Epidemic Despair

Anxiety, worry, and hopelessness seem to increasingly characterize American society.  The reasons are many and perhaps difficult to understand.  It only takes a quick look at previous generations to realize there has always been a long list of anxieties.  Our parents and grandparents experienced blizzards, droughts, heat waves, floods, epidemics, the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, recessions, and job uncertainty, just to name a few.  Today we have more economic and financial security than ever.  Fewer people are hungry than at any time in the history of the country.  Unemployment is at record low numbers; almost anyone willing to work can get a job.  Health care is almost universally available.  Americans are better educated, better sheltered, and have more leisure time than ever.

And yet despair is seemingly everywhere.

           

Columnist Kimberly Ross, in a recent article in the “Washington Examiner” entitled “Couples who skip children because of climate change aren’t just silly, they’re hurting society,” wrote that “The doomsday quality of the climate change movement is on track to harm more than it helps.  Fears of impending environmental doom have actually spurred some to abandon their plans to have children.  Not only is this behavior sheer nonsense, but it will work to weaken society as a whole.”  The piece noted that

the country’s birthrate is “at its lowest in 32 years, with 2018 being the fourth consecutive year of decline.” Even though climate change isn’t the only worry, it is now listed among more tangible problems like debt, employment, and the economy.”

“The birthrate is a barometer of despair,” Dowell Myers, who studies this data at the University of Southern California, concluded when the latest numbers were released earlier this year.  “Not a whole lot of things are going good, and that’s haunting young people.” On the list of “not good things” (lack of long-term job security, mountains of debt, the likelihood today’s children will not do as well economically as their parents), the climate crisis, with its specter of droughts, famines, fires and floods, is near the top.”

Even science journalist Michael Marshall, who views climate change as a problem in need of a solution, writes how unhelpful it is to assign apocalyptic end dates to the issue: “The point is that the climate is not so simple as to give us a neat cutoff date for action. Indeed, there is an argument that putting it in terms of deadlines just creates a feeling of hopelessness when we inevitably miss them.” In addition, this hopeless alarmism often seems more like a political push toward socialism than it does legitimate addressing of the problem.

A recent Bloomberg article, “State of Health Report Shows Growing Despair Among Men” cited a National Center for Health Statistics report which noted data indicating that life expectancy at birth for males declined to 76.1 years in 2017 from 76.5 in 2014, perhaps in part due to deaths attributable to despair.  From 2007 to 2017, the mortality rate from drug overdoses increased 82%.  Over the same 10-year period, suicide rates increased 24%, to 14.0 deaths from 11.3 per 100,000 resident population.  Males had twice the female drug overdose death rate in 2017 and rates for men have virtually doubled since 2007.  Suicides among Americans have also increased sharply — from 26,869 in 1980 to 47,173 in 2017.

The suicide rate among children aged 10 through 14 has nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017, while the suicide rate among older teenagers has increased by 76 percent between 2007 and 2017, federal data show.  A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics indicates that the suicide rate among those aged 10 through 24 years has increased 56 percent over the last decade as violent deaths (suicide and homicide) continue to be leading causes of death for that age bracket.  In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 14, teenagers 15 to 19, and young adults ages 20-24.

Epidemic despair.

Similarly, a recent Wall Street Journal article referenced new research suggests that many American adolescents are becoming more anxious, depressed, and solitary.  Growing numbers of adolescent girls describe themselves as vulnerable to our increasingly digital culture, with many of them struggling to manage the constant pressures of social media along with rising levels of anxiety and adolescent emotions.  While girls in 2019 tend to be risk-averse, focused on their studies and fond of their families, they are also experiencing high levels of depression and loneliness.  A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 36% of girls report being extremely anxious every day.  They are especially worried about school shootings, melting polar ice and their ability to afford college.

Research from the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future project shows that, since 2007—the dawn of the smartphone era—girls have dramatically decreased the amount of time they spend shopping, seeing friends or going to movies.  This is true of both young males and females.  The glow of screens is unavoidable. Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that 95% of American teenagers have access to a smartphone.  Common Sense Media has found that contemporary teens spend an astounding six to nine hours a day online—and that 72% of teens felt manipulated by tech companies into remaining constantly connected.  Gaming, sports-related activity, movies, social media sites, and texting consume enormous amounts of time and attention, and viewing pornography is rampant.  Leading in many instances to anxiety, depression and disconnectedness.

