The Real Risk of Our Times—“Atoms Floating in the Void”

Like many others before him, Brandon McGinley argues that our culture has become increasingly risk-adverse in an attempt to shield our kids from hard things. Some have linked this tendency towards safetyism to the rise in mental health problems, particularly in younger generations, Gen Z and even Millennials. In the course of this discussion McGinley makes an off-handed remark that I found intriguing. He writes: While Americans continue to valorize economic risk-taking in the form of entrepreneurship, risks that more directly implicate day-to-day autonomy are increasingly stigmatized: injury, illness, pregnancy.”

I think I agree with McGinley—we are not completely risk-averse. We are selective in a very specific way. Risks that might increase our autonomy or status the culture encourages. Risks that might impede on our self-sufficiency, our desire to do what we want when we want,” or require us to rely on others or vice versa are discouraged.

This distinction seems to fit with the world I see around me: Marriage rates are falling, people are no longer becoming parents, it’s becoming culturally appropriate to cut toxic” people from your life mercilessly. What these all have in common is that they involve relational risk. What’s interesting to me is that these risks that threaten our autonomy are the very things that might be good for our mental health (with all the caveats concerning discernment on an individual and situational basis).

I know that for me three of the most scary decisions I’ve ever made involved major sacrifices to my autonomy: getting married, having a child, and having a second child. There’s no going back once you make the jump, especially with kids, so it’s not hard to understand the hesitation. But you do start to wonder if we have come to value our freedom” and autonomy” to an unhealthy extreme.

This desire to belong to ourselves”, as Alan Noble would phrase it isn’t what humans are made for. Human flourishing involves relationships—perhaps our children aren’t flourishing because we aren’t encouraging them to take risks in relationships or we are so focused on their economic success that we don’t talk about meaning that can be found in relationships? And perhaps the American economic values of autonomy, efficiency, and production are actually at odds with what humans need, like love,recognition, and belonging.

For much of history we weren’t capable of surviving as autonomous individuals. There was simply too much work to do, too much danger for one person to survive on their own—forsaking family and their local community. Technology is what enables us to life as individuals, Jean Twenge argues. Perhaps, technology has enabled our individualistic values to go so far that it has turned us so inward that we can’t see how the risk of connection is worth it.

What does a fully autonomous and self-sufficient life even look like? I think we are seeing that experiment being tested in much of our society today. Everywhere people are risking meaning, purpose, and interdependence to live an unburdened” life and where is it really taking them? Is this really the life we want to live?

A life lived with others certainly carries it’s own burdens but let’s stop pretending like shirking every burden” that might impinge on our lives and time isn’t a massive risk. It’s just the risk we like to ignore.

What do you think? Do you see risk-aversion being limited to certain areas?

Atoms floating in the void” comes from Parker Palmer’s book on the spirituality of education To Know as We are Known.” This is a book that I’m planning on doing a series on in the very near future.

Follow up with these interesting articles:


I also seriously wonder about how we are constantly encouraging people to not find meaning in parenting because your child will leave you. I’m not entirely sure where else to find meaning if it’s not through the most important work that I’ll ever do, even if it’s just seasonal.” Seasonality is a part of reality and shouldn’t discourage us from finding meaning wherever we can.

Also finding meaning in your job is dangerous—what if you no longer can work. As is finding meaning in happiness—that is too ephemeral. I won’t pretend that people can’t find meaning that is worth having without religion, because I think people can, but I think that most stable” forms of meaning come from the realization that you are not your own,” whether you are serving others, serving the planet, or serving God.

And what of the people that can’t serve”? That question just begs another—How are you defining serve” and why so narrowly?

April 7, 2024