My son amazed me by grasping within a year that his B.A. in Business Administration was a dead end and plunging himself into a sixteen-week course that prepared him to write Java code. Now he’s… well, I mustn’t brag on him, even though today is his twenty-fourth birthday. Suffice it to say that he’s making half again as much as his old man ever earned.
So now he can check the “gainful employment” box. I was shocked, however, when he revealed during his recent visit how unrewarding he suddenly finds life to be. He was a college athlete: no more baseball. He was an intense student: no more techniques or disciplines to master. He occupies one of the few plateaus offered by the American Dream, where you can stand up and gaze about rather than worry over your next foothold. Comfort, security, a future… so what’s next? A new car? A house? Marriage and family? Are those, then—including the wife and children—acquisitions that mark an elevated status, like a new suit of expensive clothes?
The church he attends (and the churches attended by many in our more prosperous communities) veritably seethes with community-service projects, missionary activities, “outreach”… sure, that could be the next step! Now that your own life has attained a plateau from whose ridge you clearly see the abyss of nullify at your feet, divert your eyes by rushing to bestow upon others the material blessings which turned to ash in your own hands. Help others a few steps up the same plateau. Whatever you do, just don’t rear up and take conscious notice that you occupy an island from whose heights the stars are as distant as ever.
Or become a socialist—a Bernie-baby. (It’s very nearly the same thing as joining a progressive church.) Wrap yourself in an “activism” that demands equal pay for all, equal housing, equal education, equal health care, equal transportation, equal access to amusements; or save a planet that doesn’t need saving, while you wildly cast about—in your own desperate need of salvation—for something or someone to save. The planet needs saving—yes, it does! Yes, it does! Become a mindless zealot. Whatever you do, don’t look over that ledge into the existential abyss that mirrors your life’s futility.
We have placed our young people in this dilemma precisely by engineering the most prosperous society in human history. The basic necessities of survival preoccupied human beings for millennia; now they—we—worry over which gender pronoun to use and whether cows are passing wind too often: anything to distract us from peering over the edge into the abyss.
If I appear to make light of such anguish, it’s really the flight from anguish—the childish, highly creative, utterly delusional evasions of it—that make me smile. The anguish itself can kill. It almost killed me. I am fully satisfied that it won’t kill my son, thank God: his dark side (and only the shallowest puddles have no murkiness) is not as sinister and paralyzing as mine. But what I’m about to say is neither a joking matter nor, if you will bear with me, a frontal assault upon capitalism. It’s just how things are: life.
In an advanced, high-tech economy, you make money by producing and selling things. Since need is somewhat subjective, you maximize your marketing opportunities by making the public perceive commodities as necessary which are not so—whose possession may, indeed, create true need or otherwise cause harm. You lure the masses into “needing” burgers and fries, iPhones, video games, Nike sneakers, Pop Tarts, torn blue jeans, a kitchen island, a well-mowed lawn. I discovered yesterday that almonds are required to be pasteurized, thanks to two salmonella outbreaks more than a decade ago. The process is not required of any other nut, yet the almond is no more susceptible to contamination than other nuts. The mandate appears to be no more than a marketing strategy endorsed by both public and private sectors to ensure a gullible public that life’s risks can be neutralized. If you’re involved in some such initiative as this, you probably make a handsome salary. And what the hell are you actually doing with your time on earth?
It gets worse. Because of the system’s success at generating “needless necessities” and then surrounding each product with numerous bureaucratic careers concerned with measuring, validating, and policing, the cost of everything constantly rises. Small new enterprises cannot compete in the advertisement-and-regulation-saturated atmosphere of this highly evolved economy… and so they steadily disappear. Young people could once find their meaning simply by inheriting a position at the local grocery or tannery or freight office: “A.B. Lindstrom, Grocer”; “Buck’s Boots and Saddles”. “We deliver groceries to your doorstep… we custom-fit every boot… we take packages to all local destinations before the sun goes down.” There was much pride invested in such operations. They served the community, and their clients became a kind of extended family.
In our brave new world of vast chains and corporate mergers, personal relationships of this kind are the stuff of claptrap publicity rather than of reality. No sense of fixity, of rootedness, remains: everything’s in constant flux. Rarely does a human voice even answer the complaint hotline now; rarely is there even a phone number to call rather than a website with “frequently asked questions”.
The young person in the labor force, then, is left with… a paycheck. A paycheck to spend on baubles and frivolities that may create—briefly—the illusion of happiness. And we wonder why our youth are so unmoored from reality, and why our collective manifests signs of clinical insanity….
My son will be fine, because he is one of the few who will stare straight into the abyss. True faith, I am convinced, comes only to those who doubt. The strongest answer to the question, “Why believe in God,” is the number of unanswerable questions surrounding that central one. Those who shield their eyes and ears from the plateau’s windblown isolation dwell in the illusion that the stars sit within easy reach. They don’t. They’re stars.
Those thuds you hear with increasing rapidity and rising volume are the sound of fools trying to step onto a star from an extension ladder. That’s where our society is today: catastrophic folly. And we did it to ourselves, by being successful. I don’t really have any single solution for how we cure ourselves of our suicidal impulses. Perhaps the corpses around us will eventually be too thick for another ladder to be erected.
Happy birthday, my son! Carry on.