In a viral post back in July, entrepreneur Robert Sterling described what many people feel:
There is something deeply unwell in our society right now. … I’m sure social media, economic malaise, Covid lockdowns, fentanyl, and every other reason we hear about factor into it.
Yet, all these reasons, he continued, “in aggregate, still feel insufficient.” Something “metaphysical,” seems to have shifted.
A Breakpoint commentary in April described the mental health crisis of American teens, especially teenage girls. As The New York Times reported, “Nearly three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021 … and one in three girls seriously considered attempting suicide.” Boys aren’t doing much better, with so-called “deaths of despair” at an all-time high among the male population.
This widespread mental instability has culturewide consequences. In a recent documentary, filmmaker Christopher Rufo diagnosed what he calls our “Cluster B Society.” The rise of “woke” ideology and cancel culture, he argued, corresponds with the explosion of psychopathologies like narcissism and borderline personality disorder. These “disorders of the self,” Rufo explains, wreck relationships and lead to profound social dysfunction. When they become “formalized and entrenched” in “human resource departments, government policies, cultural institutions, and civil rights law,” they lead to precisely the kinds of extremism and emotional instability that infects politics today, especially among the young.
What is this “metaphysical shift,” this feature of modern society, that is driving so many people into despair? Writing for the Institute for Family Studies, University of Virginia sociologist Joseph Davis argues that our mental health crisis is the end of a long process that began well before the iPhone, social media, or fentanyl. The seeds of despair and derangement, he thinks, were sown when people stopped looking to timeless institutions and transcendent realities to give their lives meaning, and instead turned inward for answers.
Davis cites Jennifer Breheny Wallace, who in her book Never Enough notes that even successful and privileged young people often say they feel “utterly vacant inside.” The reason they are looking inward for meaning is because they’ve been taught for decades now, by everyone from Disney and Oprah to pop stars and professors, to reject external sources of meaning like God, family, or country. “Their truth” is found within, while external sources of authority are oppressive and stifle authentic individuality.
As a result, Davis argues, “the public frameworks that gave life direction and meaning—prescribed roles, rites of passage, compelling life scripts, stable occupational trajectories—continue to fade away.” That’s why, as he puts it,
We feel empty, inadequate, and adrift because we have been thrown back on ourselves, forced to face the challenge—at younger and younger ages—of trying to establish an identity, make commitments, live with conviction, desire life, and find meaning without the very sources that make these things possible in the first place.
As theologian Carl Trueman demonstrated in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, the idea that life’s greatest meaning comes from within and from there we express our authentic identity is a recent development. Our ancestors looked beyond self, to external sources of authority. In our culture of expressive individualists, many people are finding themselves, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, unchained from a sun.
Writing of the death of God in his famous Parable of the Madman, Nietzsche accurately predicted the chaos to come but also noted that people in his day could not realize the implications of doing away with fixed, transcendent meaning. “I have come too early,” says the Madman. “This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men.”
Perhaps today, in the ruins of the institutions, traditions, churches, families, and cultures once tied to belief in an unchanging God, Nietzsche’s prophecy has come true. We are adrift with only ourselves as gods. If the statistics are accurate, more and more people are finding this intolerable.
We were never meant to invent meaning for ourselves. The demands of our hyper-individualistic society feel unbearable because they’re unreasonable. We put the weight of defining the world on our shoulders, and it’s heavier than we ever imagined. The self is not big enough to define the truth.
This means that solving our mental health crisis will take much more than cutbacks on social media or crackdowns on opioids (though these are good ideas). It will take a return to older, less individualistic sources of identity and a willingness to stop treating “be yourself” or “you do you” as some kind of profound wisdom.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. To help us share Breakpoint with others, leave a review on your favorite podcast app. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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