A friend recently shared an image on social media showing the Disney cartoon villain Cruella de Vil, bloodshot eyes staring straight ahead, hands clutching the wheel of her infamous coupe, black-and-white hair waving wildly in the wind, oversized fur coat flapping behind—in a word, crazed. Over the image someone had typed: “Me trying to excel in my career, maintain a social life, drink enough water, exercise, text everyone back, stay sane, survive and be happy.”
Beneath the picture, a caption read: “Every day.” It was followed by a string of comments, “Amen,” “Yep,” “Like lookin’ in a mirror,” and so on. People could relate, and not just the same old suspects.
After taking a quick survey of the peanut gallery’s profiles, I couldn’t help but notice the breadth of demographics represented, male and female, old and young, black and white. (Then again, it’s Instagram, so who can say for sure?) But this much was clear: It takes one of Disney’s trippiest images to capture the white-knuckle pace of modern life. You don’t need a clever meme to deduce this. Just ask the next person you see how they’re doing. The stock reply used to be “fine” or “well.” Today, there’s a very good chance they’ll respond with “busy.”
Reflexive and unoriginal as this answer may be, it is not dishonest. I think of my friends Jen and Ted. They are currently balancing two full-time careers with raising three young children. Anyone who follows their family on social media knows that Ted is coaching T-ball this spring and Jen can hardly keep up with the demand that her side project on Etsy is generating. Less public would be the fact that Ted’s father has recently been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and the papers on Jen’s sister’s divorce have yet to be signed. So when I asked them the other day how they’re doing and they responded with an emphatic “busy!” they weren’t lying.
What bothered me about the interaction was not their answer, so much as the way it reminded me of how I must sound when using that same word—which I do at least ten times a day. It sounds like I’m complaining about the super abundance of activity, when in truth I actually prefer it that way. Idleness makes me far more uncomfortable than busyness, and a blank to-do list is considerably more nerve-wracking than an overstuffed one. What would it mean about me if I didn’t have enough commitments to fill my schedule? Nothing good, that’s for sure.
To be busy is to be valuable, desired, justified. It signals importance and, therefore, righteousness. Busy is not just how we are but who we are—or who we’d like to be. Salvation itself waits for those who never stop hustling. Welcome to one of America’s favorite replacement religions, what we might term the “Seculosity of Busyness.”
Perhaps we should back up.
Bombarded with poll results about declining levels of church attendance and belief in God, we assume that more and more people are abandoning the faith and making their own meaning. But what these polls fail to report is that the marketplace in replacement religion is booming. Even a cursory look at the way we live today reveals that the religious impulse is easier to rebrand than to extinguish. Meaning that religious observance hasn’t faded apace with “secularization” so much as migrated—and we’ve got the anxiety to prove it. We’re seldom not in church.
That’s a bold assertion to make, I know, and one that depends greatly on your definition of “religion.” If you’re going with the common conception—of robes and kneeling and the Man Upstairs, what we might call “capital-R” Religion—then, yes, people are bailing in unprecedented numbers. The landscape shifts, however, if you opt for a more expansive view of religion. Writer David Dark, for example, defines religion as “a controlling story” or “the question of how we dispose our energies, how we see fit to organize our own lives and, in many cases, the lives of others.”1
According to this definition, religion is not merely that which explains the inexplicable but is the lens through which we sort the data of our days, rank our priorities, and focus our desires. We’ll call this “small-r” religion. A person’s “religion” is shorthand for the shape that lens takes—namely, the specific ways it refracts what we see and directs our longings. This can be a set of unconscious assumptions about the world, or it can be a perspective that’s deliberately adopted, like an “ism” of some kind. Most often, it’s both.
While a solid starting point, I wonder if Dark’s definition veers a tad too close to that dreaded term “worldview.” Religion in real life is more than a filter or paradigm—or even a matter of conscious worship. It is what we lean on to tell us we’re okay, that our lives matter, another name for all the ladders we spend our days climbing toward a dream of wholeness. It refers to our preferred guilt-management system, and everyone has one. Our small-r religion is the justifying story of our life. It is that which we rely on not just for meaning or hope but enoughness. Ritual and community and all the other stuff come second.
