THE FINAL BATTLE : Millennial Angst and the Making of Heroes
This is a cold war / Do you know what you’re fighting for?” — Janelle Monae
It is April 27, 2019, and as I write this, four provinces of my home country, Canada, have declared a state of emergency due to flooding. At the same time, a swath of Conservative provincial governments has taken power across most of the country, all swearing commitment to the implementation of ecologically destructive projects and to the rollback of carbon tax, green energy investments, and climate change research initiatives. In Ontario, my current home province, the premier has announced billion-dollar clawbacks to social services, healthcare (including emergency paramedic services), libraries, and welfare. All across the world, fascism, environmental collapse, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, and income inequality have escalated in recent years to the level of crisis.
As a Millennial in my late 20s, I have been struggling to come to the terms of what it means to be coming into “full” adulthood — to really leave to prolonged adolescence that my generation has been living through — in this time of societal and environmental collapse. Like most people my age, the developmental milestones set for me by previous generations seem largely irrelevant or impossible to reach: I’ll likely never own a home. My income is based not on a “respectable” career but on an endless string of side hustles, and the idea of retiring on a company pension is a sad, sad joke (and so might be the notion of retiring at all). Sure, I might have children someday, if I ever get my shit together enough to feel responsible enough to parent — but what is the point of raising children in a future where the planet seems ever more likely to be reduced to smoking ruin?
I’d say I was going through a quarter-life crisis, but the truth is, my sense is that most people in our generation are. What’s the meaning of our lives, if the great futures, homes, careers, nuclear families that we were taught to hope and strive for are no longer viable? It’s no secret that anxiety and depression are an epidemic among our age group. Ours is the first generation in recent history to have lower incomes, a lower standard of living, and a higher mortality rate than our parents.
My fellow Millennials: We are at war for the future, but what we were taught was to put our heads down and save money for three-hundred-fifty square foot condos. The darkness has fallen, and we are told to get non-existent jobs and pay off student debt. It’s time for us to claim our power, save the world, yet many of us feel like basic “adulting” is a standard beyond our grasp.
So what to do with all that? As a writer and storyteller, I find myself returning, more and more, to the stories I grew up with: For me, these are the books I read as a child, but I believe that all stories contain maps to growth, to personal discovery, to meaning of a life worth living. This, more than ever, is what our generation needs, I think. We need maps to meaning, moral compasses. We need to know who and what we’re fighting for. We need to know why.
I grew up in Canada in an upwardly class-mobile Chinese family in the 1990s. My parents, conforming to race and class stereotype, banned me and my sisters from immersing ourselves in North American pop culture, instead encouraging us to entertain ourselves “intellectually,” by reading and practicing the piano. I endured the piano (can any six year old really enjoy endless repetitions of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier?), but I adored reading. Books were my everything, my all, my only escape from the monotony and terror of growing up effeminate, Asian, an embarrassment to my parents, in White Canada at a time when the epithets “gaylord” and “faggot” were still in popular usage.
As a result, I grew up deeply absorbed in the popular Western children’s literature of the 90s and aughts: dramatic genre and period narratives, earnest coming-of age stories rooted in idealism and the personal (often literal) journey towards heroism. These were stories about ordinary children called to greatness; not greatness of achievement or power, necessarily, but to greatness of spirit. Such children were called by fate out of mundane or abject lives — the lives of boring middle children, neglected orphan children, unwanted children, misbegotten and peculiar children — and into the vast world of struggle and conflict.
Here, amid the darkness and chaos, our intrepid protagonists would discover untapped reserves of courage, strength, and the occasional supernatural power. They would discover, as well, the meaning of evil, and they would be tempted to give in to their greatest of flaws of personality: laziness, bloodthirst, the lust for dominion over others. Because we’re talking about children’s lit; and because optimistic modernism was the reigning affect of the time, the vast majority of them would choose good over evil, though not always without personal sacrifice. In so doing, they would also, frequently, save the world (or at least their best friends’ lives).
I am referring to books such as Lowis Lowry’s The Giver, in which a young boy named Jonas slowly escapes the brainwashing of dystopian society, and Number the Stars, in which a young Danish girl named Annalise finds herself contributing to the Resistance against the Nazis. I’m also thinking of the Harry Potter series, which hardly requires exposition, except to point out that this series also follows the classic hero’s journey arc of the unexpected complexity of choosing good in the battle against evil. Other examples include Gail Carson Levine’s superb The Two Princesses of Bamarre; Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing series (a deeply compelling story about, of all things, an adolescent bat who leads his colony to freedom from the oppression of owls); and even Meg Cabot’s frequently-dismissed-by-misogynistic-adults The Princess Diaries, whose spunky heroine Mia Thermopolis demonstrates far more feminist depth than she is usually given credit for. This is just to name a very few.
