“Surely he shall deliver us from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence,” declares David in the 91st Psalm. Indeed, he proclaims, we may find refuge under the shadow of the Almighty.
Pestilence is not a word we encounter often in our contemporary vernacular. Likely it is due to the fact that pestilence comes from 13th Century Middle English and described contagious diseases such as the Bubonic Plague. That we in the 21st Century have all but eradicated communicable, infectious disease as a common cause of death is a great achievement of modern science. The fear that stalked people in their interactions with others for most of human history is something for which we have no point of reference. Yet there is merit in attempting to recover the metaphoric value of the word pestilence as we consider our post-modern society and the ills that plague us today.
For we are infected with a communicable disease of the soul, one as ravenous to us spiritually as the Ebola virus is to its victims physically. This pestilence has been around no doubt since Cain and Abel–the drive for outward success and the internal self-flagellation we encounter when we fall short. But in the era of Facebook and Twitter, FourSquare and Klout, it is a mutated virus that not only spreads faster, but is far more deadly.
The Advertising Age showed us images of people consuming products that we were then supposed to want as a result of having seen them. The real-life Don Drapers of the 60s and 70s pioneered the mass marketing culture that spawned sentiments like “Keeping up with the Joneses.” We could see the idealized movie star or model on TV wearing a particular article of clothing, driving a certain car, or wearing a cologne, and we could see our neighbor and perhaps our co-workers with those things as well. We might think that envy would be the result of this, and perhaps for some people it is, but I would submit the far more pervasive reaction was an internal sense of inadequacy–the feeling that “I’m less of a person because I have not been successful enough to afford that thing.”
The Church accommodated the mass marketing culture, but it did not roll over to it entirely. Materialism and consumerism were attacked from the pulpit as antithetical to the teachings of Christ. Certainly the ‘health and wealth’ heresy of the Joel Olsteens of the world stands as proof that the denouncement of materialism was not uniform, but nevertheless it could be reasonably predicted that a conversation with a pastor in most of America’s prominent denominations of Christianity would yield a greater or lesser degree of disdain for this part of the culture. The counter-cultural movement that emerged from secular radicals similarly decried a change in values away from people and toward stuff.
Then something strange happened. My generation was born. Generation Y could be said to have come up during the denouement of mass market materialism. The Dot-Com Era in which we emerged from adolescence and into college and adulthood began to radically reshape our values. No longer is conspicuous consumption the mark of achievement, but a host of other external validation checklists against which we now judge ourselves. In the Start-Up world, these things can range from the quality of one’s Venture Capital investors to whether you were invited to TED or had a speaking slot at SXSW or rubbed elbows with David Cameron at Davos. It could be the number of “exits” or how frequently you travel for business. The extent of the list is obvious to people living it.
The 70″ TV and Mercedes in the driveway are not this generation’s metric for success. Indeed it seems my generation doesn’t want to own much of anything at all and could even be said to be characterized by a yearning for nomadicism, a no-strings-attached approach to life, unanchored by family or church, or any other encumbrance. Child-rearing is viewed as something that must nearly always be delayed until one has the resources to not be encumbered by the children either. And so we see many people, including many of my friends, becoming more anxious about their biological clock ticking over and against a seemingly uncooperative professional life that can’t quite move fast enough to give us the leeway to do these things that our instincts tell us we ought to be doing.
All of this leads to the pestilence infecting Generation Y. On the surface we are the most optimistic, even bubbly generation that has ever lived, particularly if you run in the technology or non-profit circles. Everybody is changing the world by day. But by night we are addicted to anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. Ritalin turned to Adderall turned to Xanax as we grew up. Although alcoholism is not the same as it was in the days of the blue collar factory worker coming home drunk and beating his wife, there is a more subtle form that pervades Generation Y, acting as a numbing agent against the anxieties and depressions we suffer but don’t talk about.
This suggests a level of cognitive dissonance we would do well to acknowledge. Our external optimism does not flow from our internal state of being, but from the belief that we are expected to behave in that way and that behaving in that way is a sign of success in life, the same way that driving a BMW was an external sign of success to our Baby Boomer parents. While we are no longer measuring ourselves by the price of our car or the square footage of our house, we are nevertheless measuring ourselves against the achievements and abilities of our peers.
When I talk to people my age about questions of faith, religion, and theology, most have either come to treat it as a sterile, almost academic subject about which they have this or that theory, or else they view it as one category of their life that supports their professional development or their philanthropic checklist. They go to church the same way they go to a bar, for a quick fix or a cheap thrill. This isn’t our fault, though. We aren’t really offered any decent alternatives.
It is no wonder that “organized religion” is almost a curse word to Generation Y. Even worse are the few exceptions, churches genuinely trying to walk a path commensurate with Christ’s teachings, who ask us to renounce the pursuit of worldly success. How could I possibly renounce the pursuit worldly success? What would my friends think? How can I stop caring about whether I’m on a panel at SXSW–everybody will be there!
Surely our parents thought the same thing about BMWs and 10,000 square foot houses. But it is worse for us. There is something prima facie inconsistent with the 10,000 square foot house and the teachings of Jesus to sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Generation Y’s raison d’être is deceptively less problematic. We are changing the world, after all! Isn’t that what Jesus told us to do?
I chose the phrase “pursuit of worldly success” rather intentionally. Worldly success–that invitation to TED isn’t really the problem. The problem is when we want it, and we orient our actions to its pursuit. As Christ said “Seek first the kingdom of God and all of these things will be added unto you.”
But there is a far more important truth to comprehend here. Our renunciation of the pursuit of worldly success does not happen in isolation. That alone would also not resolve the pervasive anxieties of our generation. Rather, it comes as a package deal with another kind of renunciation–one that is in fact more difficult, but immediately rewarding: the renunciation of worldly failure.
When we come to understand ourselves in our true state, as Kierkegaard might frame it “alone before God,” we understand the reality of Kipling’s exhortation to “meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.” The freedom that comes in renunciation, of seeing ourselves alone before God, is the freedom from all of our failures, from beating ourselves up over lost opportunities, shortcomings, and the painful comparisons to the people we follow on Twitter.
Perhaps if we so freed ourselves from the tyranny of failure on the inside, we might just be capable of truly changing the world, and smiling on the inside while we do it, knowing we are protected from that noisome pestilence.