But across most of history, you didn’t require a grasp of the finer points of a Puritan worldview to understand the simple secular reality that if you didn’t work hard, you were going to die, soon. God is love; winter is not.
Human flourishing, in Aristotle’s term, is won through the recognition of what you ought to be and the hard work of doing the things that are fitting for you as a human to do in service of others. There’s an ancient corollary to that idea: “He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray,” the book of Proverbs warns.
This crisis of idleness and passive drift is profound for every citizen of this republic. For this nation is premised on the idea that the government exists not to define and secure the good, the true, and the beautiful, but rather to maintain a framework for ordered liberty—so that free people can pursue their happiness in the diverse ways that they see fit.
Unfortunately, centralized education bureaucrats tend to see every failure as a product of still not enough centralized bureaucracy. Most of these experts are blind to the possibility that perhaps we are still trying to spoon-feed young adults who we should instead nudge to travel and to read, to work and to become the kind of students who ask questions before being handed a three-point formulaic answer.
What’s true for marriage or for animal flight training is truer still for coming of age. Teenagers need help. Growing up is actual, hard work. I would venture to guess that most of our teens don’t need more therapy or more antidepressants. They need direction about how to acquire the habits essential for navigating adulthood, and experiences that introduce and instill those habits.
We are fashioned to redeem our time on earth. As such, we need to make our days matter, make them meaningful. Adults need to pause to reflect. We need to “escape” the tyranny of the urgent and the loud.
Unless you are dead or in the process of withering away in front of your screen the way so many millions of us do, there’s an imperative in your soul to unpack life and its endless mysteries. This is an active, not a passive, pursuit. For people who are alive, really alive, their brains are in motion.
A plea for self-discipline and self-control is the one and only dignified alternative to discipline and control from without. For in this broken world of lawless souls, there will be control; there will be government. Order-seeking and security-seeking people, as well as those in search of power for their own purposes, will invariably seek to hold back the chaos of the world. The question is whether people will control themselves or submit to the control of another.
Lincoln’s “silver frame” of Constitutionalism enables many competing pursuits of happiness. Liberty empowers individuals and local communities to make their own choices. Liberty does not mandate how you live, but it does make a grand claim about your dignity and your unalienable rights—and therefore by implication it urges you to embrace a creed affirming the dignity and natural rights of everyone across the globe.