In grade school we were taught Newton’s third law; For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Initially, I was under the impression this was a principle which applied only to celestial bodies and physical objects. Over time, as I poured myself into the study of anthropology and sociology, I discovered this also applied to cultures and civilizations. Much like inert objects, we humans spend a great deal of time crashing into each other and reacting. Where we differ from Newton’s law is often our responses are not equal in reaction. Inanimate objects are devoid of emotion while human feelings are powerful and subject to being volatile and unpredictable. Emotions often magnify situations. On the positive side they are also what gives life color and passion.
As an example of this dynamic, in the 1960’s, as we Boomers threw off the rigid restraints of our parents’ generation, we set in motion a number of actions and reactions. I will briefly focus on one issue for the sake of time. While the Woman’s Rights movement had its beginnings in the late 1800’s, it exploded in the 1960’s. One of the key factors was the male driven sexual revolution and the deep pain it caused women. The “freedom” which was promised ended up being very one sided.
Men were allowed to run amok fulfilling all their sexual fantasies while many women ended up heartbroken single moms struggling to survive. What masqueraded as love, was actually driven by unbridled self-centeredness and marketed to our culture as progressive. It left devastated lives in its wake. Women’s need for committed relationships, stability and security were not met and even demeaned by the supposedly enlightened. The painful consequences fueled a great deal of disillusionment and anger which manifested itself in the Woman’s Rights movement. Woman had to fight to take back control of their lives.
There was a great deal many other “freedoms” which ultimately ended up resulting in the destruction of people’s personal lives. The fallout on the Boomer generation was devastating. In 1967-68, during the Summer of Love, the city of San Francisco was passing out LSD as it was feeding the many homeless who had made their way to the city. No one had any idea of the consequences at the time. Some of you may remember Timothy Leary’s phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” In the same way some romanticize the biblical narrative, they see the 1960’s through rose tinted classes. There was a huge reaction…it played itself out in our children’s lives.
THE REACTION: HELICOPTER PARENTS
The unexpected outcomes of throwing off restraint and pursuing pleasure was deeply personal and painful. The reaction was visceral and history would repeat itself. Just like our parents set out to protect their children from the ravages of two World Wars and a Depression by building a better society, we did the same. Our protective parental instincts would take over in the raising of the Millennial Generation; we kicked into hyper-vigilant shield mode! Motivated by love, in a sincere effort to protect our children from all the pain we had experienced with unbridled freedom, we took away a great many of theirs and raised the most over protected, coddled generation in human history. The institutional religious community was the vanguard.
We invented the term “helicopter parents.” Freedom was replaced with fairness, equality and organization. We did everything we could to control outcomes. We told our children endlessly how awesome they were. We took control of their lives and ordered every aspect for them. We attempted to sanitize life, in an effort to shield them from pain. When they eventually grew up and walked out into the broader world on their own, they were shocked to discover out how putrid the smell was! Surprise!!! Life often smells like a used Porta-Potty on a hot summer day.
They’ve been struggling ever since in an attempt to figure out how to deal with it. Their experience has not been altogether different from the shocking ammonia smelling salts we used to get administered when our bell was rung in a football game. The odor was startling; they were stunned to find out few were listening to how awesome they thought they were. “Prove it” they were told. “No, you don’t get to start at the top, show us your worth it first” has been a startling wakeup call. “So you’re running up against a few problems, go fix them yourself”. “I don’t care if you are scared and afraid of direct and personal confrontation, deal with it.” The bubble has burst.
It is in these familiar cultural dynamics where I see the connection with the biblical Joseph and the millennial generation. As a young boy Joseph experienced a personal tragedy which was impossible to fully comprehend as a child, the loss of his mother. What he did understand was the one woman who loved him and his brother Benjamin unconditionally was gone suddenly and unexpectedly. They felt alone not only in a hostile world, but in a dysfunctional family. Their father’s other wife Leah was in charge of the family now and she had little use for the children of the sister she was so jealous of. Life can be so unfair in that they were the youngest and most vulnerable making them the least prepared to deal with what had transpired. Joseph’s father Jacob was fully aware of the family dynamics and did exactly what Boomer parents did, he kicked into helicopter Dad mode. In an effort to shield his two youngest boys from the family dynamics and overcompensate for the loss of their mother, he over protected and spoiled them while giving them preferential treatment.
The fact Joseph alone received a very expensive colorful coat is indicative of Jacob’s overcompensation. To put this into a modern day context; Joseph’s 10 older brothers all wore $150 suits from Sears while he was wearing a $5,000 custom fit from Armani. Dad was thinking this was a good thing which would boost his self-confidence and reassure him of how truly special he was. Jacob’s own life struggles had brought him to a place of brokenness. His heart was tender now with new found empathy. In this place God would rename him Israel.
As we have all learned the hard way, empathy can also get us into trouble and produce unexpected outcomes both personally and culturally. In Jacob’s case, his heartfelt action had a corresponding unanticipated reaction. First, we see that Joseph believed him! He reveled in the special attention. In fact, Joseph would go on to have two dreams which reinforced how truly special he was. Yup, he was the chosen! His sense of destiny came alive as a teenager, all he could see was everyone in his family bowing down to him including his own father. He was not shy about expressing his elite status at the expense of others. He was that spoiled Trust Fund kid drunk on his over-inflated opinion of himself. His narcissism was on full display. In a recent study, nearly 80% of millennials stated their #1 goal was to be rich and close to 50% stated their #2 goal was becoming famous. [i] Joseph could relate to those stats.