A “Washington Post” piece, “Lockdown drills an American Quirk, out of control,” noted

Here are some recent headlines from schools around the country: In Indiana, officials played a segment of a 911 call of a teacher in a panic during the Columbine High School shooting to students. In Ohio, officers fired blank shots during an active-shooter drill. In South Carolina, an officer dressed in black posed as an intruder on an unannounced drill. In Michigan, a school is spending $48 million on a renovation that includes curved hallways and hiding niches, in hopes of protecting students from a mass shooting. In Florida, a police officer arrested two 6-year-old students for misdemeanor battery. In Colorado, teachers received buckets and kitty litter for students to use as toilets in case of a prolonged school lockdown.

A recent “Jobsite” study focused on the “negative effects” of Secret Santa and “it found that some millennials . . . have been suffering from anxiety as a result of their workplace Secret Santa,” reports viral news site Twenty-Two Words.  The study, they say “found that younger workers are often spending more than they can afford on presents for their colleagues” in order to avoid being “judged” for their selection or thought “cheap” by their peers.  Even though most Secret Santa groups set a budget, Millennials say they feel pressure to “up their game” in order to fit in with their colleagues.  Beyond that, Millennials apparently report that they feel “angry” at office party organizers who don’t take their much-reported dire financial straits into consideration when instituting a Secret Santa game. That builds resentment among these workers which can lead to inter-office tiffs and a decline in workplace morale among Millennial colleagues.  Poor babies.

An Associated Press story noted that

More college students are turning to their schools for help with anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, and many must wait weeks for treatment or find help elsewhere as campus clinics struggle to meet demand, an Associated Press review of more than three dozen public universities found.

On some campuses, the number of students seeking treatment has nearly doubled over the past five years while overall enrollment has remained relatively flat. The increase has been tied to reduced stigma around mental health, along with rising rates of depression and other disorders. Universities have expanded their mental health clinics, but the growth is often slow, and demand keeps surging.

Long waits have provoked protests at schools from Maryland to California, in some cases following student suicides. Meanwhile, campus counseling centers grapple with low morale and high burnout as staff face increasingly heavy workloads.

The social and economic costs of family breakdown are evident and overwhelming.  Studies estimate that divorce and unwed childbearing cost taxpayers over $110 billion each year.  Children raised in single-parent homes are statistically more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, exhibit poor social behaviors, commit violent crimes, and are more likely to drop out of school.  When it comes to fighting poverty, there is no better weapon than marriage; in fact, marriage clearly reduces the probability of child poverty.  Meanwhile, the idea of traditional marriage continues to fall further from favor.

Alcohol abuse is rampant.  Illicit drugs damage and destroy far too many people.  Marijuana use is no longer viewed negatively; in fact it is celebrated, threatening to unleash a whole host of problems.  Educators and some parents tell their children that they can choose their own gender and ridicule traditional ideals of morality and fidelity.

It is all quite depressing.

          

But what if, at least at the societal level, things aren’t really so bad as they sometimes seem?

          

Climate has modulated throughout recorded history.   In studying the causes of the fall of the Roman empire, I ran across this: “In recent years, explanations that focus on environmental factors have been especially prominent.  Some of these ascribe not only Rome’s fall to changes in climate, but its rise as well, arguing that the Roman Empire was only able to attain the size that it did because Roman imperialism had the good fortune to coincide with a period of unusually warm, wet, and stable climate across the Mediterranean basin that began around the 3rd century BC and lasted until the mid-2nd century AD–precisely the time of rapid Roman political and economic expansion.”  Over the last four or so centuries, since the Little Ice Age, there has been a slight but demonstrable rise in average temperatures.  Sea levels have risen perhaps as much as three inches.  Some of the effects may have been negative, some positive.  We still await the climate disasters predicted twenty years ago.  Due mostly to technology and economic advancement, today we are less likely than ever in history to meet with harm or calamity due solely to climate or weather.

