Young, Christian, And Eager To Escape
The other day I posted something here about philosopher Robert Nozick's "Experience Machine". Quote from that post:
Have you ever heard of the philosopher Robert Nozick’s “Experience Machine”? He wrote:
What matters other than how people's experiences feel "from the inside"? Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience that you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life's experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life's experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there; you'll think it's all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there's no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because of the few moments of distress between the moment you've decided and the moment you're plugged. What's a few moments of distress compared to a lifetime of bliss (if that's what you choose), and why feel any distress at all if your decision is the best one?
Would you plug in? This is the concept behind The Matrix — the idea that everybody lives inside a mass hallucination, when in fact their bodies live in a kind of suspended animation. This is the substance of the red pill vs. blue pill choice in the movie: would you prefer to live within a pleasant lie, or within the unpleasant truth?
I added that I learned about the Experience Machine concept from a tweet by a college teacher who said that she was shocked when every member of her class but one said that yes, they would plug into it. I asked in the piece, "If you were a young person with no real religious beliefs, no people depending on you, and a darkly pessimistic outlook, on what grounds would you say no?"
I received the following letter from a brilliant, faithfully orthodox young Catholic woman with whom I correspond from time to time. She gives me permission to post her letter here. It's remarkable:
I would do it.
Or at least, if I didn't do it, it would be the hardest decision to make out of any decision stemming from theological and moral perspective I've ever had to make.
To back up for a minute, let's review that I am a 26 year old woman, currently between jobs, college educated and strongly Catholic. I'm also a pretty addicted internet user, a video game enthusiast, and even my creative practices (writing and digital painting) are done, well, on a computer. That said, it's not a given that those two halves equal a person who would willingly plug themselves in to the Experience Machine, (after all, you note yourself that you have strong internet hobbies) so why do I say that it would be tempting to an extreme to plug in, and that I don't know how long I could resist that temptation?
I think the answer lies with your brief mention of 'a darkly pessimistic outlook'. I definitely view myself as somewhere between a pessimist and a realist, and I slide more towards the former in a lot of cases, but the thing that's interesting to me is that I was an outlier for being this way as a growing child and teen when my peers were outwardly pretty optimistic. The older I have gotten, the more this has failed to be true. In fact, I find that at times, my naturally very negative outlook is actually overwhelmingly more positive than the average outlook of my peers. I think I can credit that to religion, but I have to be honest, religion isn't in it of itself sustaining enough, for many, in a world like the one we live in.
The current status quo from those my age and younger (and some older, though I'll say that I feel that most millennials are in a slightly different headspace, so let's assume I'm talking about Gen Z, and also assume I'm speaking about the U.S. and other similar nations) is something that's hard to describe in words, but it's beyond simply a dark outlook. Gen Z is already living in a kind of emotional and psychological stasis. By and large, our parents weren't wealthy, we're not wealthy, and the social impetus of going out and making it for yourself doesn't really affect us anymore. To speak from my own example (although like everyone, I have unique circumstances that led me here, and I can't honestly say it's all a fault of the "system") I'm now closer to 30 than 20, graduated with a degree but my degree isn't helping me land full-time work at all, unlike my wealthier peers I can't stay permanently in the student system (many of my friends chose to get master's degrees, something I can't even fathom affording) but my options for work are so limited due to a declining economy and an entire system of corporations too inclined to blame the worker for not working to realize that their own policies are driving people to hop from one job to another that even finding anything to dig into has been an uphill battle from the beginning.
On top of that, housing costs are rising daily, meaning many young people (like myself) are still living in our parents' homes because the cost of a single studio apartment alone would tear us apart. Without full-time, decent work people in my generation also have to pay for their own health insurance thanks to Obamacare, which sucks a huge chunk out of part-time paychecks, and companies have construed hours and on-call policies to make it so if you have one part-time job, you can't have another, or you'll be whittled down in hours in whichever job doesn't need you as much until it's no longer worth working there because they want full availability 24/7 or nothing. And with the wealthier classes' kids playing the permanent student game and coming straight into the workforce with master's degrees and PhDs and connections galore, your ability to get a foot in the door at a better job declines rapidly, every single day.
I can't speak for others, but I know that for myself, all of this is a daunting concept. I don't know how long it will be until I can even do the basic things expected of me (be full-time employed, save enough to buy my own car, move out, pay rent, etc. etc.) and post that, it's more likely I'll be barely making it month-to-month than that I'll have a positive career outlook and be saving money or accruing any kind of stability. I won't dive into relationships because I think enough has been said about that aspect of Gen Z, but my outlook as far as marriage and family goes is overwhelmingly bleak also, and there's that nagging voice in the back of my head that says "no one wants to marry a person struggling to make ends meet, not in this economy" so I feel it could be 5 more years before I "get serious" about finding a spouse, even as convinced as I am that I'm called to married life, and by then, I'm 31, and my prospects re: fertility and children have declined also.
