“I can’t explain it,” he said as he let his head sink deeper into his pillow, “I just feel sad.” I paused for a moment, resisting the temptation to lead, and waited for him to find his voice.
“I tried to think about it and to find a reason, but there is no reason. I just feel really sad right now.”
My son is twelve going on thirteen in November. I remember that his sister – who is now almost fifteen – experienced a similar tsunami of inexplicable emotions at this age. The convergence of a maturing neurobiology and an enriched upbringing, the movement from concrete to formal operational thinking (Jean Piaget). Suddenly, the floodgates of abstraction open up allowing emotions to bleed into one another, to catalyze the formation of unfamiliar and grotesque shapes and colours, like monsters groping their way out of the putrid swamps between our organs.
“I don’t know why I’m sad, I just feel this way all the time.”
When I hear my children speak of their sadness, as the grinder of consciousness polishes the lens of their gaze and the terror of reality gradually comes into focus, I wonder if I’ve somehow infected them with my “grubbing in rat-holes instead of living in the light” (William James).
Children are forced into being by the selfish will of their parents and deliberately weaned off the comfort of their nativity. Eric Fromm speaks of individuation. From fetus to adulthood, a person is forcibly cut from connection and dependence, they’re molded, shaped, pruned from the universal and abandoned at the doorstep of loneliness. Certainty gives way to doubt. Naivete to knowing. Protection to vulnerability.
If left to ponder our plight in silence, the sensation of being adrift at sea, unmoored, can feel unbearable. So we keep ourselves preoccupied with narratives of connection and swaddle our children in the quilt of kinship so that the wandering heart may know a home, until —
Until that child becomes self and the blankets that once comforted them are now bereft of meaning – only their nostalgia remains. The loneliness cannot be avoided, only delayed and diminished, especially in this place, this factory of freedom where individuation is accelerated, celebrated, honoured, enforced, the individual toils with grit and ambition to excel in this world, to reap the benefits of his self-made success and to be recognized as one who holds tenaciously to the reigns of his own fate. Reliant on no one. A lone mountaineer encamped at the peak of accomplishment.
But the maverick is soon confronted with silence and loneliness. The cold wind chills his skin. A horrible moaning echoes from the abyss that surrounds him. Terrified, he sets out to leave this place, to escape from the hell of freedom.
“The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self.”Eric Fromm
However, the twelve-year old before me isn’t really faced with all that just yet. As I sat with him in that moment, I figured that maybe it wasn’t the right time to reason through his Fear and Trembling (Kierkegaard), or to explore the Ethics of Ambiguity (Simone de Beauvoir), to look Beyond Good and Evil (Nietzsche), or to consider Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl).
This was the time to lean into feelings.
“These emotions are good, you’re entering higher states of consciousness. Soon you’ll become aware of reality in ways that weren’t apparent to you before.”
I wish I had said something like that. What I actually said was a bit more clunky, less confident. I wish I had said something more profound like, “…the evil facts … are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth” (William James). Instead, I mumbled a chain of inadequate and, perhaps, empty assurances.
“It’s okay to feel this way. It’s normal.”
Parenting doesn’t come easily to me. What I really want to do is convey to my kids the awesome grandeur of life or the mystic underbelly of nature. I want to instill in them a desire to embody yearning and to ever lust after Faith or a deeper connection with the Divine, to encounter Revelation with earnestness, to resolve the tension between certitude and doubt with the facility of a seasoned surfer – not with the aim of conquering either, but to accept that these are, together, the conditions of living.
“It felt more like you were an observer, watching yourself surfing while the surfing was doing itself.”Tony Butt
But how can I convey all of that when these things have failed to germinate within me? Maybe a more courageous version of myself would endeavor to explore these things with them, to take a chance on life, brimming with love. Yet I’m stifled by the cynicism of my father. The hardened heart that resists, fearful of being taken for a fool, duped into pursuing a fiction that would have me bound in chains, on display before the mob in a state of indignity.
