Disillusionment with Authority is the Coming of Age Story of Our Time

As I wrap up my time in math grad school and start to look beyond, I’ve been reflecting on what led me to study math in the first place. It was the topic that captivated my mind, that I was the most proficient at, and which made me thirst to learn more. But that it even presented itself as an option for a career to me at all is one aspect I’d never really considered.

Only after I got to grad school did I realize that I had an image in my mind of academia that was rather different from what I found. I had imagined that everyone in academia was motivated by the desire to solve the big problems that the world faces, and they simply aimed at different time horizons for their solutions. There’s an underlying talk of work that is “20 years away”, “10 years away”, and academics rightly pride themselves in the fact that they have the freedom to think on those scales where businesses would shy away.

But what I found was that a large number of academics — and this isn’t even restricted to the math department — don’t even think in terms of providing solutions. Instead, there’s commonly a self-referential focus, an inward turn to do things to impress other academics, writing papers and building theory with only fellow academics in mind.

Part of my story, which I’ve touched on in many recent blog posts, is therefore one of disillusionment with this type of academic authority. Some of it comes from rising to the highest ranks and seeing what life is like at “the top” of whatever status hierarchy you find yourself in. In high school, I remember being somewhat disillusioned by my experience at a science summer camp in Australia that our Science Bowl team had won as a prize for winning the national competition. “This is it?” I remember wondering. “This is what I was striving after all of this time?”

I’ve gone through a similar type of evolution at MIT. To be clear, this isn’t the only mental malady one can experience at a place like MIT, or even the most common. I hear a lot about the impostor syndrome, where we think that we don’t belong in an institution because we’re not good enough. But such students still often believe in the fundamental goodness or effectiveness of their school, and only wish they could live up to it. The disillusionment I’m talking about is when they no longer believe that the institutions and authorities they’ve looked up to are actually praiseworthy anymore.

Disillusionment like this is surprisingly common today.

The prototypical example was illustrated in Spotlight, the Best Picture before La La Land-I-mean-Moonlight. The fascinating quasi-documentary chronicles the Boston Globe‘s investigative reporting into widespread and systemic cases of child abuse in the Boston-area Catholic church. Grace and I had the fortune of meeting one of the then-Globe journalists following a screening of the movie in our old dorm, and he described how what they were uncovering had driven his fellow journalists, particularly those who were raised Catholic, into not wanting anything to do with the Church any more. This disillusionment would repeat itself in many Catholics in Boston and around the world, who read about it in the news. The Church, which practicing and cultural Catholics alike had always seen as a loving authority figure, had just violated that image, betraying any trust they had put in it.

Of course, one doesn’t have to look far to see examples of this among Protestants, too. Stories abound of megachurch pastors and other leaders deceiving congregations, not practicing what they preach, or failing in the more well-trodden domains of sex, money and power, leaving hundreds of disillusioned followers in their wake.

It’s also a disillusionment common to our political arena. In his book, Reclaiming Hope, former Obama White House staffer Michael Wear describes the evolution from the soaring hope of Obama’s 2008 campaign to his own case of partial disillusionment as partisan rancor and the breakdown of public discourse accelerated throughout his presidency, culminating in a scathing comparison of Obama’s two inaugurals:

No clearer example of the difference between how much things had changed over four years, how much the president had changed, can be found than a comparison of the statements regarding Warren and Giglio.

Warren had been invited in 2009 to give the inaugural prayer, and did just that, to the shock of those expecting to be browbeat. Giglio had been a friend of the White House and partner in the fight against human trafficking. And yet, he was unceremoniously kicked to the curb over his comments twenty years earlier calling homosexuality a sin. As Wear sums up,

In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces. In 2013, diversity required us to expel dissent.

Wear, it’s clear, was disillusioned by his time in the Obama White House. And of course, the 2016 campaign and election only spread this further. We’ve been disillusioned by everything from media organizations that constantly assured voters of an imminent Clinton victory to the Republican Party’s lack of leadership, to Hillary Clinton herself, as evidenced by the reaction to her slowly dipping her toes back into public life this year.

Disillusionment is also the context of Kesha’s powerful 2017 anthem Praying, transparently speaking to and about her former producer and alleged abuser Dr. Luke:

All of these examples have followed the same pattern: Trust in some authority, often fairly central to our self-conception, is decisively and permanently lost. Cynicism creeps in, and keeps one from trusting in any authority of that type, or potentially any type, again.

This isn’t always an unmitigated loss, but it often is. It’s right to mourn disillusionment, for both the authority’s faults and the resulting calcification of the soul, rather than celebrating it as some form of freedom. It doesn’t lead us anywhere good: either we wallow in distraction or depression, or we end up relying on ourselves as the source of all wisdom and meaning, far too heavy a burden to bear.

