The dangers of our passionless American life
Many of my fellow conservative columnists have lamented in recent weeks that the troubling trend of Western men voyaging to the Middle East to become terrorists has its roots in the stultifying boredom of life in modern capitalistic society.
TheWeek.com's Michael Brendan Dougherty's explored the topic in a post called "How the West produces jihadi tourists." The New York Times' Ross Douthat ventured into similar territory in his "Our thoroughly modern enemies." National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke was on board, too, in a post titled "Sadly, totalitarianism is exciting."
"One reason that liberty can be difficult to preserve is that it so often lacks the romance, the heroism, and the sense of involvement that so many appear to crave," Cooke wrote.
The suggestion that was implicit in each of these columns is that this American life is kinda boring. That's troubling, and a little like saying marriage is boring. Yes, too many marriages are boring, but that's often a failure on the part of individuals, not an inherent flaw in the institution. If we do it right, our marriages and lives should be full of purpose and romance. We could say the same for modern life in the West. The fact that our society is too often absent adventure and excitement, that too many lives are bogged down by mundanity and routine, is due to a failure on the part of individuals, and is not necessarily an indictment on the system itself.
Look, people have an intuitive — some would say God-given — drive for purpose. They want to be called to something big. Some of us are lucky enough to experience that, at work, at home, or elsewhere. For others, life fails to deliver on their big dreams. Most learn to accept it. But a terrible few are driven to extremism. That might mean following a charismatic cult leader like Charles Manson, or it might mean becoming an Islamic terrorist.
This lack of purpose is a real problem, and popular American culture has long been all too content to offer the masses bread and circuses rather than purpose and meaning.
This isn't dissimilar to the phenomenon that drove the 1960's counterculture movement. As Baylor University Professor Barry Hankins notes in his book, Francis Schaeffer And the Shaping of Evangelical America, the famed evangelical leader believed that
once a society has jettisoned a Christian worldview and any notion of 'true truth,' as he called it, there was nothing left but personal peace and affluence. From time to time he said that the hippies of the 1960s looked at their parents' lives and saw only these two values instead of answers to the deep longings of humankind. With no hope of real meaning and only personal peace and affluence to look forward to, the hippies dropped out of mainstream middle-class culture and turned to drugs or joined the New Left in a violent revolt against mainstream society. [Francis Schaeffer And the Shaping of Evangelical America]
People have an inherent drive for meaning. That's why George W. Bush was so criticized for not summoning Americans to make big sacrifices after 9/11 — people wanted to do something, and they wanted it to matter. But we live in a me-me-me world where politicians don't want to ask us to make sacrifices. Our churches don't want to ask us to make sacrifices. Even our parents don't want to ask us to make major sacrifices. Doing so seems antithetical to the "do what makes you feel good" culture that seems evermore pervasive in the West. But for many, that life ends up feeling meaningless.
This issue isn't new, exactly. Douglas Hyde, former news editor for the London Daily Worker, swore off Communism and converted to Catholicism. In the 1960s, he penned a booklet called Dedication and Leadership to teach Christians about the very effective techniques Communists used. Here's one piece of advice he thought we could learn from the Communists: "They work on the assumption that if you call for big sacrifices people will respond to this and, moreover, the relatively smaller sacrifices will come quite naturally."
Sometimes asking people to do things that are hard fills them with purpose. But we rarely do that in modern America.
Going back to ancient times, young men have craved honor and glory. But when there's no communal higher calling, and no Wild West frontier for those afflicted with wanderlust to conquer, they're left empty. Playing video games isn't enough.
It's not that my fellow conservative commentators aren't largely correct about why so many angry young men are fleeing the staid comforts of the West for the violent excitement of the Middle East. It's only to say this: The American Dream needn't be inherently boring. Ours is a society build on a sense of destiny, sacrifice, and adventure. If we've gotten away from that, well, maybe we as a people need to figure out how to get excited again, to recapture the exploratory adventurers' spirit and national spirit that so animated Americans in generations past.
But even if our American life is kinda boring these days... well, maybe that's a feature, not a bug. Comfort, routine, steadiness — this lack of excitement should not equate to a life of quiet desperation. A people who believe in shared values, who have a deep faith, who care about their community and fellow citizens, who work hard to take care of themselves and their families, and who believe in the concept of being good neighbors, employees, and citizens — well, it needn't resemble Revolutionary Road.
If we have time and freedom and safety and comfort, let us not squander that. It's time we all learned to be content with our lives, and learned to imbue them with a renewed and peaceful purpose.