By J. Roslyn
Pete Davis has put his finger on the pulse of those under 40 years of age and found the vast majority split between the excitement of what he has labeled “Infinite Browsing,” or the “Culture of Open Options” and the “Counterculture of Commitment.” Davis covers all of this and more in his first book, “Dedicated: The Case for Commitment In An Age Of Infinite Browsing,” which hits shelves on May 4.
Davis writes that his book “is about the tension between these two cultures.” He likens the open options to a hallway with rooms. A young person can bounce to one or more rooms, i.e., experience new jobs, new relationships, new cities, or commit to stay in one “room” or live in the hallway. Davis writes that some of his peers “don’t commit to a career path because we’re worried that we will be stuck doing something that doesn’t quite fit our true self. Others of us are forced from job to job by a precarious economy. For many of us, it’s a little bit of both.”
Is this a new syndrome or has Davis locked onto an age-old problem that the young have struggled with in the last one hundred years?
Post-World War 1, a generation of survivors of that war took to speakeasies and sexual affairs with a mania born out of disgust. They tired of the commitments older generations had imposed on them, which led to a slaughter of vast numbers of young men on the battlefields of Europe. Joined by young women who had nursed the bloody soldiers or who had lost husbands, boyfriends and siblings, these “Bright Young Things” revelled in the illusion that they need not choose one of the many choices in front of them.
The ‘60s also spawned a generation of free-thinking individuals who got stuck on the old existential problem, “Why am I here?” Just as today, there was massive upheaval as the young protested the war in Vietnam. While that was mostly successful, the fight against racism, bigotry, misogyny, and homophobia still had decades to go before there were major societal changes, and we are still fighting for many of those changes today.
So, has Davis simply redressed an age-old problem in 21st Century clothing? No, I think he has used his brilliant laser focus to effectuate a change in his generation that no one else is championing, and which prior generations of young men and women grew old without understanding how they left the excitement of change behind.
He has done this by framing the Counterculture of Commitment not as a giving in to the monotony of adult life, like the protagonist in Herman Wouk’s “Marjorie Morningstar,” or the giving in to untethered philosophy of the beat generation, or the rejection of everything by the hippies.
Instead, Davis extolls the “Long Haul Heroism” of individuals who have spent decades creating and building the institutions that nurture and create stability in society, and he uses the “little city” of Falls Church, Virginia as the canvas for his discussion.
Addressing the low attention spans and “low commitment spans” of his generation, Davis writes “when you look at what we have real affection for — whom we admire, what we respect, and what we remember — it’s rarely the institutions and people who come from the Culture of Open Options. It’s the master committers we love.” As Davis introduces us to these master committers, we see that he also is penning a love letter to his hometown, Falls Church. He writes:
I also grew up in a town — Falls Church, Virginia — that had a strong identity. It had a small school system and a rich civic life, especially for children: Boy and Girl Scouts, Operation EarthWatch, youth soccer and Little League every Saturday morning, the Falls Church News-Press at everyone’s door every Thursday, the fall festival in October, the Memorial Day parade in May. Behind every beloved institution in town was a dedicated person. Howard Herman helmed the weekly farmers’ market. Nikki and Ed Henderson were in charge of the annual blues festival. Nick Benton kept the News-Press running. Barb Cram kept the local art shows going. Sue John kept the preschool open. Tom Prewitt coached the youth basketball teams.
Every one of the named master committers built or rebuilt their passion from scratch. For example, Benton drove into Falls Church one day in 1991 and said, “this town needs a newspaper,” and day after day for 30 years, he has produced that newspaper every week. Nikki and Ed Henderson moved back to Falls Church in 1994, from studying in Africa, and because of them Falls Church has the wonderful Tinner Hill’s Blues Festival.
Davis uses an analogy from Pete Seeger about a seesaw to explain the long-haul dedication required to build something and to effectuate changes.
One side is planted firmly on the ground, weighed down by boulders. The side in the air has an empty basket atop it. A small group of people patiently work to fill the basket with sand, one teaspoon at a time. The crowd watching scoffs, because nothing is changing. But one day, the whole seesaw is going to flip — not little by little, but all at once. People will ask, “How did it happen so suddenly?” The answer, of course, is all those teaspoons over the years.
Davis writes that he wrote his book to inspire others of his generation to become committers, committed to entering into “faithful relationships” with “particular causes and crafts, places and communities, professions and people.” He writes:
If you care about advancing the continuing liberation struggles that will give people even more options and free people from even more involuntary commitments, then you need to care about commitment, too. We are only as free as we are today because committed citizens, patriots, builders, stewards, artisans, and companions got us here. And every struggle for justice that remains today will only be advanced if enough dedicated people step up again.
Pete Davis has written an insightful book that also is an important book that, hopefully, will inspire, not just his generation, but all generations to dig deep and make the kind of commitments that will spark both creativity and stability.
On Thursday, May 13 at 7 p.m., Davis is having a (virtual) book launch at One More Page Books (2200 N Westmoreland St., Arlington) for his book. Three locals profiled in the book have been invited to participate in a panel: Marybeth Donahue Connelly, Nikki Graves Henderson and Hannah Jordan to discuss it.