Updated: Sep 5, 2020
The young ‘are the future’ is one of those clichés that is self-evident. It is often the motivation for our caring about the future- “we must leave this place in good order for our children.” Of course, the ‘young’ are the future in as much as the ‘old’ are the past. It is a natural progression of time, age, and decay. But because life is hard and we live in a biological world of disease, illness, and accidents, not all young will live to be old. Judging by some startling statistics, many of our young have considered alternatives to growing old.
By nearly every metric, the collective condition of our mental health is in decline. It is not just the young that find themselves in significant emotional despair. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death of the elderly. The root of life’s bleakness might be different, but the solution is the same — a premature exit.
The CDC, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, keeps tracks of all sorts of physical and mental diseases and maladies. Despite working overtime in this moment of COVID-19, the CDC continues to survey typical Americans as to their relative mental health. Deep into a government looking research document dated August 14, 2020, we find some disturbing numbers. Over 25% of 18–24 years old's have considered suicide during the pandemic. Put another way, if you have four grandchildren in that age group, at least one of them may be in significant emotional turmoil.
For all age groups and ethnicities, reports of experiencing a disturbing mental malady has gone ballistic. Over 40% of the survey respondents report symptoms related to anxiety and depression. Put another way, much of my neighborhood finds life unfulfilling and difficult. Despite our wealth and the improbable chance of dying from COVID-19, we are uptight, unhappy, and far too eager to self-medicate. 13.4% of respondents admit to resorting to various substances to cope.
Indeed, these numbers are startling. But the trend suggesting our collective mental disturbances started well before the pandemic. The suicide rates amongst nearly all age groups has been trending up. The sale of antipsychotic drugs continues to grow. The state of our despair has the drug makers giddy with growth prospects, as illustrated by this headline ‘Antipsychotic Drugs Market Report Expected Massive Growth by 2020–2026.’
Before the pandemic, some smart folks conducted exhaustive research on the effect of the Internet and social media on our mental health. Various charts showed parallel lines between mental illness and the adoption of social media. They suggested that our digital world’s promise of instant gratification using varied communications and connections resulted in a greater sense of emotional isolation. Kids are growing up in a reality warped by video games and made shallow by the nature of text messaging, photo sharing, likes, and emojis. The result is that for far too many, life appears to be meaningless.
Not everyone who has determined life to be essentially meaningless will commit suicide. Most will keep searching. A few will turn towards nihilism (the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless). Some of these folks are turning up on TV most nights, usually dressed in black and always in groups, running and breaking things, and injuring anyone who might get in the way. They are known as Antifa (Antifa is short for anti-fascists). Why Portland, Oregon is ground zero for Antifa is anyone’s guess.
One does not have to live in Portland or be young to be a nihilist. One just has to conclude that life is meaningless. What makes nihilism dangerous is when a meaningless life becomes a life of no value (that is existential nihilism). Someone who sees no value to his or her life will likely see no value to yours. Why should they? They will behave with reckless disregard towards your things or your person. So they take nihilism to the street to extract whatever sliver of pleasure they get from destroying property and threatening lives — night after night. And on warm summer nights, it’s just as meaningless as staying in the basement playing video games.
A nihilist nearly always has great antipathy towards religion. They eschew the arts, creative expression, read nothing because it is meaningless, and avoid relationships except with like-minded. They live in a bubble of their own making- bleak and empty, where nearly everyone and everything is held in self-righteous contempt.
Few subjects scratch our soul more than the search for ‘life’s meaning.’ New books are added to the subject every day- it will never end. Victor Frankl wrote one of the greatest books on the subject. He contemplated life’s meaning while suffering the utter depravity of a concentration camp. When free, he wrote ‘Man’s Search For Meaning.’ Every nihilist should read it but won’t.
Every philosopher worth quoting has wrestled with ‘meaning.’ Some have attempted an explanation while others have tried to rephrase the question, usually to some confusion. Some have even broached nihilism itself. Some saw the death, destruction, and mayhem possible, and some saw themselves. Many nihilist are smart and young. They should read the works of histories greatest thinkers.
With little to be done for the nihilist who hold that life is meaningless with curious certainty, we best consider the plight of those still capable of feeling the pain of loneliness and despair- the young who might be our children and grandchildren. It is they whom we might wish to reach out to and invite for dinner and engage as best as we are able. To sit down with or write emails to let them know they are significant and the search for life’s meaning is a worthy search.
I recently came across this piece of wisdom from Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who flew aboard the US Space Shuttle and commanded the International Space Station. From that perch and with his camera, he had time to think about things like meaning. Recently, he was asked to give his best advice to a 20-year-old younger self.
Mr. Hadfield said. “…to recognize that every single person you meet is struggling. You tend to see other people as completely formed individuals. I still do sometimes.”
“To recognize that every person you meet, every single one of them, no matter how expensive their suit is or how serious their expression is, they are looking for significance. They are trying to do the best they can but they fail regularly. They are within their own particular battle of their own life, and so cut them some slack for that.”
“Don’t let them off the hook, but recognize the shared experience of being a human being and let people be themselves. Make some allowances for them; treat people a little more kindly as a result.”
Solomon saw much of our human activity, the things we think important, as meaningless. Much of Ecclesiastes speaks to his wisdom. In chapter 11, he gave us this.
Light is sweet,
and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.
However many years anyone may live,
let them enjoy them all.
But let them remember the days of darkness,
for there will be many.
Everything to come is meaningless.
You who are young, be happy while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you into judgment.
So then, banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
for youth and vigor are meaningless.