Contending that our age is apathetic can sound tone deaf in the face of daily turmoil, upheaval, and unrest. However, these two realities are not so opposed as you might believe. Our apathy-saturated soil yields similar results to the rocky ground in Jesus’ parable of the sower. (Mt 13:1-23) Apathy is our rocky terrain, lying an inch beneath the surface of a vibrant looking soil. Media outlets scatter seeds of distress, turmoil, and discontent everywhere, and those seeds find enough nourishment to sprout quickly. Flowers of agitation climb to great heights with frightening speed. A casual observer could look at our society with alarm, as one on the brink of revolution and anarchy. However, before long, the roots of the desire or passion that exploded upward find they cannot penetrate down into our rocky ground of apathy. Time and exposure beat and wither the plant, and other interests sprout up all around, overshadowing it, until it fades away.
I mentioned four factors which constitute this rocky soil of apathy: a spirit of censure and criticism, affluence, anxiety, and a distrust of metanarratives and heroics. In the last article, I considered our spirit of censure and criticism; now I will turn to the other three.
Many sociologists (Jean Twenge, David Kinnaman, James White) have pointed out that Gen Z (1995 – 2015), having grown up during the Great Recession, has acquired a marked sense of financial apprehension and insecurity. To combat this, whereas millenials may have succumbed to the Disney-esque fantasy of “follow your dreams and be whatever you want to be”, Gen Zers tend to opt for a more practical, albeit crassly materialistic roadmap. Material comfort and financial security are their watchwords. Although these desires generate productive, shrewd, and eminently useful citizens, they tamp down a willingness to take risks, to stick out your neck, or to take up causes which seem to have small likelihood of gaining popular approval.
Then, once a state of affluence is attained, that lifestyle itself offers a world of small comforts, entertainments, and goals which enervate and subdue the human spirit while a the same time satisfying vanity and physical ease. Furthermore, one can easily observe, as if in the periphery, the speed at which affluence can be attained is always far outstripped by the speed at which it may be lost. Thus affluence maintains a prized precariousness in the minds of those who seek it and who attain it, further insulating the person in a position of apathy when it comes to any issues which do not directly contribute to improving their financial prospects.
Although financial concerns represent only one piece of the puzzle of our age of anxiety, many of the effects are the same. Everywhere we can see the disturbing consequences of the exponential rise of anxiety. The manifold causes are debated, and perhaps unnecessarily, seeing that anxiety is a basic human emotion, so a host of factors can trigger it in different ways for different people. It’s a logical baby step to perceive how heightened, sometimes paralyzing levels of anxiety would act as a centripetal, restraining force to keep people in a state of apathy.
“I can barely keep my head above water dealing with my own life! Why would I seek to add on additional burdens of anxiety by enmeshing myself in the problems of other people, let alone society at large?” No, far better, far safer, our anxious instincts inform us, to keep my head down, keep my distance, and above all, not rock the boat!
4) Distrust of metanarratives and heroics
The band the Heavy has a song entitled: “This ain’t no place for no hero”. The chorus of the song captures the sentiment of our age: our world has no place for “the hero”, no place for “the better man”. There is no grand narrative. There is no sweeping, golden standard of right and wrong, of high virtue and deathly vice. All of these are flattened. Our experience is much narrower than that. All that truly matters is your individual, smaller story. Focus your aim on faithfulness and loyalty to the tight circle of companions whom you depend on, in your small sliver of time, in the confines of your microscopic location in the universe.
There are positive gains from this mentality. It centers your focus on the here and now, and your smaller, more directly relevant motions within your own visible circle. Mostly, it offers a safeguard. Grand narratives act as marriage partners to grand revolutions. Grand narratives are the territory of zealots, and the breeding grounds of fanaticism. Twisted visions of heroism justify Nazi exterminations, and Communist gulags. The truth of this skepticism is Biblical. Human pride denies our need of salvation, and dethrones Jesus as Messiah so that we can do his work. That is a danger. But denying any metanarrative or benefit to heroism enshrines a selfish apathy, where I am “safely” consumed in my own little story, which may be smaller in its ambition, but where I am now a hero who helps no one but myself.
The solution to apathy starts with believing that I need radical help. Radical help implies the need for a radical salvation. When we begin to see the depths of grace offered to us freely by Jesus, then we gain a confidence in the greatness of what can happen in our world. We can give ourselves to great things from the safety of knowing that even as we do so, we’re not the hero in the story.