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Starving to Death in the Cereal Aisle

The other day, I was searching for a very particular brand of cereal, and as I walked down the aisle, I couldn’t help but be struck by how many different kinds there were. There must have been at least 20 different types, each with a generic off-brand version.

The amount of choice was simply staggering.

I was grateful that I knew exactly what I wanted because that meant I wouldn’t get lost amidst the options. I could find what I was looking for and head home, or, as happened in my case, leave immediately when I didn’t see what I needed.

But this led me to wonder whether anyone who didn’t know exactly what they were looking for would be able to survive the plethora of possibilities haunting the cereal aisle, and, unable to make a decision, end up starving to death in the cereal aisle.

Choice is a beautiful thing, and there is no denying that we thrive when we have the freedom to make decisions for ourselves.

But it is equally true (and has been thoroughly documented) that having too many choices available to us actually depletes our happiness and ends up causing anxiety. Experts refer to this as “choice overload.”

If you’ve ever dined at Cheesecake Factory, you know what I’m talking about.

How does one choose just one thing amidst so many delicious options?

What if one chooses the wrong thing and there was something better on the menu?

There always seems to be some latent anxiety whispering in your ear that you are missing out on…something (!!!) merely by choosing something else. Your singular “yes” is always accompanied by a multitude of “no’s.”

For all of our abundance, we certainly have created a lack of mental peace.

There’s a great irony here: that in so many ways we seem to be further along than any other society in the history of the world.

America itself is the richest and most powerful nation that has ever existed, and yet somehow 17% of American children live below the poverty line.

We have more food on our shelves than anyone could imagine, and yet 33 million Americans are food insecure.

We have access to antibiotics and all kinds of medical care, and yet it’s estimated that 1 in 6 Americans could not afford a $1000 emergency.

It makes almost no sense that the richest country in the history of the world would have poverty rates as staggering as these.

And while material poverty is a disastrous reality in contemporary American life, we are surrounded by all kinds of poverty, and young people themselves are the beneficiaries of such a culture.

I’m talking about spiritual poverty.

I’m talking about mental health poverty.

I’m talking about relational poverty.

Following Alan Noble in his excellent book You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World, I can’t help but think about how modern society is largely built on what he calls a bad anthropology. For Noble, that anthropology sounds like this: “You are your own, and you belong to yourself.” And it is this anthropological error that lays the foundation for the world that young people have to navigate.

Young people who are the inheritors of a culture that tells them it is their responsibility to create a life of value, significance, and meaning. In a hyper-individualistic society such as ours, they are charged not only with crafting such a life, but doing so in a way that is authentically “them.”

When you are your own and you belong to yourself, then only you can determine for yourself the best path to a life replete with value, significance, and meaning. No one gets to tell you otherwise.

In some ways, this is a gift.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” that people are forced to squeeze themselves into, and there is an inherent value given to the individual as a unique person who has the opportunity to incarnate the living God within the specific contours of his or her own life. 

The cornucopia of different kinds of saints reveals that Orthodoxy has always made room for the likeness of God to be manifest in as many different ways as there are people on the planet. Perhaps our culture is picking up on this holy impulse.

But something nefarious has happened here as well. In elevating the authentic self-expression and self-actualization of the individual to the highest good, we have placed an impossible burden on the individual to create a life of value, significance, and meaning for him or herself.

In such a story, the person has been displaced from a community and from a larger context in which any normative story or vision for human flourishing exists, and instead, they are tasked with the burden of forging their own path, turning the entire shape of a human life into a choose-your-own-adventure story.

They must pick and choose their own spiritual and religious path, one which aligns with a self-determined set of morals and values while also being sure never to look down on another’s religious beliefs.

They must pick and choose their own career path, one which aligns with their own sense of purpose and passion while also being sure to provide for basic needs and prepare for retirement.

They must pick and choose their own network of relationships, one which aligns with their interests and encourages them to become the best version of themselves while also being sure to avoid relationships that bring out the worst in them.

At the end of the day, the entire scope of a young person’s life is full of choices that they are tasked with navigating on their own to determine the best possible outcome for their lives.

All of life has become a cereal aisle, and as young people choose between the many options available to them and assess whether these choices are really providing a life of value, significance and meaning, it’s no wonder that depression and anxiety are on the rise. 