I know for a fact that most of my generation feels the same way. We feel stuck in lives we didn't want, didn't choose. We feel failed by the voices that told us things like 'just get your college diploma, it'll work out' or 'life is always hard when you're young'. We see peers older than us still living barely making it every day, and we see our parents pushing off retirement. And the meaning has been sucked dry from our lives for the most part. I feel fortunate that I do still have a relationship with God, but most of my peers are different. They aren't hearing any promises from on high and the promises they heard from society turned out to be lies. I strongly believe this is the same reason we have such problems with drug use, etc. in this country: when life isn't good, and it isn't getting any better, and all the voices you're hearing say it won't ever get any better, the only choice you really have to stay sane is indulge in deep escapism.
So we come back to Nozick's Experience Machine. The Matrix is a pretty good point of reference to this concept, but given that the lives of the characters in that film are pretty mundane and ordinary inside of the Matrix, I think a stronger point of reference might actually be Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One. I don't know if you've seen the film, but it imagines a world in which the majority of people just live in some variety of government tenement housing, and spend 80-90% of their waking hours plugged into an extremely advanced virtual reality simulator- mostly based around video game AI but also promising to be anything the users want it to be. That film, like The Matrix, has a hopeful note for humanity -- that eventually someone will come along who is willingly to break the illusion that virtual life is better than real life, but the inherent concept is the same. Given a bleak enough outlook, most people would choose not to think about, feel, or come into contact with any of life's problems. And I truly believe we're already living in that age.
The hypnotic part of Gen Z's outlook is the phrase I've (in discussions with a close friend) called "Nihilism As Virtue". Society, in my opinion thrives on finding a social moment to consider the defining core. Gen Z is Nihilism personified (something I'd like to write at length about, someday) but they grew up with the "Work As Virtue" or, if you want, "Capitalism As Virtue" mindset, the idea that you can achieve a sense of inner peace through hard work and the building of assets and wealth. This was the former toxic social message-- that God was unnecessary because material wealth could replace Him. Gen Z has rejected this, having discovered that their efforts will never produce the results in material wealth those same efforts might have in their parents and grandparents generation, so they instead cling to a darkly pessimistic outlook, and consider it to be virtuous that they reject the idea that they will ever be happy, fulfilled, etc. in life. Nihilism As Virtue is a strange sense of being, because Gen Z wears it with a smile on its face, becoming almost giddily addicted to the latest trends re: escapism and compelling others to do the same because, after all, life is meaningless, and it will never get any better, so we may as well, right? And unlike Work As Virtue, Nihilism As Virtue is harder to combat because telling someone there's more to life than amassing wealth is easy, telling someone there IS MORE TO LIFE, PERIOD, is difficult, especially when they've been convinced that the opposite is true.
To come full circle, I myself find that I spend a great deal of time engaging with escapism. I also spend a lot of dreaming about what life could be like, if only things could be different, or alternate universes existed where my worth in terms of the world was higher. So I can't honestly say, considering that, and all the problems I'll likely face in the next five years, that I feel confident I wouldn't say yes to the Experience Machine. And I highly doubt a lot of Gen Z would, either.
What struck me so hard about this letter is that I know this young woman's parents, and I know that she received a solid traditional upbringing in a faith-filled home. She has faith herself, and not just a notional faith. And yet, the bleakness of her generation's prospects are grinding her down.
The famous American work ethic helped the United States become the economic superpower of the 20th century.
But experts warn the decision to prioritize careers over families has set the country on an irreversible path to economic destruction. The reason? People do not have enough children anymore.
A baby boom in the mid-20th century saw the average woman give birth to between three and four children. Today, just 1.6 children - the lowest level recorded since data was first tracked in 1800.
This could lead to economic devastation in America down the line - as the federal government would need to collect more taxes to fund programs such as Medicare and Social Security - while dishing out less benefits to each person.
The downward trend of American fertility has accelerated in recent decades, as the 'Instagram generation' of millennials and zoomers prioritize their careers, travel and relaxation over building families.
The story goes on to quote researchers talking about the financial obstacles young people face today to starting families, but also saying that it can't simply be about economics. Scandinavian countries have generous social welfare states and protections that give people much more stability, and they are suffering the same baby bust. I think of something an American friend told me about his pal who married a Finnish woman, and who lives there. The man said all your material needs are taken care of in Finland, but there is no zest for life. People just seem to exist. No religion, nothing to hope for, nothing to die for therefore nothing to live for.
