On Building in a Therapeutic Age
Influencer culture ultimately feeds the therapeutic machine.
I hate Instagram and I love it. I get a kick out of following those accounts where you’ll watch a toddler who refuses to move or a teen who leaves their dirty towels just inches from a laundry basket. I love following along with friends from around the world. I like to slip into reels about Edinburgh and imagine myself walking those streets again. Social media can make us feel less alone. And yet, why is that and what are we giving up when we engage in this way?
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Yet our use of social media seems to promise connection but more often delivers alienation, envy, and ultimately a sense of never measuring up. While we can put limits on technology, I’m more concerned with how our practices are forming us around issues of truth, justice, mercy, and grace. We have been formed to be consumers and ultimate authority makers in a therapeutic age.
What is this therapeutic age? Philip Rieff, whose trilogy on the therapeutic age I’m just dipping my toes into, spoke about a therapeutic age as the real revolution of the 20th century. A helpful primer on Rieff notes:
In a therapeutic culture, authority disappears. In place of theology and ethics, we are left with aesthetics and the social sciences. Thus, therapeutic culture was born. This tradeoff would turn out to be so destructive that Rieff would describe the United States and Western Europe (rather than the Soviet Union) as the epicenter of Western cultural deformation.1
That is, when we’ve got a messed up view of authority, we all suffer for it. And there is no anchor any longer to tether us to an identity beyond ourselves. When we do not know what to do with power or authority or institutions more generally, we default to the authority of the self. And the sorts of power and influence that the self will always gravitate towards this side of Eden is one which ultimately glorifies the self. Today, we are left rootless.
Authority and power are not uncomplicated. Neither are they monolithic. The abuse of power in the church is particularly egregious given that those in authority are meant to create havens for the most vulnerable as testament to the life-changing nature of the gospel and what kind of god God is (for insance, the widow, the fatherless and the orphan are again and again mentioned in scripture as the responsibility of the body of Christ). But the answer to our complicated nature of power and authority cannot be to simply question or tear down power or authority generally — as if power and authority themselves were evil.
But we are seeing precisely this. Institutional power is dismantled while softer forms of power, the social media influencer, thrive. (This is not to say that institutional power is always bent towards the common good! It is to say we need to have conversations about forms of power and the ends to which they’re used). Influencer culture ultimately feeds the therapeutic machine. While we’ve seen the abuse of authority in every sphere of life — from politics to entertainment to pastors, churches, and humanitarian aid organizations — we have to ask if feeding the therapeutic machine is really the answer to the breakdown of trust and authority?
Influencer culture ultimately feeds the therapeutic machine.
What is this therapeutic machine and where do we see it? When I speak of the therapeutic, it is about what stories are we telling that endlessly center the self. When I speak about a “machine” that is to say the systems and structures we use that undergird the self as the moral center in contemporary Western culture. What relation does this have to therapy and to social media generally?
Therapy can be necessary and important to help a person unpack where they’ve come from and where they’d like to go. I’ve had counselors, therapists, and spiritual directors who have been lifelines. It’s important to have compassionate listeners. But when therapy goes online, things get weird (I’m not talking about a zoom with your therapist). When we go to our social media influencers of choice — whether they’re writers, speakers, therapists, mommy bloggers, or something else — for the sort of care and attention that is meant to be provided one-on-one but instead is provided en masse, it’s impossible to be cared for.
Care implies attention to the weak and vulnerable and when we make the weak and vulnerable a monolithic demographic — let’s say those who have experienced trauma or #churchhurt— we aren’t really paying attention. We’re content creators. We’re shooting aphorisms into the sky and seeing what lands.
Beyond that, when we build up platforms singing only one note — and a note that always points the finger at someone else — we are feeding the machine of the therapeutic age. On Instagram, we’ve commodified intimacy, vulnerability, and therapy. What began as a moment of feeling seen has now become a steady diet. We hear what we want to hear. We follow whom we want to follow. We never see ourselves as a part of the problem.
For instance, I see lots of women in their thirties, forties, and fifties following the Brene-Brown-type-guru. Brown is a researcher; she held down an academic post and only went viral in 2010 when she communicated her research on shame in a TED talk (which has been viewed over 59 million times since). Since then, she’s left teaching, has a staff, got a cute new haircut, and Google tells me her net worth is between 3-5 million dollars. Her research on shame and vulnerability and her ability to translate for the public is amazing. What isn’t amazing, though? How we have taken some of what people like Brown have studied and then commodified things like shame and vulnerability, while also taking them out of a local conversations, and largely left the church out of it. That is, we’ve short-changed research and made it into a soundbite and something that will fit on a square grid to make us feel okay about ourselves.
