The Age of Anxiety

April 19, 2020
Dr. Brian Rosenberg
President, Macalester College

Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Psalm 145

We have a tradition at Macalester College that goes by the name of the “last lecture.” A member of the faculty or staff is selected by the senior class to offer words of advice shortly before their day of graduation. You might, if you are willing to be generous, consider this my “last sermon.” Unlike our seniors, you did not select me, but Tim did, and I suppose his vote is in this instance the one that counts the most.

These are not, to be sure, the circumstances under which I had expected to be delivering this last sermon. I had looked forward to plaid ties and scarves, to the beautiful sound of the Macalester Choir, to one final echo of the bagpipes and drums in the sanctuary. I must be content instead with memories and a cell phone. So be it.

My first day as President of Macalester College was Monday, August 4, 2003.

9/11 was still a searing memory. Howard Dean was leading the Democratic field of presidential candidates. The Dow Jones Industrial Average had broken back through the 9,000 point barrier after plunging during the bust. The Minnesota Timberwolves were preparing for what would be the best season in their history, led by MVP Kevin Garnett. DVD rentals had just surpassed VHS tape rentals for the first time. The students now at Macalester were mostly in kindergarten or pre-school. The average global temperature was about a half a degree cooler then in 2019.

If you were not an epidemiologist, you had probably never heard the word “coronavirus.”

What did not exist? The iPhone. Facebook. Google. Twitter. Uber. Barnes & Noble was the largest bookseller in the country and Amazon was trying to catch up. The computer on your desk was almost certainly less powerful than the phone that is at this moment in your pocket or handbag. When did we lose Circuit City, The Limited, Oldsmobile, and Tower Records? When did we lose records?

These changes are of course important. They have shaped our lives in more ways than we can count and more profoundly than we probably realize. A Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in 2003 and awoke today would be stunned—and not simply by the epidemic that has upended our lives. What happened to consensus about the reality of climate change? What happened to the global triumph of liberal democracy? What happened to Thomas Friedman’s “flat world”? What happened to truth? What happened to us?

For nearly seventeen years I’ve viewed this question through the lens of a college president, surrounded by two thousand young people who carry with them the burdens and benefits or the current age. This is obviously a less than fully representative sample. The students who attend a highly selective private college are by almost any measure a privileged group. They do not tell us much about the millions of Americans who never get the chance even to imagine attending a college like Macalester. They tell us even less about the billions of people either living in or being lifted out of extreme poverty. But they tell us important things nonetheless about the state of our world at the start of the 2020s.

Given the headlines that scream at us every day and the perilous condition of American democracy, it is easy to assume that everything has simply gotten worse. I actually do not believe that to be the case, an observation that will come as a surprise to those who are familiar with my allergy to optimism. Without doubt there are ways in which the students of today are more troubled than those of 2003, and to be sure they are facing an immense generational crisis, but they are also different in ways that give me hope. Maybe not next month, maybe not next year, but in the decades ahead they are the ones who will draw from our current crucible the lessons that will make us a better people living in a better world.

In 1947, W. H. Auden published a long, almost unreadable poem entitled “The Age of Anxiety.” He was, I think, six or seven decades too early, for all of us, and especially those who are young, are truly living today in a staggeringly anxious age. We live in a world in which 80-year-old grandmothers from Mankato are made to walk through body scanners at airports and to discard their water bottles; in which college campuses are beginning to add active shooter drills to student orientation; in which the country with the most powerful military and the largest economy in the world imprisons women and children at the border because many of our fellow citizens imagine that they pose an existential threat.

The students who step onto college campuses in the fall—if in fact any do step onto campuses in the fall—will have spent their almost their entire lives in an age of anxiety. They were a year old when the planes hit the towers and when fear began to be the defining feature of American life.

Is it any wonder that they are more anxious than their peers from 1993 or 2003? Ninety-five percent of college counseling centers report a rise in mental health disorders among students, and among these disorders, anxiety is the most common, followed closely by depression. These students are in fact different than the ones I encountered when I arrived at Macalester. They are more fragile, more fearful and worried, because for the entirety of their lives we have told them, again and again, to be afraid, and they have been listening.

Now we are telling them to have courage, to be resilient in the face of a tangible threat. How well have we prepared them to be responsive to that message? How fully have we modeled the strength we now ask them to show?

They are, as well, frustrated by the fact that those who are supposed to provide guidance have been telling them to be afraid of the wrong monsters. The chief thing about which we should be afraid—because it is in fact terrifying—is not in our airport security lines or at our border check points, and perhaps not even in our bloodstream, but in our atmosphere and our oceans, our burning jungles and melting glaciers. And this true threat, this genuine bogeyman, is the danger about which we are doing the least. Just imagine if our leaders took the change in our climate as seriously as they took the prospect of a shoe-bomber on a jumbo jet. Just imagine. Young people watch in disbelief and sometimes despair as we deny what all the evidence tell us is true; they know that those most affected will not be the septuagenarians in Washington, DC but children in college and high school and grade school, and they are rightly angry and afraid. In 2003, climate change was barely an afterthought on college campuses; today it is front of mind for the vast majority of students.

This unflinching denial of science, of evidence, of truth itself, is playing out now in our belated, inadequate, and absolutely inexcusable response to COVID-19, with deadly consequences. You can hide behind alternative facts for only so long before actual facts tap you on the shoulder and say “boo.” Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from this pandemic is that when scientists speak, we should listen.

