An Inert Gray Blur

The years following World War II saw unprecedented progress in Western standards of living. The average American and Western European was wealthier and healthier than all but a handful of the people who had ever lived. That same period saw even greater growth in another area: the incidence of clinical depression among the same population. As Gregg Easterbrook tells us in The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, there has been as much as a "ten-fold increase in unipolar depression in industrial nations [in] the postwar era." Some of this is the result of better diagnosis. Still, it's a shocking increase and, on the surface, seems contradictory -- that is, until you understand the role that beliefs and worldviews play in shaping how we feel about our lives. According to Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, much of the increase in depression can be attributed to the effects of ideas and beliefs that have taken hold in our culture. One of these is individualism, seeing all of life through the self. Previous emphasis on family, faith, and community "allowed individuals to view their private setbacks within a larger context." But now, in the age of the self, our setbacks take on "enormous importance." Another mistaken idea contributing to depression is the "postwar teaching of victimology and helplessness." "Intellectuals, politicians, tort lawyers, and the media" have worked to identify and designate new classes of victims. As Seligman notes, more and more Americans identify themselves as victims of one sort or another. The result is a sense of helplessness. Americans, especially the young, claim to have less and less control over their lives at the same time that they enjoy unprecedented personal freedom. And our mistaken beliefs aren't limited to our ideas about ourselves. For many years, astrophysicists have theorized that one day the universe will cease expanding, decay into an "inert gray blur," and all existence will cease. This theory was cited by writer Thomas Pynchon and others as proof that life is meaningless. As it turns out, those astrophysicists were probably wrong, but that hasn't stopped writers and philosophers from continuing to proclaim the meaninglessness of life. Easterbrook notes that the period of increased depression was one in which most Western Europeans and many Americans "lost their belief in higher powers or a higher purpose." They took their cues from the likes of Nobel Prize-winning biologist Jacques Monod. Monod wrote that "man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance." Philosophical materialism, you see, disguised as scientific fact, has contributed to the depression that has gripped the West. The irony is that the damage described by Easterbrook is largely self-inflicted. The West embraced these destructive ideas as it looked for alternatives to the Western Christian tradition. It believed that rejecting this tradition led to freedom. Instead, of course, it led to despair. As it turns out, prosperity is no substitute for what Christianity gave the West: a sense of purpose that begins with understanding who, not just "I," but we really are.
For Further Reading and Information
Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House, 2003). Steven Martinovich, "A problem with prosperity?" Enter Stage Right, 12 January 2004. Paul C. Vitz, Psychology as Religion (Eerdmans, 1994).


Chuck Colson



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