It’s no wonder that young people are starving to death in the cereal aisle.

Many of us in religious circles have scratched our heads wondering what to do about the droves of young people darkening the back doors of our churches without any sign of ever returning. In their 2019 book Faith For Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in a Digital Babylon, Barna Group shared that nearly 3 out of 5 (64%) of young people leave their faith behind at some point after turning 15.

It’s not generally that young people aren’t interested in spirituality, however. In fact, Springtide Research Institute reported in 2021 that 75% of young people identify as spiritual.

It’s not spirituality they don’t trust. It’s religion. It’s the Church.

Whether they are disaffected by institutional faith or distracted by the multitude of available options, young people are able to pursue spirituality in a way that resonates more deeply with the life they want to live, unmooring them from traditional faith expressions as they seek spiritual answers to spiritual questions through individual experiences.

During the pandemic, instances of mental health issues skyrocketed, with suicide becoming one of the leading causes of death in young people. According to the American Psychological Association, more than 20% of all teens have seriously considered suicide.

Even before the pandemic, however, America was experiencing a loneliness epidemic that disproportionately affected young people, but by 2022, the Cigna Group reported that young adults ages 18-24 were twice as likely to report feeling lonely as seniors ages 66 and older.

For all of the abundance of choice and ways to “live our best lives,” it sure seems to be costing young people a lot.

Poverty, in all its forms, is a great evil. It deprives human beings of basic necessities, things that we need to live flourishing human lives as God’s image bearers who have been called into His likeness.

When young people are their own and belong to themselves, they experience poverty on an existential level, lacking the fundamental resources necessary to live a flourishing human life because this cultural anthropology is inherently inhuman. 

Self-belonging is a burden far too heavy for the human person to bear. It leaves us bereft, poor, struggling against our finiteness (and hating it!) as it proves unable to provide a life for us that it cannot possibly afford because belonging to ourselves is the very foundation of poverty and runs completely antithetical to the story that undergirds and drives the Christian life and community.

As Christians, we know that we do not actually belong to ourselves, but rather that we belong to God (1 Cor. 6:19-20). And if we all belong to God as members of His Church, then this means that we do not belong as individual members, but rather that we are members of one another (Rom. 12:4-5). 

Divorced from this fundamental reality, young people (and we!) struggle under the burden of belonging to themselves, left to their own devices to forge a way through an inhuman world as they seek to design lives of value, significance, and meaning.

It is not just that young people experience poverty in this case, then. If we are missing members of our Body, we likewise suffer poverty, lacking their presence, their unique giftings and perspectives, lacking relationships with them as those who belong to Christ together. 

So what does relieving this spiritual, mental health, and relational poverty look like? How then shall we address the poverty epidemic in our youth and young adults?

First of all, I think our primary move needs to be to repentance.

To quote Elder Thaddeus, “Repentance is a change of life, a change of direction, turning toward Absolute Good, and leaving behind all that is negative. True repentance is rare, even among the pious, and this is why we suffer so much. If our people were to repent, they would not experience the suffering that they are going through now. We complicate our lives terribly by our thoughts and desires." 

In many ways young people have bought the story that they are their own and belong to themselves because we buy that story.

We believe that the right job, the right relationship, the right car, or the right what-have-you will somehow fulfill the deepest longings of our hearts.

We think if we are seen as a particular type of person then this will somehow make for a life of value, significance, and meaning.

From the time they were small children, we have asked young people what they want to “be” when they grow up. By this we largely mean, “What do you want to do for work when you grow up?In some way, we have begun to tie the knot of their value and significance around how they will contribute to the economy as adults.

St. Paisios suggested as much when he said, “Young people who are concerned about how to best arrange their lives, but also want to be close to God, become anxious about getting settled…They need not rush into making decisions about which life they will follow. I know of young people who are striving too hard and are trying to solve all their problems at once. In the end, they get confused and abandon their studies.”

In many ways, such questions cut off the notion of work from participation in the cosmic story of the Christian faith. Rather than vocation being a young person’s response to God’s call to creative partnership in the world, vocation has been tied to employment, which has been wrapped around identity.

To further prove this point, when we ask people what they “do,” we mean, “What do you do for work?”

If someone were to answer, “I write poetry. I make art. I play with my kids. I have tried my hand at gardening but it seems I may have something of a black thumb,” we would likely look at them with raised eyebrows. 

