The Emotional State Of American Civilization

May 27th, 2023 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

The conservative communist David Brooks recently made a series of poignant observations about the emotional state of America at this point in the 21st century:  “One well-established finding of social science research is that conservatives report being happier than liberals. Over the years, researchers have come up with a bunch of theories to explain this phenomenon.  The first explanation is that conservatives are more likely to take part in the activities that are linked to personal happiness—like being married and actively participating in a religious community. The second explanation is that of course conservatives are happier; they are by definition more satisfied with the established order of things.  The third explanation, related to the second, is that on personality tests liberals tend to score higher on openness to experience but also higher on neuroticism. People who score high on neuroticism are vigilant against potential harms, but they also have to live with a lot of negative emotions—like sadness and anxiety.”

Throughout much of the 20th century, there was an assumption of confidence—America is moving forward.  “Gradually, that atmosphere changed. First, smartphones and social media emerged and had a negative effect on the nation’s psyche, especially among the young. Then the election of Donald Trump darkened the national mood, on right and left.  Lord knows the right has gone off on its own jarring psychological journey of late, but many on the left began to suffer from what you might call maladaptive sadness.” This mind-set had three main features of this “maladaptive sadness” on the left:

  1. “First, a catastrophizing mentality. For many, America’s problems came to seem endemic: The American dream is a sham, climate change is so unstoppable, systemic racism is eternal. Making catastrophic pronouncements became a way to display that you were woke to the brutalities of American life.”
  2. “Second, extreme sensitivity to harm. This was the sense many people had that they were constantly being assaulted by offensive and unsafe speech, the concerns that led to safe spaces, trigger warnings, cancellations, etc.”
  3. “Third, a culture of denunciation. When people feel emotionally unsafe, they’re going to lash out—often in over the top, vitriolic terms. That contributes to the fierce volleys of cancellation and denunciation we’ve seen over the past few years.  This rhetorical style is also self-destructive. When maximalist denunciation is the go-to device, then nobody knows who’s going to be denounced next. Everybody finds himself living in a climate of fear, and every emotionally healthy person is writing and talking from a defensive crouch.”

But, the political and cultural “right” also evidences a “maladaptive sadness.”  Consider the proposal of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who kicked off a conversation about a “national divorce.”  Greene says she does not mean a true national division but rather an extreme form of federalism, in which “red and blue states essentially live under completely different economic and constitutional structures while maintaining a nominal national union.”  As David French comments, “The very idea is absurd. It’s incompatible with the Constitution. It’s dangerous. It’s unworkable. It would destroy the economy, dislocate millions of Americans and destabilize the globe. Even in the absence of a civil war—it’s beyond unlikely that vast American armies would clash the way they did from 1861 to 1865—national separation would almost certainly be a violent mess. There is only one way to describe an actual American divorce: an unmitigated disaster, for America and the world.”  But why should we think that reason will win the day? French writes “I’m haunted by James McPherson’s account of the prewar period in his seminal work, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.  Describing the South in the run-up to secession and war, he says it was possessed by an ‘unreasoning fury.’  The immediate cause was Northern celebration of John Brown, the abolitionist who attempted to provoke a slave rebellion by seizing the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.  In McPherson’s account, Northern support for Brown’s cause ‘provoked a paroxysm of anger more intense than the original reaction to the raid.’ Southern paranoia was so profound that Texas’ secession declaration even included claims that Northern ‘emissaries’ were distributing ‘poison’ to slaves for the purpose of killing white citizens.  The South separated from the North and started a ruinous and futile war not because of calm deliberation but rather because of hysteria and fear— including hysteria and fear whipped up by the partisan press.”

In 2020 French wrote that “At this moment in history, there is not a single important cultural, religious, political or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart.”  That statement was true then, and it is true now. If anything, partisan anger has only grown . . . Animosity is the enemy of American liberty. It is hard to muster the will to defend the rights of people you despise. But it’s also the ultimate enemy of American unity. Hatred and fear are the foundation of ‘unreasoning fury,’ and the fury that divided us once before may well do so again.”

