Arguably, a good deal of Americans are in a state of anxiety or depression. They have little to no savings. They have mountains of debt. They are lonely, even in their relationships. They sense that a sudden change in the economy would bring their world crashing down upon them. They fear they will fail, but they don’t know what it looks like to succeed. And they wonder if there is even any meaning to their existence.
If you think that describes a lot of Americans, or maybe even yourself, know that this state of anxiety is not normal for a society. In the past, while people may have been living harder lives, they often were far more content. So what changed in our times to bring about a near universal state of anxiety?
In his well-known book Ideas Have Consequences, historian Richard Weaver shares a few powerful insights:
“First, one must take into account the deep psychic anxiety, the extraordinary prevalence of neurosis, which make our age unique. The typical modern has the look of the hunted. He senses that we have lost our grip upon reality. This, in turn, produces disintegration, and disintegration leaves impossible that kind of reasonable prediction by which men, in eras of sanity, are able to order their lives.”
He continues, digging deeper into our neurosis:
“And the fear accompanying it unlooses the great disorganizing force of hatred, so that states are threatened and wars ensue. Few men today feel certain that war will not wipe out their children’s inheritance; and, even if this evil is held in abeyance, the individual does not rest easy, for he knows that the Juggernaut technology may twist or destroy the pattern of life he has made for himself. A creature designed to look before and after finds that to do the latter has gone out of fashion and that to do the former is becoming impossible.”
Weaver’s description calls to mind caged animals, frightened and ready to lash out at anything, even the hands that feed them. They remain huddled in the corner fearing even the open door, too overwhelmed to escape the cage.
Sadly, is that what we have become? Entertainment often reflects the mood of an era and the recent decades have seen plenty of popular songs that play upon the theme. Smashing Pumpkin’s “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” comes to mind with its chorus: “Despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage.”
To Richard Weaver, it’s not just the feeling of impending doom that gives us anxiety. It has deeper roots in societal and corporate structures.
“Added to this is another deprivation. Man is constantly being assured today that he has more power than ever before in history, but his daily experience is one of powerlessness. Look at him today somewhere in the warren of a great city. If he is with a business organization, the odds are great that he has sacrificed every other kind of independence in return for that dubious one known as financial. Modern social and corporate organization makes independence an expensive thing; in fact, it may make common integrity a prohibitive luxury for the ordinary man…”
Too true, it is exceptionally difficult to become financially independent. It often takes a lifetime for a person to get out of debt, if ever. And if you have college debt and series of setbacks such as expensive repairs to your car or house, or a bout of long-term illness, it seems even harder to dig out. Weaver poignantly captures the emotions this state of affairs leads to:
“Not only is this man likely to be a slave at this place of daily toil, but he is cribbed, cabined, and confined in countless ways, many of which are merely devices to make possible physically the living together of masses. Because these are deprivations of what is rightful, the end is frustration, and hence the look, upon the faces of those whose souls have not already become miniscule, of hunger and unhappiness.”
At this point, if Weaver’s writings are hitting home, you’re probably looking for a solution. Maybe socialism because people are supposedly happier and safer? Maybe the end of the white patriarchy because they created this mess? Or maybe the refutation of cultural Marxism and a return to “traditional American values”?
I’m sorry to say that I don’t have a simple answer to offer you. I do think that we’re seeing people beginning to give up on the current way of things by coming together in small, informal communities, united by an ethos, to support each other. In the homeschooling world and with some churches, you see this taking place. Some Catholics are moving to small towns en masse to see if they can live differently, calling the effort “The Benedict Option”. Many progressives are doing similar things, embracing smaller houses and shedding modern materialism. They also have led the charge for more local sustainability, seeing some successes.
To really make the changes needed for the mental, physical, and spiritual health of man though, I do believe we are going to need a uniting, vibrant ethos that is bigger than any one of us. Living for the moment or just surviving won’t suffice.
Our times have rejected the rationalism established by the Enlightenment; we have even rejected objective reality. Instead, we embrace our senses as the only way to find truth; our emotions, appetite, and passions rule in the place of reason. This period probably won’t last long as our appetites and animal instincts will lead to increasing chaos. At some point, man’s desire for order will result in Caesar and a new order. But what will come of that? Most likely, if history gives us clues, we will slowly rebuild from the chaos and a spiritual understanding of the world will come to rule in the place of both reason and emotion. For as the Ancients made clear, it should be the soul that rules reason and reason should rule the senses. Until we embrace that order, anxiety will be an affliction that we suffer, escaping as often as possible through drink, drugs, entertainment, and constant motion and noise. But we have to know what is good for the soul first.
Devin is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Charlemagne Institute, which operates Intellectual Takeout, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and the Alcuin Internship. He is a graduate of Hillsdale College where he studied history and political science. Prior to co-founding Charlemagne Institute, he served as the Director of Development at the Center of the American Experiment, a state-based think tank in Minnesota.
Devin is a contributor to local and national newspapers, a frequent guest on a variety of talk shows, such as Minneapolis' KTLK and NPR's Talk of the Nation, and regularly shares culture and education insights presenting to civic groups, schools, and other organizations. In 2011, he was named a Young Leader by the American Swiss Foundation.
Devin and his wife have been married for eighteen years and have six children. When he's not working, Devin enjoys time with family while also relaxing through reading, horticulture, home projects, and skiing and snowboarding.