In a column titled “Climate Myths Perpetuated by the Alarmists”, John Stossel

“How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood!” insisted teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg at the United Nations. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction!”
Many people say that we’re destroying the Earth.
It all sounds so scary.
But I’ve been a consumer reporter for years, and I’ve covered so many scares: plague, famine, overpopulation, SARS, West Nile virus, bird flu, radiation from cellphones, flesh-eating bacteria, killer bees, etc. The list of terrible things that were going to get us is very long.
Yet we live longer than ever.
Now I’m told global warming is different.
The Earth’s average temperature is rising. It’s risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. The U.N. predicts it will rise another 2 to 5 degrees this century. If that happens, that will create problems.
But does that justify what’s being said?
“We have 12 years to act!” says former Vice President Joe Biden.
“The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change!” adds Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Twelve years? That’s the new slogan.
The Heartland Institute invited some climate alarmists to explain the “12 years” and other frightening statements they keep making.
The alarmists didn’t even show up. They never do. They make speeches and preach to gullible reporters, but they won’t debate anyone who is skeptical.
Over the years, I repeatedly invited Al Gore to come on my TV shows. His staff always said he was “too busy.”
At a Heartland Institute event I moderated, climatologist Pat Michaels put the 12-year claim in perspective by saying, “It’s warmed up around 1 degree Celsius since 1900, and life expectancy doubled in the industrialized democracies! Yet that temperature ticks up another half a degree and the entire system crashes? That’s the most absurd belief!”
Astrophysicist Willie Soon added, “It’s all about hand-waving, emotion, sending out kids in protest. It has nothing to do with the science.”
Is that true? I wish the alarmists would show up and debate.
Alarmists say, “Miami will soon be underwater!”
Few serious people deny that the Earth has warmed and that sea levels are rising. But Michaels points out that even if the warming increases, humans can adjust.
For example, much of Holland is below sea level. “They said,” Michaels recounts, “we’re going to adapt to the fact that we’re a low-lying country; we’re going to build these dikes. Are you telling me that people in Miami are so dumb that they’re just going to sit there and drown?”
Climatology professor David Legates added a point the climate alarmists never make: “The water has been rising for approximately 20,000 years and probably will continue.”
But aren’t sudden climate changes happening now? Aren’t hurricanes suddenly far more violent?
“No, they aren’t!” responded Michaels. “You can take a look at all the hurricanes around the planet. We can see them since 1970, because we’ve got global satellite coverage. We can measure their power … There is no significant increase whatsoever—no relationship between hurricane activity and the surface temperature of the planet!”
He’s right. That’s what government data shows.
Nevertheless, activists and politicians demand the United States move toward zero carbon emissions. That would “put you back in the Stone Age,” says Michaels.
Another myth is that carbon dioxide, the prime creator of greenhouse gases, threatens the food supply.
But carbon dioxide helps plants grow. “There are places on Earth where it is greening up like crazy,” says Michaels.
But if the crisis isn’t real, why do governments race to respond to it with regulations and big spending projects? Why is the U.N.’s Panel on Climate (IPCC) so alarmed?
Well, IPCC does stand for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Legates says, “Governments want to keep control … Carbon dioxide becomes that molecule by which [they] can take control of your lives.”
Government is the real crisis.

In an article republished October 15, 2019 in the Denver Post, columnist Sergio Pecahna wrote, 

Here are some recent headlines from schools around the country: In Indiana, officials played a segment of a 911 call of a teacher in a panic during the Columbine High School shooting to students. In Ohio, officers fired blank shots during an active-shooter drill. In South Carolina, an officer dressed in black posed as an intruder on an unannounced drill. In Michigan, a school is spending $48 million on a renovation that includes curved hallways and hiding niches, in hopes of protecting students from a mass shooting. In Florida, a police officer arrested two 6-year-old students for misdemeanor battery. In Colorado, teachers received buckets and kitty litter for students to use as toilets in case of a prolonged school lockdown.

Mass shootings, meaning incidents with at least two deaths, in schools are horrifying. But it is highly unlikely that a child would ever witness one. Research indicates that some security measures brought in to make schools safer — like realistic shooter trainings — may be causing children more harm than good.

It is 10 times more likely that a student will die on the way to school.

Our chances of dying in a fire are also much greater — 1 in 1,500. But we don’t overreact.

More children have died from lightning strikes than from mass shootings in schools in the past 20 years. Still, we don’t obsess about them.

Exactly how common are school shootings?

In the two decades since Columbine, there have been 10 mass shootings in schools, according to a recent analysis by James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University who has been studying school violence for several decades. In total, 81 people have been killed, 64 of them students. That’s an average of four deaths per year, three of them students.

Even one death is too many.  But for perspective, 729 children committed suicide with a firearm in 2017, and 863 were victims of homicides by guns that year.

Nearly every public school in the country now conducts lockdown drills, and even the youngest students participate (last year, one school adapted a lullaby to prepare kindergartners). But very few studies have looked into the efficiency of these drills. One of them concluded that the practice can be helpful to teach students basic safety procedures. But to the author of the study, Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor at the State University of New York at Oswego, there is no point in dramatizing the drills. “All that causes is fear,” she said.

Restaurants have 10 times as many homicides as schools. Why do we want to arm teachers and not wait staffs?

“There’s a misunderstanding in where the dangers are,” said Dewey Cornell, a psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia. “Kids are at far greater danger going to and from school than they are in the classroom,” he said. “School counseling, academic support, that’s gonna do far more to keep our communities safe.”

We all rely on news reports, editorials, magazine articles, television broadcasts, websites, podcasts and books to stay informed and develop a perspective about what is happening around the country and across the globe.  Turn on the television or open a web browser and you will see stories about war, crime, terrorism, corruption, natural disasters, political dysfunction and environmental destruction.  Most news reports and editorials show us the world through a dark lens of tragedy and loss that leads to a distorted perspective, namely that we live in a horrible world at a terrible time – and the country is rapidly going to hades in a handbasket.