In a related topic concerning the emotional state of the nation, David French also writes of teenage anxiety and their parents: “I’ve been following that discussion of rising teenage anxiety with intense interest—in particular, the role of social media, secularization, and politics in immiserating our children.  But there’s a factor that’s received insufficient attention in the debate over external factors in teenage suffering: What is the call is also coming from inside the house?  What if parents are inadvertently contributing to their own kids’ pain?”  Is there evidence of “maladaptive sadness” among today’s teens?  Consider this evidence:

  • In 2021 nearly 60% of teenage girls reported ‘persistent sadness,’ Azeen Ghorayshi and Roni Caryn Rabin wrote in The Times.  Overall, 44% of teenagers reported ‘persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,’ according to the Washington Post, and increase of 26% in 2009.”  In 2009 44% of teens reported suffering from serious sadness and 41.5% of adults reported ‘recent symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder,’ an increase from an already high baseline of 36.4% just months before.
  • Suicide rates have gone up teens but still “materially lag suicide rates among their parents and grandparents.  Death of despair—the name from deaths due to suicide, drug abuse or alcohol poisoning—have particularly affected white middle-aged men, and the numbers overall are simply staggering, especially since they started to increase in 2000.”
  • “Adult anger and pessimism are pervasive: A recent NBC News poll indicated that a record 58% of registered voters surveyed believed that America’s best days were behind it.”

As French correctly argues, “Teenagers do not exist on an island.  The connection between parental emotional health and the emotional health of their kids is well established.  Moreover, the way parents raise their kids can, of course, directly affect emotional health.”  For example, let’s consider the relationship between adults and their TVs and smartphones.  “Watch cable news (where grandparents get their news), and you’ll see a discourse dominated by fear and anger.  If you spend any time on political Twitter (or observe the discourse on political Facebook posts), you’ll quickly see a level of vicious, personal attacks that differ little from the most extreme bullying a person can experience in middle school or high school.”  Therefore, we must be brutally honest with ourselves and ask several important questions:  How much fear and anxiety should we import into our lives and homes?  What are we modeling before our children? Are we proving any more capable of handling the information age than our children?  By our behavior, are we contributing to the fear, anxiety and sadness manifested in our children?

A British pastor named Andrew Wilson made this observation about America: “One of the things that have struck me in my last two US visits has been how very painful the culture wars have become for many, many people.  Online, you see combatants appearing to enjoy the fight (or even monetize it).  But on the gourd, you see the hurt, confusion and fatigue.”  As French concludes, “Now, it’s time for us to realize that our hurt can become our kids’ hurt, and if we want to heal our children, that process may well start by seeking the help we need to heal ourselves.”

To that end, I repeat a piece I referred to several months ago on Issues in Perspective:  In a delightful and informative essay in Christianity Today, Andrea Palpant Dilley writes that “As parents and caretakers, the vision for our kids’ flourishing starts here on earth but extends all the way into eternity. We’re teaching them to govern creation now but also raising them to co-rule with God in the new creation.’’ She suggests these principles:

  1. “We need to see our kids’ future influence, earning capacity, and social mobility in the context of stewardship.”
  2. “We treasure knowledge but not at the expense of wisdom.”
  3.   “We value God’s general revelation to our children through science, nature, art and literature.”
  4. “We pay heed to the spiritual formation that happens in community.”
  5. “We raise our kids to worship.”
  6. “We raise our kids as pilgrims . . . Their final ‘goal horizon’ is the new creation, not this one, which means they need to courage to suffer.”

As Christians, our hope and focus is on Christ and His kingdom.  This truth should give us optimism about the future but also cause us to be diligent and thoughtful about our stewardship responsibility as parents and grandparents.

See David Brooks in the New York Times (10 March 2023); David French in the New York Times (6 March 2023); David French in the New York Times (20 March 2023); and Andrea Palpant Dilley in Christianity Today (March 2023), pp. 29-30.

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One Comment to “The Emotional State Of American Civilization”

  1. Peter Wiebe says:

    I would recommend highly the book by Jonathan Cahn, “The Return of the Gods” to help us understand what is emerging in North America and how this is connected to Old Testament times and it explains why it’s happening. What is developing in our country is not a result of Trump’s policies, much as we’d like to give him ample blame, nor will these “movements” be rectified by Biden’s initiatives. The blame lies with all of us, especially Christians, who, like the early Israelites did when Moses was up on the mountain receiving God’s Ten Commandments, asked Aaron to make the golden calf. We too, have become insensitive to God’s leading and are so willing to enjoy the golden calf and all of its destructiveness.