The documentary Free Solo is about rock climber Alex Honnold, who climbs the 3,200-foot sheer granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any ropes. And he lived to tell it. Why would anyone do something so difficult and dangerous? In an interview he said, “If you’re seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get. And it does feel good to feel perfect, for a brief moment.”
More and more teenagers and young adults feel the pressure to be perfect. Mounting pressures lead to stress and anxiety. This article wants to touch the surface of why that is, and how a godly view of perfection can help young people to be rightly perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48).
In a Pew research survey of US teens ages thirteen to seventeen, conducted September 17 to November 25, 2018, on the top of the list of problems that teens see among their peers are anxiety and depression. Seventy percent saw it as a major problem and 26 percent as a minor problem.
Another survey, conducted in June 2020 by 4-h, finds that seven in ten teens are struggling with mental health issues. More than half of those surveyed shared that the pandemic has increased their feelings of loneliness, with 64 percent believing it will have a lasting impact on their mental health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one quarter of young adults in the United States contemplated committing suicide during June 2020.
These are high numbers, and what makes it worse is that a majority of the teens also think that there is not enough attention for their problems. The adults in general seem to ignore them.
Roots of Pressure to Be Perfect
There are several broad fields of reasons why the pressures are increasing.
Parental pressure that expresses itself in helicopter parenting. The parent(s) are always hovering over their child, in order to make sure the child achieves what usually is the ambition of the parent. There is pressure on the child to be distinctive (stand out from the crowd), or to be overly competitive. The goal usually is that the child goes to an excellent college and will achieve economic success in life.
A second source of pressure is living on social media. The pressure is to keep up a perfect profile and to come across as somebody perfect by the peers’ standard. Also well known is the bullying that can take place. This is being exacerbated by the fact that the child is never separated from it. It used to be that you went home and left school behind and with it all its problems. Now you take all the problems home with you, and it continues without ever letting off.
The students who want to go to college have another set of pressures that have increased over the past ten to twenty years. The families are more cost-conscious, and although conquering the SAT is less of an issue, the problem is more to get the students to think about what they want in life. Students are more rudderless than ever before, says one counselor. Without much help they can’t clarify their thoughts and then get overwhelmed by the college search. The expectation is that the kids architect their own values in order to set some goals or values for themselves. This is an impossible task for an eighteen-year-old, unless they were at an early age already pointed to “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Another source of pressure is that they need to have a high school experience that looks attractive to college admissions officers. This means that already in ninth grade the student needs to start working on such a positive high school experience. That’s at a time when boys especially are not ready for this kind of seriousness. Maybe that’s one of the reasons there are more girls applying for college and being admitted.
This high-pressure mentality is leading to a lot of anxiety, not only for Ivy League schools anymore, but even for community colleges. This is why college counseling has grown rapidly over the last twenty years.
Societal pressures are becoming all-compassing. The student or child needs to stay healthy mentally even when the family structure is falling apart (divorce), or frightening news abounds about a pandemic, or climate change, or racism, or gender issues. The brainwashing in the public school system should not be underestimated. It starts in kindergarten and can create a lot of anxiety in children, and even more stress when it conflicts with the faith learned at home.
Although Christians have put in a lot of effort, our work is needed more than ever. If we have a better understanding of the dynamics going on around our youth, all of us will be better equipped to do our parts in helping a next generation flourish instead of becoming ever more anxious. So here are some thoughts.
About social media. In a very good article with the title “What Happens If You Stop Being Bored?,” Justin Poythress tells us that the average human attention span has fallen from twelve seconds in the year 2000 down to eight seconds. Also, teenagers on average are consuming around eight hours of media per day. Despite all the bad consequences, it doesn’t look like we will cut down on screen time anytime soon.
One of the great losses of the social media age is boredom. What have we lost if we are never bored anymore?
First, we’ve lost humility. When you immerse yourself in a world of apps and entertainment that are all tailor-made around you, it turns you into a demi-god. At the least, it makes you an imagined celebrity. Everything revolves around you in this digital world. We can be perfect in this world. Clearly this has all the traits of an idol, and the idol is self. There is no time left to think or pray to God.
When you force yourself to sit in your boredom, you realize that the world continues to go by. You have to reckon with the scads of people who don’t know you and who don’t care about you. This opens the door to contemplate the beautiful “otherness” of the world outside. And that there is still a Being who is intimately interested in your well-being.
