Paul Krugman wrote an article today that hits on something many have observed for quite some time: the spreading wave of despair and darkness over average Americans’ lives, in this case, particularly middle-aged whites. This is not a new revelation, but it is something mainstream economists and commentators like Krugman are starting to catch wind of in their thought, at least in the academic/statistical realm. On a side note, while eschewing any exacerbation of this problem by the left and then subsequently blaming the “volatility of right-wing politics,” he still makes some good points, without offering any solutions. Regardless, to point, Krugman writes this:
In a recent interview Mr. Deaton suggested that middle-aged whites have “lost the narrative of their lives.” That is, their economic setbacks have hit hard because they expected better. Or to put it a bit differently, we’re looking at people who were raised to believe in the American Dream, and are coping badly with its failure to come true.
I believe we’re witnessing the exhausted end of a debt-fueled consumerist-revolution. This is key to the fundamental issues plaguing society at large, precisely because it’s the breakdown of a false narrative that was never meant to and could never last. If your life’s work is finding ultimate, even divine meaning in the fruit of your work, that is a resulting level of prosperity, and that work doesn’t produce those results, the end is despair.
If you make an idol out of a vision you had for the prosperity and fulfillment material possessions and experiences would bring you, and that falls short, you naturally will be disappointed, if not undone. And even worse, if you stake all of your joy and fulfillment on those things, and it all gives way, the result is a sort of American nihilism, which is what we’re seeing in many ways.
The beginning of the answer to this sweeping wave of despair lies in the same quote above: Middle-aged Americans have “lost the narrative of their lives.” If the narrative of your life is rooted in the acquisition of stuff and experiences, there is no meaning there, only hopelessness, despair. Even those that acquire all those things never have enough. And even if they do, it still doesn’t get at the heart-fulfillment that only Christ can provide. King Solomon can testify to this. Those things are lifeless and can’t deliver the soul-sustaining joy that only Christ can supply.
If your life’s narrative is wrapped up in another narrative about how your life should be and the plot climax you thought would result doesn’t come to fruition, it will also force out the only tenable narrative that was designed and planned out by God to last. Kevin Vanhoozer puts it this way: “People’s imaginations have been colonized by other stories to the point where the Christian story seems implausible.” The result is a soul-crushing despair.
However, there’s hope. If on the other hand your narrative is rooted in the narrative and story of Another, namely Christ, from Genesis to Revelation, rooted in his person and work, you’ll find your story in His, because His intimately involves you. And not only this, but once your very identity is found in Christ as a child of God, reconciled, forgiven, resting in Him as your only source of hope, there is a joy and peace that surpasses all understanding, even in the worst of circumstances.
So Krugman is certainly right: “while universal health care, higher minimum wages, aid to education, and so on would do a lot to help Americans in trouble, I’m not sure whether they’re enough to cure existential despair.” I would submit those things wouldn’t fix the problems anyway as a matter of policy, but despite this, he’s right, it still wouldn’t cure this dark despair. Only a reorientation of your identity as tied to Christ’s identity and being caught up in the story of Christ as the center of all history can cure the deepest despair.