One day early in the first semester of my freshman year, I got off the bus on West Campus for class and saw a tent. It was not one of the enormous, white event tents to which I have since become accustomed. It was a small camping tent—blue, if memory serves.
It was placed beside the path running parallel to the bus stop that people use to walk from one side of the quad to the other. They put it there, they said, so that they would be accessible, so that people could come talk to them. There was always supposed to be someone in the tent. I may be imagining this, but I have this image in my head of a sign written in black ink on a sheet of cardboard. The letters were big, all caps: OCCUPY WALL STREET. Or maybe it was OCCUPY DUKE.
I recognized that tent. Not specifically—I had never seen it before. But I had watched movies and talked to my parents and paid attention in U.S. History, so I recognized what was happening. This was disillusionment.
I was 18 years old. It was time for me to become overwhelmed by how screwed up the world was. It was time for me to shed the innocence of childhood and face all of the problems that plague us.
18. Time for marches and protests, time to go put flowers in gun barrels. Time to be in the crowd below as speakers inspire from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Time to burn draft cards and set up a table on the plaza with flyers about the injustice that I find most infuriating, or perhaps just the injustice I happened upon first while discovering them all so quickly.
But the story of the tent didn’t unfold like I expected given the history I knew. It wasn’t a movement that grew bigger and bigger—I don’t remember a second tent joining the first or a crowd gathering outside. It wasn’t a movement that faced increasing opposition and was eventually quashed by the powers that be or one that was successful enough to warrant a movie 50 years down the road.
Really, it just got cold. Winter came, and the movement disappeared like a match trying to be lit in harsh, cold wind. The tent, which had never looked impressive with the Duke Chapel towering over it, started to be empty more often than not. Eventually, maybe at nighttime so people wouldn’t see, someone went out there and disassembled the poles, rolled up the tarp. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why that made me so sad.
I was not sad because of my affection for the movement. No matter how much I might vaguely identify with their cause, I thought Occupy Wall Street was severely flawed. Never once was I tempted to step into that tent myself. I think I was sad not because Occupy Wall Street had failed, but because disillusionment had somehow changed.
The people in that tent weren’t protesting with any real concrete goal, with any specific policy change in mind. They were doing the best they could to speak out against injustices that were so large they could sense them but not define them. I admired them but hardly felt inspired or motivated.
It makes sense that disillusionment has changed, for the problems with the world have changed. The hole in the ozone layer has faded into global climate change. The war in Vietnam has faded into an even broader, less comprehensible war. Mom at home all day taking antidepressants has faded into Mom at work all day taking antidepressants. The conviction that we chose the wrong economic system has faded into conviction that, viable alternatives aside, we’re still doing something wrong.
These problems don’t have obvious source or obvious cause or obvious remedy. I can’t even understand them, and they seem insurmountable to me. They’ve lost their immediacy. It feels like we’ve seen it all before, and we came out okay, so history suggests we’ll pull out of this one fine, too. I am kept from action by this dual, conflicting conviction that the problems are insolvable and that they’ll of course be solved because they always have been.
Maybe out of self-preservation, I stop myself from thinking about how they were solved by us, by our disillusionment being powerful enough to drive change. They were solved by reacting to the screwed-up world with passionate discontentedness, not resigned acceptance. I don’t know what will happen if this mechanism breaks.
I don’t like to write columns about fear. Fear is bleak. Fear is miserable. There are so many emotions that I feel more frequently, and I prefer every single one of them.
But I am today. This column is about fear—my biggest fear.
I fear that our generation’s disillusionment is yielding nothing more than a vacant, weather-beaten tent. I fear that I don’t even feel motivated to do anything about this.
More than anything else, I fear that discovering the problems of the world has simply ceased to be exhilarating—that they are too deep and too many.
Ellie Schaack is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Monday.