The modern age, as is true of every age, brings with it unique challenges to maturing. Whereas in the past, we might have seen our parents die young and become responsible for the family, or we would have had no real choice in our occupation, as examples, we face today a far more luxurious but still unsatisfying world. We are living longer and we have incredible options before us, but we also have a world that offers our innate narcissism dangerous opportunities to shine.
As a 35-year-old, I’ve thought about growing up right on this bubble a lot. And I’ve seen those younger than me struggle with relating to this culture. They rarely have to do manual labor and the world is their oyster. But many seem lost and more unhappy than ever. Without offering sociological studies or psychological insight, I want to very briefly trace what the stages of development in this particularly culture must be, and offer some warnings of where not to get lost.
1. Temptation to Notoriety. If I am a young person in this culture, I am exposed, and re-exposed, and over-exposed to every sort of media imaginable. The young man from the early 1900s would have been lucky to have a small library and a newspaper. With social media that is necessarily narcissistic – even if it can be a tool with good uses – it seems to me that children growing up will want to get in on the action. They carve out a life on Facebook and Twitter, hoping for validation or going viral with some antic or insight. And now that media can so easily be produced from home, many hope their music, movies or podcasts will have a star-making effect as well.
But as is the case with all markets, when it becomes diluted, there is little value in most of the content. So the temptation to notoriety that begins at an early age – and was non-existent in most every culture before this one – will almost always have the same result: continued anonymity. The fact is that there is not enough bandwidth for us all to be as known as we would like. We are not all clever, smart or talented enough to stand above the pack. The modern world will pick some out of obscurity that otherwise would have had their talents hidden forever. But by perhaps our early 20s, it should be clear to us that the world that promises stardom will likely not produce it.
2. Growing into Anonymity. The second stage of maturing in the modern world, then, is growing into this anonymity. You won’t like it because you will always hope for the notoriety you believe you are worth. But if the modern adult doesn’t accept this anonymity, they will be a perpetual adolescent and chronically unhappy. They can still use social media to create and comment, but they should be content when only 4 people like it, and only 2 people download their product. Seeing oneself as part of a larger community is hard, for we are all taught that we are special beyond description. And, ontologically, in the eyes of God, we are! But we must accept that we have value intrinsically without the recognition from others we feel is owed to us.
The danger in this phase is that we can easily become cynical. When the world doesn’t appreciate us as we ought to be appreciated, instead of accepting our “normalcy”, and instead of humbly being willing to be one of many who work for a better world, we get dark. Our sense of entitlement comes crashing down and we grow cynical about everything, including the social media and the popular culture we used to want to be a part of. This cynicism is probably quite natural, for none of us actually handle rejection very well. But it is a dangerous habit that must be fought against.
3. Not Disappearing. That brings us to the third stage: not disappearing. We can feel so small in the world that is bigger and bigger. Again, to compare this cultures to previous cultures, many children did not grow up visiting other nations, seeing images of other cultures, or hearing of new ideas. They knew only a fraction of the world and they might have had more confidence to rise to leadership in such a world. After all, they saw opportunities to easily and quickly make a difference. But now that the entire world is accessible – which means all of the people in it have the same access to media that we do – we can feel incredibly small and unable to make a difference.
So if our cynicism continues, we’ll just disappear. We’ll get off the grid, give up on media, protect our own and let the world go to hell. But I would say that is not the response that is needed, especially if I might assume or hope that the hypothetical younger person in mind is a Christian. Christians are probably the most likely to want to disappear from the world once they realize their relatively small place in it.
But we should not minimize the impact we can still have within our small sphere. At some point, reengagement needs to take place. But now, it will not be for the purposes of becoming well-known or even widely liked, but to be a leader within your small world. For what will happen is that the world that seemed so big once will shrink back to a relatable size. To not engage in that world is to miss an opportunity to lead.
So beware of the temptation to stardom. As has always been the case, some will make it, but many will not. Get comfortable with your place in the world which is, frankly, mostly anonymous. That doesn’t assume any reflection of God’s view towards you. It only means you are a willing participant in a very large world. And don’t let this realization make you cynical, for your new, different, and eventually small world needs to include you as well.