Sometimes, I think things are as bad now as they’ve ever been, and probably getting worse.
Our politics are worse than anything since the fall of the Roman Empire, technology has distanced people from the idyllic Little House on the Prairie style of togetherness and contentment, and this generation has a behavior chart full of black marks in nearly every category.
And then I read about vinegar valentines, and I realize that people have always been awful.
If, like me, you hadn’t heard of this tradition, here’s the short version: from 1850s to 1940s, greeting card companies made cards you could send to people you hated. Or at least people you wanted to make fun of, along with a caricature and a poem pointing out their particular flaw.
This was not an isolated thing. Thousands of these cards were delivered anonymously every year, and not just to your frenemies, but to random people in your life like your banker, shop clerk, or doctor.
Here are a few examples. You can find more (and some extra background) in this article.
I don’t say this to give you ideas of a new tradition next February 14th. Like shoulder pads and mullets, some trends just should not be brought back.
But what these cutting little rhymes taught me is that cyberbullying is new. Cruelty isn’t. (And it’s always been framed as a joke and more common when the attacker can remain anonymous.)
Selfies are new. Self-centeredness isn’t. (See above vinegar valentine on vanity.)
Trigger warnings and political correctness are new. The tendency to be overly sensitive or avoid what we don’t want to hear is not.
This could be incredibly depressing, but it should also caution us when we assume that we’re better than another group/generation/culture.
Are we, really?
The first specific example I can think of are the diatribes I’ve seen against the current generation of young people: the dreaded millennials.
In some ways, I can agree that millennials have a unique set of issues that we should think about and respond to. (How can the church best serve and challenge this generation? Which aspects of millennial trends are different-but-neutral and which ones need to be called out as harmful? What does it look like to address their specific fears and hopes, strengths and weaknesses?)
But in other ways, I’m with the author of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
We are the same sort of people we always have been, in the sense that we struggle with the same sorts of things. They manifest themselves differently, and sometimes have greater consequences because of the tools we use, but they come from the same wrong attitudes and actions.
So what do we do?
We fight selfishness everywhere we see it. Not just the self-indulgent special snowflake protests or safe spaces of a younger generation. Or, alternately, the smug, condescending hypocritical stained glass, pew-sitting performances of an older generation.
We fight the selfishness in our own hearts.* We start there, and to be honest, if we really want to have an impact, we won’t need to go much farther.
Sure, it’s good to be aware of what a subculture or generation struggles with. But that knowledge can only do so much in a practical sense. And yes, there are times when your friends might need you to call them out on a harmful attitude or pattern of behavior. Chances are, though, they’ll only consider it if they see you working on the flaws in your own life.
If you’re going to be brutally honest with anyone, don’t send an anonymous vinegar valentine (because who needs more passive-aggressiveness in their life?). Honestly evaluate your own struggles before judging anyone else’s.
*Stuffy Theological Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: As a Christian, I believe you can only fight selfishness in a meaningful way through the power of the Holy Spirit, not a bucket list of random acts of kindness or an ethical philosophy of living. I’m not saying either of those things are bad, just incomplete. If I believe in sin—not just a concept of ego—I have to believe in a work that saves and transforms sinners (the gospel). If you don’t believe in sin, you’re free to disagree with me.