Letter To A Young Man In Despair
Recently I received a letter from a reader, a young man in his twenties. He asked for advice. I asked him if, after I’ve thought about how to answer him, I could publish his letter and my advice. He said yes.
Here is the letter:
I’ve been a long time reader of your blog now and while I haven’t always agreed with you on everything, you’ve always fascinated me with your insight into current events and predictions for the future based on such insight. As I wrote in the title, I’m currently 25 years old. I’m an engineer new to working life and just society in general. I was raised as a strong Catholic (former weekly mass attendant and volunteer), but I’m very uncertain as to whether I really believe anymore or even if my family believes either. We try not to talk about it or we occasionally say some religious platitudes to each other to reassure everyone around that we are a family with faith, but I’ve come to suspect that it’s all empty deception, to ourselves and everyone around us. Year after year we talk less about our faith or even about God. Every conversation, even occasional comments or prayers, seem forced out of our mouths. I don’t know when it started but we just started going to church less until we no longer bothered. We kept in touch with our church friends and our relationship is still great but it’s awkward, especially since I know some of our family friends have also stopped going.
We looked at all the scandals that happened and to be honest we never talked about it. We just briefly mentioned it and some comments about how the majority of priests are good people (our local priests certainly were and are), and how our faith is not dependent on the church hierarchy, but I think it was the breaking point. While we had been sliding away from Christianity for a long time, that might have been the time from which point we did not take Christianity seriously at all. We never pray anymore, and we try to avoid religious topics completely. I think that the scales just completely fell from our eyes and we could no longer take that leap of faith anymore that’s required to believe. The apologetics and books I read were comforting for a while but they did not help in the long run because I cannot force myself to believe. I am living a lie, and I suspect many people are too, especially considering what we saw at the the Capitol Wednesday.
I can’t recall what article it was exactly, maybe it was from David French, but it was a piece I read in National Review showing that self-identified evangelicals who don’t go to church often are far more likely to vote for Trump. I’ve also seen multiple studies, including ones you posted, that shows that Republicans are also losing their faith. I think this is part of the phenomenon we saw from the Trump supporters on Wednesday. Many who support Trump self-identify as Christian (and many do not of course), but I can’t help but wonder how many are like me, people living a lie where they pretend to believe just to defend what they see as their way of life, their culture, or just so that they can keep a sense of meaning in their lives. They adore Trump beyond all logical sense, ignore every immoral and non-Christian act he does or everything he says to the same effect, but could it perhaps be because, as you have said, they see him as a bulwark protecting them from what they believe will be the end of the culture and way of life that they lead? Maybe without them realizing it, this need to fight against perceived cultural threats has completely replaced their faith altogether in the same way wokeness or extreme social justice has replaced any faith and/or belief in free society that many on the left used to have. Perhaps the reason they ignore everything non-Christian about Trump is because they do not care about Christianity as anything other than a cultural feature or a way to find meaning. Maybe one day many of them will wake up and realize that they no longer believe either. I don’t think the QShaman does.
To be honest, I both do and do not want to confront my parents about our possible shared lack of belief. I realize when I look deep into my thoughts that I want God to exist and I want Christianity to be true because it would validate the devoted lives that so many people have lived as Christians throughout the centuries and around the world. It would allow for higher meaning to be found in life instead of just the transient and empty meaning provided by secular creeds. I tried and I have found that I just can’t find meaning in secular philosophies but no matter what I want to believe, I can’t convince myself that Christianity is true anymore. Any testimonies or stories I subconsciously call into question, thinking that there could be all kinds of reasonable and material explanations that don’t depend on the supernatural. So I am left without higher meaning in life, and I suspect that if I really forced my parents to confront their own thoughts, they might also be left without higher meaning. I suspect my sister no longer cares and probably now finds meaning in far-left wokeness instead (looking at her Facebook from the last year was eye-opening).
