Living Without An Admiring Audience

"American pop culture has teased us,” writes Terry Nguyễn, “with this carefree notion of youth — that you should be binge-drinking every other weekend or taking spontaneous international trips. And what’s incredibly maddening for young people is that, during our most formative years, the only thing we can focus on is survival.” Nguyễn is a journalist for Vox who covers the challenges and struggles of young adulthood in a digital era. There is a generation of young adults who have had to figure out their vocational trajectories within both the 2008 recession and 2020 pandemic.

I’ve been sitting with that above quote. A few weeks ago I wrote on the cultural phenomena of “performative individualism,” where our culture has internalized the idea that signifiers of being okay are primarily visual and our identity and self worth are metrics to be displayed. Nguyễn’s quote above is showing this cross-pattern of our culture’s pressure to have these visual indicators of success (bing-drinking and spontaneous international trips) is becoming intolerable to sustain within a context when it’s most difficult to have success at all. In pastoral counseling moments, there is this low-grade sadness that occurs when folks feel this inordinate pressure to have visual indicators that they’re lives are attractive, something to be admired, but they are experiencing seasons of loss and pain. It’s difficult to grieve loss and live performative lives. As the film “Okja” says, "The trick is not to glamorize the pain but to feel it."

There may be a tendency for spiritual leaders to exhort this as idolatry or materialism, but I’ve learned that people often hold this cultural tension under the hood of their heart without much awareness. We are often victims of advertisements and institutions that catechize us into visions of the good life we are not able to sustain. I often wonder if it’s a spirit that needs to be exercised more than rebuked.

In Christopher Lasch’s book, The Culture of Narcissism, he writes about the modern individual, "He cannot live without an admiring audience." I think about that quote a lot. It was written in 1979, but it feels so contemporary. This is why private spiritual disciplines and virtue formation has no sense of reward for us. Quiet prayer brings no admiration from others. It is not a visual indicator of success. But we will be frail people if we do not find a way to grow out of this way of living.

I had a few more rolls of film from our trip to Arizona developed. Despite having lived in the Tucson for three years when I was just entering my 20’s and visiting family there often, I’m always struck how foreign the place feels. The desert it a such a dramatically different environment. It’s so brutal. We went in February, which is the most beautiful time of year there, but there are basically 9 months of summer and the hottest parts are grueling. I remember complaining about the heat of Arizona to someone and they said, “Yeah but it’s a dry heat, right?” To which I responded, “yes but a blow torch is dry heat.”

Nevertheless, taking a camera brought a different perspective to the place. I have often found the desert just… brown. But it was interesting to consider how light works in the desert for different colors.