Simultaneously Frazzled and Fragile: Surviving a Culture of Overachievement

It’s getting to the point where I’d almost rather not draw attention to articles like […]

David Zahl / 4.21.15

It’s getting to the point where I’d almost rather not draw attention to articles like Frank Bruni’s “Best, Brightest–and Saddest?”. Not just because I wish their subject matter wasn’t as urgent as it is, or that their claims were more groundless, but because the whole thing has become so excruciatingly obvious. As performancism escalates, so too does its fallout, and the affected demographics only seem to be getting younger. Reading about each new upping of the ante feels like watching a massive collision unfold in slow motion, one where we’ve all had our turn at the wheel.

Bruni’s article focuses on the teenage ‘suicide clusters’ that have formed in several affluent communities in America where the pressure to achieve is at its most severe (and dehumanizing), for example in Palo Alto, CA, home of Stanford University. A high-school teacher in a suburb west of Chicago maintains that “the number of advanced-placement classes that local students feel compelled to take and the number of hospitalizations for depression rise in tandem.” Bruni is careful not to draw a one-to-one correlation between mental illness and meritocracy–Lord knows the reality is far more complicated–but he’s also not so naive as to deny any relationship between the two. He surmises:

9781627791779There’s no direct line connecting the pressures of Palo Alto and the deaths. But the community’s soul searching goes beyond those tragedies, to matters plenty important in and of themselves. Are kids here getting to be kids? Does a brand of hovering, exactingly prescriptive parenting put them in unforgiving boxes and prevent them from finding their true selves and true grit?

[A new book by former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims, How to Raise an Adult,] reflects on the shortfalls of some modern parenting, which, in her view, can be not only overprotective but overbearing, micromanaging the lives of children, pointing them toward specific mile markers of achievement and denying them any time to flail or room to fail. They wind up simultaneously frazzled and fragile.

“The suicides are tragic, but they are at the pointy head of the pyramid, the tippy top,” she said. “Beneath them is a larger number of kids who are really struggling and beneath them is an even larger number of kids who feel an amount of stress and pressure that they shouldn’t be made to and that’s untenable.”

Here is what Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School, recently wrote: “As I sit in my room staring at the list of colleges I’ve resolved to try to get into, trying to determine my odds of getting into each, I can’t help but feel desolate.” She confessed to panic attacks in class, to menstrual periods missed as a result of exhaustion. “We are not teenagers,” she added. “We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning.”

Adam Strassberg, a psychiatrist and the father of two Palo Alto teenagers, wrote that while many Palo Alto parents are “wealthy and secure beyond imagining,” they’re consumed by fear of losing that perch or failing to bequeath it to their kids. “Maintaining and advancing insidiously high educational standards in our children is a way to soothe this anxiety,” he said.


That last paragraph is a doozie. Clearly reason doesn’t play much of a role here, which is ironic, since education is the presenting motivation. But parents can’t and shouldn’t bear full blame–these kids (and their teachers) are not automatons. The deeper, less circumstantial point has to do with the inverse relationship that appears to exist between success and serenity, accomplishment and contentedness. In the places where this mindset has taken deepest root–where the culture of achievement is most ‘roided-out’–the fallout will naturally be greatest, or most tragic.

I’m pretty sure we all know this. The problem is that this knowledge has little-to-no effect on our desire to get to the top ourselves. Which is why these reports are so excruciating. They serve as incessant reminders of human bondage–not just that we don’t do what’s best for us, but that we don’t want to do what’s best for us. There’s a passage in our new publication, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), available at the end of the month, that touches on the same dynamic:

IMG_7236Ask the most successful person you know about their life, and you’ll invariably hear some form of frustration over the truth that the higher you climb, the longer the ladder gets. How else to 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?

Of course, it’s dangerous to dismiss these anxieties as the trappings of “privilege”. “Downward mobility” petrifies people on all rungs of the social hierarchy, not just those at the summit. What’s happening in these supposedly rarified enclaves should be an invitation to renewed compassion rather than more judgment. As Paul wrote in Galatians: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”

“Cursed” has always struck me as such a strong word, certainly an archaic one, but the more of these articles I read–and the more I experience the accusation within myself–the more appropriate I find it to be. How else to characterize a situation where young people describe themselves as “lifeless bodies”, reduced to points on a graph, sums in a spreadsheet, checks in a box? Oy vey. 

