Editor’s note: Today’s editorial was written by David Brooks of The (Eugene, Ore.) Register-Guard. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
There is some sort of hard-to-define spiritual crisis across the land, which shows up in rising depression rates, rising mental health problems. A survey that the Pew Research Center released late last year captures the mood. Pew asked people to describe the things that bring meaning to their lives. A shocking number of respondents described lives of quiet despair.
The Pew survey reveals a large group of Americans down the income and economic ladders who are suffering from economic scarcity, social scarcity and spiritual scarcity all at once. Less educated people were less likely to say that friendship was a source of meaning in their lives. They were less likely to say hobbies were a source of meaning, nor was learning, nor good health nor stability.
When people overall described the sources of meaning in their lives, they stuck close to home. Nearly 70% identified family as a source of meaning, followed by career, making money and practicing a spirituality or faith. Only 11% said learning added meaning to their lives. Only 7% said helping others was a meaningful part of their life.
But the meaning of meaning seems to have changed. When people in this survey describe meaning, they didn’t describe moral causes or serving their community, country or God. They described moments when they felt loved, satisfied or good about themselves.
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Everything feels personalized and miniaturized. The upper registers of moral life — fighting for freedom, struggling to end poverty — have been amputated for many. The awfulness of the larger society is a given. The best you can do is find a small haven in a heartless world.
I’ve just finished a four-month tour for my book “The Second Mountain,” talking with thousands of people, and I certainly encountered the disillusioned America described in the Pew survey. But the big thing I encountered was the seismic generation gap. People my age rag on the younger generation for being entitled and emotionally fragile, etc. But this generation is also seething with moral passion and rebelling against the privatization of morality so prevalent in the Boomer and Gen-X generations.
They can be totally insufferable about it. In the upscale colleges on the coasts, Wokeness is a religious revival with its own conception of sin (privilege) and its own version of the Salem Witch Trials (online shaming).
I recently met a group of high school kids from around the United States and Africa involved in the Bezos Scholars program. In our conversations they didn’t define their identity by where they were from, or even by their ethnicity and race. They defined themselves by what project they work on — serving Native Americans, working for clean water. Similarly, high school students generally are more likely to define themselves by their political stances and their vocations, rather than whether they are jocks or drama kids.
It’s often uncomfortable and over the top, but we’re lucky to have a rebellion against boomer quietism and moral miniaturization. The young zealots may burn us all in the flames of their auto-da-fe, but it’s better than living in a society marked by loneliness and quiet despair.