I am generation X. I am the generation raised by the baby boomers. They were the children of those who survived the fallout of the Great Depression and the Second World War. The greatest generation, as they were called, emerged out of a world of fear and deprivation. The boomers who became their children reacted against this self-denial and fear. They became a selfish and rebellious group who admittedly brought their economic hunger into the consumption of the 80s. Born in the decade before, my generation developed into a rather angry and disillusioned lot. We were the first generation of the two-income household and mothers who sought equality in the workplace and whose wombs became the battlefield for women’s rights. We were the latch-key kids who developed a hard shell of ignored emotional needs. We are not better for it.
Much has been written about the Millennials, but the Gen Z group has me very concerned. These children now emerging into adulthood are the first “digital natives.” They are the first generation whose consciousness has always included a digital world. They didn’t learn to incorporate technology into their lives; they were born with it in their DNA. This generation thinks in terms of technology and encounters their world primarily through technology. Where Gen Xers ran the neighborhood, took risks at parties, and snuck out of the house in order to discover who we were, Gen Z reaches out digitally to find identity.
Who doesn’t like a good Buzzfeed quiz to discover what type of potato chip you are or a visit to Pottermore to discover which Hogwarts house you would be sorted into? These Gen Z kids are not just stopping at an MBTI quiz or surfing social media on Facebook (apparently not even angry Facebook, otherwise known as Twitter). They have a digital landscape that my generation seems unaware even exists.
I attempted to explore this landscape and hopped on TikTok (my Gen Z daughter said to start there). After I awoke from the deep trance created by a series of videos from puppies of TikTok, I realized I may have watched a puppy ride a chicken for nearly 15 minutes. What just happened, I thought. I moved on to Reddit, where I found a lot of seekers and questioners, and not a lot of solid answers were to be found. I was honestly a little depressed by how – well depressed – everyone was. YouTube was somewhat familiar territory, but K-pop videos and influencers hurt my eyes. Then, of course, there was Snapchat. I spent about 20 minutes making my Bitmoji. I took a self-esteem hit when I realized she was better dressed and honestly prettier than I am in real life. Dear Lord, I was jealous of a cartoon that I CREATED of MYSELF. I found some filters on the app and took a second self-esteem hit when I realized that my skin would never look like that in real life. I logged off of that before anyone had a chance to lore me into an Only Fans account or ask for inappropriate pictures (yes, I know what young people do with this app). Next was Instagram for another hypnotic dopamine hit of cats of Instagram with a side order of “compare and despair” by checking friends’ accounts with adorably well-dressed kids and happy family outings. Self-esteem hit again; why is my family not like that? Wait, are they even really like that? Lots more filters, and now I don’t know what is real. I stopped short of a Netflix/Disney+/Hulu binge or a trip over to Tinder. Yes, half of Tinder users are Gen Z. Talk about despair.
I have clicked and scrolled and swiped, and now I think I understand something, and I’m honestly very, very worried. Google helpfully offered some findings about this worrisome generation. They are the loneliest generation out there. They have the highest depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation rates of any generation before them. The problem is so concerning that the surgeon general issued a warning in December 2021 that there is a “Youth Mental Health Crisis.”
The task of childhood and adolescence is to figure out who you are and to look to the world and the relationships around you and see in it something reflected back at you. This reflection forms the parameters of who you are. Gen Z is seeking answers to this question in the digital landscape – a desert wasteland of compare and despair. They take their sadness to Reddit and TikTok for answers. They hide their loneliness in video games and discord friends. They seek connection in images, cam rooms, and Pornhub. They are in the digital desert, thirsty for something real and answers to the question of who they are.
The digital desert gives them answers, though, just not good ones. Who are you? Well, you are notthin enough. You are not popular enough. You are not beautiful enough. You are not desirable. You are not wanted or included. You are not the right kind of something. You are not enough.