Years ago, in his initial writing about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the social scientist Christian Smith wrote that for the overwhelming number of the young generation (this was 2005, so I guess he was talking about Millennials), the purpose of life is nothing more than seeking happiness and material success. America's Christianity was (therefore) superficial, and would soon be cast aside, he predicted. It is coming true for Gen Z.
What gets to me about the reader's letter is that she is faithfully religious, and not just any religion, but an orthodox Catholic. And yet! Being a faithful Christian doesn't mean that you don't suffer from the same anxieties and problems as others of your generation. It means you have a way to cope with it that's not available to others, I suppose, but still, imagine that you are in your twenties, faced with financial instability as far as the eye can see, and fewer prospects of marriage and family, even though you want that.
Our ancestors -- meaning earlier generations of Americans and Europeans -- faced far more difficult circumstances than we do. War, disease, poverty -- they had it all. And yet, they still married, had children, and in so doing expressed hope.
What has happened to us? Just tonight, working on a chapter in my next book, I was going over some notes I took from the classic volume of religious studies, The Sacred And The Profane, by Mircea Eliade. He writes:
Every world is the work of the gods, for it was either created directly by the gods or was consecrated, hence cosmicized, by men ritually reactualizing the paradigmatic act of Creation. This is as much as to say that religious man can live only in a sacred world, because it is only in such a world that he participates in being, that he has a real existence. This religious need expresses an unquenchable ontological thirst. Religious man thirsts for being. His terror of the chaos that surrounds his inhabited world corresponds to his terror of nothingness. The unknown space that extends beyond his world — an uncosmicized because unconsecrated space, a mere amorphous extent into which no orientation has yet been projected, and hence in which no structure has yet arisen — for religious man, this profane space represents absolute nonbeing. If, by some evil chance, he strays into it, he feels emptied of his ontic substance, as if he were dissolving in Chaos, and he finally dies.
Could it be that the modern world -- the Western world, and every world dominated by modernity (e.g., Japan, South Korea) -- has become disenchanted, feels itself dissolving in Chaos, and is choosing to die by not reproducing? It's commonly observed that primitive tribes often do not survive contact with modern men. It's not a matter of disease. It's that those societies, and the individuals within them, can't withstand the psychic shock of having their religious worldview shattered, even if they stand to live better materially as modern people.
But: the reader who wrote me is not an unbeliever. She is a true believer, and an orthodox Catholic. Yet, she lives in this world.
What would you say to her? Are you like her? Are your kids? What would you say to give her hope? What should we do as a society to give these people hope? Or stop doing?
I think this is one of those posts that is bound to generate a lot of conversation. If you would like to say something but can't post in the comments section, send your thoughts to me at rod -- at -- amconmag -- dot -- com, with the word MATRIX in the subject line, and I'll consider posting them as updates. Be sure to check back with this post frequently for updates.
UPDATE: Lots of correspondence came in overnight. Let's go:
Rod, I'm convinced that the digital world is the culprit here, because it serves as the means by which the "nihilism" is communicated and inculcated. I suspect that this young woman would not be nearly so prone to generational bleakness if she were not so digitally connected. Note that Gen Z has grown up with the digital world since their own personal day one, and the great majority of parents, educators, etc., did absolutely nothing to limit or discourage their childrens's immersion in it. The thing builds itself by expanding upon and spreading its own foundational logic, and it's by nature addictive.
Interesting fact: I've recommended Zuboff's 'Age of Surveillance Capitalism' to a multitude of people, yet I do not know a single one of them that has read it. Why? I believe the same logic is at work. People do not want to give up the convenience even if it means surrendering control. These are adults I'm talking about. But With Gen Z you have an entire generation that has grown up and been educated in a system where that same logic is present literally in virtually everything they've experienced. Basically, they're a generation of socio-cultural crack babies: maybe not born addicted, but handed the goddam pipe almost immediately after birth.
The problems of the related ideologies are bad enough. But it's 100 times worse when you're put into an almost inescapable system where you're inhaling them 24/7. Is it any wonder these kids see things as so bleak? As Byung-Chul Han has written, it functions as a "totalitarianism without ideology." It's just "there," and one doesn't need to accept the ideology to succumb to it, as your correspondent demonstrates.
I'm neither a conservative, religious nor Gen Z but I stumbled onto your article and it resonated with ne, to the point I felt I had to write.