You might remember your childhood or young adulthood when things seemed simpler, easier, better.  But nothing is more responsible for “the good old days” than a bad memory.  Most of us have fond recollections of our early days.  But was society itself better?  Not if you were drafted to serve in a distant war, or needed a drug, medical device or surgical procedure that hadn’t been invented.  Nor was life necessarily better if you didn’t have running water, central heat and air, health insurance, instant communications, safe transportation, a personal computer, a TV, or the hundreds of other modern conveniences – electronic and otherwise – that make our lives more comfortable today.

Educational attainment has never been greater.  Standards of living have never been higher.  U.S. household income and net worth – adjusted for inflation – are at all-time records.  Advances in medicine and technology have eliminated most of history’s plagues, including polio, smallpox, measles and rickets.  There has been a huge reduction in infectious diseases.  Heart disease and stroke incidence are in decline. The annual rate of new cancer diagnoses has dropped steadily over the last couple of decades.

We complain about the rising cost of health care, but that’s in part because we routinely live long enough to depend on it.  The average American life span has almost doubled over the past century, partly because we’re living longer but also because childhood and infant deaths – formerly a depressing part of everyday life – are now so rare.

Maybe life in today’s world isn’t so bad after all.

          

On a more personal level, however, sometimes life can be, well, pretty overwhelming.  Christians are not exempt from the consequences of living in a fallen world; we still are subject to the aging process, disease, accidents, financial reverses, job stresses, relationship issues, and ultimately, death.  We lose cherished love ones.  Some are melancholy by disposition and prone to anxiety and depression.  And in fact as believers we may have a whole new set of anxieties.  We are concerned about our children, not only their health, happiness, and success, but their spiritual development. We may have stress about the state of our church.  We may feel pressures generated by our testimony for Christ, and in some situations even encounter  persecution for our faith.

But we as Christians have a Resource far greater than the issues we face in the world.

Psalm 42:11 reminds us, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?  And why are you disquieted within me?  Hope in God; For I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance and my God.”  Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs defined contentment as “that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.”  The Psalmist in 121 wrote,

I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.

He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore.

Puritan cleric Jeremy Taylor, who lived during a period of great conflict, wrote,  “It is impossible for that man to despair who remembers that his Helper is omnipotent.”

The Psalmist in 77:11-12 wrote, “I will remember the works of the Lord; Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.  I will also meditate on all Your work, And talk of Your deeds.”  Psalm 119:114 reminds us “You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in Your word.”  When the ancient prophet Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and everything around him, he promised the people that it was God’s plan to give them “a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). 

Jesus said, recorded in John 14, “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me.  In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also (verses 1-3).  Verse 27 records His words, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

Charles Spurgeon, the great nineteenth century English preacher, was often afflicted by depression.  His ministry, greatly successful in his day, continues to have great influence through his writing.  In a devotional in his “Morning and Evening,” reflecting on Deuteronomy 33:27a, “The eternal God is your refuge, And underneath are the everlasting arms,” he wrote (revised and updated by Alistair Begg):

God–the eternal God–is Himself our support at all times, and especially when we are sinking in deep trouble.  There are seasons when the Christian sinks very low in humiliation.  Under a deep sense of his great sinfulness, he is humbled before God until he hardly knows how to pray, because he appears, in his own sight, so worthless.
Well, child of God, remember that when you are at your worst and lowest, even then “underneath” you “are the everlasting arms.”  Sin may drag you ever so low, but Christ’s great atonement is still under all.  You may have descended into the depths, but you cannot have fallen so low as the uttermost; and He saves “to the uttermost.”
Again, the Christian sometimes sinks very deeply in sore trial from without.  Every earthly prop is cut away.  What then?  Still underneath him are “the everlasting arms.”
He cannot fall so deep in distress and affliction but what the covenant grace of an ever-faithful God will still encircle him.  The Christian may be sinking under trouble from within through fierce conflict; but even then he cannot be brought so low as to be beyond the reach of the “everlasting arms”–they are underneath him; and, while he is sustained, all Satan’s efforts to harm him achieve nothing.
This assurance of support is a comfort to any weary but sincere worker in the service of God.  It implies a promise of strength for each day, grace for each need, and power for each duty.
And, finally, when death comes, the promise will still hold good.  When we stand in the middle of the Jordan, we will be able to say with David, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
We will descend into the grave, but we shall go no lower, for the eternal arms prevent our further fall.  All through life, and at its close, we shall be upheld by the “everlasting arms”–arms that neither flag nor lose their strength, for “the everlasting God . . . does not faint or grow weary.”

Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

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