I’m not sure how anyone could ask for–or would want!–a wider opening for the message of ‘justification by grace through faith’. Meaning, we’re living in a context where you don’t have to work very hard to make the message about a merciful God connect. Not when the world seems to grow more merciless with each fresh admission cycle, and the marks against us harder and harder to erase. Any shred of non-performancism–what Dorothy Martyn calls “non-contingent, compassionate alliance”–cannot help but stand out.

The image of grace that has helped me most in recent days–the one I used in Tyler, NYC, and A Mess of Help–is that of Paul Westerberg, lead singer and songwriter of The Replacements, Minneapolis’ most notorious ‘band who could save your life’. Just after Paul’s father died in 2004, he wrote a eulogy for the man. The song, “My Dad”, included a telling bit of trivia: the fact that his father never saw him play a concert. Such an admission might imply a lack of love, but to Paul, it was the opposite. He remarked to an interviewer at the time:

“I’ve always maintained—and I still to this day—I’m perfectly fine that [my father] never came to my office and watched me work, you know? It kept it pure that I was his son, that I was no more than the little boy he played catch with, who now plays catch with his son.”

What an incredible thing to say. So many father-son relationships, even the good ones, contain an element of proving, some sense of what constitutes an acceptable ‘slate’. Doubtless theirs did too, in other ways. Yet that’s not what came across to Paul. What came across is that his father loved him apart from his celebrity or his achievements. He got ‘a kick’ out of seeing the family name in the newspaper but that’s all.

Paul couldn’t possibly be more to his father than he already was. It may be a small glimmer of hope but it points beyond itself.

Which brings me back to this past weekend, and our new project. One of my favorite paragraphs comes from the end of the ‘Gospel’ section:

In a life governed by the law, threat of judgment looms over every endeavor. In a life governed by the Gospel, nothing that needs to be done hasn’t already been done. Or as Martin Luther so famously wrote in thesis 23 of the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), “the law says ‘do this’, and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this’ and everything is already done.” Perhaps it is enough to say that the Law reveals that we need to be forgiven; the Gospel announces we have been forgiven. Full stop.

In other words, whether we feel it or not, the pressure to self-justify that drives so much of our striving and exhaustion and dread has been removed, once and for all. The various not-enoughnesses—real and perceived–have been absolved, the curtain of the temple torn in two, the smeary, smudged slate of our lives cracked in half and replaced with not a cleaned one, but a perpetually new one.

The resultant freedom is far from fragile. It is the freedom to die and yet to live, to fail and yet succeed. The freedom to play, to serve, to love, to laugh, to wait, to work, yes, even to be frazzled. But most all the freedom to be… free.


8 responses to “Simultaneously Frazzled and Fragile: Surviving a Culture of Overachievement”

  1. Sarah Condon says:

    Saw it in Tyler! Saw it in NYC! Own the book! Still grateful for the post. Thanks for this, DZ. I keep thinking about the image of a son playing catch with his father. He was enough. Makes me think of Dr. Kalanithi and his daughter. She was enough. Gracias.

  2. This reminds me of a recent article in the Washington Post, which included this quote from a 2013 graduate of the College of William & Mary: “. . . a feeling of worthlessness, of suffocation, of loneliness. This is what I felt, to a lesser extent, during my time on campus. I felt the need to constantly prove myself — the need to show that I belonged to this renowned college and was worthy of both its academics and its people. I know what it’s like to have to keep up — and to feel like a failure when I don’t.”

    Here’s a link to the full article:

  3. tanya says:

    This s terrific — and I can’t help but think how much socio-economic class plays into this dynamic. If you’ve grown up with the idea that enjoyment of life requires the opportunity for travel, ski vacations and regular opportunities to see Broadway shows, — then you don’t think you’ll be okay with a state school degree and a nurse’s salary. You know you can’t provide those things for your own kids if you go for “good enough.” Your sights are set on a top law firm or a silicon valley career. And besides personal enrichment, the drive to “change the world” — through the connections and opportunities available at an Ivy League school — operates even for selfless students.

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