As a Gen-Xer, I had the privilege of growing up in probably the last great decades in the US, the 70s & 80s, with a nuclear family household and financial stability. In the 30-40 years since then I've watched the rise in fear and loathing in people all around me, the loss of confidence in the institutions that are supposed to keep the wheels on this bus, and the decline of any feelings of community and love for our fellow humans. We used to strive to do what's right and to leave the world a better place for our children and grandchildren, but that sentiment is gone. Maybe we were fooling ourselves believing in the future that we were promised and there is no such thing as "the common good." We watch while our environment is destroyed an acre at a time, our water is poisoned, and toxic waste is hiding everywhere. We see a few people wealthy enough to feed everyone on the planet hoarding their treasures while people all around the world starve. We've seen perpetual war for no real reason but greed. We see talentless and ignorant people born with a silver spoon in their mouth become "leaders" who make decisions deeply rooted in their own biases that effect nations and millions of people without a care for the damage they cause and they are never questioned or held accountable.
We've seen opportunities to build better lives for ourselves and our families vanish. There is no such thing as upward social mobility anymore unless it's through some type of corruption or becoming a lackey to the megarich.
On top of all of that, average people see that the cards are stacked against them. Wealthy and powerful people commit crimes and face no consequences. Without powerful attorneys one step out of line, i.e. stealing food because your kids are starving and you've lost your job can completely ruin a person's and their families' lives with little to no hope of recovery. We live stressed to the breaking point and in constant fear with no signs if any light at the end of the tunnel.
If that's not bad enough, on top of everything else we feel powerless and that is probably the most soul crushing blow of all. Our kids, the Gen Zs, the Millennials have never known anything but stranger danger, losing everything because a family member became sick, politicians and "leaders" working overtime to do nothing for the good of the people, and through it all believing there's nothing that can happen that will give them a little room to breathe, without fear, and be able to enjoy their lives.
Of course they don't want to bring another being into a hostile, terrifying world. Who can blame anyone for wanting to escape?
Thank you for letting me rant. I hope the people of Earth will realize we can make the world a better place if we quit hating and fearing each other and work together to find solutions.
I read your piece “Young, Christian and Eager to Escape” a moment ago—can I offer a quick anecdote? Perhaps it will be of use to the young woman in question.
She admits, “We feel stuck in lives we didn’t want, didn’t choose.” This is the folly of modernity’s yellow brick road—happiness, meaning, a rich life of your choosing awaits. It’s up to you! No, the way to those things are His choosing. “Thy will be done.” Submission to God’s plan, God’s life for you. You don’t have the career of your choosing, the experiences of your choosing, the life you desired. But His joy is your joy. And His joy is nonpareil.
I worked hard to develop my musicianship, my art; God gave me a disease that tortures my hands. I studied and worked hard for years to be a hotelier; God (okay, the governor) decimated the hospitality industry in the name of public health during the pandemic. My dreams came to nothing.
I found a job driving the elderly residents of an assisted living facility to/from appointments. I was promoted to Administration Assistant, then to Business Office Manager, now interim Executive Director. I never wanted this. “Thy will be done.” Like the woman in question, I’m single and childless. I prayed for someone to serve, to be useful to someone. God heard my prayer. I didn’t want this—God did. There was a need in my community—God knew this and intervened. I was saved.
Empty yourself of yourself. Let Him use you to His end and the misery of your search will end. You will never be tempted by the Experience Machine. “The solution of the problem of life,” wrote Wittgenstein, “is seen in the vanishing of the problem.”
That's interesting. That's more or less the attitude I have taken after this ambush divorce that has cost me so much of my former life. I told God, "Thy will be done," and asked Him to use me any way He wants to, because all I wanted most in life has now vanished. I hadn't quite thought of it like this until reading this reader's letter, but that probably has a lot to do with the eerie sense of peace, calm, and even hope I have felt for some time, despite living through a loss that could have destroyed me. It's no special virtue in me that did this. It was realizing that if I wanted to live, I had no choice.
"No religion, nothing to hope for, nothing to die for therefore nothing to live for."
It's as if John Lennon got his wish with the execrable "Imagine," but we got the Brotherhood of Melancholy, and being a (technologically/chemically assisted) dreamer is the only way out, with the world to live as one hooked up the to the Machine.
I have no answers for how we break societies out of this funk as it seems to be affecting the gamut of countries: from widely diverse (both in terms of demographics and wealth) nations like the US, to Western European countries with noted support structures, to authoritarian states like Russia (and arguably even China) or homogeneous nations like Japan.
