Friday’s Column: Brent’s Bent
The stats are in, and depression and suicide rates are up. For example, 7.8% of all U.S. adults experienced one episode of major depression within the last year. Suicide rates nationally have been up by 30% since 2000, with the most significant surge coming over the last decade.1 Naturally, the pandemic gets its share of the blame for a part of these trends, but can it explain it all?
I humbly suggest it does not. These problems stem from more than being cooped up in houses and having routines upset. People are more dissatisfied. A poll conducted in 2020 found only 14% of the respondents were happy. 2020 was the first time the percentage dipped so low since the General Social Survey started tracking those numbers in 1972. 2
Let us consider all the changes ushered in since Y2K. First, social media was born and has brought considerable changes to the culture and how we disseminate information. Who had heard of Twitter in 2005? Trick question. Twitter wasn’t even a thing in 2005. Though there was a Facebook (2004), it still limited who could use its platform. I could not waste my time watching cute cat videos in 2004. YouTube did not roll out user-submitted video streaming until 2005.
And let us not forget the technological advancements this millennium has witnessed. For example, Steve Jobs’ iPhone gave us “an app for that” in 2007. In 2008, Google gave us the open-source Android OS for smartphones. What kind of internet speeds did you enjoy over a decade ago? AOL was still around in the early 2000s, having people call in over their telephone lines accessing blazing internet speeds allowed by their 56k modems. (Obvious sarcasm there.) It was only a minority that had access to broadband internet in 2005. And can you remember the early 2000s when you started hearing all those businesses you patronized talk about checking out their website?
How about the state of politics and civil discourse since 2000? “Not my President!” That slogan began in 2016 with protesting against the outcome of the election, isn’t that correct? But, no, people were saying that about President Bush, too, after the whole hanging-chads debacle in the 2000 election. And oh, what noise in the “streets!” Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Antifa, Black Lives Matter, MAGA, and Proud Boys. In some respects, we’ve regressed to the tumultuous Vietnam War era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Now, I am aware that correlation is not causation. However, I think that the one wishing to connect the dots can demonstrate how all these things we have mentioned have stoked the fires of depression and discontent. The fake perfection of social media makes people think they are unattractive and have unfulfilled lives. The disinformation and propaganda of the internet arouse our righteous ire against our enemies, foreign and predominantly domestic. And the technology puts all this information in our hands nigh instantaneously. Then, we can easily share our misery or righteous indignation with everyone around us.
The question is, how do you respond to all of this? I advise you not to react like a particular man from Turkey’s Mersin province when the contagion of Christianity began turning his world upside down. His zeal caused him to persecute the Christian sect. He was willing to dedicate his entire life to Christianity’s eradication, traveling even a great distance to ferret out its adherents living among the populace of a province that was not even his home. Finally, on that fateful road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to this man and made a profound statement. “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26.14 NASB1995).
What is a goad? There was a time when cattlemen moved their livestock by poking them with a sharpened stick. That sharpened stick was a goad. So, if our man from Turkey, Saul of Tarsus, was like one of God’s cattle on a thousand hills (cf. Psalm 50.10), he was stubborn. Rather than accept the direction of his master’s prodding, he pushed back against the sharpened stick, injuring himself. That is what self-righteousness does. A person can be a crusader for many things, some of which seem very important, but when he runs contrary to the will of God, he only causes self-harm.
Polls show that the United States has effectively “democratized” Christianity. In other words, nebulous “spirituality” is up while “organized religion” is down. People think they can “swipe right or left” as they do with a dating app when engaging with God. This mindset was becoming ensconced even before COVID-19. I would add that governmental regulation to close our assembly halls during the pandemic and our well-intentioned compliance with them enabled the creation of a “virtual faith” among some of our members. The result is that people have lost the sense of community and purpose that the church provides.3 Hence, people are depressed and dissatisfied.
Now that fear has subsided, and SARS-CoV-2 is not the killer it once was, thanks to treatment regimens borne amid fiery trials and this virus reaching an endemic state, things are opening back up to pre-pandemic conditions. And people are ecstatic to be returning to a semblance of normalcy. Yet, something is still inexplicably missing. Young people particularly notice it. There is an empty void even with involvement in social issues or opportunities to contribute to a good cause.
Whether one attributes Blaise Pascal or Augustine with the credit for first articulating the existence of a “God-shaped hole” within us, it indeed exists. Per Jesus’ statement about unclean spirits, we know evil fills an empty void (Matthew 12.43-45). If not “evil,” per se, definitely self (cf. Romans 1.25). If people continue in their self-righteousness and ignore the gentle prodding of the Savior through His Word, they will continue injuring themselves, feeling depressed and dissatisfied. Yes, they kick against the goads. It is time to stop kicking and move forward in the direction He intends.
1 Ronsisvalle, Dr. Mike. “Dr. Ronsisvalle: Depression among All Age Groups Is Swelling; Treatment Is the Best Solution.” Florida Today, Florida Today, 26 Apr. 2022, www.floridatoday.com/story/life/wellness/2022/04/26/professional-treatment-can-save-loved-ones-mental-health-issues/7413927001/.
2 Associated Press. “Americans Are the Unhappiest They’ve Been in 50 Years, Poll Finds.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 16 June 2020, www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/americans-are-unhappiest-they-ve-been-50-years-poll-finds-n1231153.
3 Dallas, Kelsey. “The State of Faith.” Deseret News, Deseret News, 22 Mar. 2022, www.deseret.com/faith/2022/3/21/22981634/the-state-of-faith-american-religion-research-marist-poll.