Forty percent of college students report being depressed. Many are suicidal. I’d recommend listening to David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech.
An increasing number of college student suffer from depression. A 2017 study revealed nearly forty percent found it difficult to function; sixty-one percent said they’d felt “overwhelming anxiety.” Many are suicidal (suicide is the second leading cause of death overall for college-aged people). Several years ago, MIT experienced a suicide cluster. Six students and a faculty member took their lives.
The Resilience Project is trying to solve this problem. It aims to build resilience in students. MIT is part of the project, seeking to destigmatize depression by bringing a private problem into the open. The school is writing a book, “Portraits of Resilience.” MIT students share their stories and empathize with other strugglers.
I applaud the effort. Resilience is the correct aim. It’s our human capacity to bounce back. But we have to ask a question: why are fewer and fewer students resilient?
I’m sure there are many reasons. Numerous studies indicate a link between social media usage and depression. Students compare their everyday existence to others, measuring success by counting their number of Facebook likes, the number of times they’re retweeted, their GPA. They invariably come up short.
Here’s another contributor. In his commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace blamed self-absorption. He called it “our default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” I think Wallace hit the nail on the head.
Today’s students have been raised on the silly notion of self-esteem, mostly by helicopter parents (many of them Christian) who handed out trophies simply for showing up. Now the kids are in college. Showing up is not enough. Social media makes them aware of their shortcomings, so their self-esteem dies but self-absorption remains.
Wallace called this out. His solution was worship, warning students they must worship “some sort of God or spiritual-type thing” because “pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” Worship money and things, you will never feel you have enough. Worship your body, beauty, status, and sexual allure and you will always fall short. Self-absorbed? “You will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.”
Wallace was deadly serious about this. He closed by warning students to choose carefully what they worship, what they pay attention to. He added that he wasn’t talking about religion or life after death. “The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”
Wallace didn’t make it to 50. In 2008, at the age of 46, he hung himself.
Wallace was right about self-absorption, wrong about religion. Is there a correlation between fifty percent of college students being religious “nones,” forty percent feeling depressed, and sixty-one percent feeling overwhelming anxiety? I think so. We’ve forgotten that when religion recedes, so does resilience.
Religion is the Latin religio, to rebind. Ligio is ligament, the connective tissue that connects bone to bone, helping the body be resilient. Religion makes people resilient, increasing their capacity to bounce back from adversity. True religion (I’m talking about the Christian faith) makes you resilient by ordering your loves, what you worship.
This means you have to honestly face the darkest depths of your sinfulness. I doubt churches have done this since the 1700s Wesleyan Bands. I urge you to read their small group questions. Ask yourself: do you know of a church doing this level of inquiry? I don’t. Most Christians would consider this an invasion of privacy. It isn’t. These questions help us rightly order our loves by facing the depths of our sinfulness. They’re based on what William Wilberforce called “self-suspicion,” not self-reporting spirituality but relying on “the friendly reproofs of friends.” It’s the opposite of self-absorption.
This is commencement season. Most commencement speeches are worthless platitudes. David Foster Wallace’s 2005 speech is considered one of the best ever. He talked about something Americans don’t talk about. Self-absorption. Like too many college students today, Wallace faced the abyss, but without religion. He lost. Suicide is a serious problem and churches ought to offer an antidote. I would suggest resurrecting the Wesleyan questions, cultivating self-suspicion instead of self-absorption.