I think, perhaps, as your writer hinted at, at the heart of it is Truth or the lack thereof. Our institutions and leaders have been telling Lies for years: "You'll succeed if you work hard and go to college!" has been blown up by corporations, who despite their flowery Values Statements went about treating workers as mere spreadsheet entries to be cut/deleted as needed to raise that stock price a quarter of a point for the next three months. Our political leaders drum up hatred of The Other, solve no problems and exempt themselves from rules and effects of their decisons. Our religious leaders are often revealed as hypocrites at best, outright criminals at worst. Doctors inundate us with drugs in the name of health. Educators have decided we're unteachable (as Jacques Barzun predicted they would do years ago in "From Dawn to Decadence") and are more concerned about the football team than the classics or philosophy department yet charge ever more insane prices for their "education." Art and architecture is ever more derivative and uncreative and seems more about marketing than any artistic talent, and speaks to little other than nihilism.
There's always some white lies societies will tell that are tolerable. "You can grow up to be anything you want!" clearly isn't true, most of us will never be NBA players or the King of France, but the underlying message of "You can chase and catch your dreams if you work for them!" can be true, or at least used to be, for many people, and people played along as long as they felt it was at least something we all agreed was part of the rules.
Now however, people have been playing by these rules, only to find out our institutions and leaders have no further interest in even pretending any more that they believe in what they're saying or imposing on the rest of us. And now with the internet and media making the Lies un-ignorable, and constantly in view, they've probably reached a critical mass and it's no surprise that people have lost all faith in the System and only seek to escape.
I suppose this is a rambling way to say what our societies need is Truth again at all levels: people need to feel they can trust the things they're told and the rules they're expected to live by. It's likely not an easy or quick process and I have zero illusions our current leadership is capable or even willing to do so. The rot in the West dates to at least the First World War, and has finally reached its nadir. Can only hope that something positive will take root and flower in the detritus of the old world.
Rod, that post was heartbreaking and only confirms what I’ve been sensing for a while - that it is getting much harder for younger people to gain a foothold in our society.
In 2005, I was 25 years old and penned a similar op-Ed which was published in a good size newspaper. The topic was how difficult it was for a young person to buy a house during the first major housing boom in the northeast. I was, at the time, employed in a field of my choosing, in a committed relationship (we would marry that year) and owned my own car. I was frustrated that the next milestone of independence, home ownership, was out of reach. Never would I have imagined that in 18 years so much would change to make even my modest success with work and relationships at age 25 seem unobtainable for a young person starting out. Being able to rent an apartment on your own, or buy an old Honda Civic, should not be a fairytale goal for an adult edging towards 30.
No easy answers here but the big question - who benefits? - comes to mind. All this dissatisfaction and dis-ease, and for what? People who don’t see a way to gain security and control of their lives turn to some pretty crazy stuff for answers or relief. I’m convinced most of the woke posturing is a way to try and knock competition off a crowded ladder that has been pulled up (look at the NYT power grabs in the newsroom and the vicious doxing to try and make people unemployable). Magic machine or rage against the machine, it comes from the same well of anxiety.
Your young writer friend is not wrong to feel discouraged but I’d caution her not to give in to the void. Find a good friend group who “gets it” (ben-op). Build from there. Square away work next. Find something you may be able to do as your own business in addition to your job. Start tiny. Move out of big cities into more livable midsize cities. It will take time. It’s terribly unfair that young people have to struggle this much for what generations of Americans took for granted as “normal” but that’s unfortunately the world they’ve been given. Nobody who is working now has it easy. Your bosses are in just as precarious a situation, maybe even more fraught. There’s a drought and a dustbowl out there, only it’s not as visible or universal as the one our grandparents survived. Only way through it is to stick together.
No way would I plug into some bleeping Matrix!
Seemingly, I would be the perfect candidate for it too: an old man, widowed when I was about that young lady’s age, I have no wife or children; no one to grow old with, no one to grow old for.
But Life is a Boot Camp. God cast us into this mosh pit of misery precisely so that we may soldier on through our sufferings, and hence become transformed and redeemed through them. Sinning and suffering, failing and forgiving, all are the everyday tasks at Boot Camp Eventually, Redemption becomes our reward for graduating from Boot Camp.
Waste your time at Boot Camp playing video games, and guess what? You FAIL Boot Camp!
I believe your correspondent's personal story and that from her vantage point it is widespread, but I dont see the same in my little corner of the world. I am Catholic like her, but a different demographic (early 40s, married, kids) and I pulled the plug on nearly all my online life. I do however manage a number of people in her demographic and work with many more, so I feel thats enough for a perspective.
I honestly only see people with your correspondents view online, never in person. Perhaps the people I spend time with in person feel like she does but hide it well. I doubt it because my employer treats employees fairly, and my other friends are mostly fellow parents or people 20-40 years older than me from Church.
Outside-in I have a few theories about problems facing Gen Z leading them toward despair.
