British author Stevie Smith (1902-1971) once penned a striking poem called “Not Waving But Drowning.” The poem retells a real-life incident in which a man swimming at a beach began to drown; when his friends on the shore saw him gesticulating wildly, they misinterpreted his signals for help as cheerful waving at them:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving, but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
. . .
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
. . .
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Smith’s poem hints at the unhappy truth that human perception is flawed; that there is too often a disparity between the way we perceive someone and the reality about them. In fact, frequently what we see of another person’s life is not merely different from but totally opposed to the real story.
It was exactly this grim poem about misperception that came to my mind when I opened my Facebook page and contemplated a sickening social ill splattered like a headline across the top of my news feed.
A woman I know in her 20s was bombarding Facebook with pictures of herself kissing her boyfriend, bragging about how happy she is shacking up with this year’s bedmate. How she’s so much in love. How nothing on earth could make her happier than being the live-in girlfriend of this hottie hunk of man—unless a cure could be found for the cramps her contraception gave her from time to time.
My heart ached at this depressing situation, and yet this was only one example of an all-too-common problem: that many young people I’ve encountered appear happy and content to live on a strange level of unreality: the world of sexual license and self-serving materialism. Some have dived so deep into this secular worldview that it seems unlikely they’ll ever resurface to sanity. Atheism, agnosticism, and anti-religious sentiments are prevalent in my generation. Getting drunk is a good time; sexual sins are not sins to them; hook-ups, contraception, and gay marriage are the norm of “love”; and anyone who objects to these things is a narrow-minded bigot. They seem satisfied that their notions of true happiness apparently reach no higher than owning the newest iPhone, beating the latest video game, or achieving a romantic relationship that resembles the Twilight series.
I realized, however, that, just like the people on the shore in Stevie Smith’s poem, my perception of this situation is not quite accurate. External signs of happiness, “wavings” in which the obstinately secular flaunt before the world what they profess makes them happy (such as the hooked-up couple whose “love” is not grounded in a life-long commitment before God, or the college student who denies the existence of God and seems overjoyed at purchasing a newer piece of technology or attending the midnight premiere of the latest blockbuster)—these external trappings of happiness and high emotions are signs not of flourishing but of failing; of empty souls slowly drowning in a world flooded by materialism.
People who have plunged into this secular mindset aren’t really doing what will leave them satisfied. Alcohol, drugs, and extra-marital sex can’t actually give lasting happiness or lead to human fulfillment; they just effect a cheap imitation of joy for a very short time. And people who seek nothing higher will ultimately find themselves lost, unhappy, and restless, with bitter hearts and broken lives. The material pleasure with which they surround themselves is not happiness, but only an empty replacement for the deeper joy of vocation and virtue—and will leave the souls who embrace them still floundering for something real to cling to.
The contracepting couple without the grace of the sacrament of Marriage to keep them going in tough times probably won’t still be together when they’re middle-aged, let alone next year. The young atheists in times of suffering will fumble for some humanitarian meaning to life that will eventually leave them cold and seeking satisfaction elsewhere. Even if at the moment they seem quite content with their situation, that’s not the whole story. We don’t see the damage they’re doing to their own hearts; hearts flailing for help because they’re not yet in the right place. The tragedy is that, unlike the poet’s dead man, they don’t seem to realize it. They’ve been much too far out all their lives; and they are not waving, but drowning.