Now I am not saying that I am unable to live my life or anything like that, but I do feel a sort of existential despair clawing at me, and there is nothing to fill that void in my heart. I have never been a Trump supporter and to be honest I’m not even much of a conservative, especially not a social conservative, but I believe in free speech (both legal and cultural), freedom of association, compassion, and in being tolerant of differences in opinion with my fellow citizens. I support gay marriage and equality but I am an unbeliever when it comes to the sexuality spectrum (plethora of genders). I am just very afraid right now.
After seeing the disgraceful storming of the Capitol I am very afraid for the future of the country and for my own future and that of my family. There are tens of millions of Americans who believe in crazy and dangerous conspiracy theories like how the election was stolen, QAnon, etc. These people will not be convinced to see reality after what happened and what is likely to happen going forward. They could very well resort to violence again. Then there’s the left who are going to take power and who will feel very emboldened (reasonably so) to take away many of the civil liberties we currently enjoy. Corporations, especially Big Tech, will gladly help them and even one up them by silencing any dissidents of anything that happens from here on out. People who I disagree with for having supported this nonsensical protest, and who have reasonably denounced the violence, are being denounced as Nazis and racists by their own friends and families when they are neither (seriously, most Trump supporters are not). I could never support someone like Trump and I have always vehemently disagreed with those who do, but with the exception of those who commit and advocate violence, I do not want my fellow Americans being treated as Nazis and having their lives destroyed for having different political opinions. People can change for the better, but our culture of canceling and witch hunts is unrelenting and unforgiving. I also vehemently disagreed with the violent riots associated with the BLM protests while recognizing that most protesters were nonviolent (as was the case on Wednesday going by the numbers).
I do not want to live in a country full of hatred. My fellow Americans hate each other and wish violence on one another, but I want no part of it. Many of my right wing co-workers are still convinced Trump won (with the accompanying conspiracy theories), and some of my left wing coworkers even wished that all the protesters and rioters had been killed. One co-worker said that those ‘animals’ should have been slaughtered and then another ‘joked’ that he would have paid to see that. Too many people agreed and laughed. Or there were others that were caught in a mindless rage and just regurgitated how much they hated the right and all of its supporters. It terrifies me that most people in my age group are like the latter and that a significant minority still supports Trump and are full of the same hatred for the left. I can’t relate to any of them. I may not count as a Christian or even as much of a conservative, but this country feels so utterly alien to me. I have always been a fan of American history and a patriot while recognizing our countries shortcomings and progress, but I just can’t see myself living here happily anymore. I don’t want to get married here (if I can even find a wife), I don’t want to raise children in this environment, and I don’t want to be a professional in corporate America. I can’t see the American Dream anymore.
Asian culture may be seen as generally reserved and the corporate environment as strict, but it’s becoming a very attractive long term option for me. Maybe I won’t find meaning, a sense of belonging with fellow citizens, a fulfilling career, or anything like that but I can’t help but be tempted by an escape to Japan or Korea. It might be running away, but is there a free country left fo fight for anymore? Is there worthwhile meaning left in this country, whether cultural, religious, or otherwise.
And here is my response. I shared the letter last week with subscribers to my Substack newsletter, asking for their advice for me, regarding what to say to him. I am grateful to them for their help:
Thank you for your letter. As painful as it was for me to read, I know it must have been infinitely more painful to write.
You are not wrong to see so much emptiness, vanity, and rage in American society. You mention both the Left and the Right. What we are all seeing is the death throes of a culture that has forgotten God. The people who have given their minds over to ideology are people who are afraid, who are desperate for meaning, and who are fanatically trying to fill the God-shaped hole in their souls. That many of these people are professing Christians greatly confuses matters.
I’m not going to talk to you about politics. You know where I stand politically, but I think that the crisis you’re talking about is not ultimately political. Whether someone espouses left-wing or right-wing ideology as their creed, it’s all pseudo-religion. However, I can’t pretend that religion is something that exists completely free of political passions. In his journals, Father Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest of the Russian diaspora, wrote about his friendship with Solzhenitsyn after the heroic dissident’s expulsion from the Soviet Union. Nobody can doubt Solzhenitsyn’s greatness, and certainly Father Schmemann did not. But he did express private concern over how the fate of Russia dominated Solzhenitsyn’s mind, and perhaps distorted his religious vision. I bring that up here only to say that even the best of us are subject to the gravity of political passion. Solzhenitsyn was both deeply religious and deeply patriotic, but the two great commitments of his life sometimes conflicted within him.