Listen carefully and you’ll hear that word enough everywhere, especially when it comes to the anxiety, loneliness, exhaustion, and division that plague our moments to such tragic proportions. You’ll hear about people scrambling to be successful enough, happy enough, thin enough, wealthy enough, influential enough, desirable enough, charitable enough, woke enough, good enough. We believe instinctively that were we to reach some benchmark in our minds, then value, vindication, and love would be ours—that if we got enough, we would be enough.
And yet, no matter how close we get or how much we achieve, we never quite arrive at enough. (How much money is enough, Mr. Rockefeller? Just a little bit more.) Our lives attest that the threshold does not exist, at least not where fallible and finite human beings are concerned. Instead, as journalist Will Storr writes, “People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”2
This is not a secret. Pretty much every wisdom tradition lays it plain. Nevertheless, we spend our days chasing the mirage, often to the detriment of our well-being and that of our neighbors. What gives?
The answer has something to do with the research that moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt recounts in his book The Righteous Mind. He writes in the introduction that “an obsession with righteousness . . . is the normal human condition.”3 The longing for some form of righteousness is not an aberration perpetuated by capital-R Religion but a foundation of what it means to be human. In other words, we cannot shake the specter of enoughness, because it lives in our DNA. This obsession is invaluable when it comes to the formation of groups and survival of the species. But there are downsides—significant ones.
Experience, not to mention the Bible, confirms the veracity of Haidt’s claim. We want to feel good about ourselves, and so we edit our personalities to maximize the approval of others. Or we exaggerate hardships to make ourselves seem more heroic or others more villainous. The theological term for the energy we expend for the sake of feeling righteous is “self-justification,” and it cannot be overstated as a motivation in human affairs.
If you want to understand what makes someone tick or why they’re behaving the way they are, trace the righteousness in play and things will likely become clear. Your colleague who can’t stop working? Odds are, she equates busyness with worthiness. Your perpetually single friend who can’t seem to find someone who measures up to his standards? It could be that he’s looking to another person to “complete” him—to make him feel like he’s enough.
What about you? Maybe the reason you can’t stop scrolling through your social media feed is because it confirms how right(eous) your opinions are about others or yourself. Or maybe, on some level that you can barely admit to yourself, you believe that if your latest post on Facebook gets enough likes, you will finally like yourself.
While enoughness may not be a direct synonym for righteousness, it’s not far off. After all, enough only makes sense if there’s some kind of line demarcating it from not enough. It implies a standard of some kind. Yet we avoid the word righteousness because it sounds too religious, too old-fashioned, too judgmental, too close to self-righteous—and we know we don’t like that. Righteous sounds ominously absolute and therefore authoritarian, as though it could impinge on the lives of those around us. Enough, on the other hand, has a more subjective and therefore less threatening connotation.
In practice, there’s very little difference. Those dogged by a sense of not-enoughness know all too well that “I’ll know enough when I see/feel it” isn’t any lighter a burden than “reach [X, Y or Z] objective standard.” Both are classic spiritual treadmills, and the former may even be more taxing due to its slipperiness. Whatever the case, the problem of self-justification is not a linguistic one.
A major problem for those of us with “righteous minds” comes when our conception of righteousness differs from that of our neighbors, or when we feel they are standing in the way of our attainment of it. Innocuous-seeming differences in perspective balloon overnight into showdowns over good versus evil. And nothing allows us to more easily excuse ruthlessness than when we’ve painted our neighbor as an adversary to all that is true and holy.
There’s a deep irony at work here: enoughness is a universal human longing. The yearning for it binds us together across party, country, gender, race, and age. It provides the glue that holds our most altruistic movements together. Yet, the specific expression of this obsession in each person’s life is often what alienates us from others. The tighter the in-group, the larger the out-group will be. Depending on the content of the righteousness in question, this drive can spark our most dehumanizing judgments of other people and inspire us, sometimes unconsciously, to conceive of the world in terms of us versus them.
Doubtless this is what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr meant when he observed that “there is no deeper pathos in the spiritual life of man than the cruelty of righteous people.” He was referring to what we in the church call “Pharisaism”—an overreliance on superficial indicators of righteousness that in practice belie their opposite; e.g., following the letter of the law to the degree that it contradicts the spirit.