The second reaction to his elite status was not only unexpected; it came with devastating consequences. Joseph’s naiveté would be his undoing. He had not considered how those closest to him might react to his self-proclaimed superstar status. Before he knew what happened, his dissed and angry brothers threw him into a deep water cistern where he had no escape. In fact, some of them wanted to leave him there to die. This was an unexpected outcome for which he had no contingency plan in place. This was not the way the life script he had been handed as a child read. This was completely disorienting, disillusioning and depressing. The happy ending story he believed about himself was DOA (Dead on Arrival).
RESISTANCE BUILDS STRENGTH
From my discussions with millennials, they identify with this scenario. This is the unexpected outcome they have walked out personally and as a result there has been a mass exodus out of the institutional religious world. They have wondered, did I get the tickets to the wrong show or did God get the script for my life confused with someone else’s? For some there is a gut wrenching anger, for others they feel like that deer in the headlights. They find their eyes wide open in panic while bracing themselves for the big collision. It’s all a bit overwhelming and the uncertainty of what to do next for some has been debilitating. Some have returned home in an attempt to find that lost sense of security and someone to point them in the right direction. They need a safety net underneath to walk over the high wire of life. They were raised in a world where we minimized risk and now that’s their norm. “Safe Spaces” is their expectation even though life gives us few of them.
Given the loving sacrifices many parents made, their children’s harsh perspective on their parenting may come across as deflating. For many, the millennials’ perspective invokes feelings of guilt and failure. Once I get millennials to identify or associate with this confusing season of Joseph’s life, as kindly as I know how, I let them know they are still in the early stages of the process of life. I let them know that what lies ahead is still Potiphar’s House and Prison, all strategic in preparing them for what God has planned for them.
This may be surprising to some, but they actually feel a sense of relief in knowing that! You can observe the confusion they feel as their idealized world collides with the real world resulting in disorientation and an overwhelming sense of failure of their own. Since their lives have not panned out quite the way they were told, they are beset now with guilt that somehow they have taken a wrong turn. They keep trying to go back to find out where they possibly got off track. They keep wanting do-overs or to take a mulligan as they say in golf.
For some the pain of failure is so profound it invokes a deep anger and a militant anti-church stance. When I ask them to describe how they feel one of the more common words is disillusioned. Once I validate their feelings I open a dialogue on what disillusionment actually means and how one should respond to it. Our default setting is to hate it because it hurts. It’s a bad, bad thing is how most of us see it. Upon further examination, I get them to see disillusionment is in fact the discovery something they believed to be true, wasn’t. Isn’t that a good thing I ask? Would you rather spend the rest of your life deceived and waste it or suffer the temporary emotional setback that unlocks the truth? Isn’t that what sets us free? After a few furrowed brows and wry smiles, the penny drops. It is at that point I tell them that life itself is the greatest teacher and there are no short cuts. You can’t avoid it; you have to walk straight through it.
Whether we like it or not, God has instilled a principle in the DNA of life which is unavoidable; Resistance Builds Strength. One day you look back at your life and realize your failures were as crucial to your development as the successes were. No one in their right mind orders a bag of “failures to go” as they place their order at the drive-up window of immediate self-gratification. Life has a way of ordering those for us and they are typically custom orders.
THIS IS ALL UPSIDE DOWN AND BACKWARDS
Joseph, while languishing at the bottom of the cistern had no idea what was going on, he had lost his bearings. He suddenly found himself staring up at the very guys he thought were going bow down to him. To make matters worse, his life was in their hands and most of them wanted him to die! At the last minute, as things were escalating his eldest brother Reuben stepped in and became the voice of reason. While Reuben’s solution was still nothing Joseph would have expected, it did save his life. Reuben’s unsavory lifesaving intervention set him on a course that in his wildest imagination he could not have ever predicted. Neither could Reuben; his short term solution had unexpected long-term consequences only God would have understood at that point. Sometimes someone else’s solution to your problem isn’t the choice you would have made. But, looking in the rear-view mirror is where we gain perspective. So much of life only comes into focus when looking at it in reverse.
While Joseph was looking forward, in the current season of his life, all he could see was the ugly smelly behind of some camel. He found himself with his hands tied and life bound by the slave traders his brothers had sold him to while walking across miles of desert feeling very alone. While this too was an unexpected outcome, it was certainly better than being found dead having been eaten by a wild animal as his brothers asserted to his father was his fate.
Special, coddled Joseph would be next auctioned off in the lowly slave markets of Egypt. He was sold to the King’s Captain of the Guard. Potiphar was the equivalent of the Secret Service who guards the US President or the Royal Guard who protect the British King & Queen. They are the most vetted and trusted confidants of leaders and are witnesses to those situations the public will never see or hear about. Joseph had lost his independence, he was now considered property and at the beck and call of Potiphar to do as he willed without challenge. Joseph had no rights. No one cared about his opinions or his feelings. Joseph started at the bottom and would have to earn his way up the food chain. He was a Millennial with a sense of destiny in a world which could have cared less. How he handled the unexpected and what would come next were all steps in a divine drama which had seemingly gone off script.