Generation Y: Narcissistic and Self-Absorbed?

•June 24, 2007 • 11 Comments

Over the last few months I’ve read many articles on “Generation Y,” and being one of that generation myself, I’m always curious when I come across such articles. Generational differences fascinate me, and I think some great anthropological studies could be done on these differences, but in the articles I read, I get a sense that the authors are often oblivious to where younger people are actually coming from, and are sometimes outright prejudiced. Of course, older generations have been lamenting the shortcomings of the younger generation for thousands of years: this is nothing new. I think we could do better, though. I’m wary of inferring that one generation is more “selfish” or “narcissistic” or “lazy” or “naive” than another. Generations express themselves in different ways. These expressions reveal nothing, in themselves, about the laziness or selfishness of a generation. “Selfish” and “lazy” are interpretations, based on the way the interpreter understands norms of social behaviour. Culture evolves, social norms change over time, situational contexts change. (Context. It’s a word I’ve used a lot lately!) Behaviour can be seen as different depending on context: many generations of people living together in Latin America, for example, where social norms are different, is often interpreted very differently than the phenomenon of young Americans living with their parents well into their 20’s. There is always a conservative strand in society that resists changing contexts, but context does inevitably change, and one’s old judgement of, say, what “immaturity” looks like can’t always be applied to new contexts.

I try to be transparent about this: I have my own agenda. I have my own vision of the world I would like to see (which hopefully includes yours since the world I want to see is diverse and inclusive of many ways of being). So, when it comes to young Americans living with their parents well into adulthood, I’m actually quite happy with this trend. There are many reasons for this. I think individualism in many ways has gone too far and that the fend-for-yourself mentality is unhealthy. This phenomenon of young adults living with their parents, as I see it, is a correction of this ultra-individualism; the possibility that we might actually be, in some ways, dependent on each other, given this ultra-individualism, is a very comforting thought to me. Also given the energy crisis and the concept of ecological footprint, perhaps we need to reconsider this idea that young people, when they reach a certain age, need to go off and live on their own. As one perceptive “boomer” of 60 said to me, there are people who have infrastructure and there are those who don’t. What’s going to need to happen increasingly, as the energy and resource crisis comes to a head, is the sharing of infrastructure.  Sharing of resources. In terms of energy and resource use it’s much more efficient for young adults and their parents (and grandparents, who may be in nursing homes?!) to live in the same household. Another reason I see this as a hopeful trend: I would agree with conservatives, there may be a crisis of family in this country, but the compartmentalising of families into such small units is now contributing to this crisis. I see this trend as potentially strengthening family ties. This generation has close bonds with our parents that our parents never had with theirs! I think the perception of many young people is: “my parents have the infrastructure already. Why can’t I use it? Why do I have to spend all this time and energy to get my own place and then waste resources when I can just live at my parents’ place?” Hopefully that perception also comes with a sense of responsibility.

I do think this attitude is sincere, as though, as I’ve said, young people who stay with their parents may do so out of immaturity, the rise of this phenomenon doesn’t mean young people are becoming less mature. (Again I think of the fundamental attribution error.) I have a sense about my generation, and I haven’t confirmed it — (it may just be the type of older people I’m familiar with) — that when people of my generation do have their own place, they’re exceedingly generous with it. They tend to be much more open about sharing their place with friends and loved ones. Compared to older generations, who I sense as putting up boundaries and declaring a sense of ownership, I see younger generations as giving up ownership for a sense of community. Just as they want to feel welcome in their parents’ house, they want family and friends to feel welcome in their own. They’re less concerned with ownership and more concerned with how the place can be shared. This, to me, is very encouraging. Immaturity and inability to take responsibility for oneself or others may be the shadow side of this, though I don’t think it applies to everybody.