What people don’t always see is that the same oppressive spirit afflicts replacement religions, too. Self-righteousness tends to follow self-justification, regardless of backdrop, and the higher we climb on the ladder of self-justification, the longer it gets—and the farther apart the rungs grow. How else do we account for the fact that the most accomplished people feel more, rather than less, pressure to succeed? Or that people who are better-looking perceive their blemishes so acutely? You might say that the cost of an ideal of righteousness is the reality of unrighteousness, pure and simple. Whether or not we have the resources to cope with that burden is a different question.
Why is it that we seem more fixated on righteousness, on enoughness, than at any time in recent memory? At the risk of gross oversimplification, for centuries capital-R Religion provided a place to go with our guilt and shame, somewhere we could off-load the burden. As theologian Steven Paulson put it, the clergyman was your “local forgiveness person.” For more and more people in the modern world, the church no longer feels like an advisable or available option.
Some, like Friedrich Nietzsche, predicted that we would find peace in the deconstruction and emerge into a new and gloriously liberated mode of human existence. Without a divine law to make us feel poorly about ourselves, words like guilt would lose their meaning. We would no longer require a buffer from the unsightly aspects of reality; we would have the courage to face things head-on. A glorious, post-religious age of human flourishing would dawn.
Alas, if our current cultural climate tells us anything, it’s that the needs addressed by Religion—for hope, purpose, connection, justification, enoughness—haven’t diminished as churches have become taprooms and theaters. All that angst and energy involved hasn’t evaporated. It can’t. It has to go somewhere.
With altars off the table, fresh targets have cropped up all over the place, from the kitchen to the gym to the computer screen to the bedroom. Righteousness, you might say, is running amok and breeding mercilessness wherever it goes. Where once we chose between an array of different schools to attend, now there’s the one that will ensure our future success—and the many that will squander it. Where once there was a sea of nice people to date, now there’s Mr./Ms. Right—and everyone else is a waste of our time.
What’s more, it often seems that the farther we retreat from a shared Religion, the more contenders emerge to harness our floundering religiosity. Philosopher Charles Taylor calls this “the nova effect,” likening it to an explosion of religious pluralism. These new religions go by different names but function more or less the same, maintaining all the demand (and much of the ritual!) but none of the mercy of the capital-R variety. If we used to go to church once a week, we now go every hour. It’s exhausting, to put it mildly.
Of course, most people don’t like being told they’re religious—and not just those who identify as atheists. The ever-increasing demographic of the “spiritual but not religious” suggests that religion is a dirty word across the board. What’s more, there does seem to be a discernible difference between grounding your hope in something material and something spiritual.
Which is why I am proposing a fresh term: “seculosity.” Think of it as a catchall for religiosity that’s directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects. And yet, the objects of our seculosity—food, romance, education, children, technology, and so on—aren’t somehow bad. Quite the opposite—they are by and large great. It’s only when we lean on these things for enoughness, when we co-opt them for our self-justification or make them into arbiters of salvation itself, that they turn toxic.
This is not a neutral phenomenon. Take busyness again as an example. Research on the issue paints a foreboding picture, health-wise. Unremitting busyness reliably predicts chronic stress and therefore heart disease, sleeplessness, higher blood pressure, and shorter life spans, to say nothing of general fatigue.
As tired as it makes us, busyness remains attractive because it does double duty, allowing us to feel like we’re advancing on the path of life while distracting us from other, less pleasant realities, like doubt and uncertainty and death. When we move rapid-fire from task to task, we (theoretically) minimize the mental space available for painful feelings, while at the same time accruing extra points in the enoughness column. So we stay busy to keep the rivers of affirmation and reward flowing in our direction. We are afraid they will stop if we’re not generating the current.
No wonder so many of us wear our exhaustion as a badge of honor. Complaining of being “crazy busy” may be today’s definitive #humblebrag. If the protagonists in Jane Austen novels gloried in their idleness—their distance from the harried lower echelons of society who have no choice but to work—a couple centuries later, the opposite holds sway: keeping up with the Joneses now means trying to out-schedule them. Busyness has become a status symbol, a.k.a. a public display of enoughness. For an increasing amount of the population, then, to be alive in the twenty-first century is to wonder privately how much longer you can keep feeding the beast before you keel over.
