Conservatives in the age of anxiety
Samuel D. James | We can offer something better than failed materialism
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Life in the affluent, socially liberated culture of our day is a study in paradox. Our media engagement is social, yet we are lonely. Our sex is free, yet enslaved to prurient desires. Neither technological revolution nor expressive individualism seem really able to penetrate our cultural neuroses and cure us of what Ross Douthat calls the “decadence” of society. Indeed, something like the reverse seems to be true. Even as power and authority have been redistributed away from those ideas and institutions outside us and toward ourselves, we find our fiercest enemy to be our own minds.
The baseline expression of this in our time is the astonishing rise of reported anxiety and depression. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recently recommended that all adults under 65, as well as children eight years old and over, be regularly screened for symptoms of anxiety. This recommendation shouldn’t surprise anyone paying attention. Study after study, report after report have indicated that depression and anxiety, particularly among millennials and younger Americans, are critically high.
Conservatives have occasionally been skeptical when it comes to claims about mental health crises. Some generational bias, combined with a temperamental skepticism toward claims of victimhood, have sometimes caused traditionalists to project an indifference toward these kinds of reports. The hesitation can be merited. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt and free speech advocate Greg Lukianoff have observed, appeals to “mental health” enjoy such an unquestioned authority on places like college campuses so as to justify much illiberal or selfish behavior (or worse). And the rise of contemporary therapy culture—with its almost-pugilistic emphasis on self-expression, “telling my truth,” and resisting any moral or emotional correction—is certainly a troubling trend.
Yet a more thoroughgoing conservatism might see the West’s mental health crisis through a spiritual rather than a partisan lens. Let us grant that there are many cases of acute anxiety that are truly biological in nature (even though the medical “consensus” on this is less confident than many think), and for a number of these afflicted patients, medication is a reliable and safe response. But let us also grant that the kind of percentages we are seeing today suggest there are many anxious and depressed Americans for whom medication might obscure, deaden, or even worsen the underlying problem. In their case, a conservative evangelical approach might lead to a few important observations.
First, the modern mental health crisis is compelling evidence that material wealth and comfort are not synonymous with well-being. A 2015 piece for The Atlantic profiled the clusters of depression and suicide among teens in some of the most affluent, technologically sophisticated communities in the country. This is consistent with what many cultural observers have pointed out regarding anxiety, depression, and self-harm’s being concentrated especially among the rich, accomplished, and meritocratic.
This is a fact worth pondering very deeply. In a contemporary political culture that increasingly tends to measure ideals like justice and the good life in nakedly materialistic terms, the mental health crisis is a forceful reminder that man cannot live by wealth alone.
Second, the ascendance of anxiety reflects a systemic failure of our technological and economic systems to create meaningful human connection. The social internet has radically reshaped relationships in the 21st century, mostly by taking them away. Despite the extreme democratization of information and access to digital life, contemporary Americans are trapped in their own heads, unable to break oppressive cycles of insecurity, boredom, and acedia. The utopian dream of human liberation through technology feels like one of the greatest bait and switches of human history. We were promised the singularity, and all we got was doomscrolling.
Third, the especially bad cases of anxiety in thirtysomething and younger adults reveals an uncomfortable truth: Many modern parenting styles simply have not prepared human beings for the world. Again, granting the real existence of medical afflictions, it should not be controversial to observe that the number of young adults who seem unable to hold a meaningful conversation, persevere at a challenging job, or take on the responsibilities of marriage and parenting reflects a dissonance between this generation and life beyond school and home. In this case, extreme anxiety seems to be the result of a genuine surprise that life is difficult.
From these observations, a conservative manifesto for ministering to the age of anxiety could be straightforward. The human spirit needs transcendent meaning and purpose, not merely economic stimulus, so we should create education and vocations that appeal to the whole person. Technology is not a replacement for humane society, so we should work to actively preserve places of physical assembly, especially small places of familiar assembly (like neighborhoods, churches, etc.). Finally, we should cultivate and hand down practices of home rearing that teach wisdom and virtue, not just knowledge and advancement, to equip children and teens to enter the world as mature, reasonable adults, averse to vice but not to risk.
The need for attention to mental and emotional health has never been more apparent. Conservatives don’t need to wait for an election or dramatic debate to make a difference. The best opportunities are much closer to home—and to the heart.
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