There’s always a shadow. A couple months ago in the Utne Reader, there was an article about Generation Y and our self-absorbtion, especially when it comes to our presence on the Internet. It’s MySpace, my everything! Some people are clearly stereotypes of this self-absorption, and I agree, there’s no shortage of evidence for it if you spend a little time browsing MySpace. However, it’s paradoxical that many have perceived this generation as more community-oriented than past generations, but also more self-absorbed! The author of this article seemed to generalise, and I don’t think she fully grasped the relationship between young people and Internet technologies. As I recall (and I can’t find the issue to refer to it) she said we spend a lot of time talking about ourselves and bearing ourselves to the world with our hearts on our sleeves. She called that self-absorption. Self-absorption is the shadow-side of this, but the other side, I believe, is that we’re intimately in touch with ourselves. We have a lot of what Howard Gardner calls intrapersonal intelligence. We use writing and the Internet as a tool for self-growth. We understand the therapeutic importance of sharing and being heard (unlike some of older generations who seem to prefer the method of bottling it up.) I write about myself. I enjoy it, and if that makes me a narcissist, so be it. I also enjoy listening to others write about themselves. I value self-awareness and I value honesty about ourselves because that’s my understanding of how relationships are formed.

Of the articles I read, especially interesting to me was “Hey, Under-30s Crowd, Have you Overdosed on Narcissism?“, not for the article itself, but for the hundreds of interesting comments readers posted in response to it on AlterNet. For example:

nc green wrote: “Why doesn’t some enterprising researcher find out why it’s always the oldest generation, the one doing research into the evils of Generation {n+2}, that kills hundreds of thousands of innocent people for money, power and ideology? Better yet, why not study how the oldest generation always manages to guilt-trip Generation {n + 2}, into fighting their useless wars for them?”

justaperson wrote: “Happiness and good health are found in the medians not in the extremes. This generation may have been too bolstered and pampered, but the generations before them were often brought up too harshly. Too many children were beaten, emotionally and verbally abused, and taught to believe only in a bleak future.”

There’s prejudice from young people against older generations: “[Boomers] screwed this country up: politically, economically, and especially environmentally. So why should they still be allowed to vote? It’s like letting a defendant with a proven criminal record sit on the jury to their own trial.”

And there’s prejudice from older people against younger ones. Take this exchange, for example:

timebomb734 posted a comment titled “young people need to be narcissists”: “The pressure to obsessively define oneself is not limited to the realm of myspace, facebook, and youtube. Have you applied to college recently? In an effort to admit ‘people,’ not transcripts has forced prospective students to be able to sell themselves as a package. Its been my experience as a 21 year old that from an early point in education (usually middle school) children are forced to take inventory of themselves in order to be better able to define their personality in 100 word essays. This is article was ok, but most definitely overlooks the noble intentions behind the need to narcissitize.”

aislinnluv responded with a comment entitled “hello failure of the educational system”: “proofread, use grammarcheck, think. if you are applying to college, the people who read your essay will be impressed if you can construct a logical, grammatically correct sentence or two. the thought expressed was valid; however, to excel among your peers you need to work on your english skills – and PLEASE don’t invent words.”

This is an example of what social psychologists would call confirmation bias. There’s no reason to believe that aislinnluv would have thought twice about grammar or the making up of words or insinuated that timebomb734 was a “failure of the educational system” if he didn’t have preconceived notions about the younger generation, or if he thought the comment had been written by an older person. (Certainly, comments were written by older people with comparable grammar, but thanks to the confirmation bias, this poor young person was singled out.)

The thread continues, with timebomb734 replying (righteously so, I believe, with the title “hello asshole”): “Sorry my post was unintelligible. It was 2am; it’s now 7am and I still haven’t been to bed. Unfortunately, I was up all night working on a paper because I attend a prestigious college. The lack of sleep, six straight hours of utter concentration, and use of analytical thinking skills must have caused a lapse in my English ability while I took a break to check out alternet. So, that’s my excuse. Do you have an excuse for being a complete and total assumptive moron?”

Now, I can completely understand why timebomb734 would be upset, but some others, responding to this post, used it as evidence that timebomb734 *is* narcissistic! (Two other concepts in social psychology come to mind here: first, the self-fulfilling prophecy, in which one person {in this case aislinnluv} acts in such a way as to provoke the behaviour in another that s/he suspected all along. And secondly, the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to assume that a person’s behaviour says something about who they are, in terms of personality (“this person is a narcissist”) as opposed to the result of some situational context (in this case, being unfairly criticised.) If these people knew something about social psychology, perhaps they wouldn’t be so quick to make these assumptions. Or, perhaps, they’re banking on other people being unfamiliar with the concepts of social psychology, and not calling them on it!