Most of all, however, I am thinking of the Animorphs series by K.A. Applegate, then widely popular, but now largely marginalized (if not forgotten) by the Millennial cultural zeitgeist. The Animorphs was the rather shockingly dark story of five (or six, if you count Ax the alien — which I do) teenagers pulled unwittingly into an intergalactic war between the Yeerks (a horde of alien slugs whose raison d’etre is to infest the brains of other species and in so doing, take over their bodies) and the Andalites (a crumbling empire of alien centaurs whose arrogance and cultural elitism results in enormous damage to the societies of other species).
Zany and offbeat as all that might sound (yes, I admit, it sounds very zany), Animorphs spared zero punches when it came to confronting the gritty realities of war and its psychological impact on the series’ protagonists, who were essentially child soldiers conscripted into guerilla warfare against ruthless, genocidal enemies. From the first book, the titular Animorphs were thrown into battle, forced to kill sentient beings, threatened, tortured, and made to confront the darkness of their own essential natures in uniquely horrific ways. (One standout moment is the Animorphs’ decision to consign a traitor in their midst to a lifetime trapped in the form of a rat on a deserted island, which they identify as a preferable alternative to killing in cold blood.)
Books like The Giver and Animorphs taught me, and millions of fellow readers, about ethics and the nature of heroism: its costs and rewards, its twists and turns and intersections with villainy, to which it is often startlingly similar in appearance. These were books explicitly written, I believe, not only to entertain our generation, but to give us a glimpse into the trials that our own world might hold as we grew up and took our place as adults. They were written to give us insight to the meaning of good and evil, and to help us identify which is which — in others and in ourselves.
So what does all this have to do, you might wonder, with the current day environmental apocalypse and resurgence of fascism?
Well, for one thing, books like this saved my life — and the lives of many sad, bookish children — once before. Maybe, just maybe, they can do it again.
My family of origin comes from China, and started its slow migration to the West around the time of the First World War and continued on to the 1950s. Famine, revolution, and the massacre of innocents — by the Japanese, by the Nationalist and Communist parties, by warlords — were woven into the fabric of everyday life. The families of origin of my Millennial peers also have histories of strife from this time period: revolution, the Great Depression, world wars, the Holocaust perpetuated by the Nazis, the residential schooling of a generation of Indigenous children.
From this generation of hunger and deprivation emerged our parents’ generation: the Baby Boomers, who, shaped by the trauma passed on from their parents, developed an ethos by and large based on consumption. Happiness was based on the size of houses, the number of cars one could, the amount of money one could spend. Even those Boomers swept up by the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and 70s were, for the most part, seduced or forced to give these ideologies up by the inexorable growth of capitalism and neoliberalism.
The prevailing wisdom among Boomers came to mean that the ownership of real estate, the hoarding of wealth, and adherence to middle and upper class social norms translated to safety and security, which itself translated to the successful achievement of adulthood. Capitalist success and self-actualization were collapsed into one another, an ideology that remains deeply embedded in capitalist structures and aesthetics today. The arc of history seemed to bear this out: Boomers (especially white Boomers) who bought houses and saved their money, got corporate jobs and climbed the ladder now occupy the securest places in our crumbling society.
This is why, I believe, that generation continues to admonish ours as lazy, indolent, and underdeveloped despite evidence that we work harder and for less pay, with less hope of economic security. This is why so many of our parents continue to exhort us to not rock the boat, save up for homeownership, and get married, despite the blatant reality that the current political and ecological climates are calling for something very different.
The result of all this is that in the collective psyche of Millennials, there is the deep-rooted, nagging belief that we are not good enough, not “real” adults. We’ll never “make it,” the way our parents wanted us to, and even if we do, we still won’t measure up. We don’t have it in us, we think, to be truly admirable people, to live up to the heroic figures that populated our childhood stories in books and television.
We’re the wizards that Hogwarts never sent letters to. We’re the unwanted children whose mysterious calling never came. We’re the Animorphs, except we never met the alien to give us the power to change shape and fight for humanity. We waited by the phone for Destiny to call, but he decided to text some other girl or guy instead.
And this is why, I think, that when I (usually semi-jokingly) ask my peers what they plan to do “when the apocalypse arrives,” they usually respond (also semi-ironically) with something along the lines of, “ah, it’s okay, I’m not a survivalist/I just plan to die early/I’ll let the zombies take me.”
The epic hero’s journeys of the stories of our childhoods seemed, at the time, distant and allegorical. They were a thrilling escape, a beautiful fantasy, but they were not going to be our lives. Our favorite characters would discover magical abilities and save kingdoms, and we would figure out how to file taxes and rent homes. Stories were fantastic and we were mundane. Heroes were bound to find epic adventures, and we were made to find…something else.
