HEY KIDS: DON'T LET YOURSELVES GET "HOLLOWED OUT"
Hey kids: don’t let yourselves get “hollowed out.”
If we were giving unsolicited advice to young people these days, it would be something along those lines.
To explain what this means, here are a few numbers:
- Teen depression rose 63% from 2007 to 2017.
- Teen suicide grew 56%. It’s now the second leading cause of death for the young.
- 71% of current 17-to-24-year-old were not eligible to serve in the military due to obesity, criminal records, or mental health or drug issues, according to a US general in 2014.
- 70% of senior citizens could pass a US citizenship test. Less than 20% of those under 45 could.
Stats like these could go on for a while, depressingly enough, but that’s a taste of it.
These and more are described in the book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation by a schoolteacher named Jeremy Adams. A short article describing the book is here.
“We need to brace ourselves for what lies ahead.”
Those words from Adams convey why he wrote the book. If it sounds like a warning, it is.
Is this what lies ahead? More depression, suicide, obesity, mental health issues and so on?
If so, why bring this up? Don’t things seem gloomy enough right now?
Something is clearly wrong. Some seem to know this, but fewer seem to have clear, coherent, and cohesive ideas regarding what to do about it.
Problems we have no control over can lead to despair. But problems we can solve can – and should – stir us to action.
These are problems we can do something about.
At least some aspects of these problems are self-induced. This means we can overcome them. “Overcoming” them in this sense might mean “stop inducing them.”
Ignoring them won’t fix them. Continuing what we’ve been doing clearly isn’t working. The people currently in charge of solving these right now don’t seem to have any sort of solution close at hand. Many of our standard approaches seem highly unlikely to solve these. If they did, we wouldn’t be seeing those kinds of numbers.
Maybe that means it’s up to us.
So, why aren’t our usual approaches working?
The world has changed. It continues to change at a blistering pace. Many of our former solutions aren’t working anymore, and we aren’t keeping pace to adapt with new ones. Too many don’t even seem to grasp the nature of these problems.
So, what used to work that isn’t anymore, and what can we do instead?
Our typical approach is to tackle these directly.
By “direct” solutions, we mean things along these lines: “If suicide is a problem, we need more suicide awareness and hotlines.” “If depression is a problem, we need more, better pills and therapies.” “If addiction, crime, or homelessness are problems, we just need more treatment centers, police, and homeless shelters.”
But all of these are reactive, after-the-fact measures.
They play defense. They do clean-up after the fact. They offer first-aid after an injury.
Nothing against any of them. We need first-aid, hotlines, shelters, and all the rest. All of these can be good and necessary.
That said, they’re working to solve problems without stopping to ask what’s causing the problems.
What about prevention?
Instead of scrambling around to solve problems, wouldn’t it be better to prevent them from happening in the first place? Instead of more suicide prevention hotlines, wouldn’t it be better to work for fewer suicide attempts to start with?
What’s an alternative?
Problems like these aren’t solved directly.
We don’t “solve” suicide, genuinely and thoroughly, by simply building more suicide prevention hotlines. We don’t solve addiction with more addiction treatment centers. The ideal solution to crime isn’t simply more police. Again, all of these are designed to solve existing problems instead of preventing problems from arising in the first place.
These problems are “everything problems.”
“Everything problems” are difficult problems that are interconnected with other difficult problems.
They’re part of an interconnected web. They’re aspects of a bigger system. Problems like these aren’t solved with a direct, frontal assault.
Problems like depression, suicide, and homelessness are “everything problems.”
With everything problems – when difficult problems are interconnected with other difficult problems – single, direct, linear approaches don’t usually work well.
If a spider web is causing a problem, the answer usually isn’t trying to detangle one thread at a time. It’s almost impossible to untangle a spider web. All the threads are connected. It soon becomes a mess.
The better approach is to after the spider.
It’s much more effective to deal with the web as a whole.
So, what’s the “spider” in this scenario?
Here’s the culprit, in a word, as we see it.
Nihilism is the idea that there is no truth, so everything is meaningless.
And nihilism is increasingly popular nowadays.
This entire line of thinking might sound strange. There don’t seem to be too many people walking around declaring, “I am a nihilist!”