I couldn’t read this without weighing in myself, and I wrote in defense of timebomb734:

Aislinnluv’s comment was unexpected and quite sad. Who’s not thinking? I don’t think you have anything to apologise for. (Oops! British spelling and dangling participle! I guess I need to learn a thing or two to “excel among my peers.”) Calling the poster an asshole may have been a bit much, and I don’t think {aislinnluv’s post} is worthy of that kind of recognition, but hey. Such expression of indignation is considered an appropriate response to racism. Why not ageism?

That someone should have to resort to that kind of ad hominem attack is more a reflection on them than you. Your comment was intelligible to me, and anyone who wastes their time complaining about it probably doesn’t have anything better to do. I could easily criticise aislinnluv for failure to use any capital letters whatsoever, and misuse of punctuation (a single “-” is technically not a hyphen at all), and wonder how THAT poster ranks among his/her peers but what would be the point?

If you said you were 40 would anyone think to question your grammar or the word “narcissitize”? Would the content or syntax of your comment even be an issue? Sadly, I think not.

What’s wrong with inventing words? It happens all the time. That’s how words enter the lexicon and how our language stays vibrant. So what if our generation does it more often than others? If people with a grudge against our generation have to harrumph about our propensity to invent words (in an informal online discussion group, of all places) something is very wrong. Please stop stereotyping…

And people have very different takes on this generation.

Take case one: “Although there are some wonderful “under-thirties” out there- and I am pleased to know and work with some, there is a pervasive level of self-absorbtion present in this age group. Teaching this generation at a college has not been always enjoyable. While I have had students who were hardworking, caring and committed, the majority are otherwise. The prevailing trend has been one of a sense of entitlement; to good grades(A’s of course), minimal work required and constant pats on the back. Many of my students believe that they possess superior intellect; after all, they’ve ben told how wonderful they are since day one. They are shocked at receiving a bad grade, and are angry and abusive when they do. I don’t think that self-esteem can be given- it should be earned. This generation has been dosed with it regularly and we are seeing the effects of this parenting style. I am also appalled at how unaware and unconcerned most of my students are with the world. They are concerned with their own friends, cell phones, You-Tube, facebook/myspace, etc and not with critical environmental, social or political issues… There are as I noted earlier, some wonderful twenty-somethings out there who are committed to making a difference, but it seems that most of their peers are only committed to getting totally wasted as many nights as they can.”

And case two: “I am almost 65 years old and have worked with kids most of my life. I am a court certified expert on child developement and parenting issues, having worked for over ten years with parents in danger of having their parental rights terminated… My experience and observation is that this is a wonderful generation. They are thoughtful, kind, empathetic, and funny. I would like to remind you that a recent study showed that the majority of people dying of drug overdoses are aging baby boomers — not Millenials. Of course this generation has some narcacistic members, every generation does. And, to some degree, all teens are self-centered. The major task of the teen is to give over childhood and develop an adult self. You can’t do this without being more self-centered than either children or adults. However, in my rather long career, I have never seen a less narciscistic generation than the current one. I have never seen a generation that was more attached to parents and respectful of values.”

A few comments about case one in particular: 1.) what if this need for getting A’s has to do with the immense pressure that’s placed on us? What if doing the minimal acceptible work has to do with this work being minimally relevant? What if we’re interested in MEANING and we’re not getting it? 2.) We don’t care about social/political issues? My parents’ generation is more likely to read the newspaper, yes, but I don’t see that they’re getting anything out of it. It doesn’t challenge their predetermined beliefs. And I don’t see them going out and acting on this understanding of the world, gleaned from newspapers, and attempting to make a positive difference in the world. 3.) Concern for one’s own friends is a GOOD thing. 4.) Young people I know are surprisingly aware of environmental issues. People I knew in high school, who at the time I would have least expected to come to such an awareness, are now thinking about sustainability. On the other hand, many of us are cynical, and feel powerless; this can come off as apathy and ignorance. 5.) “committed to getting totally wasted as many nights as they can.” Remind you of any other generations you know?