There appears to be a destructive and commonly held assumption that financial stability has to precede family formation. This is nuts. You arent going to have a better chance to meet a mate than when you are 18-25. The decision to wait for financial stability is misplaced faith. Instead of "Lets face the tough world together", you have "If its really meant to be, she will be available and still interested in me when I am 35 and well off".
The same waiting for financial stability often happens for people deciding to have kids. I know I did. Eventually my wife and I decided there is no such thing as "ready" and just went for it.
Second, young folks need to banish FOMO from their minds by any means necessary (for me it was abandoning online life). FOMO made me feel like i had so many things I should be doing besides being a good husband and father. No matter what fun I had, I ended up comparing it to that guy I hardly knew from undergrad's FB posts of treķking in Nepal. FOMO is the devil.
A third issue specifically for young Catholics (defined as 50 and under) which I noticed in the several parishes i have been in for the last 15 years is that there is so little in-person activity for working people, and especially working parents. Lots of activities are during working hours, and evening or weekwnd events lack child care. Other parishes may do it better, buy I havent seen it yet. My wife and I make it work, but its not simple.
I will pray for your correspondent. She is up against powerful forces if she feels as she describes despite her faith.
Your email from the young woman stuck in a rut was frustrating to read, because she really needs to change many of the premises under which she lives.
First of all, she needs to quit playing video games. I'm in my mid-50s with a decent job, a great spouse, and a (mortgaged) house in a community where I'm happy, all of which was unimaginable when in my mid-20s, when I was a broke, underemployed, pessimistic shut-in like your correspondent, watching my wealthy or well-connected peers rocket to career and financial success.
The only thing I regret from that time? The hundreds and hundreds of hours I wasted on video games, at home, by myself, when I should have been dating, learning a new skill or a new language, working a side job, volunteering...anything other than the repetitive, pointless ephemera of video games. My life would have been financially, socially, and emotionally secure at least a decade sooner if I'd done literally anything else—in short, if I'd lived in the real world instead of festering in the virtual world.
As a counterpoint to your correspondent's tale of woe, let me tell you about my 19-year-old relative. He's still living with his parents and working as a modern-day stevedore at a big port in the American South. Six months out of high school, he's making $36,000 to $40,000 (with token rent to his folks), saving up to buy a truck without having to finance it, and keeping his eye open for either a small business he can start or a franchise he might be able to save up and purchase. At 19 years old! His job is more physical than most people can handle, and it's not glamorous, but he understands he has to start somewhere. At a time when everyone is hiring, it's not hard to start climbing the employment ladder. This kid, a so-so student who opted out of college and is currently performing unskilled manual labor, is optimistic about his life. Even from his view on the crappy lower rungs, he sees opportunity everywhere. By the time he's 30, he's going to own a fleet of food trucks or a landscaping business or who knows what. And if he feels like playing the occasional video game by that point, he'll be playing them in his own home and buying them with his own disposable income.
Your correspondent also writes, "religion isn't in it of itself sustaining enough, for many, in a world like the one we live in." This sentiment further suggests that this young woman needs to spend a whole lot less time in front of a screen. If religion sustained people through the concentration camp and the gulag, it sure as hell can sustain a Gen Zer through a society of wealth, abundance, and opportunity, despite the burden of insanely-priced housing. Does she not see the industriousness of immigrants who arrive here with nothing and build wonderful lives? If her parish or a nearby church has an immigrant-assistance program, a homelessness program, or a soup kitchen, she should get involved and put in regular hours there. She'll stop feeling helpless and sorry for herself real quick.
I don't mean to sound unsympathetic. I've been where this woman is! And I wish more people had said these things to me, far more bluntly, when I felt stuck too.
Behind your correspondent's generational lament, I sense depression. Being online all the time with others of her generation sharing the same dreary outlook is only reinforcing her pessimism and even serving to justify it. She's stuck in a cycle of hopelessness, as many of us have been, but she has several ways out, none of which involve wallowing or resignation.
Interesting. I asked my older son, who is about five years younger than my correspondent, what he thought of her letter. He said that her problem is that she's stuck inside her head (the computer being an extension of her head). I reflected on how he spent much of his childhood inside his head and on his computer. When he went off to college, he got heavily involved in cycling, and then in music as a deejay at the college radio station. His outlook on life improved massively, and quickly, once he put the laptop down and engaged the real world. He keeps telling me to do the same thing.
Here's another reader, who lectures at a seminary:
Rod, I'm a longtime reader of your blog. Your recent posts “Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine” and “Young, Christian, And Eager To Escape” struck a chord with me.