The despair and compare is intoxicating like heroine. The desire to know how to be good enough is met with the diminishing returns of a drug that no longer gives you that fix of dopamine in the same way. Returning to the well of desire, you are left less and less satisfied, which drives you to return sooner and longer to find something to numb the pain – and it’s not puppy videos.
This digital world seeks to define you by your deficiency. The truth is, your identity is not your deficiency. You are not what you think you are lacking. Today’s culture is seeking more and more to define you by tribal identity. To cut you up into pronouns and an alphabet soup (LGBTQI+, BIPOC, AAPI, pick your flag). The problem is not that the culture is seeking to describe and consider the experience of various groups, but that it seeks to reduce a person to a label or description – and only these things. These identity politics fail to honor the whole person who is dynamic and multidimensional.
There was another person for whom we can see the pain of this phenomenon. We find her in John Chapter 4. She is the Samaritan woman at the well. The story begins, John tells us, with Jesus going through Samaria. Most Jews of his time would go around Samaria. They were the wrong kind of people. They had intermarried with the invading Assyrians and taken on false idols. They were unclean and did not worship in the Temple. However, Jesus goes directly through. In fact, it seems like he sought the encounter that followed.
He sits and waits at the well, a place to find love as Isaac, Jacob, and Moses had, and it is noon John tells us. Noon is not the best time to get water at the well. It was hot, and women no doubt gathered early to fetch water and chatted about their lives. Here though, is a woman, alone at noon.
We soon learn why. Jesus asks her for a drink of water. The woman responds with surprise. She tells her Creator who she is (the irony is breathtaking). She is a woman, a Samaritan. She is the wrong kind of thing. She is defining herself by her deficiency. Jesus is undaunted.
The woman who walked in the heat of the noon-day sun also walked burdened by her shame. Jesus sees this. He now enters into her shame with his next question. He asks her to go get her husband. He knows the answer to this request, but he asks anyway. She replies that she has no husband, and Jesus responds that this is true. He says she has had five husbands and the one she is with now is not her husband. Jesus names her pain. She is unwanted and rejected.
You need to feel it in order to heal it. Jesus offers her living water. This is in contrast to the well of desire and shame she has returned to over and over to numb the pain. She has offered her body and her heart to man after man. She has received rejection and shame. She will be thirsty again, Jesus tells her. Her thirst is increased each time she returns to the well of broken relationships and the temporal satisfaction of the flesh, like today’s Gen Z’s returning to the well of digital solutions to the problem of loneliness and despair.
She defined herself as being fallen, unwanted, rejected, and ashamed. Now her shame is laid open. Jesus does not reveal her sins to shame her but to let her know that he sees her. He sees her. Nothing is hidden. He sees her now and always has. Knowing her sins, he sought her out. He waited for her. Amazingly, He reveals Himself to her and reveals her to herself. You are not your mistakes. You are not your deficiency. She is the first person to which he reveals His identity as the Messiah. The next and last time He reveals this is at His trial.
Photina, as tradition recalls her name, discovered the joy of being fully known by God. She runs to tell others to come meet the man who told her everything she ever did. She is unburdened by shame. She knows who she is and is full of joy.
So, who are you, Gen Z? Why do you continue to seek solutions in places where you will undoubtedly be thirsty again for answers? The pleasures and the distractions of the digital desert will never fully satisfy. They will only increase your thirst for what is real. You will not find answers there. You will not find identity there. It cannot be found separate from the one who waits for you to ask Him for living water.
You are His, and you are enough. That is who you are. He ceaselessly seeks you. He is the beloved waiting at the well full of desire for you. He knows the shame and hurt that burdens you, and he seeks you still. See what He sees in you. This is the fullness of your identity.
This is Divine intimacy . . . “into me, you see.” See what He sees. You are wonderfully made, beautiful, and beloved to Him. He is also waiting for you to know Him. And by knowing Him, you will fully come to know who you are, and you will be ready to leave the desert.