This Friday I was at a small gathering of Christian men and women and heard a story that stopped me short. One of the attendees was a Christian businessman who employed mainly working-class young men. When he had spoken to his workers about their holiday plans, a full fourth of the men he talked to didn’t have any plans at all. Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year’s Day was just another day. They’d go home, watch television, play video games, and drink—all alone.
As soon as he said those words, I thought of a chart. I know that sounds strange, but stay with me. It’s from 2017, and it comes from Sen. Mike Lee’s invaluable Social Capital Project. It should transform the way you think about America’s epidemic of “deaths of despair.” It represents the demographics of overdoses. …
As the slides progress, you notice a few things immediately—men overdose far more then women, single men overdose more than married men, and single men with only a high school education or GED overdose at a simply staggering rate. That rate is horrifying regardless of whether a person was single and never married or single and divorced (though, interestingly, the overdose rate for a widowed person was substantially lower).
Speaking of stories that will stop you short, after I heard my new friend tell his story, I read a wrenching essay by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Called “Who Killed the Knapp Family,” it’s adapted from their new book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. The essay takes the deaths-of-despair crisis and personalizes it, describing how it impacts specific families in a town that Kristof knows well. It begins:
Chaos reigned daily on the No. 6 school bus, with working-class boys and girls flirting and gossiping and dreaming, brimming with mischief, bravado and optimism. Nick rode it every day in the 1970s with neighbors here in rural Oregon, neighbors like Farlan, Zealan, Rogena, Nathan and Keylan Knapp.
They were bright, rambunctious, upwardly mobile youngsters whose father had a good job installing pipes. The Knapps were thrilled to have just bought their own home, and everyone oohed and aahed when Farlan received a Ford Mustang for his 16th birthday.
Yet today about one-quarter of the children on that No. 6 bus are dead, mostly from drugs, suicide, alcohol or reckless accidents. Of the five Knapp kids who had once been so cheery, Farlan died of liver failure from drink and drugs, Zealan burned to death in a house fire while passed out drunk, Rogena died from hepatitis linked to drug use and Nathan blew himself up cooking meth. Keylan survived partly because he spent 13 years in a state penitentiary.
That’s a story of unimaginable pain and tragedy. It breaks your heart.
I’ve been writing about deaths of despair since evidence of the phenomenon emerged on the national stage. Going back to college, I’ve been involved in ministries targeting exactly the young men most at-risk for alcoholism, drug overdoses, and suicide. And I’m convinced that the more we politicize the crisis rather than personalize it and spiritualize it, the more we’ll miss the mark.
No, I don’t mean to say that policy doesn’t matter. Economic opportunity matters. Prison reform matters. Quality health care matters. But I’ve also seen well-intentioned policies backfire, and I’ve seen governments spend vast sums to no effect.
When it comes to young men who not only never had a father, they never had a single positive male role model in their entire life—or spent any time with a functioning family—how do they possibly know how to sustain a healthy, loving relationship with a young woman?
When it comes to young men without male role models, you’re speaking of young men who not only don’t know how to build a family, they don’t know how to build a career. I’ve written about this before, but many years ago my wife and I were involved in a young adult ministry that—by God’s grace—enjoyed great success in reaching the unchurched kids from the trailer parks in our rural Kentucky community.
One thing I learned was that lives were changed through a sustained, dedicated, loving community. A functioning community doesn’t just provide love and resources. Indeed, if your ministry was defined by hugs and handouts, it would be ripe for exploitation. People would smile and accept both, but their lives wouldn’t fundamentally change. A functioning community includes elements of discipline and instruction as well.
The love has to be persistent. When a kid didn’t show up at church after he’d been attending for a while, we’d sometimes dash out between Sunday school and worship services and head straight to their homes, knock on their doors and ask if they were okay. We’d offer them a ride to worship and invite them to lunch after services. We jokingly called our car the “soul repo van.” But the goal was simple—let them know that they were not alone. They were part of a community.
And the instruction has to be real. People do not magically become diligent students or productive workers simply because someone loved them. Opportunity isn’t always easy in this country, but opportunity exists. A person has to be taught how to seize it, and they have to practice the basic life habits necessary to follow through.
Partisan politics is terrible at love. Parties are centered around their coalitions and focus on meeting their coalition’s needs. The Democrats are a party of single women. Republicans are increasingly a party of working-class men. Remember the Obama campaign slides chronicling the “Julia” “showing all the ways Obama’s policy would help Julia (and her son Zachary) from the cradle to the grave? But where was Zachary’s father? He doesn’t figure in the story at all. He’s the invisible man.
Partisan politics is often terrible at policy—providing a festival of overreactions that can do as much (or more) harm than good and providing false promises that eventually serve only to embitter a disappointed populace. For example, the desire to better treat pain led the Veterans Health Administration to launch a “pain is the 5th vital sign” initiative in the late 1990s, and other government agencies incentivized aggressive pain management—acts that led to countless unnecessary opioid prescriptions. We hear a lot about the role of big pharma in the opioid crisis. How much do we hear about the role of big government?
The modern populist outcry against the government—“this is happening because they didn’t care about you”—is often exactly wrong. Sometimes social ills are exacerbated because they did care. They just cared in a destructive way.
I find myself in frequent disagreement with those who argue that government policy should be the central focus of the battle against deaths of despair. Kristof writes movingly about the incredibly deep-seated pain and dysfunction in the families he highlights, then turns to government solutions like government-provided preschool, job retraining, and large-scale drug treatment programs.
Yet the evidence for the benefits of programs like Head Start is mixed, we’ve tried worker retraining programs for years, and they’ve largely failed. And while more and better (public and private) drug treatment is necessary—and perhaps holds out the best immediate hope at decreasing drug deaths—it doesn’t come close to addressing the larger social and cultural pathologies that have spawned such widespread loneliness and despair.
It’s fashionable to scorn personal responsibility as a solution to challenges that are so profound and deep. And there is certainly something perverse about saying that the solution to the challenges of fatherlessness is for young men who’ve been deprived of male role models to collectively act with a level of grit, character, and determination that they’ve never seen modeled by any man before. Individually, yes. Collectively, no.
But there’s a different kind of personal responsibility. That’s the responsibility of the privileged, of the faithful, and it was articulated by Jesus in Matthew 25:
I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
America is full of tens of millions of affluent believers—and certainly not just Christians. Perhaps it’s time to shift the paradigm on personal responsibility. Instead of focusing on the personal responsibility of the hurting and the vulnerable, let’s look at the personal responsibility of the rich and the powerful.
I felt convicted after my Friday meeting. I went home and told my wife the story of struggling men, alone on the holidays. Her response was immediate. “What can we do?” I realized that as my life got busy, as we had kids and our careers flourished, that our engagement with the most vulnerable members of our community had diminished. The “soul repo van” languished in the garage.
That’s on me. Life can’t get too busy to obey God. And while the verse in Genesis that titles this piece refers to Adam and Eve, it still speaks a truth beyond husband and wife. It speaks to the truth of friendship and community. It is not good for a man to be alone.