So what can we do?

I don’t claim to offer a panacea to all of these trust problems our society is developing, but I can share some thoughts. Just like in medicine, prevention is frequently more effective and less costly than dealing with the consequences after disillusionment sets in. In other words, we desperately need our authorities to act in a manner worthy of the trust we’re placing in them. For those of us fortunate enough to be considered as authorities to someone (whether as a parent, mentor, wise friend, or professionally speaking), it means that we need to solemnly recognize the weightiness of our actions and words, and take proactive steps to prevent us from failing them. When you see what cynicism and disillusionment can do to someone, it really can drive home the delicateness of the soul that they’re partially entrusting to you. Guard it carefully.

As followers, though, there are also preventative steps we can take before our leaders fall. Probably the most important is one I’ve mentioned previously, to diversify. Don’t put all of your hopes and dreams in a single human authority, whether they be a pastor, politician, professor, or anyone else. Know what your alternatives are, just like you’d make plans for where to go if your house was hit by a hurricane. Personally, this is something I should have done far sooner; when math didn’t seem as appealing as it once did, I didn’t have any other careers in mind to investigate.

A more positive example for me was my journey away from creationism. I intend to write much more about this topic in a future blog post, but for now, I’ll just say that it’s surprising to recall how much of my faith back in my freshman year of high school was tied into my firm belief at the time that mainstream science was mistaken on origins. And yet, as I slowly dug deeper and hit rock bottom of the evidence offered in support, I didn’t experience a disillusionment that would have caused me to abandon my faith entirely.

Why? Of course, it was important for me to be able to clearly distinguish the Christian gospel from theories of young earth creationists, but I think it helped immensely that I found another view, a reasonable synthesis of evolution and the Bible. Again, I intend to write more about this in the future, but it’s a view that’s been propagated among scientists most prominently by NIH Director Francis Collins and the organization BioLogos, and is well biblically-grounded by Old Testament scholars from John Walton of Wheaton College to Gordon Hugenberger of Park Street Church to my friend Colin writing in the MIT Et Spiritus. It’s actually the near-universal consensus in some of my circles like the MIT Graduate Christian Fellowship, as I discovered when we discussed the subject at one large group meeting a few years ago. My awareness of this alternative meant that rejecting the hole-ridden theories of creationists and even a plain reading of Genesis didn’t make me instantly doubt everything else about my Christian faith.

But what should we do if we’re already disillusioned?

That’s where Kesha is, and she offers the way forward:

Oh, sometimes I pray for you at night
Someday, maybe you’ll see the light

As she described in an interview, this is one of the most important lines in the song for her, to “learn how to wish happiness on people that have hurt me.” Of course, this type of prayer doesn’t have to be addressed specifically to God, but it is helpful to know there’s a higher power that you can trust will hold someone accountable, and, as Kesha sings in the chorus, to whom you can hope they eventually turn:

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin’

Ultimately, forgiveness is the key to healing a disillusioned heart. Yes, I know it can be tempting to lash out, to go from following to “hate-following,” relishing their failures. But as Kesha puts it in the same interview, “If you’re resentful, that’s like drinking poison, and it does nothing to the other person, it’s just like you’re poisoning yourself. So it’s really the best thing can do, is just forgive and heal and move on.”

I’ve seen enough bitterness that I know that’s not who I want to be. Cynicism helps me feel superior to others, but it hasn’t helped me actually find anything better. It’s really not a healthy place to be long-term as an individual or a society, and forgiving each other is the key step on the road to recovering what we’ve lost.

Once we’ve forgiven, how can we ever learn to trust again? Here’s Michael Wear in the opening paragraph of the final chapter of Reclaiming Hope:

As someone who has experienced firsthand the great successes and bitter disappointments that politics brings, I can say without equivocation that politics is not where you want to place your hope. People who place their hope in politics are idealists who then become cynics, and there is rarely a resting stop on that journey. We need to have a firmer ground to stand upon when engaging in politics than politics itself.

For Wear, Kesha, and myself, that firmer ground is in God. The opportunity to reclaim that hope, as the title of the book recommends, comes through the cross and resurrection, the hope of a new creation under Jesus’ just reign. Every human leader we trust will ultimately be held accountable to that one trustworthy leader, in whom we place our fullest trust.

This is challenging to me: As I enter the job market, am I just looking for a different career to fall in love with and start the whole cycle over again? Or am I looking for opportunities to join God in making the world new, putting my ultimate hope in Him, not a job, company, city, or industry, to complete the work after all of my efforts are spent? As you too emerge out of disillusionment after learning to forgive, are you eager to fall back into the same idolatrous pattern, or have you discovered a similar foundation to guard your heart? Because disillusionment will strike again, and you need to be ready.


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