Macalester Sunday

April 8, 2018
Dr. Brian Rosenberg

Mark 10:13-16

This past February, a student at Macalester College took his own life.

I did not know him—it is impossible for me to know all two thousand students entrusted to my care—but by all accounts he was a smart, lovely young man who also suffered, as do many of his peers, from depression.  This is not the first time during my tenure at Macalester that I have had to speak with grieving parents, that I have had to stand in our chapel and find words when there are no words, that I have had to worry about the impact of a death on all the members of our community and especially on our other students.  I hope with every bone in my body that it will be my last.

Four days earlier, a gunman had walked into Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and killed seventeen people, including fourteen students. Fourteen children.  It was at least the twenty-fifth mass shooting in an American school since the infamous attack in Columbine, Colorado in 1999.  For at least the twenty-fifth time we offered prayers and platitudes and little else, aside from the prospect of pistol-packing Geometry teachers.

It should be obvious to anyone who is paying attention, and it is certainly obvious to anyone who, like me, spends his days around young people, that we are in this country and in this moment profoundly failing our children.  Let me be clear:  those children—the ones with whom I work at Macalester, the ones we see protesting on television, the ones that populate our classrooms across the country—are extraordinary.  They seem more intelligent than I was at a comparable age, more active, more civically engaged, more alive.  They are also more anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed.  And they are at more risk.

And we to whom their safety is entrusted?  Too often, far too often, we turn away.

I have thought at great length about why this particular generation of young people seems burdened by the weight of worries and fears that were not absent from, but seemed to be felt less keenly by, previous generations.  And I begin by reminding myself that a high school senior today has lived her entire life in a post-9/11 world.  She has lived, that is, in a world in which the most visible and powerful civic emotion seems to be fear:  fear at our airports, fear at our stadiums, fear in our schools, and especially fear broadcast constantly across the bottom of our television screens or across the faces of our phones by the media.  This seems particularly true in our country, a place we like to call the “home of the brave.”  I have done a good deal of traveling around the world and I have not noticed the same prevalence of fear in other places.  I speak to many international students at Macalester and they are puzzled by the ease with which we in the home of the brave are collectively terrified.

I remember a time when the world did not seem to be a scary place.  I wonder whether that seventeen-year-old young woman can say the same thing.

Today’s students also comprise what I term the “post-recession” generation:  they have lived all or most of their lives in the shadow of a deep recession that touched nearly every city and town, farm and business.  Some of us can still remember the extent to which the worldview of our grandparents was shaped by having grown up during the Great Depression.  While the Great Recession was, in economic terms, not as severe, it was, because of our interconnected world, more inescapable, and it has led to a level of economic anxiety among today’s college students that I did not see even a decade ago.  If they were not touched directly by the recession, they know people who were, or they read stories of people who were.  Many studies have shown that this is the first generation of young people since the end of the Second World War that does not expect to be better off financially than the previous generation.  True or not, this increases worry and constrains dreams.

Then, of course, there are all the forms of social media by which our children are engulfed.  I try not to sound too much like a Luddite when I rail against the malign influence of social media, but, to be honest, I can’t help it.  We are in so many ways like poor Victor Frankenstein, told by the destructive product of his genius, “You are my creator, but I am your master.”

When it comes to social media, I am blessed with incompetence and saved by indifference.  I don’t use Facebook, I don’t tweet, I don’t post photos on Instagram of every meal that I eat in a new restaurant.  Our children are for the most part not so fortunate.  Their mistakes are preserved and publicized.  Their views are caught up in an endless cacophony of intense, on-line disagreement.  They are forced to compare the reality of their lives to the curated, excitement-filled, ultimately fictional existences splashed across Facebook pages.  When I was growing up, trolls lived under bridges; today they live in the dark recesses of the internet.  Then they were imaginary; today they are all too real.

Albert Einstein wrote in 1948, “I believe that the abominable deterioration of ethical standards stems primarily from the mechanization and depersonalization of our lives,… a disastrous byproduct of science and technology. Nostra culpa!”  I would add also the byproducts, especially for the young, of pressure and loneliness.  Nostra culpa indeed.

