Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw that a time would come when people would be confused about the meaning and purpose of life. In 1887, he wrote that the scientific-materialist worldview of his time would usher in “the advent of nihilism.” He defined this state as a spiritual condition in which “an aim is missing and the question ‘why?’ finds no answer.”
The ramblings of the German philosopher come to mind when trying to understand a recent study that found that American teenagers, especially young girls, are increasingly sad and despondent. The report shows that America has reached an advanced state of nihilism since youth, which should be most given to optimism, has plunged into dark gloom.
This tragic trend is not the “ordinary” youth rebellion that characterized post-Second World War America. This new generation is different from others in that it serves no specific causes and organizes no mass protests against supposed injustices. More often than not, its action is characterized by inaction and inertia. Many (not all) of this teen generation shun direct social interaction that can lead to meaningful relationships.
The result is that teenagers are increasingly afflicted by “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that they are much more likely to harbor suicidal thoughts and act on them than in past generations. The age of suicide is becoming ever younger, with some occurring in those under ten.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is usually conducted every two years based on the opinions of 17,000 high school students nationwide. Every report since 2011 has reported increases in mental disorders in youth.
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This hopelessness reflects a turning point as youth face a broken society without anchors or points of reference.
Framing the Debate
Commentators are quick to find causes for this disorder that suit their leanings. Some blame the advent of social media and the iPhone for these new anxieties. These developments contributed to the problem by introducing a shallowness of thought that prevents people from thinking through life’s challenges. When everything is instantaneous, people have no time to ponder the question, “why?”
However, this change of pace and depth does not have the substance to cause such disastrous effects on the lives of countless teenagers. Something deeper is gnawing at the souls of these poor unfortunate teens.
Derek Thompson of The Atlantic wrote an essay that polarized the causes. He claims liberals blame teenage anxieties on the fear of school shootings, climate change or even the omnipresent and unpredictable antics of Donald Trump. Conservatives might point to identity politics, social unrest or conspiracy theories. The Covid-era lockdowns unlocked fears and anxieties across the board.
Again, such an analysis misses the mark. These problems might contribute to the effects of this malaise. However, youth have always faced crises in history. Anything can be the cause of insecurity, especially among inexperienced youth. The present hopelessness speaks of something much more fundamental. It suggests that the means of understanding problems and dealing with threats have fallen apart. When these faculties are gone, everything becomes threatening. It leads to the snowflake that cannot deal with adversity or understand reality.
The Wither and the Whence
What is missing is the child’s sense of innocence.
Innocence is that innate ability in children where they pursue with exuberance an understanding of the universe. It is the desire to know the essence of things, to seek after and imagine perfections, absolutes and ideals. Inside a world of wonder, children develop the desire to penetrate and know God.
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Childhood is that window of opportunity when children learn to ask and answer the question of why. Innocence helps them build a framework to understand the problem and rationally deal with life’s ups and downs. This innocence will mature throughout their lives and aid them in practicing the virtue of wisdom.
Answering Nietzsche’s advent of nihilism is another German philosopher, Josef Pieper, who celebrates the pursuit of wisdom, commonly defined as finding the highest cause of things and acting accordingly. Pieper writes of wisdom: “‘To know the highest cause,’ then, does not mean to know the cause of some particular thing, but to know the cause of everything and of all things: it means to know the ‘whither’ and the ‘whence,’ the origin and the end, the plan and the structure, the framework and the meaning of reality.”
Indeed, a framework of wisdom allows individuals to understand and deal with reality. It creates a culture full of meaning and will necessarily lead to God and sanctification.
The Terrible Void
Many things attack childhood innocence—a hypersexualized culture, irreligion, sin, secular education, Drag Queen Story Hours and broken families.
However, the most terrifying and traumatic factor causing this hopelessness is the loss of childhood innocence. Children grow up with the idea that there is no framework to understand the universe beyond the fantasies they are encouraged to create. They are told there is no “whither” and “whence.” Everything is matter in random motion without purpose. There is no Highest Cause from which all meaning flows.
This terrible void permeates everything and everywhere. The frustrated innocence of countless teenagers turns to escape, hopelessness and nihilism. The solution lies not only in attacking those things that threaten innocence but in filling the void inside the soul with the “whither” and “whence.” Then, the question of “why?” can find an answer.