I’ve been a part of several conversations recently about resilience. What is it? How is it cultivated? And, more specifically to our cultural moment, where did it go? Why does it seem so scarce these days? The question has come most often from anxious parents observing their teenage and young adult kids. Why is everyone depressed, lonely, afraid, confused, and struggling with a mental health challenge? It has also come from those trying to help peers through paralyzing and debilitating social anxiety. Often these conversations about resilience are tinged with a hint of bewilderment. Why do so many seem to have such low capacity for some of the more basic features of living these days? I don’t remember things being like this when I was that age!
These questions came up with a few friends again last night. I talked about some of San Diego State psychologist Jean Twenge’s research about how the advent of the smartphone and its increasingly widespread use marked a turning point in mental health for teenagers. It’s not the only factor contributing to our present reality, but I think it is among the most important ones. The performative imperatives of social media, the relentless judgment and comparison, FOMO, etc. all lead to a profound decline in mental health. This is particularly true for girls, with suicidal ideation, self-harm, depression and anxiety beginning to skyrocket when smartphones and social media became ubiquitous.
At the risk of over-simplifying what is a fairly complex issue (or cluster of related issues), it seems to me that so much of our determination to pursue habits (technological and otherwise) that we are quite certain are not good for us (as individuals or as a culture) reduces down to two basic human desires. We are desperate for connection and for affirmation. This is what drives us on to social media. This is what keeps us slavishly tethered to our devices. We want to connect with friends, to find our tribe, to belong. And we long for affirmation right down to our marrow. We want to know that we are measuring up and keeping up. We want to know that we are liked, that someone is impressed by us or something we’ve done, shared, written, sung. We crave evidence that we are approved of.
These two desires—for connection and for affirmation—send us down all kinds of destructive paths. It leads some to identify with extremist groups and ideologies simply because being part of a group—any group— is better than being alone. It leads others to post and share frantically, seeking constant reassurance that we are enough. It drags so many of us into this hyper-competitive space where we’re constantly trying to outperform one another online. Who’s going on the best holidays? Who’s doing the best at mid-life? Who’s on marriage number three and who’s still madly in love (if only in the pictures that get shared)? Whose kids are hitting it out of the park? Who has the best job, the coolest church, the most glittering CV? On and on and on it goes. And if the adults in the room are kind of struggling to negotiate our digital world in healthy ways, how on earth would we expect teenagers and young adults to do it?
Cultivating resilience in the young (and not so young) almost certainly involves many things. Complex social problems rarely have formulaic solutions. But it would seem at the very least that disconnecting from toxic social media spaces and devices could be part of building resilience. We have nearly twenty years’ worth of evidence to suggest that the affirmation and connection we so desperately long for are best sought elsewhere.
Earlier this week, I read the these words of Psalm 20 during morning prayer:
The Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
The name of the God of Jacob protect you!
May he send you help from the sanctuary,
and give you support from Zion.
May he remember all your offerings,
and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices.
May he grant you your heart’s desire,
and fulfill all your plans.
I spent some time simply pondering the things that David prays that God will do for him and, by extension, for all who would sing along with his song.
send you help…
give you support…
regard you with favour…
grant you your heart’s desire
fulfill your plans…
I thought of these petitions alongside our two basic desires for connection and affirmation. Do not each of these requests somehow fit into these two broader desires? Do we not each, in our own ways, seek answers and protection from all that threatens our sense of self? Do we not all need help and support (connection) for the journey? Do we not each long to not be forgotten, to be regarded with favour (affirmation)? Do not our hearts have hungers that outrun our capacity to fulfill on our own? Do we not need God to do for us what we cannot secure for ourselves, no matter how desperately and futilely we might try?
I do. I am certainly not immune to the temptation of blindly stumbling down digital trails for connection and affirmation. But in my better and more resilient moments I know that it is God alone that can meet these most elemental human needs. Human connection is vital but insufficient without connection to its ultimate source. Human affirmation is wonderful but ultimately fleeting and fickle, particularly online. In both cases, we were created for more, for deeper, for truer and more permanent. We are stronger when we tap into the source, the origin and fulfillment of what we were made for.