As the drive to compete intensifies, other things get streamlined away. In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.
I’m not sure if students really are less empathetic, or less interested in having meaning in their lives, but it has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way. In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.
Psychologically, the effect of all this is complicated. In 1985, only 18 percent of freshmen said that they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do. By 2013, 33 percent said they felt overwhelmed. In 1985, 64 percent of students said they ranked in the top 10 percent or at least above average in terms of mental health. But today, students admit to being much more emotionally vulnerable. They also declare low levels of spiritual self-confidence.
That’s depressing. What kind of lives will these graduates build for themselves? What kind of interior life have we, the older generations, built within them? At the risk of coming off as completely self-serving, let me suggest — strongly suggest — that you buy for your high school or college graduate a paperback copy of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. From the book (or at least the version that’s on my laptop — I’m writing this from a coffee shop):
Ruthie never understood why any brother of hers would walk away from what she considered the greatest place on earth. That was a failure of empathy, and a failure of imagination. But here was my failure: I rarely considered with any degree of seriousness what pursuing my own dreams, and my own sense of personal autonomy, would cost my family and myself. I believed the American gospel of individual self-fulfillment, and accepted uncritically the idea that I should be prepared to move anywhere in the world chasing my own happiness. I honestly believe that God places a particular call on each and every life, and we must be ready and willing to follow Him, no matter what. The thing I had never seriously considered until Ruthie’s passing is that my place, in the end, and the fulfillment of the plan God set for my life before I was born might be found right where I began.
Sitting on my front porch on Fidelity Street one warm winter’s day, I asked Tim Lindsey, Ruthie’s physician, what the biggest lesson of her life was.
“That the American dream is a lie,” Tim said. “The pursuit of happiness doesn’t create happiness. You can’t work hard enough to defeat cancer. You can’t make enough money to save your own life. When you understand that life is really about understanding what our true condition is – how much we need other people, and need a Savior — then you’ll be wise.”
When you’re young, nobody tells you about limits. If you live long enough, you see suffering. It comes close to you. It shatters the illusion, so dear to us modern Americans, of self-sufficiency, of autonomy, of control. Look, a 42-year-old woman, a wife and mother and schoolteacher in good health and in the prime of her life, dying from cancer. It doesn’t just happen to other people. It happens to your family. What do you do then?
The insurance company, if you’re lucky enough to have insurance, pays your doctors and pharmacists, but it will not cook for you when you are too sick to cook for yourself and your kids. Nor will it clean your house, pick your kids up from school, or take them shopping when you are too weak to get out of bed. A bureaucrat from the state or the insurance company won’t come sit with you, and pray with you, and tell you she loves you. It won’t be the government or your insurer who allows you to die in peace, if it comes to that, because it can assure you that your spouse and children will not be left behind to face the world alone.
Only your family and your community can do that.
What our culture also doesn’t tell young people is that a way of life that depends on moving from place to place, extracting whatever value you can before moving on again, leaves you spiritually impoverished. It is not given to every man and woman to remain in the place where they were born, and as Paw’s back-porch confession revealed, an absolute devotion to family and place can be destructive. Still, so many friends of mine have no family home, in the Starhill sense, to return to because their parents chose to move for career reasons. In some cases, their parents, like they themselves, had no choice: our economy is no respecter of communal stability. We need more balance.
Yes, I resented how little understanding or respect Ruthie had for my work. I did not think that way about hers. But I didn’t understand until she became ill and died how important her kind of work was. Hers was a work of stewardship – of taking care of the land, the family, and the people in the community. She didn’t set out to be a good steward, but the place and its people claimed her affection from the day she was born. By loving them all faithfully, and tending them with steadfast care, Ruthie accomplished something countercultural, even revolutionary in our restless age. Nowadays it’s easy to leave home; it’s harder to stay. But it may be more necessary to stay, if we are going to sustain lives worth living, especially in a world that pushes hard against our limits while at the same time denying their existence.
What happens when these kids fail, as they will, or tragedy strikes, as it will? We are preparing them for work, but we are not preparing them for life.