Despite the addition of beauty, the ordering of words into lines of poetry, the creative use of colors in making a portrait, or the cultivation of close relationships, we would find such answers puzzling because our cultural story is not that this is what makes human life worth living.

Instead, when we are our own and we belong to ourselves, our value, significance, and meaning comes not from how we participate in the ordering of God’s good world unto its flourishing, but in how we contribute to the economic system.

For this, I believe we need to begin by repenting of our own faithlessness, for so readily abandoning our God-given vocation to partner with Him for the sake of His world and instead holding on to modern notions of work and value. 

Instead of living in a state of spiritual poverty, where our religious lives are cut off from our vocational ones, perhaps we need to start by asking, “In what ways is God inviting me to see the entirety of my life as His? How might He be seeking to partner with me in my real and lived experience as His co-creator of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth?”

This, after all, is the Christian story.

Second, I believe we need to share this story with young people.

They do not need to vie for their own value, significance, and meaning. Who they are is not tied around what they do, what they have, or what others think about them.

Instead, they must experience in their bones that their existence is already justified because they were made by a Creator who wants them here.

Many young people’s mental health issues of depression and anxiety are deeply connected to the sense that they are not living their best lives, that there is always some other option that might be just around the corner.

If you haven’t checked out a list of majors on a college website recently, take a look at this one. It’s enough to make you dizzy. 

Elder Thaddeus tells a story of a man who was concerned about his son who had stopped attending his lectures at university, saying he had lost his spark of joy. Rather than telling the man to hound his son to get back to work, Elder Thaddeus encouraged him to take his son for a run every day in nature.

This changed everything because it turned out that the son was simply overwhelmed by all the pressure at school and needed to know his life was about more than his studies. 

When young people are their own and belong to themselves, there will always be a nagging sense that they could be doing better at justifying their own existence.

Instead, young people need to have the felt sense that God’s will for them is already being fulfilled by the mere fact that they exist.

If someone is here, it’s because they belong here. If a young person is before us, then God wants them here.

The value, significance, and meaning of the Christian story is a gift that we can afford to give away to young people freely, and it’s enough to function as spiritual dramamine in a dizzying world.

And this brings me to my final point: we can only truly find ourselves in the face of another. We can only find ourselves through relationships.

If young people are among the loneliest people in America, then I think the Church has clear mission to fulfill and is particularly equipped to do so.

The Church is a uniquely relational community, a family of brothers and sisters united under One Father who is in the heavens. It is no accident that the writers of the New Testament use the word adelphoi (“brothers and sisters”) more than any other word (343 times!) to describe how Christians are to relate to one another.

They do not call us to mutually follow one another on Instagram or TikTok. They do not tell us to text one another.

Rather, they tell us that we are to relate as those under the same roof, as those who belong to the same God. 

As members of His Mystical Body, we have a family tradition that reaches from its eternal culmination in the Coming Kingdom of God all the way back to an upper room 2000 years ago where our first brothers and sisters awaited the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit given to us today.

And so in one mind, in one Body, and in one Spirit, Christians are called to love one another, to welcome one another fully into the Family of God. Christians have long practiced hospitality, philoxenia (literally “love of the stranger”).

With GenZ being a bunch of lonely young people, it seems we have allowed them to become strangers in their own home. It is time that we once again embrace hospitality as a key Christian practice, as a way of living fully into who we are as Christ’s Body.

Perhaps this means inviting a college student to dinner. Perhaps this means asking a young adult to get coffee. But it certainly means learning who our youngest brothers and sisters are. Knowing their names, their hopes, their dreams, their disappointments, their longings, and their pain. 

Our value, significance, and meaning has already been given to us by Christ Himself, the one who held us in His Mind, who fashioned us, and who has invited us to be sharers in His own Life.

And that, brothers and sisters, is what has the capacity to make all of us, especially young people, inheritors of a wealth that cannot be taken from them.

Yours in Christ,

Christian Gonzalez

Christian Gonzalez is the Director of Ministry for OYM. He is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Arizona and draws from his understanding of family systems to explore questions of spiritual formation and the building up of the Church as the Household of God. OYM seeks to bring young people into this Household through Christian spiritual practices that help young people encounter Christ, embody His Church, and engage the world in His Name.


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