Why Are Millennials So Self-Absorbed?

I’ve heard it countless times. The endless criticism of the millennial generation for being “entitled”, “ self-absorbed”, “spoiled”, the list goes on. My generation almost exclusively hears negative things about us from the generations above us. I was recently listening to public radio and heard yet another negative report on the podcast Hidden Brain about the rise of narcissism among young people. The host discussed social research findings and the impact of having to feel like we are “special” all the time. I listened to this and I felt deeply hurt. I felt so hurt because I felt terribly alone. It is easy to talk about the symptoms of self-absorption in millennials, I have yet to hear anyone ask “why is this happening?” I believe the majority of millennials feel alone, and if we are self-absorbed it might be because all we have is ourselves.

We have no heroes

Give me a list of 20 public figures who do not have some kind of scandal attached to them. I’ll wait. So many of the people we looked up to as children have become mired in allegations of destructive behavior. From coaches convicted of systematic abuse of children, athletes who sexually exploited others, political figures who were not the people they claimed to be, actors and comedians and TV show hosts who turned out to be abusive and selfish. There are very few people left that model integrity and selflessness. Part of the reason Won’t You Be My Neighbor struck such a cord is because it is borderline shocking when someone we grew up with is actually a kind person. Was actually trustworthy and cared about us. We have become distressingly accustomed to our role models being hypocrites and secretly toxic. Why would we look outward when all we see is disappointment and abused trust? Is it not much safer to trust only ourselves?

We have no heroes…including our parents

I was recently sitting around a table with five 18-23 year-olds and I was the only one in the group who grew up in a loving, stable home. In my eleven years of working with college students, it is the exception when a young person comes from a family where the parents are together and have a healthy relationship and lifestyle. Most of the time today’s young people are carrying a great deal of pain and alienation that started in their homes. Hurts not only from divorce but from emotional neglect, parental unreliability, patterns of sin and addiction in the home, death and tragedy, and a lack of feeling known and loved by their parents. The people who were created to offer us unconditional love and support have very often let us down in deeply wounding ways. Is it any wonder that we turn to our devices and social networks for validation and connection?

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Pornography is everywhere

I have yet to hear anyone include the prevalence of pornography in discussions about narcissism and mental health among millennials. We are constantly told that we are bad at relating to others and lack resilience, and none of those same critics ask how the availability of pornography in the digital age has shaped an entire generation to be emotionally and physically isolated. Pornography is the ultimate example of self-absorption. It is designed in such a way that it allows a person to be alone while receiving the illusion of connection. It removes the need for others while creating a false sense of shared reality. And it is a very bitter master. It keeps its users trapped in isolation by appearing to meet needs and then paralyzing them from being able to experience true connection and intimacy. It distorts one’s ability to empathize with others and accurately interpret social situations. The Atlantic began a conversation about pornography’s impact in an article on the sexual recession that is occurring among young people. An entire generation does not have the tools to form meaningful and lasting intimate relationships. So we are alone. We stay home, falling deeper into unhealthy patterns, lacking the tools or support to find a better way. Lonely and scared of one another.

We don’t have the church

Countless reports will tell you that millennials and younger are the least churched generation. The reasons for this are many. Church sexual scandals are an obvious and legitimate one. From the Catholic church to multiple other denominations and congregations hiding abusive leaders and systemic sin. This has caused a generation of “little ones” to stumble (Luke 17:2). Add to this generations of racism (The Color of Compromise) and sexism, and young people who care very much about issues of justice and inequality are going to view the church with profound cynicism. The church in America has also struggled to adapt to social changes. Leaving many young people walking out the doors on a Sunday morning feeling that it was not for them and their presence is of little consequence to the other worshippers. This is indeed a great social tragedy. The Family of God has the potential to add so much meaning and support and can be a major protective factor in the lives of young people. Without it, we have neither an extended support system nor a transforming relationship with Christ to sustain and pull us outwards and into the broader community. Whenever I see research data revealing that young people are more lonely, depressed and anxious than ever, I know it is connected to not having faith and truth in their lives. If we do not have faith communities to care for us and invite us into a bigger story, with what are we left?

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So what do we do? I can start by saying that we would benefit from less criticism and more compassion. No one becomes who they are in a vacuum, please take time to empathize with us and why we have resorted to the coping patterns we have. This is not to let millennials off the hook for the unhealthy trends in our midst. We need to own our lives and develop better coping methods. But yelling and demeaning has never helped anyone grow and change and has certainly never helped someone feel less alone. We are your children and grandchildren, we are not aliens from another planet. Please get to know us and give us a little credit. Questions I have rarely heard from a baby-boomer are, “Why do you think that is? What do you think about that?” Spend more time building bridges and inviting us into a shared way forward and less time writing us off. The majority of millennials I know are passionate, intelligent, curious, and hopeful. We all need one another. Please join with us and allow us to speak into your lives as well. We cannot do this alone.

