Unhappiness. People, especially young people, are unhappy, and pills and needles offer the promise of bliss, however fleeting it might be. Disappointment haunts our jobs, schools, churches (“even for most believers,” Percy admits), political life, family life, and even social life, where virtual settings now stifle the very thing they promise to enhance. Who wouldn’t be depressed by all of this? “Any person,” Percy declares without a hint of sarcasm, “man, woman, or child, who is not depressed by the nuclear arms race, by the modern city, by family life in the exurb, suburb, apartment, villa, and later in a retirement home, is himself deranged.” The modern world can feel like a Kubrick film: complex as a maze, sharp as a knife, and as alienating as deep space.
But Percy was also thinking of a deeper unhappiness, one that occurs in any place and in any age because it stems from our human nature. “To be born and to live,” he said in one interview, paraphrasing Pascal, “is to be dislocated.” This primordial pain of being “lost in the cosmos” lies beneath and reinforces all the proximal difficulties of modern life. Faced with this dual malaise – or maybe, to not face it at all – “the pursuit of happiness becomes the pursuit of diversion.” Tabloids, opioids…whatever pleasurable diversion or diverting pleasure it might be, we increase the dosage, trying to squelch what David Foster Wallace once called a “gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”
Beneath all the facts and figures, this epidemic ravaging my hometown – and yours soon, if not already – comes down to this unhappiness. It’s a hurt that goes deeper than any heroin needle, down into what makes us human: an innate desire so big and so relentless that nothing in this world could ever hope to satisfy it.
Matthew Becklois a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.