By Scott Bader-Saye
Say it with me: “Whatever.” Now make sure you use the properly dismissive teenage tone: “Whatever.” There you have it — the shibboleth of bored, cynical, ironic teens. This, of course, does not define all young people, but it does highlight a pervasive fact not just among teens but in society at large, at least in North America: we are often bored and detached from our own lives. We suffer from a loss of passion and purpose, unsure of how best to spend our time and energy.
We are, in short, unsure of what the ancient philosophers would call our telos. and finality. The telos of an acorn is an oak tree; the telos of a clock is to keep good time. Of course, when it comes to people it’s a bit harder to define our telos. We are more complex than an acorn or a clock Our purpose is not determined by mechanics, written in laws of nature, or inscribed in instinct. We are, for better or worse, participants in forming and directing our lives toward the goals and purposes we believe are given to human beings.
This is where things get tricky, for increasingly there is no cultural consensus that any particular “goals and purposes” are given to humans. We imagine ourselves as self-created and thus thrown into a world in which we must construct our own telos (or settle for none at all). This process cannot help but appear arbitrary, tempting us to cynicism and detachment, for it suggests that one’s life goals are never more than the expression of current preferences. How do we know that these preferences are worth the work and discipline involved in crafting well-lived lives, especially if our preferences might change tomorrow.
Lacking a clear sense of what human fulfillment looks like, we lose the sense of life as a quest and an adventure. If we know the Holy Grail is out there, we can commit ourselves to press on through struggle and danger, knowing that the goal will redeem the difficulties. But if we are unsure that there is in fact a given telos for human beings, we will likely flounder like singularities floating in a void — a perfect condition for boredom or malaise to set in.
But it is not only boredom that steps into this gap; it is also fear. We fear that our lives are on the wrong track; that we are not fitting in; that our efforts will finally seem meaningless. We fear being alone, which happens when we are not sure we share a common vision or a common story with those around us.
Given the anxieties involved in having to be self-creators, it is not surprising that we have become targets of those who would manipulate our fear for profit. Fear threatens to overdetermine our lives, leading either to constricted isolation or aggressive preemption, neither of which helps us live the risky love of discipleship.
Given the broad cultural influence of boredom and fear, we should not be surprised that the marketplace has been more than willing to offer a way out, especially for young people. For all of their alienated posturing (or perhaps because of it), bored and fearful teens represent the perfect target market for corporations ready to sell them excitement and conformity for the right price (teens as a “market demographic” account for about $150 billion a year). Insofar as their boredom makes them ready to embrace novelty as a welcome distraction and their fear of rejection makes them ready to conform to what advertisers convince them is “cool,” these teens represent a marketer’s dream come true. Where there is vulnerability, there is profit.
Entertainment, music, technology, cosmetics, fashion — all provide a level of excitement that can temporarily distract us from boredom and fear. Surrogate experiences create a short-term sense of well-being (the way we feel when we wear a new outfit, drive a new car, or watch our favorite show) but, by design, they return us quickly to dissatisfaction and renew the cycle of consumption . It is no wonder that teens become cynical as they realize that the cycle never produces long-term fulfillment for them but does produce long-term profits for others. This is not to say that one should never buy music, enjoy beautiful clothes, watch a movie, or purchase a new gadget. The problem lies in not knowing the ways these things can fit within a good life — their limits and possibilities — and so having no real ability to resist the marketing pitch that captures us with promises that cannot be fulfilled.
The great temptation for the Church is to offer youth just another option for distraction and short-term excitement. We imagine that in a world where multitasking and overstimulation have become the norm, we need somehow to compete with other entertainment options by matching their excitement level. Can we be as entertaining as the theater? Can we be as cool as the new band? But to ask these questions serves only to replicate a culture that is failing to offer real substance, real adventure, real joy, and real purpose to our children. We need to resist the temptation to become another form of passive entertainment (Church as rock concert or youth group as skits, talks, and videos), for our young people are already being formed as spectators who are alienated from their own leisure.
The Church has a different story to tell and a different quest to offer. We tell a story of creation that involves a trajectory, a journey toward a telos which we describe variously as the reign of God, the beatific vision, friendship with God, the heavenly banquet, perfect conviviality. The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts this “chief end” succinctly: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” According to this story, the human telos is given and so our posture toward it is not one of striving, making, and constructing, but rather of watching, listening, and discovering. It is “given” as both gift and destiny.
The Bible offers a story in which our beginning contains our end but also invites our participation in bringing about that end. Such a story calls us into an adventure and a quest (not to be confused with Adventure-Quest, an online game that, like so many others, tends to reduce adventure to violence). It offers a journey toward a good that can inspire wonder and reawaken desire.
For all that, drawing youth into this vision is no easy task, as goodness is harder to detect than coolness or excitement. Goodness can appear as heroic (and thus visually exciting), but more often it takes the form of small offerings, unseen resistance, and persistent efforts. It takes time to grow into the rewards of goodness and the happiness (eudaimonia or blessing) that accompanies human fulfillment, which is why we need others on the journey to encourage us, to keep us going, to give us glimpses of the good we seek All the while, we need to make sure we do not suggest that God’s kingdom is a purely future hope but rather help young people delight in the beauty of the present that participates in, and thus conveys, the eternal beauty of God.
How might we do this? First, we could redirect them from alienated leisure (that is, entertainment as a spectator sport) to a richer participation in material activity— making music rather than buying it, creating stories rather than watching them, playing sports rather than observing them. In so doing we will invite them to reengage with a created goodness that we believe, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, is “charged with the grandeur of God” and “will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
Second, we could boldly introduce them to ancient practices that are not conventionally “exciting” but which provide an alternative to the overstimulation of their everyday lives – practices like lectio divina, praying with icons, creating holy art, observing the daily office, and even keeping silence.
Finally, we can model for them lives that refuse to be dominated by fear, boredom, and consumption. Only as they see the adults around them living lives that embody risk, hope, courage, generosity, and purpose will they take seriously our claim that the path of discipleship leads not only to our given telos as human beings but to our deepest happiness and fulfillment.
Dr. Scott Bader-Saye is the Helen and Everett H. Jones Professor of Christian Ethics and Moral Theology at Seminary of the Southwest and author of Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear and Church and Israel After Christendom: The Politics of Election. This article was first published in the January 2, 2011 issue of The Living Church.