My point is that Christian faith will not offer you an escape from politics, though it should give you a perspective from which to judge political claims. As desperate and faithless as you sound in your letter, I think you are in a much better place than the confident zealots in your life. You may not see the truth clearly yet, but you have fewer illusions to trick your inner eye.
Your letter sent me to an essay by the biographer Joseph Pearce that appears in a recently published collection titled Solzhenitsyn And American Culture (Notre Dame Press). In it, Pearce writes about an interview he did with Solzhenitsyn in Moscow, in 1998. Pearce, who had written a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, writes:
[beginning of quote]
Encouraged by Solzhenitsyn’s ready acceptance of the affinity between his own creative vision and that of Tolkien, I ventured to read him two quotes from Tolkien which appeared to encapsulate the spirit of his own work:
The essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or what is called “Self-realization” (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering.
“Absolutely … absolutely,” Solzhenitsyn whispered.
Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on the complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.
“Is that Tolkien?” Solzhenitsyn asked, eyes widening in surprise. “Yes, again correct.”
[end of quote]
The point here is that both Christian writers believed that suffering, even death, was necessary to life. That hard times make strong souls. This is why I insist on saying that I am not optimistic today, but I am hopeful — hopeful, because I know that the Lord can bring good out of this pain, if we unite ourselves to Him, and allow ourselves to be sharpened spiritually by contact with suffering.
Your own spiritual suffering now, struggling with faith, is not in vain. Reading your letter, I thought that no ordinary middle-class Christianity, either progressive or conservative, will rescue you. No kidding, this is a blessing. It might feel like defeat now, but you at least have the good fortune not to be subject to falling into the delusion of Christified bourgeois comfort. It is not lost on me that I write this to you from the comfort of my couch, my feet warmed by a hobbity fire. These modest comforts could all be taken from me at a stroke, and then what would I be left with? If my faith in Christ depends on comfort, it is not going to endure.
Over the past year, I have found myself struggling a great deal with a sense of loss and disorder, because things in my personal life have not gone as I wanted them to. I don’t want bad things — I want good things! But for reasons beyond my control, I can’t have them. Deep inside me, I have been praying that God would give me those things, and I have not been able to feel right about anything absent these things. It is one thing to lecture others about how they should accept suffering, but it’s quite another to be you, tossing and turning in bed after midnight, your mind racing, praying to a God you aren’t sure is even listening, asking him to take this Cross from you.
Nobody escapes it. Nobody. It is better to be freed of the illusion that there can be any such thing as Christianity without tears. Only in the past few days, thanks to a letter from a reader of my Substack, did things that God has been trying to tell me, in answer to my prayers, suddenly click. I don’t know if God will remove my crosses, but I know that whether He does or doesn’t, He remains God, and He is calling me to Himself. My error was wanting Christ plus the good things that I crave, but for some reason aren’t given to me. As my confessor told me, God is not letting me have these things for the sake of my salvation. I don’t understand this, but I believe it, and am going to act on that belief. This has been a purification for me, one that has come with real tears.
Those tears, for you, are tears of unbelief. You say that you can’t believe, but if your mind was truly settled on it, you wouldn’t have written to me. I am not going to tell you that you can think your way into faith. Maybe some can, but I don’t really believe it. What I would ask you to consider is that men far greater than you and I — men like Tolkien and Solzhenitsyn — believed in God, and committed their lives to Jesus Christ. That does not prove that God is real and Christ is the messiah, but it ought to turn your mind to the possibility that these things are true. When I was not much younger than you are now, and was just as uncertain about God’s existence, I was struck by how many of the writers and thinkers I most admired in history were serous Christians. Was Kierkegaard a fool? Was Dostoevsky? Was I so certain that I, an undergraduate living in late 20th century America, knew better than they did?