Porn vs. The Covenant

Sex is awesome. There, I said it. Sex was created by God as a part of the grand plan of the flourishing of creation. It doesn’t take very long for the topic to be broached in the Bible. God tells his people to get busy early and often, but aside from being fruitful and multiplying, sex has tremendous personal and spiritual significance.

God Loves Sex

It was difficult to choose pictures for this post so I’ll just post books about the topic!

Because of this, God created a covenantal relationship within which sex can be explored, appreciated, and realized in profound spiritual ways. The flip side is that outside of that covenant, sex continues to have that powerful significance. So when I say sex is awesome, I mean it. It is something to be in awe of, to have a reverence for, a respect for.

Paul’s letter in 1 Corinthians is littered with helpful discussion around sexuality aimed to help the people of Corinth see the significance of sex. This is not so much a finger wagging list of do’s and don’ts but rather instructions on how to take full advantage of this beautiful thing God created for us. “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body,” says 1 Corinthians 6:18. We can see that there is something powerful about sex. Later on, Paul even talks about not using sex as a tool of power and manipulation (1 Cor. 7). At its heart, sex isn’t designed as a commodity to be utilized but, as Tim Keller calls it, a ceremony of covenant renewal.

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Not a book just for the ladies!

This involves what we are called to in that pesky verse 21 that prefaces everyone’s favorite submission passages in Ephesians 5, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Both parties in this covenant submitting to each other and in that place powerful, spiritual, and beautiful things happen. The Bible often says that it is through this act of covenant renewal, this act of completely giving ourselves to another person, being completely in the service of another person that we “know” each other more fully and in that we can understand God in a new way. After all, God chooses to serve us similarly as an unconditional, gracious, loving servant.

How, then, does pornography interact with God’s desire for human sexuality? Well if you’re still with me after those first few paragraphs then pornography is an intense distortion of all of that, it is almost the exact opposite of the Biblical picture we get of sex. It takes something that is a gift from God and takes God completely out of the equation. Sex then becomes a commodity and those engaging in it are merely consumers not servants. There is not much mention of masturbation in the Bible outside of one really context-heavy passage starring a guy named Onan (Gen. 38). However, throughout the Bible we have this picture of covenant renewal and submission to another person. This simply cannot happen when you’re riding solo.

Solitaire

That is what is so dangerous about pornography. This form of sexual interaction is entirely self-focused and this has observable effects on the way men act in relation to women. Recently, on NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed author Peggy Orenstein whose book Girls & Sex talks about many current trends with female sexuality and sexuality in general but also the effects of pornography on our society. She says that statistically speaking when engaged in or seeking sexual interaction men are prone to be completely focused on themselves and in women the trend is reversed.

Fashion designer Jessica Rey also spoke about the current state of the male brain in her Q talk on the evolution of the swimsuit. Here she cites neurological studies that indicate that when men are in this mindset, when women are objectified and sex is a commodity, they view women as inanimate tools, a means to an end, and nothing more.

When we take sex in our own hands (pun intended), taking God out of the equation, we are prone to distort our view of sex and actually try to take God’s role as provider. Anytime we think we are on the level with God we are vulnerable to the ugly side of arrogance and entitlement. In a world in which we are the providers of our own sexual relationships, we set expectations where we are entitled to sex and when we don’t get what we are entitled to anger, violence, and harm are usually not far behind. Today we have more organizations than ever fighting against sexual violence yet statistics remain virtually the same and in some areas worse.

No More Eli

We see this all around us as these expectations and the commoditizing of sex leads to sex trafficking and high-risk sexual activity. According to Orenstein, the pressures placed on young women today lead to the spread of disease like gonorrhea, unwanted pregnancy, and depression. Pornography creates not just a distorted view of sexuality, but, for the many that interact with sex in this way, it also creates a distorted view of ourselves.

We live in a culture of instant self-gratification with extensive access to pornography and, according to Time magazine, this has negatively altered the way we experience sex. It is supposed to be awesome but, often times, in our hands sex becomes a weapon of mass destruction. God has an opinion on sex, it is found all over scripture, and it is emotional, beautiful, spiritual, fun, exciting, gratifying, and good. It can be very difficult in our lives to trust God to give us these things, but when we rely on God to provide the gift of sex to us we may begin to see it this way too.

Further reading:

The Porn Phenomenon – Barna Group

Fight the New Drug

Washed and Waiting – Wesley Hill