According to an article on CNN Money: “They’re ambitious, they’re demanding and they question everything, so if there isn’t a good reason for that long commute or late night, don’t expect them to do it. When it comes to loyalty, the companies they work for are last on their list – behind their families, their friends, their communities, their co-workers and, of course, themselves.”

Bruce Tulgan, quoted in that article, says: “”This is the most high-maintenance workforce in the history of the world. The good news is they’re also going to be the most high-performing workforce in the history of the world. They walk in with more information in their heads, more information at their fingertips – and, sure, they have high expectations, but they have the highest expectations first and foremost for themselves.”

You may know from reading this blog that I’m interested in the REINVENTION of work. I believe that all true work is about bringing health and wholeness in some form to people and the planet. If a company displaces thousands of locals, pollutes local watersheds, takes advantage of employess, uses massive resources, and produces a product that is overconsumed and doesn’t serve to bring health and wholeness into the world, I’d say, it’s not genuine work. Practically, some people in this world must work at jobs that aren’t intrinsically meaningful, but I believe we can reinvent work so that it BECOMES meaningful. It’s hypocrisy to demand that work become meaningful if we continue to demand in our personal lives that which is superfluous: if we continue to overconsume and aren’t able to delay gratification when we want something. I hope my generation can learn to do that. However this trend of young people questioning everything in the workplace is very hopeful to me. I hope we never stop questioning, but I also hope we learn to cooperate. I hope we keep asking why we’re doing what we’re asked to do, but I hope that when it’s relevant and meaningful, we work with an unfettered passion. I hope we keep demanding meaning and relevance in what we do. I hope we don’t blindly accept the baby boomer mentality that economic growth is good for its own sake. (I believe it’s good only to the extent that it fulfills genuine human needs.)

If Generation Y doesn’t back down, we will transform work; and it’s bound to be much more meaningful… and interesting! … in the future.


The A.W.E. Project: Reinventing Education, Reinventing the Human

•June 21, 2007 • 7 Comments

Matthew Fox’s newest book, which up till now I’ve been paying all too little attention to (probably because I’m a little put off by an acronym in the title of a book), is called The A.W.E. Project: Reinventing Education, Reinventing the Human. His Reinvention of Work: A Vision of a New Livelihood for Our Time was a life-changing book for me, and Fox’s new book, which connects awe and education, is incredibly relevant to the project of this blog. I’ve often had the thought that Fox’s work can be a lens through which to explore a renewal of education, and that if someday I wrote a book, I could make that connection, but here is a book that makes that connection explicit! Though there will be those who agree wholeheartedly, and those who disagree passionately, I see Fox’s ideas for reinventing culture, which have at their core spirituality and honouring the childlike nature of ourselves (both of which are altogether ignored in most liberal and even radical critiques of culture) as essential. In this new book (which came out in the Fall of 2006) Fox introduces 10 C’s that are at the core of his renewed philosophy of education:

1.) Cosmology and Ecology
2.) Contemplation, Meditation
3.) Creativity
4.) Chaos and Darkness
5.) Compassion
6.) Courage
7.) Critical Consciousness and Judgement
8.) Community
9.) Ceremony, Celebration and Ritual
10.) Character

I haven’t yet picked up the book (which I’ll try to find through inter-library loan at the library or through an online bookseller) but I think I may eventually explore each of these 10 C’s one at a time in my blog. (Or at least, I think I’ll do some kind of methodical approach to Matthew Fox’s work.) If there’s a single writer that I think readers of this blog should be acquainted with it’s Matthew Fox. A minor caveat I have in introducing him is that, as an Episcopalian priest originally coming out of the Catholic tradition, his writing is quite enmeshed in theology. If you’re open enough not to be immediately put off by Christian theology, I think you’ll find value in Matthew Fox’s approach, and learn something new about the Christian tradition as well. His theology is not your grandfather’s theology: it’s a very spiritual theology, that can be appreciated by a secular audience, and his spirituality vision of cultural renewal are very relevant to my project with this blog. I must emphasise that you don’t have to be interested in theology to appreciate his work.