And then, finally, there are guns.  Always, there are guns.  We seem afraid of everything—immigrants and the poor, terrorists and taxes—except the one thing of which we should truly be afraid:  the hundreds of millions—hundreds of millions—of guns in the United States.  Estimates vary, but it is possible that there are more guns on our shores than people.  We have made guns, tools designed to kill, into the symbol of our freedom, while the rest of the world stares in disbelief.  We should be ashamed.  I am ashamed.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. is inscribed with the names of over 58 thousand military personnel who lost their lives during the war in Southeast Asia.  If we built a comparable wall commemorating those who have lost their lives to gun violence since 1970—through murders, through suicides, through accidents—it would stretch two and a half miles long.  This is not inevitable, it is uniquely American, and it is within our ability to change.  And we do nothing.  I think our children are less disturbed by the actual fear of guns than by the sorry spectacle of a society in thrall to its own violent past and present.

So before we bemoan the lack of resilience among today’s high school and college students, before we wonder why so many children are being medicated from a very young age, before we wonder why colleges, which were never designed to be mental health providers, cannot meet the demand for counseling services, we should take responsibility for the environment we have created and ask ourselves what we can do to make it healthier for children now and in the future.  Inaction is not an option.  Despair, while understandable, is not an option.

Let me offer a few modest proposals for you to consider as you go about your business in the coming days and weeks.  These are things that each of us can do to make the lives of our children better—not instantly and universally but incrementally and for many.

Stop being so afraid.  I don’t mean that we should stop fearing those things that are legitimately dangerous, but that we should try as a society to build our policies and our practices around hope rather than fear, around trust rather than suspicion.  Stop listening to, stop being seduced by, those who peddle fear as a way to manipulate and control us.  Doing the right thing, being courageous, being humane, inevitably entails risk, and we should be willing to accept that risk both to create a just society and to model bravery for our children.  If we try to wall ourselves off from the rest of the world, if we describe a landscape of “American carnage,” if we distrust anyone whose appearance or faith or customs are different from our own, how can we express puzzlement if we raise a generation of anxious and frightened children?  The best leaders have always striven to inspire and to call forth the better angels of our nature, and that is what we should expect from ourselves and from the people we choose to lead us.

As for social media, we can no more return to a world without it than we can return to a world without the combustion engine.  But just as we are trying now, or should be trying now, to progress to a world beyond the combustion engine, just as we are trying to come to grips with the profoundly destructive side-effects of our technological genius, we should look frankly at the impact of social media on every aspect of our lives.  We cannot allow the computer engineers at Google, Facebook, and Twitter to become the social engineers of our future.  We cannot fall so in love with our technical capacities that we fall out of love with those things that make us human and, especially, that allow children to be children.  If I were king of the world, I’d eliminate the online comments section of every publication, I’d make 21 the minimum legal age for Facebook use, and I’d eliminate Twitter.  Since I’m not king of the world, I’d encourage all of us to think about how we limit the role of social media, particularly in the lives of young people.  It seems impossible, but in a world of self-driving cars, who’s to say what can and cannot be done?  Those who think that education should focus only on science and technology, and who dismiss the importance of philosophy and history and religious studies, should be wary of the world they would create.  Perhaps technology will one day take full control of our cars; we cannot allow it to take full control of our judgment, our spirit, and our moral compass.

Speaking of impossible, I would get rid of as many guns of as many kinds as I possibly could.  If we can aspire to beat swords into ploughshares, we can aspire to melt guns down into the raw material for wind turbines and solar panels.  Of course members of our military and of our law enforcement agencies need guns, and as someone who eats meat, I know that it would be hypocritical of me to disapprove of the hunting of animals.  But we should be smart enough to figure out how to permit people to shoot ducks or deer and at the same time to make it illegal to possess an AR-15 assault rifle.  And honestly, if it came down to a choice between preserving duck hunting and saving the lives of children, the decision for me would be easy.

I know that sermons are supposed to leave us hopeful and comforted.  I crave hope and comfort as much as the next person.  But sometimes the search for comfort can obscure the extent of our challenge and make us less likely to engage in the hard work of change.  My goal is not comfort but honesty and clarity of purpose.  If we begin there, comfort will perhaps follow.

It is fair to say, in the end, that we get the society we deserve.  After all, we elect the leaders, we make the laws, we create and sustain the civic culture.  The problem is, our children get the society we make for them, whether they deserve it or not.  It should not be the case that the majority of college students cite anxiety as a major health concern.  It should not be the case that six-year-olds have to participate in active shooter drills.  It should not be the case that anyone has to stand up, whether it be in a chapel at Macalester or a high school in Florida, to mourn the preventable death of a young person.  Right now, it seems inescapably true that our children, those “to whom the kingdom of God belongs,” are not being well-served by the society we have made for them.  If we are not sufficiently motivated to improve it for our own sake, we should at least be motivated to improve it for theirs.

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