Every where one looks nowadays, there seems to be a sense of restlessness and lack of contentment in the country and there is no shortage of good and bad advice as to how to address this malady. Maybe Peggy Noonan described it best in her commentary on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. To her it had to do with a sense that we are “losing the thread”, that America is losing the thread. As she notes, we compared the America of now with the community of America of 20 years ago, and we see a deterioration, and it feels like some more fundamental confusion, much bigger than ideology, bigger certainly than parties, a very anxious time that is difficult to explain. And the theme to her among business leaders seems to be “follow the base, even if it’s sick, do not lead, leading is impossible now, what follows the lost thread is go-with-the-flow, even when you know it isn’t going anywhere good”. And she asks, “is this a sign of a healthy country?”
Last Sunday the senior pastor of my church delved into this confusion with some faith-based clarity, beginning with Jeremiah 29:4-7 when God sends a message to the Hebrew exiles in Babylon to “build houses and make yourselves at home…..marry and have children….work for the country’s welfare, pray for Babylon’s well being”, in other words, be purposeful in life and make the most of it, and my pastor came away from God’s message here with the notion that this is a message for all of us these days. He’s right–it seems that we are being overwhelmed by the self-affliction of the disease of acedia, the sin of sloth that is manifest in purposelessness–and he reminded us that “the spiritual practice of living with purpose is the invitation to be fully present where we are and as we are, without pining to be elsewhere or different than we are at the moment”. This means that we must learn, or relearn, how to live our vocation, or voice, and that this is not about what we do as much as it is about how we do this, how we express ourselves in our vocation.
Years ago, in an essay in The New Criterion on which I commented, Charles Murray wrote that a major stream of human accomplishment is fostered by a culture in which the most talented people believe that life has a purpose (“this is what I was put on this earth to do”) and that the function of life is to fulfill that purpose. Further to his point, the characteristics of nihilism are at odds with the zest and life-affirming energy necessary to produce great art, architecture, and cultural artifacts, not to mention a broad range of other manifestations of human accomplishment. If life is purposeless, no one kind of project is intrinsically more important than any other kind. And what is the most direct cause of the belief that one’s life has a purpose? Belief in a personal God who wants you to use your gifts to the fullest, a belief that has been in constant decline in the West for about a century. The secular counterpart to this takes the form of Aristotle’s pursuit of “the good”, a concept which has also been out of style for many years.
Can we turn around this sense of purposelessness? Murray, who is not known as a man of religious faith, is optimistic, probably more than I am. He believes that humans are ineluctably drawn to fundamental questions of existence and purpose and that the elites that have shaped culture in America and the West have avoided thinking about these fundamental questions for too long and will inevitably return to them. I hope he is right before it’s too late.