by David Browder
People who might not be as well-off financially often have certain preconceptions about those who are: sometimes they even believe them to be of an almost entirely different species. We humans feel compelled to break ourselves into tribes based on our shared characteristics. This compulsion is so pervasive that, in seminary, our professors warned us that this would be an issue in our parishes. Here’s the thing — suffering visits everyone. I forget which celebrity said, “I wish everyone could experience fame and fortune so they could all realize it’s not the answer.”
In the Washington Post
The Washington Post published an astounding and eye-opening article recently about high-achieving students. They are now considered “at-risk students,” along with students living in poverty and foster care, recent immigrants, and those with incarcerated parents. At-risk for what? “Significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and delinquent behaviors, at least two to three times the national average.” What has caused them to be “at-risk”? The article calls it “excessive pressure to excel.” From the article:
“When parents ask me where all of this pressure is coming from, I ask them: Where is it not?” says Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, whose research in the 1990s first uncovered the unique vulnerabilities of privileged but pressured youths. The unrelenting pressure on students in high-achieving schools comes from every direction, from overly invested parents who want A’s, coaches who want wins for their own personal reputations and school administrators who feel pressured to get high standardized scores in their school, which then prop up real estate values in the area.
Can you believe this? It is astounding. Upon further reflection, though, it probably isn’t shocking — we can all recognize the truth in this. The author of the article, Jennifer Breheny Wallace, is to be commended for her insight as well as her ability to pierce the bias many feel against acknowledging suffering in higher socioeconomic strata.
In the Cruelty of Heresy
According to the wonderful book The Cruelty of Heresy by retired Bishop Fitzsimons Allison, human beings face compulsions to either escape (the heresies of Docetism) or earn favor (the heresies of Adoptionism). These are all compulsions within Christianity. But what happens when Christianity fades and secularism takes its place? Perhaps many people feel liberated; but are they really? Aren’t the phenomena described in the Washington Post article just secular manifestations of these ancient heresies?
Substance abuse and delinquent behavior are attempts to escape the pressure of achievement. Anxiety and depression come from attempts to earn the favor that high achievement promises. But there is no gracious Christ to find and in whom to rest in the secular expectations of the world of high achievement. There is only “achieve or do not achieve,” that world’s only reward or punishment. There is no tenderness, compassion, flourishing, rest, or blessing. As Christianity recedes, the intensity, fear, anxiety, depression, and exhaustion only intensify.
What this means to Us
As I am not a social scientist, I must digest this pastorally and theologically. It just so happens that I addressed the student body Monday on this very topic. We are going through the Apostles’ Creed and we are on the part that confesses that Jesus Christ, “was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” In this, the creed is affirming that Our Lord is 100% God and 100% Man. It is the mystery of the Incarnation.
I spoke to our students about God taking on flesh. Only in this manner could He redeem a broken creation. Only this way could He reconcile a wayward people with their Creator and Lord. What is the end of God’s intervention in this world? We see it in the seventh day of creation and at the end of the Book of Revelation. When this world is re-made — when the new heavens and earth finally come — there will be rest. Creation will be at rest. You and those you love will be at rest. Christian Faith in the “here and now” is a piece of that rest now, a down-payment, if you will. It is the hope that — achievement or no achievement — we are adopted children of a God with whom we have peace.
I love our people. I love our students. I worry about them, though. I see how many classes they take and how many extra-curricular activiyies they have. I hear the stories about how late they finally lie down to sleep at night. It makes me sad. It makes me wonder how I am failing them by not communicating well enough the rest that is there for them in Christ. It makes me wonder what my part is in the excessive pressure they feel to excel. This article in the Washington Post is a great blessing to those of us in communities with high-achieving families. It is a prophecy in many ways. It brings crucial things into full view. I hope we can hear it.