Legend has it that G. K. Chesterton, asked by a newspaper reporter what was wrong with the world, skipped over all the expected answers. He said nothing about corrupt politicians or ancient rivalries between warring nations, or the greed of the rich and the covetousness of the poor. He left aside street crime and unjust laws and inadequate education. Environmental degradation and population growth overwhelming the earth's carrying capacity were not on his radar. Neither were the structural evils that burgeoned as wickedness became engrained in society and its institutions in ever more complex ways.

What's wrong with the world? As the story goes, Chesterton responded with just two words: "I am."

His answer is unlikely to be popular with a generation schooled to cultivate self-esteem, to pursue its passions and chase self-fulfillment first and foremost. After all, we say, there are reasons for our failures and foibles. It's not our fault that we didn't win the genetic lottery, or that our parents fell short in their parenting, or that our third-grade teacher made us so ashamed of our arithmetic errors that we gave up pursuing a career in science. Besides, we weren't any worse than our friends, and going along with the gang made life a lot more comfortable. We have lots of excuses for why things go wrong, and—as with any lie worth its salt—most of them contain some truth.

Still, by adulthood, most of us have an uneasy sense of self. Whatever we try to tell ourselves, something in us knows that we don't measure up to our own standards, let alone anyone else's. Even if we think we've done rather well, all things considered, there remains a looming conclusion to our ...

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