Also, we lose the time to be creative. When bored, we need to come up with an idea of our own. This needs to start at a young age, so the flexible brain can expand with creative ideas. Some children are more creative than others, but when playing together, they can learn from each other and develop in a positive way. At a later stage they will be better equipped to think about their future.
Being bored opens the door to the rest of the world: nature, animals, heavens, and the God who created all that. If you never look up from your screen, you are not aware of the non-digital world. The same is true for the other people in your life, who may not live in your digital world but who surround you anyway. You miss out on life experience and getting to know people, which will likely increase your anxiety if you have to deal with new things.
Boredom opens the door for us to contemplate rather than consume; to reflect instead of rushing. So take your (grand)children out, let them play, show them the beautiful world, and tell them that God created it all. Also, set a good example by not always looking at your phone yourself.
About human nature. A major reason why anxiety and depression have increased so much in our young people is the loss of the right vision for human nature. Ever since the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, humanity has tried to sideline God. By now we are left with a very thin layer of reality in which God plays no role, humans know everything, and nature, including humanity, is just a big cosmic coincidence. Hence the idea that human nature can be improved by humans themselves, if only they support the correct political system. Our rights don’t come from our Creator but are given to us by man. Our main focus point is ourselves and/or our idols such as sports or entertainment.
These idols ultimately are going to crush you, and you are left in mental disarray. The values, the morality, the feelings, are all fake by definition and exist only to provide an image of yourself for the outside world. That’s why a student counselor can say, “A lot of the students are like a house of cards, and you pull out one card, and the whole house falls down.” That’s why real perfection is never achieved and is a fleeting emotion, like the solo climber in the beginning described.
Here we can bring comfort by explaining the biblical view of human nature. An important point is that we are all sinful by nature, and therefore we will always fall short of perfection. God is aware of it: For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust (Ps. 103:14). We don’t have to strive for perfection where God is involved. God knows you even better than you know yourself (Ps. 139), and that is a comforting thought. It is not up to you to achieve perfection, because you will be perfect in his eyes when God looks at you in his Son.
About talking with young people about perfection. We Christians have a great responsibility to teach anyone who comes near to us the right way of thinking. The right view on human nature is that we are to serve and love the God of creation and his son who loved us so much that he was willing to sacrifice himself for us. Our goal should be to teach the younger generation to live according to the following, as Paul says in Philippians 3:12–15 (English Standard Version): “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. . . . I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.”
We can lessen the anxiety and depression of youngsters by pointing out the flaws in their thinking (like how flimsy the evolution theory is), by referring to our life experience (like how old the climate scare is) and referring to our faith in an almighty God, who will take care of every individual because he loves you.
We need to understand and teach that we are responsible people. We do have the capability to effect changes in the world. We also need to accept our weakness and vulnerability, and courageously take our suffering upon us, and then work to change our world, obeying the command of Jesus repeated in all four Gospels: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Matt.16:24). Jesus said that in doing this, we would find his yoke easy and his burden light, and he promised that we would “find rest for your souls.” This is the way out of the stress and into the light—fearing God rather than man (Luke 12:4–5). “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (Isa. 2:22).
At the same time, apart from Jesus, no one is perfect. But God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son to die for us (John 3:16). Therefore God must love imperfect people. God’s love for you is bigger than your mistakes. You don’t have to be perfect, not even for a fleeting moment, but know that God, when he looks at you in his Son Jesus, will see you as perfect anyway.…………………………….
Credit goes to my son Sam. From his extensive work with young people came his idea for this article, and he provided me with most of the sources.
Anthony Hennen. “Across Colleges of All Types, Student Anxiety Is a Growing Issue.” www.jamesgmartin.center.
Justin Poythress. “What Happens If You Stop Being Bored?” www.reformation21.0rg.
“New Survey Finds 7 in 10 Teens Are Struggling with Mental Health,” June 17, 2020. 4-h.org
Mrs. Annemarieke Ryskamp was born and raised in the Netherlands. She graduated with a master’s degree in Dutch Language and Literature from Utrecht University and worked for the Dutch l’Abri and as a secondary school teacher at United World College in Singapore. She attends Dutton United Reformed Church (MI) where she leads various Bible study groups and mentor groups. She has two sons who are currently in graduate studies.