He’s been the subject of a lot of criticism from conservative Catholics, and according to some blogs I’ve read, is considered by many of these Catholic bloggers as one of the “most dangerous theologians.” On the other hand, I know many more progressive Catholic priests and nuns who appreciate his work, and I would add that, all of the ten C’s mentioned above can be seen as categories in Catholic theology, albeit often neglected ones. My hope is that those who read this blog can understand the importance of at least some of the ten C’s above, whether we’re Christian or not, whether we consider ourselves spiritual or not. Reading Matthew Fox, I have a new appreciation of the Christian tradition, as he challenges so many of the assumptions I previously had about it. Fox provides a language for communicating my own worldview with Christians. I used to be scared to share my worldview with some Christians, as I thought we had very different visions, and perhaps we do, but now I’m confident that what I’m interested in is usually there, somewhere in the Christian tradition, perhaps hidden or neglected, but there. I hope that translating between worldviews, finding ways to cooperate and get along with people with very different ones, can be a focus of this blog.

Thomas Berry said: “Matthew Fox might well be the most creative, the most comprehensive, surely the most challenging religious-spiritual teacher in America. He has the skill to fill this role at a time when the more official Christian theological traditions are having difficulty in establishing any vital contact with either the spiritual possibilities of the present or with their own most creative spiritual traditions of the past.”

So, I hope if any of this piqued your interest, you will look into Matthew Fox’s work. Or perhaps if you continue to read this blog we can explore some of Matthew Fox’s ideas together.

And especially, if you’re under 30, and are a fan of Matthew Fox, I’d love to hear from you. It’s strange, but I don’t know any younger people who are interested in his work, and I’d really like to find some!

Education, society, and trauma

•June 20, 2007 • 3 Comments

Jean-Claude Morand wrote, in response to my post on the Politics of Experience: “Schooling can certainly be traumatic…but any other education model will also be traumatic. I followed 2 seminars with Marshall Rosenberg few year ago… and when you master non-violent communication it can also be traumatic. But all schooling systems around the Planet are adjusting themselves to their social environment and, don’t forget, are the fruits our ourselves. So I suggest that it’s the consequence of our acts not the reverse.”

An assumption I’m working under here is that, yes, we have the power to create the culture in which we live, and to some extent culture reflections of us, but at the same time, the culture in which we live has the power to create us. If our systems of education were not to some extent the results of our actions, there would be no point in my criticism, because I would be admitting that my actions are merely the results of my education, and that I have no creative capacity. However, at the same time, it’s clear that the education we receive does have an effect on our personalities (we are shaped by ALL our experiences in the world), and thus, our education shapes the way we act in the world. Thus I think positing that either culture affects people, or that people affect culture (“our social environment is the fruit of ourselves”), is a simplistic approach to understanding these dynamics. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. I find these dynamics both extremely interesting and extremely complicated, and it’s a question philosophers (Hegel, et al) have struggled with for centuries: to what extent does culture create us, and to what extent do we create culture? This is by no means a question to be taken lightly.

Another assumption I’m working under is that, since our experiences help shape us, children will to some extent grow up to become different adults according to the experiences they have in the world (and thus, according to their educational experience.) The same child, given the opportunity to grow up in Canada, or the opportunity to grow up in Korea, will to some extent become a different person depending on their circumstances. So it doesn’t make sense to me that our educational systems are simply the “fruits of ourselves.” We are also the fruits of it. The same could be said about any social institution: Nazi Germany being the “fruits of the German people,” for example. German citizens were clearly affected by what happened in the Nazi era — they were created by it as much as they created it — and later generations continue to be affected today. These younger Germans did not create the circumstances in which they live, and neither did most of the Germans who lived during the Nazi era. If one speaks of the social environment as the “fruits of ourselves” in this sense then I don’t see how this can be anything but a tautology: yes, humans create culture, and in some ways it reflects us; but so what? Sometimes we create healthy culture, sometimes we don’t. How to create healthy culture is to me a more important question.