But that’s one of the tricky things about nihilism: it’s often unconscious. It’s like a carbon monoxide leak that’s odorless, tasteless, and nearly undetectable.
Our culture today seems to have a philosophical carbon monoxide leak.
For someone to explicitly call themselves a nihilist would take some effort. It would mean they’ve done some homework, and studied some philosophy.
What’s much more common is “soft nihilism” – a kind of subtle-nihilism-by-default. It’s rarely discussed, but always seems to be there, assumed but invisible, known but unspoken.
This even plays itself out in food.
It might seem strange to see this same dynamic playing out in what we eat.
But when it comes to health, disease, and obesity, it’s apparently the case that any traditional diet is superior to the modern Western diet.
Think hamburgers, french fries, pizza, and Doritos while swilling down a few Cokes before plowing through a few boxes of Twinkies. The governing principle is often, “eat whatever you want, which is what tastes good, right now.” Food today have been deliberately engineered to play directly into that.
As Michael Pollen describes, “The human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western diet, however you define it, does not seem to be one of them.” (In Defense of Food, 100) This is part of what’s been driving “the obesity epidemic.”
So, what if the same basic dynamic is happening philosophically?
Are we all living off philosophical junk food?
Are some of our most fundamental ideas about life the equivalent of pork rinds and fried Twinkies?
If this food parallel holds, then any traditional culture seems to work better than one that’s essentially nihilistic.
This kind of claim might be hard to prove statistically, but if there’s a better way to objectively measure the health of a culture than the number of kids committing suicide, we don’t know of one.
This can bring us to another unsettling number.
But what’s driving this? What’s at the heart of a nihilistic culture?
In 1984, only 2% of Americans identified themselves as “atheists.”
In 2020, that number was 22%.
Could it be that some of these dots are connected?
Are depression and suicide linked to atheism?
Some would argue against this for a number of reasons. There’s plenty of room for misunderstanding in these conversations.
But for many, the connection is obvious. The idea that life is essentially meaningless – a short, painful, pointless series of experiences, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” – creates fertile ground for dark thoughts, and no compelling incentive to do good or persevere.
But to keep digging – what causes this?
This can hearken back to a lack in a specific kind of education.
The problem might not be that “atheism is true.” After all, in some cases, an intelligent and informed atheism might be an improvement.
The problem might be what happens when individuals are spiritually illiterate.
It’s one thing for someone to get a bad impression of organized religion, and look for alternatives. It’s another to dismiss an entire sweep of human endeavor based on a thin slogan.
Some do this, and assume they’ve got it all figured out.
Some might have never encountered a spiritual approach that seemed credible.
The less someone knows about religion or spirituality, the easier it is to caricature the whole business.
It becomes easy to hear just a few crazy-sounding ideas, assume it summarizes the entire picture, and dismiss it on that basis.
It can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “I’ve never studied much of the whole business. That’s because I have a clever caricature that makes it all seem silly, and that justifies me dismissing the entire operation with a few words. Once it’s dismissed, I never have to take the time to learn anything more about it, which means never learning how that original caricature might be inaccurate.”
It becomes a self-justifying, self-enclosed, perfectly sealed, circular closed loop.
And on a widespread scale, this can cause problems.
Spiritual illiteracy can fuel nihilism.
Throughout history, spiritual and religious traditions have been the primary antidote to nihilism.
When those forces weaken and things get nihilistic, bad things tend to happen. “Without a vision, people perish.”
Nature abhors a vacuum, and when we lack a vision, we often tend to make up our own “visions.” These can sometimes be just as bad, or much worse, as what we started with.
This also contrasts with most of human history.
We often think of today’s mass-media, secular, “values-free” culture as the norm.
But it’s the exception. Essentially all cultures throughout history had some sort of generally agreed-upon code to live by. Even ancient Greece had Zeus and the gang.
But today, we’re living through “The Death of God.” Much of our culture now is something more like it’s a vast experiment in children being raised more by pop culture, tech companies, and marketing departments than one based in some sort of established spiritual or philosophical framework.
But there’s also another factor.
We might be fundamentally mistaken about human nature.
After all, what is “human nature”?
