Sermon delivered at New College, Christ the King, 24 November 2019
If you’ve watched any adverts recently, you’ll have noticed that the advertising team at BT are suffering from flashbacks to their A-levels. In their ad, a schoolgirl walks across town, intoning Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
In a bizarre twist, its backing track is Stormzy’s Blinded by your Grace, in a Dickens/God mash-up that feels entirely appropriate for a New College sermon, because the liturgy for today’s festival of Christ the King is all about these contrasts. On the one hand, the reading from Jeremiah is about God sending a King to gather the lost sheep of Israel, and the Psalm and the anthem are about God defending his chosen people; while on the other hand the Gospel reading is about God failing to show up to rescue Jesus at the crucifixion, as the thieves on either side also die painfully on their crosses.
I imagine that every time you go home for the holidays, well-meaning relatives tell you that your school or university days are the best days of your lives. But how would they like to feel the kind of pressure you do here, when you have a tutorial coming up and no time to finish the reading for it? The best of times, but also sometimes the worst of times.
And of course this is true more generally. Across the world, we’re rejoicing in better than ever levels of quality of life. Extreme poverty is falling dramatically: the proportion of the global population living on less than $1.90 a day has reduced from a third in 1987 to under 10 percent today. Child mortality’s fallen, too: the number of children under five dying worldwide has reduced from almost 13 million in 1990 to around 5 million today. It’s still a shocking statistic, but at least an improving one. And for those of you for whom Wifi has become a human right, you may like to know that over 40% of the global population now have access to the internet.
Yet in spite of these reasons to be cheerful, the statistics report a collapse in the mental health of our young people, reflected in the increasing number of GP self-referrals for anxiety and depression. In London, it’s estimated that 1 in 10 young people are suffering from significant mental ill health. And given that about 41% of the global population are under 24, this is nothing short of a world-wide epidemic. Should we panic? Many experts think not. Some argue that it’s all to do with the adolescent brain, which is more susceptible to emotional stimuli, particularly in peer-group situations, which makes crippling social anxiety neurobiologically the norm. Others, like the author Ashley Frawley, would argue that it’s just a manufactured crisis, designed to create an army of well-being consumers, to catapult late-stage capitalism into its next phase. And it’s true that consumerism is turbo-charging the crisis. It’s all to do with vervet monkeys.
Raleigh and McGuire’s famous studies on them in the 1980s found that high-ranking male vervets had nearly twice as much serotonin in their blood as those ranked lower in the social hierarchy. If an alpha male was displaced by a challenger, his serotonin levels would plummet. The only other way to crash vervet serotonin was to maroon a senior monkey with only a mirror for company. No wonder social media is wrecking mental health. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are like a vast troop of vervet monkeys, giving you instant and repeated feedback about your status in your social group. This is now turbo-charged by pings from phones. If you don’t get affirmation, you suffer the same fate as the monkey with the mirror, and start feeling anxious about your status. But if something you’ve posted attracts views, likes and comments, you feel great! And the culprit here is dopamine. It’s often caricatured as a happy chemical, but the way dopamine actually works is not as a reward, but to stimulate ‘wanting’ to encourage repeat behaviour in the future. In this way, all that ‘liking’ technology compels us towards social media addiction, fuelled by our own body chemistry.
Nevertheless, even if we can blame poor mental health on our brains, our phones, on capitalism, or all three, it’s still been problematised. Notwithstanding the very real existence of serious mental illness, it’s generally assumed that it’s not ‘normal’ to be anxious or worried. But given the state of the world, is it not those who rejoice in oblivious positive mental health that are actually rather ill? The Greeks had a word for it: acedia, or soul-sickness. Thomas Aquinas called acedia “the sorrow of the world”, and looking at the state ours is in, I’d consider it pretty rational to feel both anxious and depressed about it.
But not too depressed. In the Catholic tradition, Despair was known as the Unforgivable Sin, because giving up also means turning your back on God. Instead, the religions are designed to be schools of Hope. Our ancestors knew how hard it was to keep going, so they’ve bequeathed to us, in all the world’s wisdom traditions, the tried and tested technologies of hopefulness. When we meet together in places like this, the liturgy throughout the year uses stories, psalms, hymns and prayers to recall and retell situations in which even in the very worst of times hope has always triumphed: as it’s expressed at the start of the Gospel of John: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. So by coming to Evensong tonight, sitting in a stall as have so very many people before you, you’re practising hope, through the traditions your ancestors have left you, so that the cloud of witnesses can reach out across the years to help you keep going when you’re not feeling strong enough to help yourself.
In his Works of Love, Kierkegaard defines hope as: “to relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good”. But an existential orientation towards hope is just the start: we also need to change the world. And the problem with feeling down is that it’s really hard to motivate yourself to do anything. But the writer Oliver Burkeman has some brilliant advice about this problem. In his book about happiness, he points out that it’s a myth that we need to feel motivated to do something. Actually we do un-fun things all the time; probably you got out of bed this morning, and did your teeth. We don’t need to wait until we feel motivated. We just have to ignore our negative feelings, and get on with it anyway. Thinking about stress and pressure, you may know that today’s Anthem represents a rather special sort of essay crisis. Orlando Gibbons who wrote it was a local Oxford lad. He went on to great things in Cambridge and at Court in London, so Oxford decided to award him an honorary degree. Gibbons wrote the anthem you’re about to hear as a party piece for his DMus. As you listen to the words, you’ll hear it’s based on a famous song of hope: God is
still there, even when we’re having trouble seeing him, and will always see us right.