A third assumption is that we do not all create culture equally; some are given more power to do so than others. Thus culture is the fruit of some of us moreso than it’s the fruit of others of us (and here I’m referring more to social/cultural institutions than culture in a broader sense). It is the result of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation moreso than it’s the result of my own. It’s the result of mainstream groups moreso than it’s the result of marginalised groups. It is, and I understand that some may disagree, the result of corporate and elite government power more-so than it’s the result of ordinary people. Though most people do not know this, the American public education system (the “common schools” as they were called) were very unpopular with the people, and ultimately had to be forced upon some of us via military force. Of course, times have changed; now that we’re used to it, now that we’ve had time to become shaped by it, public education is much more popular, but initially, it was no democratic movement. Early in its history it was used as a tool to subdue Catholic immigrants who were seen as a threat to the American way of life. Was the education system at this time the “fruit” of these immigrants who were subjected to it, or rather, the fruit of someone else, and imposed? My sense is that a critical approach to power is essential and is not present when we simply accept that these institutions are the fruits of ourselves.

Now, it’s clear to me that any educational model can be traumatic, and it’s clear to me that learning Non-Violent Communication, or even reading a good book, can be traumatic. Some of my most valuable learning experiences were traumatic because they threw my conception of the world upside down and forced me to reconsider everything I thought I knew. However, what I am most concerned about here is coercion, people being forced against their will, against their inclination, against their passion, to relegate their learning to external authorities who tell them when to learn, when to learn, and how to learn it, and as I’ve said, deny their experience. I believe this denial of experience is a deeper and more insidious trauma than that which results in freely choosing one’s experience. Trauma like that which I described in reading a good book, and likely that you experienced in learning Non-Violent Communication, were entered into of our own volition, and thus while trauma may be present, it is not accompanied by this giving up of personal power, this relegating of oneself to another who’s supposed to “know better.” Trauma accompanied by powerlessness is not the same as trauma in which we retain a degree of agency over our situation. A situation over which we have more power, and in which our experience is valued, will likely be less traumatic than one in which we have no power at all.

You say that “all schooling systems around the Planet are adjusting themselves to their social environment.” I think this is true to a degree but I find these systems to be remarkably resistant to change. They adjust themselves, certainly, but how long does it take? Furthermore, a more important question to me, do they adjust themselves to diversity? Do they adjust themselves to the different styles of thinking and learning and being that individuals have? Do they adjust themselves to people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds? Ron Miller’s take is that education has been about preserving the status quo. Public schools in America have been exposed to strong cultural influences but have been very unresponsive to these influences. John Dewey’s ideas were very influential but the public schools co-opted them and watered them down to the point where the public schools hardly embody Dewey’s philosophy at all. And, argues Miller, despite lip service to individuality, American culture is actually supportive of a notion of individuality which is “almost exclusively economic, competitive, and superficial,” and is unaccepting of broader understandings of human experience and potential. This, I believe, is what we need. There is no point in an educational system adjusting the social environment if it merely compromises to an “ideal status quo” that suits no one rather than also adjusting itself to accommodate to diverse ways of being.

Thanks for your comments and thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify my ideas.


•March 26, 2007 • 2 Comments

“I want to read these wonderful words [from T.H. White’s A Once and Future King] which created a spark of light for me in the midst of that death-dealing episode of my life. Speaking to the young Arthur, Merlin says,

The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies. You may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins. You may miss your only love. You may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it, then: To learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.

“‘Learning is the thing for you.’ I read those words, and I began to understand that in the midst of death, there is life in learning. I could not do much in the darkness of my depression. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t connect with other people. But I could start to learn what was in there. I could grope around in the darkness and learn what and who was there. And, of course, those of you who have been on that journey know that part of what I found and learned about there was what Thomas Merton calls true self.”

