You know who they are. You’ve seen them. They’re everywhere. On the roads. In the malls. In office buildings and grocery stores and parking lots.
There’s no way to avoid them. And there are more of them every day.
You know who I mean: the drifters.
They’re the ones driving just under the speed limit – 28 MPH in a 30 zone, not quite slow enough to pass and maddeningly unaware. They’re the ones walking through the aisles, down the halls, up the stairs, and across the floor, like Energizer Bunnies with batteries that have finally run down, refusing to stop but plodding along, sporadic, lethargic.
And it’s not just their lack of speed, not merely their dawdling. That we could live with, anticipate, and circumvent. It’s something much more than that – or much less.
NOWHERE TO GO, NO PLACE TO BE
On the roads, they drift back and forth between – and often across – the lines, incapable of keeping to one place inside their lanes or keeping one lane to be their place. They don’t understand the concept of turn lanes at all, creeping into them by inches as they reduce speed… slowly… slowly… until, at last, they come to rest half in and half out, blocking traffic in four directions as they wait for the moment of optimum safety, when not a single car remains visible on any horizon.
For that matter, the way they turn can’t really be called a turn; rather, they describe long, sweeping arcs, beginning half a block before the intersection (which had been entirely empty of cars at the moment of their decision) and rolling so ponderously that oncoming traffic has to slow and stop and wait, creating backups halfway to the state line.
As pedestrians, they are no different. They meander down the sidewalks, looking irresolutely for some hint of destination, knowing through some sixth sense whether you are trying to pass them on the right or the left and instantly changing tack – the only movement they are able perform with alacrity. They are particularly fond of doorways and stairwells, where they instinctively come to a stop, thereby causing the greatest possible congestion.
They seem to be everywhere. But it wasn’t always like this – was it? There weren’t always so many of them – were there?
Perhaps the exponential propagation of drifters explains the current popularity of zombie movies. The living dead – unseeing, unthinking, lumbering slowly but inexorably toward nothing in particular – are truly among us.
Where have they come from? And are we in danger of becoming like them?
IT’S ALL ABOUT ME
In his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway popularized the term “lost generation,” referring to the men in their twenties who returned from World War I traumatized by the horrors of a war that stole the innocence of their youth, men unable to find their place in a world that wanted nothing but to forget the past. Confused and without direction, they struggled to make sense of the senselessness of their experiences.
Post-WWII was a different story. This was a war we could understand, against an enemy of incontrovertible evil. And those who fought in it were spared the indignities visited upon their fathers. This was the greatest generation, who returned home to a country that recognized their self-sacrifice and celebrated their victory. They picked up their lives as members of a grateful nation that allowed them to build futures of vision and purpose and stability.
But the aftermath was more insidious. Although the bloodshed in Europe ended in 1945, the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War years haunted the children of the sixties. Their discontent led to the hippie revolution, which metastasized into the Me Generation of the seventies, which spawned the culture of entitlement and self-absorption so pervasive throughout the Western world of today.
We want to feel good. We want to enjoy ourselves. In short, we want what we want. And that’s what we think it means to be happy.
We’ve become a society of wanderers, a truly lost generation. We race through our daily routines as we drift through life in search of we-don’t-know-what. We seek relationships without commitment, connecting through vapid messages with invisible, online friends while ignoring real, flesh-and-blood companions close at hand. We look for salvation in devices that lead us, like Alice, down the rabbit hole of peculiar and capricious illusion.
Of course, previous generations indulged their own delusions as well. Who’s to say whose fantasies are more or less benign?
THIER WORLD, AND WELCOME TO IT
In 1934, Robert Kenneth Wilson of Scotland produced the so-called "Surgeon's Photograph," claiming only that he had caught “something in the water” on film. Widely hailed as the most convincing proof of the Loch Ness Monster, it was revealed by Wilson 60 years later that he had attached a modeled serpent neck to a toy submarine.
In 1917, 16-year-old Elsie Wright of Cottingley, England, shot a photo of her 9-year-old cousin, Frances Griffiths, surrounded by dancing pixies. The pictures captured public imagination and spurred passionate debate until, 64 years later, the two admitted to fashioning the "fairies" out of magazine pictures and cardboard.
In 1890, anti-Semites in the Czarist government presented as evidence of Jewish conspiracies a booklet outlining the plan of rabbinic leaders to topple world governments and thereby achieve world domination. Ultimately proved a forgery, the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion drew heavily from an 1864 pamphlet, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, written by the French satirist Maurice Joly as an attack against the political aspirations of Napoleon III. Largely influential in developing the world view of Adolph Hitler, there are still those today who cite the Protocols as authentic.
Even the most unlikely conspiracy theories find traction, for people will believe in anything before they believe in nothing. Whether its government cover-ups, neoconservative cabals, alien abduction, or the ghost of Elvis, we’ll believe in whatever assures us that some guiding force is driving the course of our own existence.
And perhaps that is the silver lining. As aimless as our drifting may appear, we do seem conscious that something is missing from our lives. Caught in the paradox between blind faith in the miracles of technology and the persistent yearning of our souls for higher purpose, we look here, look there, look everywhere for something to fill the hollow space inside us.
BEHIND DOOR NUMBER 1
Ultimately, the answer may reside not so much where we look but how we look. This was the message of the great talmudic sage Rabbi Meir when he said:
Do not look at the container but what is in it; for you may find a new vessel filled with old wine, and you may find an old vessel that contains no wine at all.
In modern parlance, we've learned it this way: don’t judge a book by its cover. The problem is that we do just that.
Swept up by glitter and glamour, we spend much more time fixated on outer trappings than inner substance. If we would simply turn the cover or look inside the bottle, a whole new world of understanding would open up before our eyes.
But we don’t want to make the effort. Instead, we shift our attention from one shiny new object to the next. Unfocussed, undirected, unsure where we should turn next – we drift. Undisciplined, we find that authentic wisdom persistently eludes us.
But wisdom is not merely acquired through diligence and discipline; wisdom is the source of diligence and discipline. A fool is neither a dolt nor an ignoramus; he is one who does not wish to become wise. And in a society that increasingly worships vicarious pleasures and superficial achievement, the motivation to acquire wisdom has grown as rare as the discipline necessary for its acquisition.
THEY HAVE EYES BUT CANNOT SEE
There is no cure for intentional blindness. Neither optometrist nor corrective lenses can repair willful myopia. Only by heeding the inner voice pleading for us to pierce the shroud of intellectual darkness can we kindle the light of wisdom. This is the voice that urges us to reject the blandishments of pixilated culture in favor of pursuing genuine purpose.
Elsewhere in the Talmud, Rabbi Dosa son of Harkinas teaches that,
Late morning sleep, mid-afternoon wine, children’s chatter, and participating in assemblies of the ignorant remove a man from his world.
There will always be those who embrace superficiality, terrified of the consequences of commitment and the responsibilities of discovering true meaning. Don’t join in the company of those who drift through the days and years of their lives, indifferent to the timeless wisdom that could save them from themselves.
Instead, seize the day and look toward the mountain tops; or, better yet, to the stars. Seek out the truly wise and sit at their feet to drink from their wisdom. Don’t be afraid of what you might discover, and don’t be dissuaded by the scorn of fools.
Published in this month's issue of The Wagon Magazine