The very phrase “feed the beast” could not be more apt. It conjures the image of a ravenously hungry creature whose appetite demands satiation, lest it carve out its pound of flesh. It brings to mind a prowling monster that can be momentarily appeased but never fully satisfied. A life of feeding the beast recasts our activities, and the rewards they bring, as momentary offerings on the anxious altar of Enough.
A little melodramatic, I know, but hopefully the description rings some bells. Because what we’re talking about when we talk about chronic busyness is “performancism,” one of the hallmarks of all forms of seculosity.
Performancism is the assumption, usually unspoken, that there is no distinction between what we do and who we are. Your résumé isn’t part of your identity; it is your identity. What makes you lovable, indeed what makes your life worth living, is your performance at X, Y, or Z. Performancism holds that if you are not doing enough, or not doing enough well, then you are not enough. At least, you are less than those who are “killing it.”
Losing may hurt, but in a performance paradigm so does winning—just in a different and more deceptive way. Apart from some momentary gratification, victory doesn’t usher in contentment or peace so much as fear, paranoia, and the pressure to maintain. Feed the beast, or else.
Performancism turns life into a competition to be won (#winning) or a problem to be solved, as opposed to, say, a series of moments to be experienced or an adventure to relish. Performancism invests daily tasks with existential significance and turns even menial activities into measures of enoughness. The language of performancism is the language of scorekeeping, and just like the weight scale or the calendar, it shows no mercy. When supercharged by technology, the result can even be deadly. Indeed, our devotion to the dogmas of performancism lies at the root of much of the skyrocketing anxiety, loneliness, and fatigue that saddle so many hearts and minds today.
We see this devotion particularly, but not exclusively, in young people. To wit, the rash of “suicide clusters” in affluent areas of the United States (Palo Alto, California; northern Virginia; western Chicago; Fairfield County, Connecticut; etc.). These are places afflicted by high school suicide rates four and five times the national average—high-achieving enclaves where the pressure to meet the highest possible standards of academic and athletic excellence has left those prone to self-harm even more isolated than adolescence already accomplishes on its own.
By no means is the phenomenon limited to secondary schools, though. Elite colleges have long served as clusters unto themselves. The University of Pennsylvania made national headlines when the campus witnessed an astounding six student suicides in a thirteen-month stretch in 2013–2014. In response, the administration formed a task force to study mental health on campus. Their final report cited something called “Penn Face,” defined as “the practice of acting happy and self-assured even when sad or stressed.” Penn Face, the authors surmised, derives from the “perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, cocurricular and social endeavor.” Effortlessly perfect, that is; only the most casual mastery will get you to the top of the Ivy League scoreboard. Spending excessive amounts of time in this mode “can manifest as demoralization, alienation or conditions like anxiety or depression.” Expectation and isolation are a fatal combination.
After Penn released its report, The New York Times followed up with an article of its own in which they profiled an undergraduate named Kathryn DeWitt. She recalled how upset she had been on learning that she had scored, uncharacteristically, in the sixties on a calculus exam. “I had a picture of my future, and as that future deteriorated, I stopped imagining another future,” she confessed to journalist Julie Scelfo. Following the news of a beloved classmate’s suicide around the same time, Ms. DeWitt contemplated taking a similar route.
That is a lot of power to ascribe to a single grade on a single exam. Then again, when we’re gripping the wheel as tightly as Cruella, even the slightest nudge can steer us over the cliff. One incontrovertible failure may be all it takes to confirm whatever deeper doubts we harbor about ourselves, and in a world devoid of redemption—a state of mind exacerbated by depression—self-harm is merely the instantiation of the damnation already enacted upon us. Perhaps this explains, at least in part, why some people would rather end their lives than confess that they’ve lost their jobs or made a bad investment.
Make no mistake, any scheme where salvation is reserved for those with the most impeccable track records is a religious scheme. It may be unconscious, but that only makes the dynamics involved more dangerous. This is the precise understanding of religion parodied so brilliantly in the sitcom The Good Place, in which it is revealed that people accrue points during their time on Earth according to their deeds. Their sum total determines whether they go to “the good place” or “the bad place” when they die. For example, remaining loyal to the Cleveland Browns nets you +53.83 points, while overstating a personal connection to a tragedy that has nothing to do with you will ding you -41.84 points. It’s telling that the performancism is both immediately recognizable to audiences and its pitfalls so endlessly entertaining.