— Parker Palmer

The last few months have been really difficult for me. I broke up with my girlfriend and sometimes I’ve felt like one of the most pessimistic people on earth. I’m sure the negative attitude towards my love life was pulling down a few notches my contentment with other areas of life. I started holding everything to higher standards: if my friends and family and material security weren’t making me happy in spite of this, then I was unsatisfied with them as well. If the warm breeze and the sunshine and the experience of watching ice melt and float down the river couldn’t bring me joy than they just weren’t enough. So it’s easy to carry resentments over into other areas of life, and it’s hard to be grateful, but it helps to at least recognise that my perception isn’t entirely accurate: the same warm breeze and sunshine and ice floating down the river could be heaven, given a different state of mind. Still, that’s not where I am, and I should accept that.

So, what could a person who feels like his life is a mess, and has sometimes wondered over the past few months whether life is worth living, have to contribute to a blog called Sacred Awe? In my worst states of mind, probably not very much. The perspective and the energy required to muster a post like this can be hard to come by sometimes. If only I had such a healthy perspective on depression in the midst of it! If, as Merlin says, the best thing for being sad is to learn something (this should have inspired a song in Camelot), then we may find that awe may change form, but we can access it even in our worst despair. We can still find it in us to be curious about something in the world, even if that be our own psychology, as is often the case with me. Depression can be an opportunity to give up old patterns and try something new. Opportunity? Easy to say, hard to accept. I keep a dream journal, and in my happiest dream for the month of February, I find myself sitting in a pile of crap.

It’s a beautiful natural area and I’m just outside a wooded part of it. There are gorgeous purple or lavender flowers as well as purple birds flying around. I try to be still in hopes that a bird will come fly onto one of my arms or shoulders. I find a place where I can sit down, in the middle of these beautiful flowers and birds, and I see a sign there, that says I’m sitting in “Cow Dung.”

There is so much wisdom (and often humour) in dreams. In perspective, the cow dung provides the nutrients for these beautiful flowers to grow, and I have it to thank for the abundance around me. So I don’t seem to mind sitting in cow dung.

I try to practice mindfulness, but in the process, I become aware of how resistent I am to mindfulness. When I eat, though I want to eat mindfully, I stuff my mouth, an anodyne to the pain. It’s as though eating slowly and mindfully could be so frustrating as to actually bring on tears. Sometimes I feel this way when I’m alone with myself in the woods. “I have to do something,” I tell myself. “If I just sit here, alone with myself, it could overwhelm me.” When I walk, there’s an urgency in my steps, as though I don’t have time to walk slowly or enjoy the present moment. Even a step can reveal so much about one’s inner state, and the energy of mindfulness, as Thich Nhat Hanh frequently says, can bring about great healing and transformation. Of course, getting myself to want to practice mindfulness is a huge difficulty, but it’s a good practice. I know it’s a good practice because when I’m successful I feel peaceful and calm and happiness is abundant. I know it’s a good practice because there’s something I admire in those who practice mindfulness, a sense of peace and acceptance, and I want to be like them. I know it’s a good practice because many of my problems stem from not being mindful.

I’m a Type Four according to the Enneagram. I once read that Fours have a tendency to get self-absorbed because of some inner emergency that seems to require our attention. When something essential is lacking, or I’m going through a crisis, I have a hard time being patient, accepting of current circumstances, staying inwardly composed. Mindfulness is not easy for me, but it is good for me.

It may be true that those of us who are more attuned to qualities such as awe and joy and interconnection tend also to be likely, at times, to feel ennui, depression, alienation. Those who find life imbued with meaning may at times cease to find any meaning at all. Perhaps it’s openness to experience that allows us to sense so intensely both meaning and meaninglessness. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of the Jungian shadow. I don’t have an explanation for it. It’s the paradox of creative genius; the paradox of all of us who allow ourselves to feel deeply. I wish I had answers to make the path through darkness a bit easier. I wish I had answers for people who live with depression for so much of their lives and can’t seem to find a way out; and here I am, the idealist, thinking, there must be a way. Depression is too often dismissed as a chronic medical problem. What if the solution in many cases is not medication, but something else, and we just don’t see it? It’s what got me interested in healing arts: I want to give people hope, and nourishment, and help them climb out of the depths of despair. Sometimes, of course, I wonder how I can expect to help others overcome their despair when I haven’t necessarily found a way out of it myself.