And those content creators? The ones that “make it” learn to commodify their messages. They hit the same note. Use the same hashtags. They don’t tend to show growth unless it’s away from something. As Myles Werntz said in a recent conversation, “breaking things apart is good money.”
So faced with each individual Instagram user consuming someone like Brown’s content, we become high priests of our own meaning-making. Shame becomes the fault of a larger system, never something for which I might be culpable. We throw around words like toxic, divorcing ourselves from the fact that we, too, might be perpetrators. In short, as we consume someone — from therapists to PhDs — we perpetuate the ideas that:
We construct ourselves from a smattering of stories about the world. We are ultimately self-constructed (just like our feeds);
We are arbiters of truth; no one other than me can tell me how to make sense of my story;
We gather other compassionate listeners who also only share the same notes, meaning that our community life is truncated;
Our limits are excuses and never invite us deeper into the story of grace (for when I am weak, I am strong, Paul said);
We functionally disallow for grace, mercy, repentance, and forgiveness; such would require us to give up the other three tenets.
Grace can never upend us in a therapeutic age. The violence of grace that Flannery O’Connor wrote of so well about can never kill the evil inside us because, in a therapeutic age, how we see the world is how we see ourselves. And the self is never wrong.
If we are going to be people of grace, we’ve got to find ways to not feed ourselves a steady diet of creators, consumers, or influencers that ultimately always point us to ourselves as the answer to our ills.
Grace renews, restores, and reconciles. But it always does so through death — the death of a seed is required for new life to grow. But after death, grace also always, always builds. It’s true, you can make money tearing down, but building is harder. It requires a clear-eyed and humble look at oneself, seeing how one is not immune to the problems at hand, and choosing to look with the eyes of hope. It requires a hope that has made peace with proximate justice as Steven Garber says:
Proximate justice realizes that something is better than nothing. It allows us to make peace with some justice, some mercy, all the while realizing that it will only be in the new heaven and new earth that we find all our longings finally fulfilled, that we will see all of God’s demands finally met. It is only then and there we will see all of the conditions for human flourishing finally in place, socially, economically, and politically. 2
This is the work of building. It’s not easy nor pretty. It’d be easier for me to simply rail on Instagram and, while I may try to unpack these things a bit more, it’s easy to point the finger at a thing. But the problems are never easy. Moreover, the problems are never just “out there,” they are always also “in here.” I’m tempted to sell out. I’m tempted to hit one note. I’m guilty of consuming people’s lives online and being a bit snobbish about my tastes. But I’m also a firm believer that grace can upend me, too. I’m a firm believer that Jesus will build his church so I best be on about building, too.
The possibility of building only comes from a giving up — giving up reins of one’s life as if it were a curated feed; giving up one’s own experience as the definition of truth (and instead welcoming God to make those lines); giving up only groups of affinity as a definition of community; and leaning in to our limits as an invitation to know God and make him known (rather than use our limits as an excuse).
I don’t want to be a part of the therapeutic machine. I want to do the things I’m best at — which here means reading, writing, thinking and drawing patterns of relation — so we can all see ourselves more clearly. Then, I pray, we’ll be able to take the log out of our own eyes and be upended by a transformative grace that gives us courage not just to tear down, but to build.
To that end, practically — a few things:
I’m hopeful to make sure I’m showing up to this Substack at least once a week. I want to build something. Something thoughtful, generative, and full of whimsy. I won’t hit just one note; I’ll share about my reading habits, things I’m thinking about in the world, and trends I’m seeing. I hope you’ll join me.
The content here and elsewhere will concern itself more with ideas and trends; some of the devotional or formational content will also live on — but think of me less as your IG gal pal;
I’ll be less online as I’m settling into life locally on the central coast of California, taking up a role advising a Board of a Christian college, starting a think tank, and doing some production work (more to come on all of those later!);
Listen in to the Finding Holy Podcast for thoughtful conversations about the deepest things that matter. Recent episodes include: Episode 129 with Amanda Held Opelt on making room for grief; Episode 128 with Lore Wilbert on a curious faith; Episode 127 with Andrew Arndt on Ancient practices for faith in the wilderness. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts or listen here.
Thanks for being here. Thanks for building.