Reading Wrecked My Social Skills

A couple weeks ago, I read The Dumbest Generation (it has a really long subtitle that I’m not bothering to write out here) by Mark Bauerlein,* and it confirmed a theory I’ve been holding for a long time: the theory that “adolescent” culture is destroying the brains of the youth in America.

Most kids spend their summers with other kids or at various camps or somewhere where they can interact with human beings. My brother and I spent our summers at home, with our action figures, books, the family computer, Pokémon cards, and our imagination. This was probably because we didn’t want to spend time with other kids, but that’s neither here nor there. Honestly, going to camp with a bunch of other kids would probably have given me nightmares. In short, we were weird kids growing up. All the reading I did during summer breaks turned me into a huge nerd and completely wrecked my eyes. (Seriously, if you ever want to totally disable me, just hide my glasses somewhere.)

Reading taught me lots of big words and took me to interesting places but messed up my social skills. In eighth grade, before school officially began, the students were gathered in the cafeteria so teachers could supervise them and they wouldn’t run amok. One day, there weren’t many students for some reason, so I turned to the girl sitting beside me and said, “It’s really sparse in here today.” Blank stare. “What?” I rephrased: “Like, there aren’t many people here?” “Oh.” There were many other instances when I unintentionally confused people by speaking the way I normally did, and I remember being confused by the fact that they were confused.

Pop culture confused me, too, because I never knew what the kids in my class were talking about when they discussed the latest movies or TV shows or musical artists. References like Mr. Hankey, “Run, Forrest, run!,” “Hello, Clarice,” and “Wazzap!!” were totally lost on me. I never felt like I could converse with most people my age. My best friend in eighth grade was as big a nerd as me and actually understood what I talked about when I used words like “discombobulated,” so we were two peas in a pod… but we were rare, and we were teased.

All this reminiscing brings me back to The Dumbest Generation, where the author laments the fact that kids don’t read anymore, mostly because other forms of entertainment occupy their time and their minds. Who wants to open a boring old book when you have TV, the Internet, and pocket-size electronics? In the author’s mind, kids who don’t read are going to have a hard time getting ahead in life because they won’t have the skills they need to interpret and analyze world events, and they will remain ignorant of history, allowing them to make the same mistakes that previous generations have made. After all, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (variously attributed). Kids whose focus remains on superficial topics will remain perpetual adolescents, never entertaining adult ideas or ways of thinking. In the author’s view, this has led America to become a land of silliness and mindless celebrity worship. (I mean, really. Take a look at Facebook. The number of people who actually know how to engage in intelligent debate is tiny.)

The author acknowledges that in a person’s teenage years, there is great pressure to do what one’s friends are doing, which usually involves following the latest pop culture friends. Teenagers who read are less likely to get involved in all that, which sends them to the bottom of the social ladder. I know that this is true from experience, but I remember not particularly caring about pop culture when I was in high school, beyond the small bit I knew about music, and I did not care about socializing either. I rode the bus to and from school, and that was more than enough socializing for me. When I did want to actually have a social life in my junior and senior years of high school, I was woefully behind, and I was never the “favorite”—the go-to person everyone wanted to hang out with.

Would I have traded all the reading for a social life? Probably not. I might have tried harder to get my friends/acquaintances to read a book so we could discuss it… or talk about something more deep than the latest superhero movie. But it does make me sad when I realize that kids who read books really are a dying breed.

I teach CCD classes at my church, and at the beginning of the year, I ask my students what they like to do in their spare time. Video games? Yeah! Sports? Yeah! Girl Scouts? Yeah! Boy Scouts? Yeah! Reading? Eww! Writing? Eww, I only do that for school! Then I was talking one on one with one of my students, and she asked me, “So what do you do for fun, Miss Maggie?” So I said, “I like reading.” She gave me the strangest look, as if I said I liked to howl at the moon. “Reading’s boring,” she said. I told her that I hoped she would change her mind.

What can be done? My prevailing theory on children is that their parents have a great deal of influence over them, more so than school and teachers, and more so than peers (at least until they reach middle school). So if parents read to their kids and encourage them to read and be informed citizens, the kids will grow up to enjoy reading and knowledge. Parents have the power to restrict the amount of TV and the kinds of shows and movies their kids see, and they can choose what kinds of video games to allow in the house and at what age they should allow their kids to have a cell phone and other pieces of technology. I think that in these days, parents have relinquished their power to other entities like school, peers, and technology companies, whether they have realized it or not.

*While reading the book, I had the odd suspicion that the author was a Catholic. Sure enough, when I looked up information about him, I discovered that he had converted from agnosticism/atheism in 2012.