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, God sends the shade of the poet Virgil to rescue the pilgrim Dante, lost in a dark wood. Come with me if you want to live, says Virgil. Dante isn’t sure that he wants to do this, or if the offer is real, but in the end, he goes, because he trusts Virgil. It turns out that Virgil could see things that Dante, in his brokenness, could not. The pilgrim Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven is a journey of recovering sight. You too are lost in a dark wood. There are Virgils all around who can help you. You say you can’t believe in God now, but can’t you believe in Virgil (so to speak)? If you can begin to train your eyes to see as Tolkien saw, as Solzhenitsyn saw, as Dostoevsky, C.S. Lewis, Kierkegaard, Flannery O’Connor, and so many others saw, you may wake up one day to find that the world does not look so Christ-haunted — that God is not a ghost, but an ever-present reality.
That’s how it was for me. And I would add: do your best to get out of your head. My confessor always tells me that this is my downfall. He’s not anti-intellectual, but he’s trying to get me to understand that what I seek is not likely to be found in books. What I seek is communion with God. You say that apologetics are not working for you. Fine — then put them down for now. Your intellect may not be able to perceive the Lord at the moment. There are other ways to know Him. Do you know any Christians whom you admire, who seem like good people? Draw close to them. If not, do you know where you might meet some of them? Then go there. Ask God to lead you to them.
You may never fully free yourself from doubt. That’s normal, and no reason to stay away from God. I lean heavily into talking about getting out of your head, and not basing your faith too heavily on intellectual grounds, because this was what I wish I had known when I was your age. But in sharing your letter with some readers, one man said that for him, it was the intellectual richness of the faith that drew him in. He was raised in a form of Christianity that wholly emphasized feeling the Holy Spirit. He felt nothing, and thought something was wrong with him.
He says that when he met Catholics at age 18, they explained the faith to him, and he was bowled over to discover that Christianity wasn’t only about touchy-feely subjective stuff. As he matured in the Christian faith, he explored the intellectual side by reading philosophers who argued for the existence of God. They made deism rationally plausible. That, plus prayer and worship, drew him more firmly into the faith. He said (this is for you):So the point is that intellectualism and rational argumentation were what helped me to believe. I don’t know if that would help the despairer at all, but he does say that he wants God to exist, and he wants Christianity to be true. One justification for believing something is that we have good reasons to believe it. Now as you’ve pointed out, quite well, I think, rational argument isn’t enough to sustain a life of faith; we need grace, action, prayer, community, liturgy, and a host of other things. But it can be a start for some people.
Another reader, this one also young, makes an interesting distinction between “truth” and “meaning.” She writes, addressing you:
Maybe instead of obsessing over the truth and falsity of Christianity, you should look for its meaning instead. As C.S. Lewis said in “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” meaning is the antecedent condition of truth and falsehood. Perhaps instead of your endless search for truth, you should also search for meaning–which can only be found in the practice of faith. You’re not going to find it on the outside looking in. If you find meaning, you’ll also find the truth.
That has been my experience as well. I gain nothing from simply knowing about God: I must know Jesus personally. Scripture indicates that even the demons know of Jesus’s status as the Son of God, but clearly that simple knowledge is not enough to save them. You must also know Him, and He is not to be reduced to a math equation to be solved. He’s fully God and fully Man, and He wants a relationship with you, not just your mere intellectual assent.
That’s very good. Meaning is found in the way we appropriate the truth inwardly, and communally. At the risk of being repetitive, reader, let me once again say that it would probably help you to think of your search for God not as the search for a golden, pristine, crisp set of propositional truths to which you can assent, as if closing a business deal, but rather to think about it as falling in love. When I think about how I fell in love with my wife, I remember the weekend me met, the trip to the monastery, the anxiety in my stomach as we shopped at Waterloo Records (“Do I tell her I’m really into her?”), our first kiss by the side of my car. I remember a trip we took during our engagement, and the time she came to visit me in south Florida, and we went for drinks on South Beach. I recall my proposal of marriage, and eating chips and salsa and drinking Veuve Clicquot in her little apartment in Austin, and calling all our friends to tell them the news.
