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You Are Free to Not Despair
A Year-End Exhortation
Gen-Z have obstacles in front of them that millennials like myself did not. I’m grateful that I know a childhood apart from the Internet and apart from the smartphone, and that my middle school years were almost nothing like the digital fight for existence depicted in Bo Burnham’s film Eighth Grade. But I am grateful (for their sake) that Gen-Z did not have to experience social life during the age of the hipsters. I might be overthinking things, but I really do believe the hipsters introduced and ensconced many of the worst cultural neuroses that beset people my age and even older.
Two of those neuroses are especially bad and especially hard to break. The first is the idea that making everything you do about gaining the approval of peers is a legitimate way to live adult life. Hipsters won cultural influence especially in the area of music, and the result was a generation of people who believe that they cannot be worthy of love or respect unless what they like has the approval of an ambiguous group of culture makers. I don’t care at all for Ayn Rand, but she referred to the practice of living vicariously through the approval of others “second-handing,” and that’s a really important way to express how a lot of people my age live their lives. Social media is the crowning achievement of the liturgy of second handing. Almost everything that happens on social media happens with the hope and expectation of approval. That dynamic alone has transformed many people.
The second neurosis is more important, however. The hipsters perfected the art of not really enjoying anything. It’s possible that this neurosis is simply an implication of the first; can you really enjoy anything when you’re too busy calculating the value it could add to your reputation? Nevertheless, the idea that one must approach lovely, enjoyable things with a kind of Kantian detachment—never smiling too big, never laughing too loud, engaged enough to say you experienced it but never enough to look unserious—has had a profound effect on our culture.
This neurosis has greatly disfigured my generation’s capacity for joy. You see it in the way that pop culture is mined for political significance, and anything insufficiently activist is dismissed or worse. You see it in the way that the happiest characters in movies—the ones most interested in other people or who lose themselves in some diverting interest—are the geeks, the nerds, the social pariahs (who help the heroes and so are kind of on the winning side). You see it in the way that so many people make moribund statements about how “cringe” certain things are, and “cringe” almost always means “this person or thing is so earnest it makes me uncomfortable.”
But the chief way you see it in my generation is the way that people my age are absolutely miserable. Millennials are aggressively lonely; they assign Hogwarts houses to themselves to help prop up the fantasy of living at boarding school. They eagerly await movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Matrix Resurrections which tell the same stories about the same characters they knew in high school. Millennials are perpetually wanting to turn the clock back…not so much, I think, to avoid the responsibilities of adulthood, but to escape its isolation, its performative solemnity, and its crushing dogma that nothing matters whatsoever except “making a difference.” In self-defense, younger Americans hoard their politics, their Netflix accounts, and their social media profiles in the hallucinatory safety of their living rooms, away from both COVID and the paralyzing fear of awkwardness, and broadcast their sadness to anyone who will listen.
It brings to mind Ebenezer Scrooge. The great thing about Scrooge is that he’s not like most modern villains, whose evil can be explained by a kind of victim experience earlier in life. The Ghost of Christmas Past hints of some grief and possible abuse in Scrooge’s childhood, but not as an explanation for his life. Instead, Scrooge is presented as a normal person, with normal life experiences, but who has lost something integral to his humanity. His descent into mammonism happened slowly, little by little, so that the visions of Fezziwig’s party dissolve almost seamlessly into his abandonment of his fiance. What makes A Christmas Carol timeless is that, even though we all think of ourselves as Cratchit or Fred, Scrooge isn’t that alien.
Scrooge is lost not primarily because he’s rich, but because he is alone. He protects his money by not warming his office, but more importantly, he protects his time by not accepting invitations to dinner. He doesn’t like carolers; they’re not doing anything constructive. He doesn’t give to the poor; why should people who won’t immunize themselves from poverty receive charitable treatment? (Let the reader understand.) Scrooge is an Augustinian parable: curved in on himself, locked in despair, resenting any evidence that such despair is not shared by others.
My point is that the inner logic of Scrooge’s life is becoming true of more and more modern people. In many people the hope for meaningful joy is being snuffed out, and the result is a Scrooge-like resentment of anyone or anything that exhibits the kind of happiness that one can lose himself in. Our political tribes are embassies of despair, portraying us as helpless in the face of either whiteness or wokeness. Pop culture recycles the artifacts of the 80s, 90s, and now even 2000s, betraying our sense that every good story has already been told.
Even in Christian culture, we see this. We tremble that Christ is not pleased with us unless we can show him a “radical,” un-wasted life, so in fear the daily ornaments of faithfulness look pointless. The Bible teacher you respect made a weird comment on Twitter, so now you have to choose: either unblinking allegiance to everything that person says and will say, or unblinking opposition to their existence. That worship song you enjoy is written by people who once belonged to a church that several years ago was accused of some bad things. So you enjoy listening to the sounds of evil now? That’s where we are.
We live in an age in which anger is called valiant, resentment is called conviction, and despair is expected of serious people. The point of this year-end post is to tell you:
You are free to not despair.
You are not obligated to be angry.
You don’t even have to be “in the know.”
You don’t have to get everything. Did you prayerfully make a decision about vaccines? I’ve got great news: you don’t have to defend it or attack those who disagree. If the passage of time finds that you made a bad decision, guess what? Jesus Christ conquered that bad decision on your behalf. It will never be held against you. Christmas means that when you fail or fall, you fail and fall back into the arms of grace.
Does your head spin at the latest allegations of abuse? Guess what: You don’t have to sleuth yourself to peace of mind. Jesus Christ is the righteous judge who will bring all secrets to light.
Do you feel the strain of enlistment in the culture war? Guess what: You don’t have to fire that weapon. Jesus Christ is the builder of the church whom the gates of hell will not overcome.
Do you feel like your daily regiment of Christian articles and blog posts leaves you feeling like you lack one more thing, that you’ll never get it exactly right? Guess what: You don’t have to live your spiritual life vicariously through the discipleship of your computer or phone screen. Jesus Christ gives you in his word and in his church everything you need to know him more.
In 2022, you can breathe. You can enjoy. You can rest. You can lose yourself and not Instagram it. It’s allowed. You are free to not despair. The light of the world has come and the darkness still has not overcome it. Never act like it might.