3 ways to live your life in a culture that doesn't care about you.
As you begin to bear more responsibility in life, you realize how deficient human nature is to thrive in our cultural machine of hustle, distraction, isolation, and self-defined identities. Before I had kids, I didn’t see anything wrong with how my life was structured and the digital age that shapes our day-to-day lives. I wasn’t conscious of my daily habits and how they were forming me because they didn’t seem consequential.
Staying on my phone in bed instead of sleeping?
Waking up minutes before the start of my soonest responsibility?
Watching more Netflix than reading?
Scrolling social media with no prayer life?
Posting every highlight of every day on Instagram?
None of this seemed like it had any material impact on my life because, by and large, I had very little weight to carry. And having no weight to carry required little in terms of character. Every day was relatively low stakes compared to the life, health, and future of another human resting almost entirely on who I am as a person. Small responsibilities led to a small vision of life, which led to little attention to who I was becoming day by day through the little things I did.
But once there was real weight to carry—once every move I made was monitored by another person who would see me as his example of what it means to exist in our world as a healthy adult—everything that was previously invisible to me became as glaringly bright as the noon sun on a Texas summer day. It was like being in middle school all over again when you suddenly become self-aware of all of the things that make you different from everyone else and how everyone perceives you. It felt like a magnifying glass was placed over all of my faults and flaws and the ways that my son would see me be distracted or angry, impatient or selfish, aloof or insecure. These flaws couldn’t simply be written off as aberrations of my “true self” who obviously isn’t any of those things. Our character is the sum total of our actions over time, not who we imagine ourselves to be in our finest moments. If I never faced my flaws—my sin—and dealt honestly with them before God, then I would be the kind of father, the kind of person, who is those things.
In hindsight, it’s obvious that contrary to what my former deconstructed self would have admitted, “The World” is conspiring against us.
What else do you call it when the dominant narrative of the good life is to leave behind your obligations and constraints so you can define yourself however you like while advising us that we should cut off anyone who doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves, distracting us with the most insane and outrageous takes on an infinitely scrolling feed that we carry in our pockets and sleep with by our beds, and promising us that working harder is the key to unlock all of our dreams and if we don’t have what we want, it’s because we’re not hustling as hard as we should?
The world has lost its mind, and it’s all too easy to lose yours with it.
In a world like this, you’re left with three options:
Resign to the way things are. Embrace the narrative—either blind to what it’s actually doing to you or despair, knowing you’re slowly wasting away.
Rage against the machine. Bemoan that things are the way they are. Exist in a perpetual mode of existential angst. Hate society, hate work, hate social media. Be defined by an anti-vision—“it shouldn’t be like this!”—but essentially change nothing about your life.
Reorganize your life. The other way to exist in this world is to reorganize your life. You can resist the world without resigning to it or raging against it. In the world but not of it. Dropping out isn’t a viable option. Raging against it will lead to more destruction than flourishing. But you can choose to play an entirely different game and organize your life around it. While the whole world is playing a finite game—winners and losers, fixed rules, keeping scores—you can choose to play an infinite game where no one wins or loses; there is only progress. The rules change over time, and so do the players. While everyone else is watching the clock and the scoreboard, you’re keeping your eyes fixed on eternity.
I’m more and more convinced that many of the anxieties in our modern malaise have much more to do with a disordered life than it doesn't any chemical imbalance. We focus on the external stimuli that we have little to no control over instead of our internal state that we do have control over. We don’t do any of the things that everyone—modern science and ancient wisdom alike—would say makes for a healthy and flourishing life, yet we wonder why we can’t stop feeling existentially dizzy.
Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “It is a disease of the mind, which does not wholly rise to the heights where it is lifted by the truth, because it is weighed down by habit." In other words, it doesn’t matter how much we believe the truth if we don’t get the truth into our bodies through our daily habits. We shouldn’t be surprised we feel crazy when we simply allow ourselves to go along with the current of the crazy world we live in. We don’t have to resign or rage; we can resist.
We can choose to turn our phones off.
We can choose to rise early and start our day in silence, quiet prayer, and scripture before our responsibilities begin.
We can choose to worship with God’s people every week.
We can choose to spend time with people who nourish us, who will forgive us when we sin against them, and we can extend forgiveness to them when they sin against us.
We can choose to eat well and exercise our bodies, getting the nutrients, movement, and sunlight we need to get out of our heads and remember that we are embodied creatures.
We can choose to existentially place ourselves as creatures in God’s creation, not Promethean masters of the universe attempting to subject everything to our control.
Doing or not doing each of these things is not a matter of morality. It’s not morally right or wrong to do or not do any of these things. No one is keeping score, watching what you’re doing every day, and giving you a grade. That would be playing the finite game again. But what we do have to be conscious of is that change isn’t magical. You can’t think your way to a different life. And what comes out of you over time eventually becomes who you are.
So, in this way, we have to begin with the end in mind. Who do I want to be? Do I want to be known for anger, impatience, aloofness, insecurity, fear, laziness, etc? Or do I want to be known for faith, hope, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, wisdom, and generosity? The former will happen by default. Resigning or raging will fast-track me to my basest impulses. All I have to do is nothing. But it’s possible to reorganize my life to slowly, gradually, over time, become the kind of person who embodies the latter.
Because eventually, the game is over—even the infinite one. With my last breath, it will end, and how people remember me will be determined by who I became while I living. Will I be remembered as someone who resigned and gave up? Will I be remembered as someone who raged and kicked and fought and was angry and, in the end, nothing was different? Or will I be remembered as someone who wasn’t naive about the world around me, understood what was happening, and saw the dangers and corruption all around, yet strove to live and model a different kind of life—an eternal kind of life?
By God’s grace, I know who I hope to be.
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