I think it’s worthwhile to see this on a continuum. Every time I read a novel or watch a movie, I am focusing my attention on something that isn’t real. When I sit in a movie theater for two hours, I’m focused on the “eye candy” on the screen, not on the friend sitting next to me or the homeless man on the sidewalk next to the ticket booth. That’s why the Puritans closed the theaters in London under Cromwell. But Catholic, Orthodox, and most Protestant traditions have never objected to fiction or other forms of distraction – when used prudently.
What constitutes prudence here? Clearly it requires that we avoid excessive time. It also requires that we avoid excessive emotional investment: if the death of a character on your favorite TV show affects you more than the death of your cousin, that might be a sign that you should reorient your focus. And I would suggest that we also should be aware that fiction (like all distractions) can be addictive if our mundane lives lack joy.
Yet when someone feels they are too focused on the unreal, seeing it as a case of “red pill or blue pill” – a boolean choice – is not helpful. Our social skills can atrophy just like our bodies can. If someone has spent ten years sitting on a couch and wants to turn their life around, they should start by going on ten-minute walks, not by joining the Marines. In the same way, when someone realizes that their habits have become too introverted and too focused on the unreal (whether fiction or video games), they need to slowly yet steadily spend more time on things that pull them out of themselves. A phone call to a sister or a brief conversation with a stranger at a bookstore might be the first step. Just like exercise, we (yes, this includes me) need to remember that it will feel like “work” at first, but the more time we spend at it, the more we may come to enjoy doing things that involve real human interaction.
But if we think that the only alternatives are throwing the iPhone into the trash or surrendering to the Matrix, then many of us will end up choosing the machine.
Here's a great one from a college student:
My name is [redacted], I am a senior studying history, sociology, and philosophy at [redacted]. I am currently anticipating my graduation and my baptism into the Catholic Church this Easter (by then I will have been discerning for a year and a half)! I was deeply intrigued by your piece, "Young, Christian, and Ready to Escape." I thought it would be worthwhile to send you my brief thoughts on Nozick's "Experience Machine."
As a writer myself, I can sympathize with the idea of living in a world where I always felt I was writing a century's best novel, a poem which people will read and weep and praise the stars at night, or the philosophical work which will emancipate us from modernity's charming despotism. In fact, I am prone to imagine just this when I write today, very much outside of the matrix (don't tell Elon Musk!). Greatness is an appealing idea, no doubt. But I have come to find this is a warped, and ultimately remarkably dangerous, conception of greatness. This revelation came through the beautiful face and soul of the girl I now plan to marry.
I have long dreamed of being something great: of being a great writer, like Chesterton, or a philosopher who'll shake the whole of the world with the musings of his mind, like Hegel. I dreamed of making it, not economically, but emotionally. I wanted the glory, not because it would bring fancy fortune, but because it would please me. This pleasure was of my ego, but, for the sake of my argument, merely insert any aspect of the pleasures the human heart slaves for which Nozick's "Experience Machine" can offer us unceasingly.
I no longer seek this supposed greatness, however, and the reason why, it seems to me, entirely reveals the bankruptcy of Nozick's machine.
A few months ago, I began dating the girl that by God's grace will be my wife. At the time, I still had a perverted view of greatness. As we have grown in our relationship, however, both my ends and understandings of life and greatness have changed. Her love has revealed to me that all I was pursuing were the fancies of a child. A child dreams of conquering the world, of "greatness" and glory, wealth and honor, pleasure and comfort. And this is natural, of course, unless the child does not grow up. The boy must become a man.
I watched, as I began to fall in love with this woman, as the foremost ends of my life became to love her, to marry her, to give myself to her. I then saw that I wanted her to be the mother of my children, and that I wanted to father her children—our children. I'll do whatever I must to ensure this happens, to hell with my "greatness." Greatness will consist of giving myself, not gaining anything to satisfy the lusts of the flesh. She, like Beatrice did for Dante, is calling me to something higher. It's what happens when a woman is truly feminine. She is requiring that I answer her call, that I be a man. She is delivering me from my boyhood.
Ultimately Nozick's machine is nothing new, it offers exactly what Satan did to our Lord in the desert: a good life without the cross. There is, however, no such thing as a good life without the cross. Our Lord's incarnation revealed to us true humanity, human living to its fullest; subsequently, the end of our humanity is incomplete without the cross. The cross is the manifestation and pinnacle of love, charity, and life lived as gift.
Nozick's machine may afford us that which our carnality and concupiscence lust for, but the Cross of Christ lays before us joy, and joy to the full. It offers us heroism, romance, mystery, and charity. Our generation yearns to be redeemed of the dehumanizing consumption which Mammon's regime forces down our throats, and rightfully so. I suggest, then, they look to the cross, the only place salvation dwells.
To do just that, we must love—it's exactly what the logic of creation is, it's that which the human person was made and thus thirsts for, and Nozick's machine will only further parch and crack modern man's bone-dry soul.