Of course, performancism is neither unique to postmillennial life nor a purely secular force. In fact, some of the most toxically performancist environments exist inside the church, where anxious people frantically try to outdo one another in the good-works department, whether those be acts of charity or acts of devotion or both—as if our spiritual résumé was the ticket to God’s approval. While few would ever admit to such outright heresy, believers often can’t help measuring themselves against their fellow congregants, dropping hints of how often they read their Bible, how much money they give, or how many shifts they pick up at the soup kitchen. In lieu of “Penn Face,” you have “Sunday Face.” That is to say, far too many churches resemble their secular replacements than the faith of the saints, once delivered.
Faith that more often than not begins with an admission of losing and need morphs into a hectic competition for justification, in which we baptize our busyness with religious language. Soon, God ceases to be the Good Shepherd and turns into the Taskmaster-in-the-Sky, or worse, he becomes another name for the persecutor within. The targets may be ostensibly more righteous, but the exhaustion and anxiety they produce are identical to their secular corollaries. “I just couldn’t keep it up anymore!” is the refrain I’ve heard from many a refugee from performancist churches. And for those who stick around, the pressure to uphold a veneer of perfect holiness can foster all manner of dysfunction and double lives.
If there’s a difference today, it has to do with the vanishing of outlets where the pressure of perfection might be vented. It’s easier to develop a sense of enoughness, for example, when your pool of peers is in the hundreds rather than the millions, when the primary venues of comparison close shop at 5:00 p.m. Similarly, it’s a lot harder to recover from a youthful indiscretion when the Internet has made the record of your adolescence permanent and searchable.
Capital-R Religion once provided a space to come clean and maybe even be absolved of shortcoming and guilt. Church wasn’t busy. If anything, it was boring and full of silence, a respite from the noise of daily demand, a place to receive rather than achieve—the good ones at least. Churches devoid of performancism may have largely vanished from the landscape, but the glimpses they offered, at their best, of an alternative way of approaching ourselves and the world still flit across our line of sight from time to time, thank God. When it happens, we don’t forget.
In her memoir Cherry, Mary Karr recounts just such an instance. When she was fourteen years old, while her parents were out of the house, a miserable Mary tried to do herself in by swallowing a handful of pills. She was unsuccessful and wound up sick. When her mother and father returned home, they tenderly nursed her, without suspecting the suicide attempt. They attributed the vomiting to food poisoning. After a while, her father asked her if there was any food she could stomach. All she thought she could eat would be a plum. But plums were out of season, and so she went to bed.
The next morning, her father came into her room with a bushel of plums, having driven through the night from Texas to Arkansas to get them for her. Mary remembers:
But it’s when you sink your teeth into the plum that you make a promise. The skin is still warm from riding in the sun in Daddy’s truck, and the nectar runs down your chin.
And you snap out of it. Or are snapped out of it. Never again will you lay a hand against yourself, not so long as there are plums to eat and somebody—anybody—who gives enough of a damn to haul them to you. . . . That’s how you acquire the resolution for survival that the coming years are about to demand. You don’t earn it. It’s given.4
In that blinding instant, the justifying story of Mary’s life switched tracks, her performance revealed to be at best beside the point, at worst a liability, when it came to what really mattered. And what mattered was the magnitude of the uncoerced generosity, so towering and inconceivable in proportion to the not-enoughness that had clouded her vision.
Unlike Cruella, she hadn’t even needed to get behind the wheel.
Adapted from Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It, by David Zahl copyright © 2019 Fortress Press. Reproduced by permission.
David Zahl is the founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries, editor-in-chief of the Mockingbird website (www.mbird.com), and cohost of The Mockingcast. A licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal diocese of Virginia, David serves on the staff of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville where he supervises its college student ministry.
- David Dark, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 18.
- William Storr, Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us (London: Picador, 2017).
- Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage, 2012), xix–xx.
- Mary Karr, Cherry: A Memoir (NY: Penguin Books, 2001).