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A civics lesson for 20-somethings

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Those years of our lives were certainly sobering ones for me and my friends. After being pumped up on “save the world” rhetoric and convinced of our own smarts at nurturing liberal arts colleges, we were kicked out of the dorms and into the doldrums of daily existence.

In the “real world,” I didn’t get A’s for sitting through the wandering rants of enraged people at my neighborhood association meeting. I didn’t receive extra credit for my get-out-the-vote phone calling, waiting as an elderly woman in Ohio left to get a pen and then forgot I was still connected, trying to tell her where she could vote in the upcoming election.

The years from 22 to 25, especially within America’s current economic constraints, are often a time of severe readjustment. What psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness” can develop: When one has grand expectations, and finds them repeatedly unfulfilled, the unavoidable next stop is despair. Young people, already experiencing disequilibrium, find that their efforts to be civically engaged don’t feel as if they add up to much. They stop showing up at the marches. They stop making an effort to go to the meetings. What, after all, does it really amount to?

To some extent, this is a natural aspect of this stage in life. There’s a reason there’s so much awkward sex and soul-searching in Lena Dunham’s HBO show “Girls” but almost no neighborly kindness. People in their early 20s are understandably self-focused. They’re trying to make a life for themselves.

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