From the time children are small parents tell them, “You can be anything if you put your mind to it,” in an attempt to encourage them to be imaginative and to pursue their dreams. Children’s books such as Snoopy’s, “You Can Be Anything” reinforce this belief. Yet there’s a myth hidden in this pop culture phrase of the last few generations. Psychologist Erica Reischer shares in her parenting article, “I see [children’s] books like “You Can Be Anything” as a mirror of our own anxieties about our children’s identities and futures. I suspect that many of us harbor the secret desire that our children’s accomplishments will reflect well on our parenting, and, more selflessly, that our children’s high achievement will guarantee their well-being.”
The shaping of human identity and how we see and engage the world is addressed in Anthony Elliott’s Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. Elliott writes about the broad strokes of society with particular interest in trending topics today (which is excellent as a professor of college students) while still majoring on social theory history, its implications and introductory stories to help comprehend the content more readily. His book is well outlined and easy to follow for anyone in the social sciences in particular, but also for the novice if they are willing to do a little work to navigate some of the terms. There are nearly no reviews debunking his text (and although I am sure I did not review all the literature, I did some serious library digging to find at least one without success) and few that discuss his latest edition. Yet, the results that came up time and again when I searched were reviews on Elliott’s other recent texts (Identity Troubles: An Introduction, and Reinvention). These texts expand on the section on globalization from Contemporary Social Theory.
So what do parent’s good but warped intentions for their children’s future and globalization have to do with one another? A lot as it turns out. As the primary people shaping their children’s identity, parents own identity will naturally bleed into their children. Part of our identity as Westerners today is living in a global individualistic culture where we believe we can have and do anything. As Elliott points out, “globalization, ironically, offers people a kind of ‘absolute freedom’ to do whatever they like. The irony is that the world of ‘everything goes’ has become crippling, as the anxiety of choice floats unhinged from both practical and ethical considerations as to what is worth pursuing.”
The globalized world is not necessarily bad or good as Elliott critiques. However, within the new individualism that has ramped up as an outcome of globalization there are emotional effects. Globalization “reshapes not only institutions and organizations but also the very fabric of identity and personal life.” Elliott continues, revealing the costs of individualism including personal confusion (lack of identity), intense anxiety, and disquieting depression.
The costs of our individualism are not self-contained. Rather we pass them to our kids, our co-workers, our friends and those we meet day-to-day. Anxiety, confusion and depression are products of the fallacy that we are limitless. The truth is (and Elliott does not discuss this), with as much access as we have to the world, we are all only able to have one body, one set of gifts, and one life we are living. As interconnected as we are able to be we still will never be anyone else, let alone everyone else.
To deny our limitations is to be deceived. “Throughout the polished, expensive cities of the West there is an emergent ‘new individualism’ centered on continual self-actualization and instant self-reinvention.” Consumerism, neo-liberalism and privatization are wielding this new individualist world with heightened anxiety as their outcome.
In April I attended a daylong church leaders conference to hear Mark Sayers present on the church and its engagement with culture. Sayers, an author, cultural commentator, and lead pastor of Red Church in Australia spoke about globalization and the placelessness in our culture today. The non-place as he called it included many of the ideas Elliott shares including the ability to choose our own identities, the light relational ties to one another and the offer of incredible freedom. But Sayers also talked about the reaction against globalization in the nationalism that has rapidly spread over the last few years. Both perspectives operate from a fragile, reactive and anxiety filled place that does not ever fulfill a person or create a sense of self-actualization. Sayers concluded by taking us to Galatians five explaining the concept of discipling anti-fragile people who are non-anxious because they live in the Kingdom by the Spirit, having crucified the flesh and its desires.
What if in encouraging children to be imaginative and to pursue their dreams we modeled a non-anxious presence of being part of the world but not consumed by it, enjoying what we have but honestly confronting our limitations, of continuing to grow in our skills but recognizing we need the gifts of others as well? What if we lived not by our flesh but in the truest sense of who we actually are, spiritual people who struggle but are willing to live as a creative minority to the dominant culture? Perhaps if we helped them to know all of who they are in Christ and recognize the boundaries of who they are not meant to be they would walk in freedom rather than anxiety in our globalized reality. I believe both children and adults desperately need mentors who will consistently walk alongside in a Christ-like differentiated presence modeling and reminding us, “The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything.”
 Elliott, Anthony. Contemporary Social Theory: An introduction. New York: Routledge, 2014. 362.
 Elliott, 360.
 Elliott, 361.
 Mark Sayers, Presentation on Strange Days. Portland: Portland Four Square Church, April 21, 2017.
 Galatians 5:24-5
 Philippians 4:6