All of these things were part of what helped us both to discover the truth of our love for each other, and its meaning. Similarly, I can point to stages along my way of pilgrimage to Christian faith — people, events, and moments that revealed God to me, and called me forward on the path to falling in love with Him. This is how it will be for you too. Waiting for the moment of perfect clarity is a deception.
She adds:I understand your gloom over the state of the world, but your letter reminded me of the Dwarfs in Lewis’s The Last Battle. They are so afraid of being taken in by unreal happiness that they cannot allow themselves to be taken out of their real unhappiness, as Michael Ward puts in his book, Planet Narnia. They cannot see that they’ve reached Aslan’s land and stay locked in their gloom–they’re in Paradise but blind themselves to its reality.Ward points out that Lewis makes a similar point in “Meditation in a Toolshed” that we are also guilty of the same thing: we’re so weary of being deceived by “looking along the beam” that we think we should trust only what we look at. But Lewis points out that the only answer is to “yet open once again your heart.”Despairer, I think the Kingdom is within your sight and your reach, but you have to open yourself to it in ways that you haven’t been doing up till now. Immerse yourself in the faith. Find other believers, even ones not your age, who are living a good life in Christ. Pray and go to church. Read the Bible and study it. And most of all, don’t be discouraged by a denomination that you think doesn’t have all the answers. I’m an evangelical, and one of the things that annoys me about my denomination is the pervasive anti-intellectualism. It’s a flaw, yes, but the fact of the matter is, the only person who practiced Christianity perfectly is Jesus: don’t judge the faith by the foibles of its followers.Above all, don’t let the gloom of this age blind you to the reality of the goodness of God and His kingdom. As Lewis points out in The Great Divorce, the ultimate deception of Hell is to disguise Heaven’s joy. It’s a lie that many have fallen for. I pray you will see beyond it.
This is really helpful. I could not have put it so well. Her words are a reminder that you, my despairing reader, should rely on the help of others to see and experience God. Pope Benedict XVI said that the best arguments for the faith are Christian art and Christian saints. What he meant was that the works of Christian imagination, and the incarnate goodness of those who live by the faith, open up the hearts and minds of doubters in ways that rational argumentation may not. They don’t deny reason, but they may open the door to it.
I have written many times how an unexpected encounter with shocking beauty — the medieval cathedral of Chartres — awakened within me an awareness of God’s reality, and a hunger to know Him. I was 17 years old at the time, and thought I knew all there was to know, basically, about what it meant to be a Christian — and I knew it wasn’t for me. But there, in that cathedral, which I had entered as a teenage tourist, I was shocked into an awareness of how very little I, a young man born and raised in late 20th century America — knew about the faith at all. Now, hundreds of thousands of people pass through that same cathedral every year. Probably nothing happens to them, spiritually. But it happened to me. There is something else out there in the world that can speak to you — and will, if you open your mind and your heart.
You say that you and your family stopped praying, and that that was a milestone on the road to unbelief. You’re right about that. Marshall McLuhan said that all those he knew who had lost their faith began by ceasing to pray. Get a prayer rope for yourself — here’s a link to an Orthodox monastery where they make them, but you can find them all over — and teach yourself to say the Jesus Prayer. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It doesn’t matter if you’re Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant. Give yourself over to that prayer discipline. Breathe deeply, rhythmically while doing it. It takes time to get this right. It’s not magic, but what it does is clear inner space for the Holy Spirit to work. It does clear your mind so that you can hear the voice of God. The protagonist of the Tarkovsky movie “Nostalghia” is a writer who is so caught up in his head, brooding over the things he has lost, that he can’t see or hear God. At one point, the writer is walking across the nave of a ruined abbey, and we hear the voice of a woman — the Virgin, one imagines — asking God to speak to the poor lost writer, or to somehow show Himself to the man. God answers that He does this, but the man can neither hear nor see.