We weren’t going to be forged in the fires of a Great Battle between good and evil. We weren’t going to discover whether we were meant to be heroes or not — such journeys were consigned to the realms of history and fantasy. We might know poverty and hardship, sure, but such challenges were the drudgery of everyday life, not some epic narrative.
This, I think, is the deception that the neoliberal era has worked on our generation: That the equality and deprivation of our times is simply ordinary, rather than the stuff of great tragedy. If there’s no great evil — if oppression is natural, rather than created — then who needs heroes to stand up against it? And Millennials, poor silly Millennials with our almost pathetic 90s nostalgia, our foolish love of avocado toast, our devotion to Facebook (now resoundingly mocked by the cooler kids of Gen Z) and our unfulfilled potential, we aren’t the stuff of mythology anyway.
Except, of course, that we have to be.
In the classic hero’s journey, directly before the climactic Final Battle, there is a moment of great despair. In this moment, everything the heroes have learned and done is called into question. The hero is forced to grapple with the possibility that they are wrong, that their struggles will ultimately come to nothing as their world crumbles to dust. It is in this moment that the hero must take the final step into adulthood by letting go of their past selves and fighting on anyway.
This, dear Millennials, is where we find ourselves right now. The handful of wealthy men who run this planet would have us believe that the Final Battle was over long ago, when in fact it has just begun. They would have us to be turning on each other over petty conflicts, scrabbling for meagre scraps, and desperately clinging to the dead dreams of a shattered middle class, rather than coming together en masse to disrupt their unjust system and building a better world.
As even a marginal participant in previous social movements, I have had the smallest taste of what a united generational movement could accomplish through dedicated, collective action: Protests that fill the streets and force politicians to pay attention. Labor strikes that shut down giant corporations and force economic change. Movements have toppled governments and freed former colonies and shifted entire societies’ ways of being. We know this to be true.
The question is what we are willing to give up, what we are ready to leave behind in order to accomplish such a thing. Promises of nuclear families in pretty houses with white picket fences, perhaps. The myth of meritocracy, the comfort of believing that those who work hard and follow the rules will get their just rewards and everyone else is a failure. We might have to be ready for civil disobedience, social backlash the criticism of friends and families.
The best children’s books avoid the trope of happy endings that restore the heroes — and the heroes’ worlds — to the state they were in previous to the Final Battle. Even in victory, sacrifice and loss are inevitable to the making of heroism. Animorphs, for example, ended nearly a decade of intergalactic conflict with its main characters dead, deeply traumatized, and in one case, on trial for war crimes. Upon receiving critical feedback from some readers hoping for a more sanitized ending, author KA Applegate wrote back, in characteristic un-sugarcoated style:
“Here’s what doesn’t happen in war: there are no wondrous, climactic battles that leave the good guys standing tall and the bad guys lying in the dirt. Life isn’t a World Wrestling Federation Smackdown. Even the people who win a war, who survive and come out the other side with the conviction that they have done something brave and necessary, don’t do a lot of celebrating […]”
Applegate wrote those words in 2001, when our generation was for the most part still in childhood and adolescence. They seem startlingly resonant now, at time when even the youngest Millennials are of voting age, and we all carry some measure of responsibility for the direction of our various local and global communities. The lesson here, of course, is that our collective heroes’ journey cannot be one about personal glory, wealth, or acclaim. It must be one to salvage what is left of our future, and the future of generations to come.
It’s 2019, and the Final Battle — or at least, a Final Battle — is at hand. Wayward generation that we are, most of us were never taught how fight a war against forces at once ubiquitous and invisible: It’s easy to conceptualize beheading a tyrant or slaying a dragon, but how exactly do you vanquish a housing crisis created by gentrification and a lack of rent controls? How do you prevent total ecological collapse when all the bees are dying, the Artic ice is melting, and the only thing they told us in school was to reduce, reuse and recycle?
I don’t have those answers yet, though many writers, activists, artists, and organizers are beginning to create them. I’m not a scientist or a guerilla fighter, I’m a geek girl who reads too much. What I’ve come to believe, though, is that the first step is making the choice to fight at all, even when all seems lost. To open our eyes, to get involved, to make this fight our priority rather than trying to get ahead in a rat race that was always a losing game.
And that means giving up the fantasy, the sweet, satiating fantasy that someone else is going to come do this for us, stop climate change, end fascism, save the planet. We have to snap ourselves out of it, stop defaulting to “I guess I’ll die early” in response to the hard questions. Because yes, we might die early, the question is what we want our stories to be: Stories of giving up or stories of fighting on, despite the odds? When the zombies come for us, I’d like ours to be the generation that says, “not today.”
Time to grab a sword, I guess. Time to find out who we are.