Big Life, Small Life

I recently finished Laurie Helgoe’s Introvert Power, which is about, as is obvious from the title, introverts and their hidden, often unappreciated power to influence and change the world. The book sent relief through me, as do most books and articles I read on introversion. They make me feel as though I am normal in a world where it seems like everyone leads a “big life”—goes to parties, chatters endlessly and aimlessly to all kinds of friends, takes fun and Instagram-worthy trips…

The “small life”—cleaning up your house, writing a blog post, sitting around getting ideas for a story—the introverted life, in other words—is what is celebrated in Helgoe’s book. She exhorts her fellow introverts to be content with who they are and provides strategies to help them reach that contentment. The mantra of the book is basically this: It’s perfectly fine to be introverted. It’s not a mental disorder, it’s not weird, and you don’t have to apologize or make excuses for it.

The book discussed how America is an extroverted society, as evidenced by (among other things) our crazy loudmouth president who doesn’t think before he tweets and our love of everything involving parties and sporting events. On the other hand, Japan is a more introverted society that values the maxim of “think before you speak” and holds deference in high regard. I always wondered why I was drawn to Japanese culture… now I know why!

As always when I read books, I have complaints, but this time I have only two: (1) the book had a little bit too much of a “new age” or “moralistic therapeutic deism” vibe to me (You can create your own universe! If you feel it’s right, it must be right!), and (2) the author talked about herself and her life a little too much for my taste, to the point where I felt as though she was being arrogant and selfish.

Other than that, I’d recommend this book to my fellow introverts. We’re most definitely not alone. We may even be the majority.

Recovering a Fallen Culture

I have been reading the blog posts on The American Conservative for a few years now, and I’ve learned a few things from what I’ve read: (1) being “conservative” is in no way the same as being a “Republican,” (2) being “conservative” is much more than a political position, and (3) history must be examined and taken into account in order to explain much of the cultural change that is going on today.

Rod Dreher is my favorite writer on The American Conservative, so when I heard that he was going to write a book, I got all excited, marked its release date in my planner, and actually went out and bought a brand-new copy (which I rarely do because most new books aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on or the exorbitant price). Anyway, I just finished reading said book, titled The Benedict Option, and found that it was well worth the price.

Dreher argues that America, following the trend in Europe, has become a post-Christian society; that is, the heyday of Christianity is over and many of those who claim to be “Christians” are really only nominally Christian because their beliefs are no different from those of the wider secular culture. Authentic conservative Christianity as it was once known is dying, and Dreher postulates that the only way America can be redeemed is to live in accordance with what he calls the “Benedict Option,” which is based on the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia.

Why do we need the Benedict Option? Not so orthodox Christians can act as if they are superior to everyone else and retreat from the world, leaving non- and nominal Christians to fend for themselves. The Benedict Option is needed to retain the sanctity and importance of traditional religion, to remember that we are mere humans under the love and protection of God our Creator, and to renounce the current culture of materialism and all its false dreams and empty promises.

How can we bring about the Benedict Option in our communities? By bringing eight elements back into our lives: order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, and balance.

  • The opposite of order is disorder, in that our political system as we know it is rapidly losing any sense of order it may once have had.
  • The opposite of prayer is refusing to speak to God or even to acknowledge His existence at all. As a culture, America tends to relegate God to certain places where it is convenient for Him to be present, such as church on Sundays.
  • The opposite of work is sloth or making excuses as to why one is not fit to work. Many in today’s younger generation believe that they do not need to work to get by or that everything will be given to them.
  • The opposite of asceticism is self-indulgence. Look at all the things that you have but do not need or use. Look at all the modern-day conveniences you take for granted.
  • The opposite of stability is transience. A person rarely stays in his community of origin for his entire life. He moves all over the place like a leaf being blown about in a storm. He is therefore directionless and may lack a sense of real belonging.
  • The opposite of community is isolation. We think we have community when we communicate with others online, but the fact is that we are becoming steadily more isolated, as the Internet brings to us exactly what we want to see and hear at any given time, thus keeping us inside our little bubbles.
  • The opposite of hospitality is hostility. We are called to welcome the stranger, but the news media can often cause us to believe that we have enemies everywhere and that we are never safe. We are taught to defend ourselves at the expense of greeting someone who may very well teach us something important.
  • The opposite of balance is imbalance. It is so important to know that everything has a purpose, everything has a reason (turn, turn, turn), and that there is a time and place for everything. An improper lack of balance or being too fixated on any one thing can easily distract a person from focusing on what truly matters.

These opposites form a picture of the fallen America that Dreher portrays in his book… but it is still an America worth saving, if we are willing to take an honest look at ourselves and do the work with a persevering spirit. I highly, highly recommend The Benedict Option, especially for those of you who attend church and are seeing a culture of secularism invade what was once your sacred space.