Published in Church and Life (1827-28) 22.12.2011 – 19.01.2012
No 1-2 Pg 2
Dr. Martin Seligman of the Universityof Pennsylvania, published a work in 1990, Learned Optimism, that has been described since its release as one of the most important texts regarding modern western society. Seligman’s work deals with the prominent psychological disorder in the western world today – clinical depression. According to Seligman, the rate of depression, is growing in all age groups, but particularly for teenagers; so much so that by the year 2020, depression will be the second most debilitating illness in western society, only preceded by heart disease. At the base of this spiral of depression, lies an increasing cohort of people classified as “Generation Me” (GenME).
These individuals have been raised to believe that life owes them something; they live their lives according to the aphorisms that, there is nothing they can’t be, and that if they wish for something hard enough it will be theirs. Extending on from Seligman’s work, another scholar, Dr. Jean Twenge, in her work, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before (2007), writes that the GenMe is not necessarily typified by self-absorption or by being isolationist, but more that this group of people have been brought up to believe that they are required to obey few social rules, that they set overly ambitious expectations, that they are all special, that they should always follow their dreams, and that they should always feel good about themselves. Essentially, the motto for GenMe is about how to make me more happy – and this above all else. Seligman writes that with GenMe a whole shift has occurred in what is known as ‘the self’, as distinct from previous generations. No longer is being responsible, hardworking or committed considered as something to strive toward, but rather, the centre of our universe is our-self. The danger of ascribing to the philosophy of GenME is that raised up by parents and peers to stand on such a high pedestal, the fall, once the individual in the reality of life cannot reach the highest rung, is often devastating – hence the consequence of depression.
Seligman’s findings are also echoed by the British scholar, Alain de Botton, who in Status Anxiety (2004), postulated the thesis that in our desire to climb the social ladder and to be ‘someone’, we are in fact suffering from lovelesness, over-expectation, snobbery and a dependence on constant affirmation from those around us.
So wherein lies the answer to these crises? True, each one of us is unique, but this very fact does not protect us from what life and living contains: struggles, heartbreaks, illness, war and a host of other events and stumbling blocks that must be met and overcome. There is also the real fact that for every one victor there are a greater number of vanquished, and that this group in themselves as individuals are also unique. Winning and losing does not detract from the individual being unique – for life is bigger than punnet square win/loss scenarios devised by game theorists.
In addition, not always in life are we motivated to make decisions based on what makes us, the individual, happy in the short term. The soldier who answers a call to war, so as to defend his nation from an aggressor, may in fact wish nothing more than to run far way from the conflict with his lady-love; the parent who works long hours, on hearing his child’s cry at night, may indeed wish to roll over in bed and go back to sleep. Human beings rightly have a desire to be happy – but happiness is also sculptured by the context and events of our lives; and especially by what we set up to be the meaning and purpose of living. On what has just been described the Dominican scholar, A-D. Setillanges in his The Intellectual Life (1946), says the following: “A country priest who devotes himself to his parishioners, a doctor who turns away from study to give help in urgent cases, a young man of good family who adopts a calling to help his people and in so doing has to turn his back on liberal studies, are not profaning the gift that is in them, they are paying home to the True which is one and the same Being with the Good. If they acted otherwise they would offend truth no less than virtue, since, indirectly, they would be setting living Truth at variance with itself”. (Sertillanges, 1946, p. 28). Yet according to GenMe logic, it is better for the unfulfilled house-wife to abandon her family in order to be happier, and write off her marriage and family as a mistake – for life is short, and one should always be happy. But happiness also has a variety of dimensions, and the greatest of these is not pleasure, but contentment – and to reach this level is oftentimes by way of an odyssey – a metamorphosis of spirit – a passion, in the truest sense of the word.
In the middle of the nineteenth century Fr. Henri Lcordaire spoke to an audience on the issue of the increasing rate of suicide and psychological illness in post-revolutionary, and increasingly atheistic France. Lacordaire noted: “It is by the number of the insane and of suicides that we may judge of the moral misery of a people. For, although this moral chastisement may be exceptional, it is nevertheless proportioned to the extent and the force of the passions which agitate the multitude. Pure morals, calm ambitions, sustain a people’s organs of thought as well as those of life; the peaceful supremacy of virtue replaces amongst them the infatuation of pride and the excesses of voluptuousness; and if it cannot shield them from every evil, evil encounters in them at least a temperament capable of resisting it. But when a nation enfeebles itself by pleasure and becomes inflated in its lusts, its physical condition declines rapidly, and, at the first reverses of fortune, we see its children, unaccustomed to struggle and to suffer, grow weary of life, or even succumb to the assaults of madness”. (Lacordaire, 1902, p. 296)
In a Western society so focussed on material well-being, ‘creature-comforts’ as well as self-interest, it is little wonder that the problems studied by Seligman, de Botton and Twenge are now evolving into large scale and harsh medical realities, spread rapidly across the world by the torrential media wind. But as the passage from Lacordaire indicates, the roots of these problems are not necessarily endemic to modern society but relate to the human condition. The inherent issue is not peculiarly one of GenMe, it is one in which the spiritual development of the individual is not prioritised and other goals have eaten away at the person’s soul; be these cancers: money, ambition, self-inflation, or pride. There is nothing indeed wrong with introspection, the mystics have established this for us – but introspection must always be part and parcel of a relationship: with and for God, and with others. A Church father, St. John Chrysostom, addressed the parents of his audience on the necessity of providing for their children – true strength – a life based on faith. As Chrysostom exhorted: “A fence does not provide internal strength, nor is a wall a natural support; they provide only artificial protection. What is a strong body? Is it not one that is healthy, whether hungry or surfeited, cold or warm? Or is it something that is dependent on restaurants, tailors, merchants, and physicians for health? The truly rich man, the true lover of wisdom, needs none of these things, and that is why the blessed apostle admonishes us to bring our children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord”. (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 21).
Too often parents strive to make children so comfortable that they are not educated for the reality of living in a world that contains both joys and sorrows, both rewards and punishments, both fortune and loss. Again Lacordaire gives us a valuable insight into the formation of the young person: “It is necessary then to punish a child when he does wrong, to impose privations on him, to tell him the truth about his defects, to let him see, when necessary, our displeasure in our manner towards him, to subject him to some trials which may arouse his sensibility, to some light perils which may instil courage; to make him ask pardon, even of servants, when he has offended them; to make him perform from time to time some rough work that he may not despise inferior occupations”. (Lacordaire, 1902, p. 360). For Lacordaire, for a child to see some of the hardships that life offers, is like immunisation, giving a small proportion of a disease, so that when the child does come in contact with the disease – their spirit knows how to react.
We all wish for our children a better life then that we have experienced – but we do our children the greatest disservice by not preparing them to stand strong against the torrent, the moment when the tide turns against them. True education of the young is not about elevating them to stand on the highest pedestal from which there exists no where else to go but to fall; but to be first and foremost, people of faith, people of service, people of hope and people of love; for any generation brought up to believe otherwise is a generation that will find it extremely difficult, nigh impossible, to survive; becoming so dissatisfied with the apparitions that they have been sold as reality that they will seek any way and means to escape.