“Are You Going to Go My Way?”
Dear Class of 2023,
If there is a descriptor of the vice that older generations have perpetrated upon you at this moment, I would label it joylessness. Look at all the dystopian books you were fed growing up, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Mazerunner, Uglies, Matched, etc. There is little to no joy in these books. Or think about the dystopian movies and television you have watched based on these books or others, The Handmaiden’s Tale, The Last Man on Earth, Tides, Oblivion, Children of Men, V Is for Vendetta, Watchmen, the Book of Eli, World War Z, and all those other stupid zombie movies. Of course, we also rebooted additional versions of Terminator, Blade Runner, Mad Max, War of the Worlds, and Planet of the Apes to depress you even more. There is little joy in these movies or shows.
Or consider the news to which you have been subjected. One recent study found news coverage between 2000 and 2019 has become increasingly negative. Not surprisingly, they also found the presence of joy in the news decreased substantially between 2010 and 2019. This change has powerful ramifications. I remember talking with a good friend who had given up a wonderful job in a beautiful location to take a chance with a ministry in a less-than-ideal setting only to see it fail spectacularly. He drifted into depression and told me how he could not watch the news anymore. I told him that he probably should not. Today, you can be told about a shooting in Serbia or Texas to start your day just by looking at your phone in the morning. None of us need that.
And think about Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok feeds. You can subject yourself to a never-ending stream of joylessness throughout the day that leads you to compare yourself to everyone else who seems to have joy. Add in COVID and the political fragmentation that compounded these issues and you have likely grown up in one of the more joyless moments in time.
The somber and predictable results are not hard to find through the latest social science research. Suicide for your age group has increased tremendously. Depression is spiraling to new heights. To ease the pain of joylessness, we look for false joy, so drug overdoses are through the roof. You, as a generation, do not even make as many friends or have as much sex as previous generations. As a result, teenage pregnancy is down, but your generation will also face a major crisis of depopulation—one of the surest signs of lacking joy and hope.
I see the resulting lack of joy and hope in my own national research regarding how college students think about life purpose and the good life. I have found an emerging new group. When asked about the good life, they specifically state they want an enjoyable job as well as a comfortable and unencumbered family life that does not include children. One of these students explained:
I would like to have a house and be comfortable in my house and not worrying about how to pay for it. I would like to have a job that I’m happy in. I would have at least like three dogs….. I don’t know about kids cause that’s just horrifying. I’ll stick to the dogs and like the boyfriend’s cat, but we’ll stick with that.
We found not wanting to have children goes both with hedonism and a desire for comfort, as well as a lack of hope and joy.
So, my simple advice to you is: find joy. Now, as C. S. Lewis found, joy is a tricky thing to find. In fact, Lewis wrote, “Joy is never in our power.”1 So, how then can you find it? You receive it, like salvation, as a gift from God. It is God’s gift, like Jesus at Christmas, when we sing “Joy to the World.” It is a work and fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22).
Now, I should note that to receive it from God, you have to realize what it is. Joy is the anticipation of fulfillment of our unfulfilled longing for a wonderful relationship and story that will never end. As Lewis emphasized, “All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasizes our pilgrim status, always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.”2 We find joy in some of our deepest and most profound longings for love, companionship, purpose, fellowship, beauty, goodness, truth, and more. As C.S. Lewis observed, these joyful longings remind us that we desire God’s kingdom on earth.
I remember how I felt when I finished reading The Lord of the Rings in fifth grade. I didn’t want the story to end. It awakened a desire for all that is good—to live a life of purpose for good with a fellowship, a team that also sought that same redemptive mission. Joy is that beautiful longing for God and God’s kingdom we experience. I felt it recently in saying a tearful church service goodbye to our worship pastor—a man who had led us faithfully in joyful worship for a decade. I sensed it at a recent retirement party and a funeral this year for my godly and faithful aunt. These celebrations of lives well lived were a bit like heaven, yet not quite.
You should search desperately for Christian communities that image that joy as well. I remember talking fifteen years ago to the internationally known character education scholar, Kevin Ryan, who had taught at places such as Stanford University, University of Chicago, Harvard University, The Ohio State University, and Boston University. He mentioned to me that one of the things that struck him when visiting Calvin University for an accreditation visit was the joy he encountered there. That’s what you want to find. Places like that—places that incarnate Christ’s joy.
I remember finding that community while going through major health issues in 2017 that resulted in depression. I couldn’t stand or walk for more than 20 minutes, so I could not attend church. I asked a colleague if I could attend his house church and lay on the couch. I cried the first time I went there because I experienced such profound joy with that group. I am forever grateful to them.
There are other ways to find joy—that is through God’s creation and the human creations that provide that joy. Listen to great music, go to concerts, dance, etc. One of the things I found most helpful as my body recovered from its physical and mental trauma in 2017 was simply to dance to great music. If you’re uncomfortable dancing with others, take dance lessons or dance by yourself. My wife and I recently experienced wonderful joy celebrating our anniversary together at a Chicago concert (the band)—great music that doesn’t simply wallow in despair and existential angst but celebrates the little joys in life like Saturday in the Park.
Also, stop reading books, articles, or social media feeds by authors who only know how to critique. Instead, make sure you are creating and redeeming, and reading from those who do the same. Universities—including Christian universities and Christian academics—too often value critical thinking over creative and redemptive thinking. If you want helpful cultural criticism, ignore most academics and listen to the comedians who are great truth-tellers and joy spreaders.
Most importantly, don’t focus on the American political story. Being an excellent citizen is an important identity, but today it receives far too much of our attention. It’s the meta-narrative that guides The New York Times, Fox, CNN, NBC, and virtually every secular university, but it’s a joyless one. If your affections and emotions rise or fall with the latest news about American politics or policy, you are being malformed to journey down a joyless road.
Read instead about and visit other countries and peoples. The Kingdom of God will be filled with people from every tongue, tribe, and nation, so you should start getting to know your future neighbors now. Even better, get to know members from every tribe, tongue, and nation here. Many of them know how to celebrate and party in beautiful ways. For we must prepare for the Kingdom of God.
I quoted the messianic Lenny Kravitz song in the opening whose video depicts what I expect to hope and find in the Kingdom of God, joy, dancing, celebration, and even risk-taking. So, prepare for the Kingdom. Get married, love your spouse deeply, have lots of sex, and lots of kids. That way, you can go to the park and sing with the band Chicago, “Listen children, all is not, all is not lost,…[See] people talking, really smiling. A man playing guitar. And singing for us all. Will you help him change the world? Can you dig it? Yes, I can.”
Now, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). And to my oldest son, Bennett, a member of this class, congratulations!