The Great Unsettling
Fast pace of social change leaves us uncertain and uneasy. Here’s how we can cope.
Note: This is a guest post by Jay Height, a Christian leader doing extraordinary work serving his neighbors on the ground in Indianapolis.
Journalist Shams Charania accurately summed up modern life in 18 words: “The world we live in now is totally different than it was five, six, seven, eight years ago.”
Charania was speaking about his specialty – he reports on the NBA for The Athletic. Yet, he could have been describing how our world has changed in the past two years as the COVID-19 pandemic radically altered how we live, work, learn and play.
Even as we struggle to adapt to the pace and scale of change, there’s a growing sense that no matter how and when the pandemic finally ends, we’re never going back to the way life was in the before times – way back in February 2020.
And while we hope that the new order will be better than the old for our neighbors and ourselves, we also understand that it may well be worse. The pandemic has further exposed – and in many cases, exacerbated -- economic, social and racial inequities in the United States and other countries.
All of this has left us unsettled as individuals and as a society. The ground has shifted, and fear, frustration and anger have surged as our footholds in life suddenly feel less secure.
Sociologists have a name for the instability we’ve experienced of late: Anomie. It refers to the emotional, mental and spiritual angst humans feel when common values and accepted standards have been erased.
French sociologist Émile Durkheim is credited with introducing the term in his studies on work and suicide in the 1890s. But the concept goes back much further in history. Historian Thucydides wrote about the consequences of anomie during the plague of Athens more than 400 years before the birth of Christ.
Especially relevant to our times, Thucydides concluded that while the plague created a health crisis, it also fostered a moral crisis. “No fear of the gods or law of men had any restraining power,” he wrote, “since it was judged to make no difference whether one was pious or not as all alike could be seen dying.”
It’s not hard to draw parallels between Thucydides’ time and our own. Murder and violent assaults in the United States surged in 2020 and rose again in 2021. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared in December that America’s young people are enduring a mental health crisis, and that the nation has a moral obligation to help. The Great Leaving has pushed millions of Americans to quit their jobs, more than 1.2 million fewer students to enroll in college, and millions of people of faith to no longer attend worship services. And Americans’ unruly and rude behavior has surged at work, at school board meetings, on airplanes and even at the grocery store.
None of these trends should have surprised us. Work from home, study from home and worship from home pulled us apart when we needed each other the most for emotional and spiritual support. We also, as a natural consequence of isolation, turned inward, and our fears and frustrations grew ever larger in the solitary confinement of COVID lockdowns.
Then, feeling unsettled and unstable, we lash out at seemingly anyone who crosses our path.
So, what’s the answer to anomie? How do we ground ourselves in such uncertain times? How do we help our family, friends and neighbors regain a sense of stability?
My first response is rooted in my Christian faith. As the old hymn says, “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.” My faith doesn’t make me immune to feeling unsettled and uncertain and at times even frustrated and afraid. But it does help me to find strength in the fact that there’s a deeper purpose and meaning to life than the transitory nature of our existence on this planet.
My faith, however, isn’t about me. As a Christian, my mission is to love others – and to me that means serving my neighbors, helping to meet their needs, passing on hope in times of fear and despair, listening to and encouraging them in good times and bad and in all those times when life seems uncertain and overwhelming.
One of the great side benefits of focusing on others’ needs is that my own problems and fears seem much less insurmountable. Even amid uncertainty, I find strength and stability when I understand and act upon my purpose, which for me is to love and to serve my neighbors.
As much as I would like to tell others and myself that the pace of change will slow and the uncertainties of life will ebb as we muddle out of the pandemic, I can’t because I don’t believe it’s true.
Shams Charania is right -- the world is much different now than it was a few years ago. And it likely will continue to change rapidly and significantly in the next year, five years, 10 years.
We can react to those changes in fear and flail in anger at all those who intersect with our lives. Or we can find stability by identifying and fulfilling our purpose.
I know which path I choose to follow.
Jay Height is executive director of Shepherd Community Center in Indianapolis.