Eva Fairbanks’s long essay in the Huffington Post regarding an increase in religious vocations attributed to Millennial women is interesting on a number of fronts, particularly its suggestions about the side-effects of modern ideas about youth and success:
I used to think I was the only one whose outwardly awesome-seeming life—I was following my “passion” in a rocky economy, maintaining my friendships, looking good on Facebook—bore almost no relationship to her roiling inner monologue, until a friend of mine showed me her diary. It was shocking because the sentiments sounded so much like my own and also so little like anything most of us are courageous enough to reveal: ceaselessly self-scrutinizing, ceaselessly self-punishing. “Am I less interesting at 24 than I was at 17? Where has all my discipline, all those self-imposed exercises gotten me?” She spoke of trying to recover some potential life and world that had, in her early 20s, already been lost. Contemplating her desire for securities like money and a nice husband, she wrote, “I’m realizing I’m much more conservative than I thought.”
When I read this passage to Satya Doyle Byock, an Oregon-based psychotherapist who focuses on counseling young adults, she laughed grimly. “That’s the essence of what I hear over and over again,” she said. “We’re raised in a quantitative culture with quantitative goals.” She works with young people who believe society has given them all of the tools and the technology and the science to construct an ideal life. But they still feel like failures. And they feel shame for feeling it, and thus they are trapped in an ironclad double bind. Declaring everything achievable tends to dig a well of grief in people because it implies that any problem we encounter is a result of our miscalculation. “It causes suffering,” she said, “by denying the necessity of suffering.”
This insight brings to mind another aspect of the modern perspective that has consequences that nobody addresses: the impulse to whitewash history and to dismiss the achievements of its notable figures if they do not live up to our modern social standards. Basically, if no level of achievement or world-changing deed in history can compensate for personal foibles and imperfection, then what hope is there for anybody? You’re not allowed to improve; you have to be perfect now. If towering names out of history must be erased because they did not reject the commonplace racism, sexism, or whateverism of their times, then anybody who has, or has ever had, a thought out of step with the dogma of tolerance must live in fear of an irredeemable misthought.
Naturally, if you have to be perfect now (and your life is recorded as a permanent record online), you can’t afford any trial and error to figure out for yourself what perfection means. Somebody has to tell you what’s perfect. That’s the progressive demand. But progressivism is an ideological and political movement, so its measure of perfection is contingent upon what brings progressives power.
This relates back to the subject of Fairbanks’s article in that Jesus, by contrast, provides an image and a standard of perfection while stressing forgiveness.
Fairbanks mentions her secret envy of Christian friends with What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) bracelets. “The thought of having a single question you could ask yourself to resolve all of life’s myriad dilemmas,” she writes, “felt clarifying.” But this is the same error — the same cultivated need to have somebody tell you what perfection means. Once one’s eyes adjust, the Christian spotlight shows the conceit to be presumptuous. You’re not Jesus. Peter — the “stone” on which Jesus pledged to build His Church — was right there in the presence of the Christ, seeing with his own eyes what He was doing, and he did not do what Jesus did. Instead, he denied Him.
The actual question we should consult is much more difficult: What would Jesus have me do? That raises a crucial distinction. Witness:
Pollsters have also observed that young people in America seem more open than their parents or grandparents were to authoritarianism, as if we possess a hidden desire to be ruled—that it would be a relief. In 2016, nearly one-quarter of young Americans told Harvard researchers that democracy was “bad” for the country—in 1995, only around 10 percent of young people said that—and they are consistently more likely than their elders to say technocrats or a strong leader should run America, even if that means doing away with elections. My friend Josh, a convert to Catholicism, told me he was drawn to the church specifically because it “doesn’t hold a vote to determine the truth.”
Therein lies the danger. We haven’t taught our young the art of self mastery within a framework of traditional cultural and religious standards. We once understood that everybody must start out taking direction but, over years of experience and education, could gradually and with humble caution earn the perspective to challenge the traditional line. That approach was often slow to address moral horrors that had been inherited, but it brought gradual improvement that was more stable in nature because it was evolutionary, not revolutionary.
As a society, we ought to have evolved a more-nuanced understanding of how individualism and tradition interact and a more developed sense of when we are ready to push boundaries. Instead, radicals are whipsawing us toward guardrail-free self destruction. Sensing the danger and the impossibility of avoiding catastrophe based on their own limited experience and knowledge may be what is driving this desire to be led among younger adults.
Again, one suspects this desire to be a goal of those who push for the radical change, so they can offer a solution of their own invention. The more-traditionalist approach, by contrast, understands not only that you and I can’t possibly guide the whole ship, but also that nobody else can, either. If we individually respect social standards and the reality that there are many things we don’t individually understand, we’ll have a healthy skepticism of others who claim that their understanding is so thorough that they don’t have to respect the standards.
Under those conditions, looking to others for leadership is different from being ruled, in the same way that questioning is different from challenging.