That is me most of the time. Is that you? Seekers want God to make things clear to us, but in truth we want Him to say what we already believe. Do your very best to open yourself to signs of His love and presence. I don’t say be gullible, but I do say resist the hypercritical spirit, which is just as destructive to perceiving the truth as the mindset that believes everything.
Do your best to go to church, even if you don’t believe. That’s where the Christians are. Pray for the gift of faith. Don’t idealize other Christians; a few of us might be saints (those who are will be the last to think that of themselves), but all of us are your companions in shipwreck.
The fact that you “do not want to live in a country full of hatred” is a powerful sign that you are on the right path. So many people today find vindication in hatred, and regard it as proof of their virtue. We live in an information ecosystem that rewards hatred, and builds entire structures of lies and inhumanity on top of that hatred. St. Augustine says that we are what we desire, and you, friend, are a better man than most of us because you desire to love, and to live in peace. Follow that, and begin to train your heart to desire the good, the true, and the beautiful. Read what is good and time-tested, not what is fashionable. Listen to beautiful, life-giving music (including sacred music: Ancient Faith Radio plays Orthodox chant all day long online). Immerse yourself in visual beauty. And, above all, pray, even if you aren’t sure God is listening, or that there is any God there to listen.
Cultivate patience, and the ability to watch and wait. St. Seraphim of Sarov, a 19th century Russian Orthodox mystic and hermit, counseled the faithful to “acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved.” He meant that people are drawn to those from whom light and peace radiates. The saint also said:
You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives.
This is not who I am, I am ashamed to confess. But this is who I want to be. This is who you, and I, and everybody can be, if we open our hearts and commit our lives to walking with Christ.
I have to tell you, though, that when I was your age, I wanted to believe, but I wanted to understand it all first. It doesn’t work that way. When you meet the person you want to marry, it is unreasonable to expect that you can know everything there is to know about marriage, and about what it would be like to spend your life with that person. You start with the experience of love, and if, after discernment, you believe that this person is trustworthy, and your feelings for her are not an illusion, then you commit yourself to her in trust. It is like that with God too. Faith is not the sum total of doctrines, or the conclusion of a lengthy syllogism. It is more like a poem, but even that doesn’t fully capture it. It is a living relationship, a lifelong pilgrimage. To believe is to suffer — but not to believe is also to suffer. The difference is that the suffering believer endures all things with hope.
I wish I could tell you more. You are much closer to the Kingdom than you think. About Asia, please do not think that there is a geographical cure for what’s upon us all. Wherever there is WiFi, there is modernity. I do believe that some places are better than others, in terms of living among sane, good people, but ultimately, we are all going to have to strengthen ourselves internally, and within small communities. If you can, watch the Terrence Malick film A Hidden Life, about the life and death of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian Catholic farmer who died a martyr in a Nazi prison. He and his family lived in a tiny Alpine village, yet Nazism even found them all there. The mystery here — and it is a profound one — is that Franz, though he was persecuted in the village for his resistance, and ultimately executed for it, was blessed in death, while all those who conformed, and who survived, were cursed by their servile lives.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another Christian martyr of the Nazis, famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Not very cheerful, that, but I can tell you with confidence, from the other side of the line between believers and unbelievers, that this is what it means to live.
Finally, let me leave you with this summary of your letter, shared with me by a reader of my newsletter, with whom I shared it (don’t worry, I kept your name out of it):I can’t convince myself that Christianity is true anymore. I also cannot convince myself that any philosophy or religion is true.I want people to be kind to each other. (Which also means, I don’t want others to suffer.) I want to live in a good world. (Which also means, I don’t want to suffer, myself, either.)I can’t orient myself in the world because it’s cultural meaning systems are disintegrating and I have no belief system of my own to hang onto. (Which means, I don’t have a way to make sense of suffering.)I am afraid.
Is this fair, Despairing Reader? If so, is anything I have written here helpful to you? I am eager to hear from you. I have been where you are once. There is hope. There really is.