All of the stories you just read were true. The caveat is that the first two were mashups of students I’ve had over the past few years.
I began teaching multimedia journalism in 2007, just as social media and smart phones were taking over the world. Facebook dominated the social networks and at the time, most of my students didn’t know what Twitter was. Before class I’d often sit on my desk and ask them about their days and what they did over the weekend. In the early days it was traditional college experiences that ranged from parties and road trips and general college shenanigans that most people over 30 can relate to.
But in the last few years, those answers changed. Even before Covid, I started noticing a shift in their answers. Shenanigans were replaced by almost nothing. And by nothing I mean I’d ask them what they did over the weekend and the answer was almost always… nothing.
“I just sat in my apartment and played video games.”
“I just stayed in my room and played on my phone.”
They also seemed a bit irritated that I’d suggest that they may consider doing something a bit more… well anything other than that. The guys just seemed to be increasingly apathetic and the girls increasingly anxious.
Maybe the word I’m looking for is depressed. Whatever they were looking for they weren’t finding.
Whatever the word is it appeared that I was seeing more and more students gaining weight and spending less time physically engaging with other people. You know, real life. In person. When it came to the challenges and obstacles life throws at you in college, I saw more and more either just check out when things got hard or go into a complete neurotic meltdowns.
The third was my story. The good news is that it wasn’t brain cancer. The MRI scan was simply a good doctor being thorough while working his way through and diagnosing compounding problems. What I can tell you was at that time, I was very sick and very good at hiding it. I wasn’t dying, but my lifestyle was putting me on the path to an early grave. It was a scare, and one I’m now thankful for because it woke me up. Confronting one’s own mortality is a heavy lift.
Ask anyone who has had to confront the reality that they may be on their way out or watched someone they know and love, die way too early. One thing becomes very clear. Life is too short and too precious to waste. Some get a second chance. Some still ignore that the life they’re living is killing them only to find themselves seeing their last sunset far too early than they planned.
There are plenty more stories like mine that I could come up with, like the guy who spends his life working on the road. His life is a never ending stream of airports, rental cars and hotel rooms. He makes a ton of money, that pays for a great house and a beautiful family that he never gets see. He’s overweight, seldom gets enough sleep, and his bathroom counter hosts a cornucopia of prescription medications managing everything from diabetes to high blood pressure. He’s making money, but he’s chronically sick on a host of different levels.
But, I guess that’s what life insurance is for.
Or there’s the professional woman who is an absolute rock star in her industry. She’s ambitious and brilliant with an unstoppable work ethic, and over the past decade has busted balls and earned her way to the top of her field. But, while her public face is nothing short of confidence, anxiety and panic attacks are so common in her life that she keeps a ready supply of Xanax and vodka in her office. She has a great condo in a high rise with a killer view, but it’s just her and her cat. She may be a rockstar at work, but if she gives herself a moment to think about it, she feels utterly alone.
So it’s better not to think about it. But that’s why god made vodka.
There are two common threads to all of these stories.
1.) All of these people are unhappy and unhealthy.
2.) All of these people push through lives saturated in false realities.
I meet people constantly who are unhealthy. Physically unhealthy and mentally unhealthy. They’re chronically stressed, they don’t eat well, they don’t sleep well, they don’t get anything resembling exercise and they chronically ignore these facts.
But, it’s the ignoring of those facts that brings us to the second commonality. By pretending everything is fine, they’re choosing to live in a life that’s disconnected from reality. Those of us over a certain age can remember life before smart phones and the internet and so much of our disconnect comes from a place of denial and distraction. We get so focused on what’s in front of us that we forget we can look out the window to check the weather.
But for younger generations, in an increasingly online world where algorithms are nefariously written to capitalize on human attention and distraction and continually feed the dopamine system, this can take a lot of different forms, but at its core we’re losing our connection to each other and the natural world while simultaneously being hyper-connected online. The result is a generation of the most anxious and depressed people to ever walk this planet.
From politics to products, we obsess over things that, once you step away from, truly have little value in our lives. It’s not that we’re just giving the population mental junk food to consume. We can get all we want with a free morphine drip thrown in as a bonus.