Recently, I picked up a Reader’s Digest and found in it this thought-provoking quote from author Mark Manson:
“All day, every day, we are flooded with the truly extraordinary. The best of the best. The worst of the worst… This flood of extreme information has conditioned us to believe that ‘exceptional’ is the new normal. And since all of us are rarely exceptional, we all feel pretty damn insecure and desperate to feel ‘exceptional’ all the time.”
I’m not going to lie, I feel fortunate to have come of age pre-internet and social media. I was insecure enough as a teenager without constant streaming reminders of my peers’ cool Friday night plans, superior talents and achievements, and growing “friend” count. I could escape the social tensions of high school in the evenings, on the weekends, and on vacation, but this generation of tweens and young adults are exposed to minute to minute updates on who is doing what without them, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Being pretty, thin, dressed right, exceptional, and popular…no, not just popular, famous, is the end all, be all. It is sad and troubling to watch even pre-pubescent girls try on seductiveness, a la their favorite reality show or youtube celebrity, to be noticed. The boundaries must be pushed and always pushed further to “stand out” anymore. As a parent, social media doesn’t make it easy to convince your kids that integrity and self-respect is better than conforming to the ever evolving materialistic and narcissistic standards of the fickle masses.
This tech savvy culture is particularly rough on Millennials and Generation Z whose members are amassing great debt, stress, and a crippling habit of discontentedness due to their definition of “success” being more stuff, more amazing experiences, Pinterest worthy living spaces and wardrobes, and more attention drawn to themselves. Unrealistic ideals are shoved down their throats and crammed into their developing brains all day, every day, breeding jealousy and depression. When competitiveness gets the better of you; the aquisitions and comings and goings of your neighbor become a guage of your own rank and value.
From what I’ve observed as a mom of teenagers there is little security in their relationships. The swiftness and viciousness with which teens and tweens turn on each other is astounding and heart wrenching. It’s like Lord of the Flies out there in the land of Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Tumblr. How tragic for tender and beautifully unique human beings to have their sense of self-worth rise and fall based on “likes” and often passive aggressive or downright caustic comments.
And it’s not just the young who are susceptible to the ickiness of jealousy. Even middle aged adults like myself who didn’t grow up with smart phones are still vulnerable to sliding down that “no win” slippery slope of comparing ourselves to others. It stings to see photos of happy couples or families on our Facebook news feed when our own relationships are strained and broken. It can be discouraging to read the status updates of “friends” not living paycheck-to-paycheck or wrestling with illness, who are not too exhausted to maintain an organized home, do Pilates, eat organic, write that screenplay, knit a sweater. Even others’ acts of charity and spiritual ascetism can incite shame over our own lack of discipline and drive.
As St. John Chrysostom preached, envy can indeed consume a soul, making it exceedingly challenging to be content, and love our neighbor as Christ loves our neighbor. On our own, it seems too hard, it is too hard, to completely buck the system and bow out of the rat race. Is it possible, really possible, to find fulfillment in our current circumstances? In the midst of our trials, can we ever genuinely, truly, rejoice with those who rejoice? Can our self-obsession be overcome?
According to the Church fathers, the answer is “Yes!” but not without difficulty and absolute continuous dependence on Christ. We will be assaulted on every side for trying to swim against the strong earthly tide of greed, self-centeredness, sloth, and despondency. On this struggle, St. John of Kronstradt wrote:
“‘God came upon earth in order to raise us up to heaven.’
It would seem, after this, that even when living upon earth we must live as if in the heavenly kingdom, dwelling there in anticipation by hope. But in reality, for the greater part, the contrary is the case. Men cling with their whole being to the earth and everything earthly.
Wherefore is this? Because our common enemy, the Devil, endeavours with all his might to oppose the intentions of the God-man, Christ. He endeavours to do everything in opposition to what Christ did and does.
Christ wishes to raise men up to heaven, and has given them all the means to attain this; whilst the Devil, who himself for his pride was cast down from heaven into the dominions of the air, wishes by every means to attach men to earthly,- sensual, transitory things, and, in order to attain this end, he employs the most powerful, most prodigious means.
Christ taught us truth; the Devil teaches us falsehood, and strives in every way to contradict every truth; devising various calumnies against it.
The Devil endeavours by every means to keep men in error, in the enticement of the passions, in darkness of mind and heart; in pride, avarice, covetousness, envy, hatred, wicked impatience and irritation…”
I was just talking to my daughter the other day about the temptation to wallow in covetousness. “The devil is so sneaky, ” I told her, “to relentessly fire at our minds negative thoughts about ourselves and about our neighbors. He is banking on the fact we won’t be aware enough to recognize those negative thoughts as spiritual assaults, and that we’ll internalize them instead of prayerfully swatting them away, refusing to let them land, implant themselves, and multiply.”
We are not a lost cause, doomed to waste the remaining precious hours of this life chasing after empty pursuits and begrudging our neighbors their earthly and heavenly blessings! We are not defenseless! The Church provides every tool we need to be victorious over bitterness and envy! The Divine services, the Eucharist, feasts and fasts, confession, participation in the Body of Christ, are not ends in themselves but invaluable gifts that assist us in rising above the sin that binds and entangles. They keep us fueled, anchored, attentive and prayerful. Of course the more we revolve our lives around the Church and Her sacraments, the less we’ll rely on our own limited strength and understanding, saving ourselves all kinds of inner turmoil.
“Virtues are formed by prayer.
Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy.
Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit, and raises man to Heaven.”
— St. Ephrem of Syria
Oh, the freedom to be found in a quiet mind and simple life rooted in faith, hope, gratitude and selfless love! This is the message I am trying my darndest to convey to my growing sons and daughters. But I must lead by example.
“If you share secretly in the joy of someone you envy, you will be freed from your jealousy; and you will also be freed from your jealousy if you keep silent about the person you envy.”
— St. Thalassios the Libyan
“Lord have mercy,” when I’m attacked by thoughts of jealously or resentment. “Lord have mercy,” before I speak. “Lord have mercy,” before I go on-line. “Lord have mercy,” when my passions are engaged.
There is an awful lot of pain, anxiety and despair to be found in our schools and in our communities, even in our homes. Lord have mercy! Help me, through You, to acquire peace of soul and become a living oasis of comfort and rest for others.