The love of the woman I love revealed this to me, and I am reminded every time I look into her eyes that as Dante looked to Beatrice, Beatrice looked to God.
That woman, this man's Beatrice, is lucky to have him. Such maturity, such vision!
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Here's another profound letter:
A few thoughts in reaction to the essay by the girl wresting with the allure of nihilism, that you post today at the blog:
It seems to me, based in my own experience, that the only solution to nihilism and hopelessness is in the “re-enchantment” of mystical faith. Life understood in materialistic and secular terms is really illusory, merely fleeting consciousness in the face of annihilation, death.
As we know, our culture provides myriad distractions from this brutal reality, metaphoric and literal opiates to sooth and anesthetize us in our despair. But these are not solutions, just anodyne palliatives that lessen and submerge our suffering.
The solution is to engage our suffering. To face and embrace it, to acknowledge death and meditate on it. Death and suffering are absurd. Evil is absurd. Facing suffering, death and evil unflinchingly, without compromise, your heart will revolt at evil’s absurdity, and you will seek faith, it will become imminently reasonable to you. And if already have faith, your faith will increase. Most especially when you recognize and confess your own evil, your sin, and seek the grace to abjure and heal it.
I suggest that anyone who wants faith, and attendant hope, should make an honest request to God for it. If you want to believe, if you want to trust, if you want peace, happiness and courage, if you want detachment from the things and anxieties of this world, ask God for it. This is the fruit prayer, and prayer sanctifies, heals. And holiness is joy. If you want to be holy, ask God with humility, in a spirit of repentance, for holiness.
This initial prayer will be answered. You will experience God’s love and presence. After this, ask for the grace to grow in prayer. For prayer is itself a grace, it is the life of grace. When you ask for it, you will receive it. Don’t be afraid. Ask. Ask for the desire. Your desire will be fulfilled.
Then, all that is left is to pray to grow in desire for God, pray to grow in love. Love is the presence of God in yourself, in your heart and soul. It is union with God, the state if grace. This will bring you happiness, happiness even in suffering, and a life full of meaning. It will bring you wisdom and help you grow in all other aspects of grace, in all the virtues. Pray first actively for love. “Lord, I love you. Help me love you as you deserve, help me love you infinitely more.”
There are several things that I think critical, after this.
First, is to pray for your enemies, those who have hurt you. Do this actively, constantly. Forgive everyone, for everything. Pray for a spirit of repentance, pray constantly for forgiveness. The Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus have mercy on me, a sinner”) is the key, here.
Second, ask for the grace to grow in asceticism and self denial. The purpose of asceticism is to heal your heart of idolatry, to clear it of distraction and clutter, to free it to be consumed with the love of God. You may think asceticism will be difficult, but once you begin it becomes progressively easier. The spiritual graces and pleasures, the serenity and strength you receive will eclipse any carnal pleasure you are currently addicted with.
Also, when you fail, immediately repent. Seek forgiveness, always, from everyone. In all of this, humility (telling the truth about yourself) is the critical catalyst of all grace and love.
Also, take the seven deadly sins seriously. Examine your own heart, see which ones afflict you. Each vice or sin has concomitant graces or virtues that heal them. Pride is healed by humility, which is simply acknowledging the truth of God and embracing it. Envy is healed by kindness, generosity and gratitude, most especially in actively loving and blessing your enemies. Anger is healed by forgiveness (of yourself first, then everyone else) and patience. Avarice is healed by gratitude (to God first and above all, then everyone else, even those who humiliate and harm you, for they are giving you opportunity to grow in goodness and holiness) generosity and the cultivation of the spirit of poverty. Lust is healed by actively praying for detachment, purity, chastity, snd fasting. Gluttony is healed by love and fasting. Sloth and acedia are healed by love and discipline.
All of this hinges upon love. Love of God. But love of God is only possible in love of your enemies, your neighbors. It’s only possible if you root the spirit of idolatry and fear from your heart. Prayer and asceticism are the only means of attaining this love and detachment. When you are detached from all things, you will no longer be afraid of anything.
Grace will free you of all fear and anxiety. Death, poverty and suffering will no longer terrify you. Any temptation to acedia and allure of nihilism will evaporate in presence of love.
Ask for everything, and you will receive everything. It’s not by our own power that we attain these divine things, but by way of grace, as gifts from God. That’s a great consolation, for when we are broken contrite humble and weak before God, we will be made infinitely strong.
This re-enchantment, this mystical joy and freedom is ours for the asking. It’s in the active love of God. It’s only one request, then a lifetime of suffering, joy and prayer away.
Courage. Be not afraid. Christus vincit.