they got so bad at one point that the doctor told me I have to quit my job for an entire year. So I did. I went crazy. I go crazy when I can’t work, when I’m not busy, when I’m not creating something. This is the first thing I’ve done all year, and it feels like I’m being let out of prison.”
And the next, “My dad is really good with his hands, really capable at everything. But he’s a total asshole and never bothered to teach me any of it. He just wanted me to go to college and become a lawyer, which I did, which I hated so much it nearly killed me. So here I am learning for myself how to use my hands, finally.”
Every person in my class has a woodworking project they want to make.
But what they really have -- really -- is a dragon they need to slay. A fear, or a pain, something deep and haunting. And to fight it they’ve reached not for a sword, but for a hand plane.
I’ve watched them for ten weeks now -- these supposedly lazy, coddled millennials -- as they fight their battles, week after week. The more I learn about their stories, the more meaningful it is to see them struggle with a tool or a calculation or a concept, eager to get it just right.
The more I’m with them, the more I realize we are really just the same, no matter our age. While some people might look for the hands of others for healing -- perhaps those of a masseuse, or a faith-healer, or a doctor, or a lover -- we who make things look to our own. We believe, as crazy as it sounds, that the hands that will heal us are hanging from the ends of our own arms, calloused and dirty and trained into the shape of our tools.
Why do some people come to a work shop, of all places, for healing? What is it about smelling new sawdust, or wet clay, or burning metal, or paint fumes that quiets the voices inside? Why does touching a cold piece of marble or a new skein of soft yarn ground our lonely, crazy souls? How does the feel of knitting needles, or a chisel and mallet, or a glass cutter, or a welding torch, or a hand plane, or a paintbrush pass through our bodies and into our souls, infusing us with a quiet strength that carries us confidently back to the world outside that door?
What is it about making things?