“Everything that’s happening is just too much.” This is his disclosure, my son. His sister has reported the same, but she displays a greater degree of resilience (although this gives me reason for worry as well). This disclosure, that it’s all just too much, makes me wonder if their suffering is not something more than the inevitable individuation and coming into consciousness that occurs for us all.
It makes me wonder if there is something collective occurring for children becoming adults in times like these. What traumas have they experienced? What burdens do they bear? Is the angst of existence even more unbearable for this cohort? Did we, the generations before not only set into motion systems of injustice, ecological degradation, and social discord, but also disenchant this world to such a degree that we’ve effectively dissolved the narratives that once gave us courage? Reasons to persist?
In an age of unpredictable violence perpetrated through terrorism and mass shootings.
An age when living corpses ravaged by opioids multiply in our cities and towns.
When increasing numbers of people have been and will be forcibly displaced as a result of war and conflict.
An age when anthropogenic climate change looms like a dark cloud on their horizon, literally polluting their dreams and aspirations with the smog of our inaction.
When global epidemics of infectious diseases poison the air they breathe, resulting in further isolation, distance, and constant vigilance.
How is a child to feel in times like these?
How are they to feel while the adults they look to for direction and guidance squabble over ideology like toddlers in a tug-of-war over pencil crayons. Grown men and women parading down highways and occupying cities in trucks decorated with profanity and misinformation, spewing gallons of hatred into the public sphere while emitting tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
And while libertarian capitalism keeps the engines running in protest, our children watch the numbers on gas station signs go up and up and up, they hear the talk of unaffordable housing, the rising cost of food, inflation, and unstable global supply chains.
They carry the burden of all of this. They are bombarded by these facts and realities from minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour. The ubiquity of information and media exposure, unhealthy habits of consumption and self-exhibition, these have been guaranteed by two inseparable technologies: Social media and smartphones.
The accessibility of mass communication platforms makes the bad worse, the ideal more desirable, and the everyday “Goodness” of common life less apparent as we’re all hiding in our private spaces, observing the world through pixels.
The 9/11 attacks occured in 2001. Facebook was founded in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, the iPhone in 2007: the same year my daughter was born. My son arrived in 2009, “the year technology changed us.” It’s hard to imagine a time before these things, but it really wasn’t that long ago.
For our children, however, it’s all they’ve ever known, and while pandemics, social movements, supply chains, anthropogenic climate change, international conflicts, and economics are all powered by the marriage of Globalization and Capitalism, the addition of social media and smartphone technology demands our participation. At the very least, we have all become spectators to a process spinning out of control, a race to the bottom, and no single narrative is privileged by destiny.
“I’m scared, dad, there’s just so much going on. I’m worried about the future.” Legitimate concerns expressed by a 21st century child.
What is a parent to do? I’m sure there are many ways to handle this, but you can’t come off as disingenuous. You can’t tell your children stories that you don’t sincerely believe in – they know you too well. They can spot your bullshit a mile away. So what do I say? What do I sincerely believe that will inspire them with hope, to build their resilience, to make the tragedy less intolerable and the possibilities more apparent?
“Whatever can happen.” It’s worth pausing on the word, “can.” It connotes the potential for something. Potential implies that there’s something stored up in concentration, contained somewhere but obscured from view, and it only needs a modest spark, something to trigger it into actuality. The future can be beautiful.
I need to convey to them that an optimistic outcome was never promised. Those who expect a red carpet or who try to create for themselves a fantasy of uninterrupted delights, they are the deluded ones who will be struck with disappointment at every turn, will despair in all that is deplorable.
“Lean into the melancholy and then lean into joy. Lean into doubt and then lean into faith.”
The world is not inherently Just, but potentially so. I need to get this across. Life is everything they will ever know, everything they’ll ever feel. In the struggle between potential and actuality is where we find our humanity, our meaning, our purpose to continue.
“From the cork to the supernova, the wonders do not cease. It’s our attentiveness that is in short supply, our ability and willingness to do the work that awe requires.”John Green, Anthropocene Reviewed (October 2019)