The moral Achilles heel of a generation

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


March 1, 1999

A couple of years ago, out of a job and looking for work, one of my nephews was bouncing from one family member to the next, accepting whatever free room and meals might be given to him. He was young, travelling light, resilient, with a good attitude, and content enough to sleep on sofas and eat whatever anyone gave him. He wasn't one to panic quickly.

One day, at a family dinner, one of my sisters told him: "If you ever get really desperate, you can move into my house for awhile." His reply, "How would I know if I'm desperate?"

When Bill Clinton apologized on world television last summer for abusing the trust of his family and country, many doubted his sincerity. A lot of people said: "He isn't sincere. He isn't really sorry, he just got caught!"

Was he sincere? I raise the question because his struggles here are so much in fact the struggles of our generation. Bill Clinton is the first baby boomer president of the United States. What is interesting is that both the virtues and the faults he brings to that office are quite typical, archetypal even, of that generation, my generation.

Hence, listening to him apologize and explain himself last Aug. 17, and other times before and after, I believe he spoke with as much sincerity as he, and our generation, can muster.

But the problem is that our generation, analogous to my cash-strapped nephew not knowing what it means to be desperate, doesn't know what it means to be really sincere. If he were asked: "Are you sincere?" Clinton (like the rest of us) should probably answer: "How would I know if I'm really sincere?"

This isn't a facetious comment. Sincerity, for us, has a certain shallowness, a certain blindness and a certain rationalization to it, even as it has a certain genuineness too. Thus, Clinton's struggle to be sincere is much our generation's struggle in that area. In a way, he is our generation incarnate, both its good and its bad.

First, the good: He was sincere. Although he was cornered, he meant it when he said he was sorry. Underneath it all, reluctant to confess or not, there was sincerity, contrition. He felt badly about betraying trust.

However, even though he was sincere, a number of things colour that sincerity and these things are also typical of our generation – so typical in fact that Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and his reaction to it constitute a certain parable of the baby boomer generation. What is typical and archetypical here?

Clinton has much to apologize for, but then so does our whole generation. Few things so nakedly expose the moral Achilles heel of a whole generation as does the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Is there something to be learned here?