(Fr. Michael P. Orsi) — Present conditions in our country recall the famous 1979 speech in which then-President Jimmy Carter described America as being in a state of “malaise.”
Carter was addressing the atmosphere of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-oil embargo America. His appraisal of the nation’s mood was accurate, though he paid a high price for his candor. In the election of 1980, Ronald Reagan implied that Carter had essentially given up on America. He insisted Jimmy couldn’t see that, with a little political and economic tweaking, the nation’s greatest days were still ahead.
It was a lesson in practical politics. Reagan understood that what voters want isn’t gloomy truth — it’s hope. And in the years since, politicians have taken pains to be unfailingly upbeat, often unrealistically so in the extreme.
(No one has embraced this approach more enthusiastically than Donald Trump, for whom all of his ideas are the biggest, the best, and the most amazing.)
Malaise is a medical term with French roots. Technically, it applies to the feeling of debility we experience at the onset of an illness. But, as in Jimmy Carter’s usage, it’s come to describe a general sense of ill-being, a lack of focus or purpose, being in a “deep funk,” as it were.
There are many signs of malaise at present. For instance, in the post-COVID period, some 2 million people still haven’t returned to active employment. Many have chosen to drift along on what remains of the compensation provided during the pandemic lockdowns and business closings. Others get by on “gig jobs,” temporary assignments, or part-time, short-term projects, interspersed with government assistance.
Another sign of malaise is the large number of young men in the Generation Z to Millennial age range who have decided not to pursue marriage. Many (according to some surveys, as high as 60 percent) have even given up dating, choosing instead to spend their time in online gaming and viewing Internet pornography.
Young women, for their part, admit to being lonely, depressed, often angry. A corresponding 60 percent of them are given to contemplating suicide. Their lives too are spent mainly in the online world, where they’re subjected to messages and images that create doubt about their self-worth and make them feel they just don’t (and can never) measure up to unrealistic standards of female perfection.
This leaves them vulnerable to creeps who prowl the Internet in search of confused girls to exploit, often financially, sometimes physically.
These are signs of a society devoid of ambition and teetering on the brink of hopelessness.
Add to all that a pervasive and growing distrust of government and the leadership class, a sense that the stabilizing elements of our society are somehow slipping away, that we’re being manipulated, and important facts about political, economic, and social conditions withheld from us.
The banking crisis that’s unfolded in the last few days is a good illustration. Surely, this hasn’t come out of nowhere. Why is it such a surprise? Where were the knowledgeable analysts who should have been raising red flags? How were the banks allowed to go so far into dangerous financial territory?
Another example is the lack of clarity about Ukraine. We can’t get a clear picture of what’s happening. We know that thousands of Ukrainians are being killed, along with thousands of Russians. But what progress has our huge investment in arms and support gained? Is this war winnable? Is it just?
Such uncertainties add to our malaise.
The recent Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Lent (John 4) describes one of the most famous scenes in the Bible: Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.
Scripture provides the important detail that she’s drawing water at around noon, pretty much the hottest part of the day. She’s alone — not with the other local women, who would have filled their water jugs early in the morning, beating the heat, and probably sharing a few minutes of gossip and neighborly chitchat.
Her isolation becomes clear when Jesus recounts the awkward details of her life, including the immoral arrangement in which she’s living just then. This lady is experiencing her own sense of malaise, and with good reason. She’s something of an outcast. Her circumstances probably figured in the other women’s gossip.
The emphasis in recounting this little vignette is usually placed on the woman’s insight into Jesus’ special character (“Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.”). And that’s certainly appropriate, since it demonstrates how Christ was reaching out beyond the Jewish community — in this case, to Samaritans — and therefore that his message and appeal are universal.
But an equally important aspect of the story is that the woman’s astonishment at the Lord immediately pulls her out of her malaise, giving her a whole different outlook on life. Indeed, it grants her the freedom to admit her shame openly (even joyously), exclaiming to the other townsfolk how Jesus “told me everything I’ve ever done.”
In her enthusiasm, she even goes so far as to speculate, “Could this be the Messiah?” That was no easy question to raise about a Jew, someone who represented a group from which Samaritans were deeply estranged.
But it turns out to be a blessing for the entire community. The Gospel story notes that many people in town came to believe in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.
Had they been experiencing their own malaise? Well, like the old saying: “That which is most personal is most common.”
They asked Jesus to hang around for a while, and he stayed two days, after which many proclaimed him as “savior of the world.”
The lesson in this is obvious. Faith is the key to happiness.
Our society is stuck in a malaise today primarily because we lack faith. Consequently, spirit and truth elude us.
Oh yeah, there are those “sophisticates” who will dismiss the idea of malaise, insisting that societies merely go through phases, that people’s attitudes evolve, that economic conditions are cyclical, that life ebbs and flows.
That may be, but it’s beside the point. We’re stuck in a malaise because, as a nation, we have ceased to believe.
Still, there are signs of hope — small but notable. One is the recent chapel service at Asbury University, a Kentucky school in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. Prayers and singing went on spontaneously around the clock for more than two weeks, after students refused to leave, others joined them, and the media got wind of the enthusiasm.
This so-called “Asbury Revival” has inspired other outpourings of Christian fervor, indicating the thirst for religious awakening that exists throughout the country. It’s being felt in Catholic circles as well.
The Samaritan woman knew that thirst. And she asked Jesus to give her the “living water” to which he referred. We need to drink deeply of that well ourselves.
In the midst of our national malaise, let’s remember that while life may let us down, Jesus never does. He comes to our rescue.
A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV,” a weekly cable television series devoted to pro-life issues, and his writings appear in numerous publications and online journals. His TV show episodes can be viewed here.