Front of mind too, among today’s students, is the growing inequality of resources and opportunity that defines our twenty-first century Gilded Age. The top one percent in this country owns more wealth collectively than the entire middle class, or the middle sixty percent. This has only been true since 2010. The average rent of a six hundred square foot apartment in Brooklyn is $3000 a month. In San Francisco it is closer to $4000. Come to Minneapolis, we say, where you have to deal with a little winter but can actually afford to live. There is some truth to this, but we should not feel too superior: the demand for affordable housing in Minneapolis and St Paul is growing at a rate far faster than the rate at which we are building it. Many researchers say that this young generation is the first in American history that can expect a lower standard of living than the generation that preceded it. As one recent study put it, they have come of age “in a society divided into haves and have-nots.” So if they are anxious, whom should we blame?

Yes despite all of this—despite all of the hazards, real and imagined, that we have placed in their way—if you spend one day among students on the Macalester campus you will come away feeling not despair, and not fear, but hope for our collective future. This generation of students cares more about racial justice than any I have known; it cares more about the freedom to love who you want or marry who you want or be who you want; it cares more about those children who will not have the opportunity to attend Macalester because of all the obstacles they face. Of course there are exceptions, but on the whole this is a caring, empathetic, loving generation, in some ways a miraculous generation given what they have witnessed from so many of their elders. When one of them hurts, it seems, they all hurt, which makes them both vulnerable and beautiful.

This is not a generation that is apathetic about politics or about civic life. More of them are volunteering, more of them are performing service, more of them are voting—whether out of conviction or desperation is hard to say. The historian Jill Lepore wrote that “Nothing so sharpens one’s appreciation for democracy as bearing witness to its demolition.” The young today are bearing witness, and we can only hope, for all our sakes, that it is strengthening their resolve to save us from ourselves and preserve our fragile experiment in self-governance. It would be completely understandable if they gave up—if this were a generation of the skeptical and disengaged. It is not, and I truly believe that they will be the salvation of a world that seems bent on its own destruction.

My time at Macalester is very nearly complete, and my opportunities to address you will soon be no more. So allow me to take this last opportunity to offer my own sort of blessing and my most sincere wishes for the future.

May you always, when you make decisions large and small, about your own behavior and about public policy, keep in mind those who are most vulnerable: the poor and the sick, the young and the hungry, the refugee, the mother seeking a better life for her children. For what is the value of a wealthy society if it does not include charity and mercy?

May you reject fear and the fearmongers and embrace hope and courage. Fear almost never leads to wisdom. The best choices seldom come without some risk. Be willing to take that risk to do the right thing.

May you take care of our planet. We are changing its climate; of that there is absolutely no doubt. And while the planet will almost certainly survive, we might not, and, as almost always seems to be the case, the poorest among us will suffer first and most from our staggering, inexplicable indifference to climate change.

May you remember always that character matters, including and especially in our leaders. No judicial appointment or tax cut is important enough to cause us to overlook meanness and avarice and prevarication. If we overlook those things we hollow out the soul of America and there will, before long, be a reckoning.

May you remember that truth matters, and that those who throughout history have sought to bend or obscure or deny the truth have done incalculable damage. Nature in particular cares not a whit about human lies or distortions: it will follow its own rules, indifferent to our distractions and distortions.

May you live lives of love and grace. This will bring happiness to others, and to you.

May you continue to celebrate your ties to Macalester College. It is a precious place, more necessary than ever before.

May all of us persevere, because, in the end, we have no choice, and may we emerge from this storm both chastened and more appreciative of the things that bind us together: the hugs and handshakes and pats on the wrist whose absence has reminded us of their power.

Thank you for your open arms during the past seventeen years.

Be well.


Pastoral Prayer

Tim Hart-Andersen

Loving God, living God, we come before you with praise on our lips and a song in our hearts, for you have created a world of beauty and wonder. The earth is full of life – the seas, the air, the land – and all of it reflects your glory.

Forgive us when we fail to sense the holy all around us, when we stumble in our stewardship of this sacred planet. As we mark the 50th Earth Day, give us renewed energy in the struggle against forces that spoil the water and cloud the air and destroy the earth simply for short-term profit or personal convenience. Help us be relentless in our efforts to protect your good creation.

Holy One, you are the giver of life and the sustainer of hope across the human family. You know the shadowed places that crave your light. Shine there, we pray – in war-ravaged nations, in embattled hospitals, in places where children are hungry, in the gloom of animosity and hatred rooted in racism, in the dimness of politics that cannot compromise or tell the truth or share a common vision. Shine your light, O Risen Christ, for we need it, to find our way.

In this unsettled pandemic time, encourage us to come together as one community. Help us rediscover the spirit that has seen us through civil strife and foreign wars, economic collapse and natural disasters. Give to our leaders wisdom and compassion, and the courage to act boldly both now and in the time when we can emerge from these days of distance. Make us a better people, a stronger nation for having passed through this wilderness together.

Help this particular congregation give witness to the power of your Easter love by how we live. Teach us humility. Lead us into service with others. Stir us to advocate for justice. Guide us into relationships that will change us in ways that please you.

And on this day, we pray for Macalester College and every educational enterprise, as they move into an uncertain future. Help us support teachers, encourage research, unleash imagination, and trust in the gift of the mind.

O Spirit who binds our wounds, bring healing in this world wherever it is needed. Be with those who face difficult diagnoses or challenging treatments. Ease the suffering of those in pain. Accompany all going through rehab or in recovery. Be a constant companion to all in hospice. Comfort the dying, and those who love them. Bring peace to all who grieve.

These things we pray in your name, trusting that you listen to our longings. And now, hear us as we pray in the manner Jesus taught, saying, “Our Father…

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