“From time to time a man enters into your life who, by his appearance, his behavious and his words, intimates in a dramatic way the condition of modern man. Such a man was Peter for me. He came to ask for help, but at the same time he offered a new understanding of my own world! Peter is twenty-six years old. His body is fragile; his face, framed in long blond hair, is thin with a city pallor. His eyes are tender and radiate a longing melancholy. His lips are sensual, and his smile evokes an atmosphere of intimacy. When he shakes hands he breaks through the formal ritual in such a way that you feel his body as really present. When he speaks, his voice assumes tones that ask to be listend to with careful attention.
As we talk, it becomes clear that Peter feels as if the many boundaries that give structure to life are becoming increasingly vague. His life seems a drifting over which he has no control, a life determined by many known and unknown factors in his surroundings. The clear distinction between himself and his milieu is gone and he feels that his ideas and feelings are not really his; rather, they are brought upon him. Sometimes he wonders: “What is fantasy and what is reality?” Often he has the strange feeling that small devils enter his head and create painful and anxious confusion. He also does not know whom he can trust and whom not, what he shall do and what not, why to say “yes” to one and “no” to another. The many distinctions between good and bad, ugly and beautiful, attractive and repulsive, are losing meaning for him. Even to the most bizarre suggestions he says: “Why not? Why not try something I have never tried? “Why not have a new experience, good or bad?”
In the absence of clear boundaries between himself and his milieu, between fantasy and reality, between what to do and what to avoid, it seems that Peter has become a prisoner of the now, caught in the present without meaningful connections with his past or future. When he goes home he feels that he enters a world that has become alien to him. The words his parents use, their questions and concerns, their aspirations and worries, seem to belong to another world, with another language and another mood. When he looks into his future everything becomes one big blur, an impenetrable cloud. He finds no answers to why he lives and where he is heading. Peter is not working hard to reach a goal, he does not look forward to the fulfillment of a great desire, nor does he expect that something great or important is going to happen. He looks into empty space and is sure of only one thing: If there is anything worthwhile in life it must be here and now.
I did not paint this portrait of Peter to show you a picture of a sick man in need of psychiatric help. No, I think Peter’s situation is in many ways typical of the condition of modern men and women. Perhaps Peter needs help, but his experiences and feelings cannot be understood merely in terms of individual psychopathology. They are part of the historical context in which we all live, a context which makes it possible to see in Peter’s life the signs of the times, which we too recognise in our own life experiences, What we see in Peter is a painful expression of the situation of what I call ‘nuclear man.’
…Nuclear man is a man who has lost naive faith in the possibilities of technology and is painfully aware that the same powers that enable man to create new lifestyles carry the potential for self-destruction…
…Only when man feels himself responsible for the future can he have hope or despair, but when he thinks of himself as the passive victim of an extremely complex technological bureaucracy, his motivation falters and he starts drifting from one moment to the next, making life a long row of randomly chained incidents and accidents.
When we wonder why the language of traditional Christianity has lost its liberating power for nuclear man, we have to realize that most Christian preaching is still based on the presupposition that man sees himself as meaningfully integrated with a history in which God came to us in the past, is living under us in the present, and will come to liberate us in the future.
…A preaching and teaching still based on the assumption that man is on his way to a new land filled with promises, and that his creative activities in this world are the first signs of what he will see in the hereafter, cannot find a sounding board in a man whose mind is brooding on the suicidal potentials of his own world…Obviously the level of awareness and visibility is different in different people, but I hope you will recognize in your own experiences and the experiences of your friends some of the traits which are so visible in Peter’s life style. And this recognition might also help you to realize that Christianity is not just challenged to adapt itself to a modern age, but is also challenged to ask itself whether its unarticulated suppositions can still form the basis of its redemptive pretensions.”
– Henri Nouwen ‘The Wounded Healer”