If the basic ideas behind practically all spiritual traditions are correct, then spirituality isn’t a minor detail, or add-on, or occasional hobby.
It’s at the center of everything.
But is that true?
For some, psychology replaces religion.
Victor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) and several others have called attention to this.
This has driven many toward the therapeutic. The basic idea is that therapy is the way to heal and find happiness, and the key component of that lies in examining and honoring feelings.
While the therapeutic has value, there’s also Ernest Becker’s sweeping analysis of the entire realm of psychology post-Freud. His finding – like Freud – centered a great deal on death.
Answering the riddle of death has typically been the job of religion. But Becker describes our efforts to deal with death during life as our “hero project.” Another word for “hero project” is our code for life, or our life philosophy.
Without any form of this – when there’s a weak or fragile “hero-project” – nihilism becomes the default mode.
And when nihilism is the default mode, things tend not to go well.
If life seems to be just a senseless, pointless series of events, one after another, leading nowhere, then it can make sense to try to seize whatever small moments of joy you can, wherever you can find them. This isn’t exactly an ideal starting for smart, snappy, well-thought-through life decisions.
In this sense, kids today might be guinea pigs in this vast experiment in nihilism.
Popular culture often seems to offer nothing more than amusing distractions. Education often seems to offer nothing more than tedious fact-stuffing and chore-tasking. Professional culture often seems to offer nothing more than the pursuit of empty status symbols. Psychology often seems to offer little more than a parade of pills and endless scrutiny of feelings. Popular religion seems to offer little more than seemingly absurd claims that seem to offer the road to heaven by way of boredom. Popular philosophy seems to offer endless, unsolvable intellectual riddles.
And so on.
Given this situation, we’d have some advice for kids.
There is a way through.
Even if the culture around you is dumb, hollow, and full of lies, that doesn’t mean you have to be.
With a few smart moves, the modern world has a vast wealth of opportunities to offer. If you can seize the goods but dodge the poisons, adopt smart ideas and ignore the nihilistic ones, life can become much, much better.
But how, exactly?
There’s not a single act. Despite the world being flooded with easy answers – “Easy Lifelong Happiness in Just Two Seconds a Day!” – the genuinely effective routes look more like taking one step after another, one day after another.
It’s a way of life.
This can mean a few different practical things.
It means facing The Big Questions of life directly. I means asking them, thinking about them, noodling on them, studying them.
That means “thinking life through,” which means figuring out your life philosophy.
It can mean taking a good, hard, realistic look at all the various “games” life offers us, and deciding which are worth playing and which aren’t, and figuring out how to play them well.
If we do this, it can mean really cracking the existential riddles life throws at us. This can mean fostering mental clarity and emotional strength, learning how to cope with anxiety and depression. It can sometimes mean training for philosophical self-defense on the “defense” side, but when playing offense, it can mean working to discover some form of “antifragile happiness.”
When we do this, nihilism can evaporate naturally, all on its own.
Depression, drug abuse, thoughts of suicide, and so on can seem totally senseless. Those routes can naturally become unattractive not because the hotlines are so great, but because there are so many better alternatives. Some routes only seem attractive when it seems like there are no other alternatives.
Doing a certain kind of inner work along these lines – or a focus on existential fitness – can go a long way. This often leads to a search for no-nonsense approaches to spirituality, while being wary of the hazards of going “spiritual but not religious.” This can result in experiential spirituality that can lay the groundwork for more good things to come.
All of these can lead to inner wealth. It can lead to a life with both joy and meaning.
These approaches are indirect. But unlike many direct courses, they can be effective. They can work from the inside-out.
If enough of this kind of thing happens on a large enough scale, it could lead to a kind of Spiritual Renaissance that leaves the culture of nihilism in the rearview, and opens the door to an age of genuine flourishing.
But before that day comes, we have some challenges to meet.
Adams said “I write this book as an alarm bell.”
Let’s not ignore him.
Let’s wake up.
Also, maybe put the phones down, and get off social media.
At least a little more time living free of those might be a good thing.
They might be "the new smoking."
Maybe scientists will prove in forty years that those things are seriously toxic, like they eventually did with cigarettes. But here's the catch: by that time, we'll all be older than forty. So, instead of that, maybe we can decide this for ourselves, sooner.