by Emily Sloan, ’05, ’06
Emily reflects on her life as a member of a distinct subgroup within the Twixter phenomenon:
“Prodding us to keep moving is the terror of becoming mired in a situation that will eventually make us bitter, uninspired, hypocritical and dispassionate… The danger of losing freedom and idealism is a major fear of the Twixters I know, but it is not the only reason for the movement's recent surge. ”
When people are born they are gentle and soft.
At death they are hard and stiff.
When plants are alive they are soft and delicate.
When they die, they wither and dry up.
Therefore the hard and stiff are followers of death.
The gentle and soft are the followers of life.
Thus, if you are aggressive and stiff, you won't win.
When a tree is hard enough, it is cut. Therefore
The hard and big are lesser,
The gentle and soft are greater.
--Tao Te Ching
Last month, my work supervisor handed me an application to renew my position for another school year. "We'd love to have you back," he said, "You're already situated, the kids know and like you, and all the logistics have been taken care of."
I didn't have the heart to tell the man that staying here for another year is the last thing on my mind. Don't misunderstand: I like my life as an elementary school English teacher in a small French town, but a large part of what makes the position appealing is its inherent transience. That is, I can overlook the limitations of this existence because of the unusual opportunities it provides--the chance to experience Europe as an insider, to improve my French first-hand with native speakers, to sample fine food and culture, to travel cheaply throughout the continent during abundant vacations. And yet I have no desire to spend the rest of my life in a relatively unchallenging job in a small town far removed from the family, friends and places I love while inhabiting a mediocre apartment in a quaint but unspectacular locale. I muttered to my supervisor that I'd probably be in grad school next year, but thank you, the offer was very flattering.
Many members of my generation seek similar experiences, by nature enriching, deep, educational, and--this is crucial--temporary. While most of our parents had settled into marriages and careers by their early-to-mid twenties, many of my friends in their mid-to-late twenties are committed only to independence and both internal and external discovery, with marriage and children only vague possibilities on the distant horizon. In 2005, Time magazine published an article on this so-called "Twixter" phenomenon, describing people like me as being caught in "a distinct and separate life stage, a strange, transitional never-never land between adolescence and adulthood in which people stall for a few extra years, putting off the iron cage of adult responsibility that constantly threatens to crash down on them."
I suspect that my friends and I represent perhaps a distinct subset within a larger group. And so while the Time article depicted Twixters as sometimes lazy, indecisive and irresponsible, the subset I know is better characterized by a core set of values: strong idealism, passion for social and environmental justice, skepticism of the status quo, promotion of simple, humble lifestyles and great openness to the world around them. Many SCA alumni share these values, and so it is fitting that I write about this subset and not the generation as a whole (which I can't really speak for anyway).
Prodding us to keep moving is the terror of becoming mired in a situation that will eventually make us bitter, uninspired, hypocritical and dispassionate. We have seen enough of our parents choose security over passion only to end up unhappy, as epitomized by Kevin Spacey's character in the film American Beauty. We thus regard the quest for stability, security and money with suspicion, afraid of turning brittle, stiff and lifeless, financially well-off but starved for a deep connection to the world around us and the excitement of genuine adventure. Avoiding the dreaded nine-to-five, we seek unusual, intense experiences building backcountry trails for a summer, organic farming in small-town Ecuador, ski bumming, biking from farm to farm in New Zealand, insulating pipes for Antarctic research stations, teaching in Mongolia, Arctic Canada, eastern Europe, France. There is no shortage of opportunities; one girl I worked with had been volunteering for nine years straight with no intention of stopping. Occasionally, when money's tight or we're obliged to stay put for awhile, we may take a less-than-ideal job serving pizza, answering phones or making pastries, but the knowledge that our stay is only temporary--that is, we are still essentially FREE to do as we like--makes such jobs palatable and often quite fun.
The danger of losing freedom and idealism is thus a major fear of the Twixters I know, but it is not the only reason for the movement's recent surge. As mentioned, appealing, often expense-paid, opportunities have cropped up in the past ten to fifteen years; numerous thick books have been written detailing the hundreds of organizations offering work and volunteer positions all over the globe. The dominance of the American economy helps our cause in several ways. First, unlike our parents, most of us have never had close contact with war or poverty. Our essential prosperity allows us to pursue activities a less fortunate person might regard as impractical and unnecessary. We don't need to find a job with full benefits and a retirement plan straight out of college. There's no urgency, we tell ourselves, and thus we have the luxury to explore. American wealth also means that a command of English is a highly sought-after skill, and tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of English speakers are paid to live abroad and teach their mother tongue each year. Finally, the internet has hugely increased the availability of information about these positions, the extent of which can be overwhelming.
In many ways, nomadism feels ideal. Unburdened by responsibilities of children, mortgage payments, or even many possessions (it's hard to accumulate much when you pick up and move every six months), the Twixters I know find it relatively easy to live up to their ideals, environmental and social. It's a simple matter to consume fewer resources when you're living communally with a woods-based trail crew, to eat mostly local, organic food if you're working on a small farm or to bike or carpool to get groceries when you're surviving off a small stipend. People take great pride in their intentional simplicity; during my final two years of college, I managed to eat good, healthy and often local food for about ten dollars a week, and Chris McCandless, an extreme Twixter made famous in John Krakauer's Into the Wild, survived for several months largely off of rice that he carried around with him in a backpack.
Yet transcience has its downsides. Some are material. I haven't owned a real bed since high school, for example, and finding health insurance is often difficult. On a deeper level, though, lies the problem of identity. The long-term wanderer may have connections all over the world, but most likely she does not have deep roots in any one community. And most idealists would argue that strong, developed, committed communities are key to approaching social and environmental problems. Although I have personal and quite intimate experience living in fourteen towns, eight states and four countries since the year 2000, it's worth considering what good all that experience has ultimately served. Short-term altruism is admirable, but it's also relatively easy. No matter how grim the circumstances of a given volunteer post, they are never really your own, and so you serve cheerily, bask in your own goodwill, and then leave, hoping that somehow the local issues will miraculously sort themselves out in the future.
The U.S. Peace Corps drills into its volunteers the saying "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." The volunteer thus aims to impart problem-solving skills so as to make a long-term impact despite his short-term stay. But the real challenge, never mentioned in Peace Corps training, comes from the fact that most volunteers, young and idealistic as they are, have never had to learn how to fish or had to rely on one lake or river for their livelihood, and furthermore, they have probably never been truly hungry. How can we hope to teach what we have never really learned for ourselves?
This is not to say that exploration is useless. In fact, exploration and the mindset that goes along with it--open mindedness, curiosity, the ability to think beyond narrow, long-established boundaries--are hugely important, especially in our increasingly globalized world. We can no longer attempt to solve local problems without considering the broader context that contains them. Programs like SCA allow people to develop confidence and self-awareness, plus a sense that tangible positive change is possible, despite the often bleak picture painted of our planet's future.
But that change cannot happen through goodwill alone. The greatest challenge, I am starting to realize, is to take that goodwill and all of the tools and knowledge gathered during our exploratory years, and to plant them, to lovingly and deliberately set down roots without sacrificing flexibility and resilience. We who fear becoming "followers of death," as Lao Tzu put it, should not therefore shirk forests. Wa are all trees of some kind or another that will all eventually wither and die. But we do not have to grown into hard, unmoving beings. The kind of forest we create is up to us.