It’s hard to maintain the perspective that this pain, this despair, this depression, won’t last forever. There’s a story I love. There are different versions of it. In the version I know, a king holds a contest, asking his subjects to find a magical object that will bring him happiness when he’s sad, and sadness when he’s happy. In the end the king is given a ring. When he sees the inscription he weeps with joy. It says: “This too shall pass.”

I’m reminded of Paul Hawken’s incredible speech from the 2006 Bioneers (which you can watch free here in quicktime or on your iPod.) Hawken said that, after Rosa Parks famously got on the bus, Martin Luther King gave a speech which began: “There comes a time.” He suggested that if King were alive today, in the midst of contemporary environmental and social crises, he would repeat these words: “There comes a time.” He paused for effect. “There comes a time… for all that is harmful to go away.” And a tear fell from my eyes. It hit me at such a deep level. We all need to hear such words, don’t we? Upon hearing these words, I became aware of the immense pressure I’m under, the pain and despair beneath the surface of consciousness, the pressure we’re all under, from so many directions, often without truly recognising it or realising its effect on us. “There comes a time.” It was a moment of embrace, a moment of recognising that these pressures are not permanent, but only here for a visit. The other day, I was listening to a recording of Thich Nhat Hanh (who is such a wonderful person to listen to, if you’ve never had the opportunity) and he reiterated: impermanence doesn’t have to be a sad thing. It can be a happy thing. A healing thing. Injustice, pollution, abuse, alienation, suffering. There comes a time when they, too, shall pass.

Sometimes life is so painful that none of this makes any sense: it’s where I am now that matters, and I’m in pain! It’s such deep pain. Words often aren’t enough to penetrate it. A few years ago, while in the midst of a painful breakup, I went to a professor of mine, and asked him, “Have you ever felt like just living through the next second is too painful?” He told me he had — for him it was a divorce — and he shared stories with me. He helped me feel grateful that this should be happening at a time of the abundant healing energy of springtime, and he suggested, “Hug a tree.” He also gave me this good advice from personal experience. Be aware, he told me, of when you’re living second to second, waiting for the next eternal minute to pass. You’ll notice that sometimes you’re actually living minute to minute waiting for the next eternal hour to pass. Sometimes you may even find yourself living hour to hour, trying to get through the next eternal day. You’ll notice the scale on which you’re living changes frequently throughout the day, so when you’re living second to second, you know it won’t last. You have a real sense of impermanence. Soon you’ll be living minute to minute, and that will give you some relief. Eventually you’ll be able to live day to day, week to week. Soon you may even start looking forward to your days again, so that you’re not living anything to anything, but just living.

There comes a time.

I’ll leave you with an episode of the Public Radio International show Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett: The Soul of Depression. Wonderful support and inspiration for people suffering from depression from Andrew Solomon (author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlast of Depression), psychologist and poet Anita Barrows, Quaker teacher and activist Parker Palmer, and some poems from Rilke. I hope you enjoy.

The Politics of Experience

•February 1, 2007 • 4 Comments

Aside from what you have said, I think that communication and empowering others is a key component to a better life and a better world. Creating an atmosphere where everyone feels safe to be them self and to speak their mind.Tortugo23

Tortugo23, you’re my first comment. I want to thank you for your thoughts and I hope you’ll find this post relevant!

“The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind, is the condition of the normal man. Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years.” — R.D. Laing

I just finished reading R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience. I found it to be beautifully written, radically relevant, full of fascinating insights, and one of the most important books I have read. I think it’s insights can help us envision a culture where we feel empowered and safe to be ourselves. The solution the book presents is a focus on the primacy of experience — the validity of all our experiences — and how often are our experiences validated? What’s more how often do we know what we are genuinely experiencing? So often we worry about what we should be thinking and feeling and perceiving, perhaps based on what other people are thinking and feeling and perceiving, but we’re estranged from our actual experiences. Laing says we are alienated from our own experiences because we perpatuate acts of violence towards our own experiences and the experience of others, and further, “the usual name that much of this destruction goes under is love.” We need to first attempt to understand how we act to invalidate and even destroy each other’s experiences, even in the name of love, and then, hopefully, we can begin to heal ourselves and create genuinely loving relationships where we do not invalidate, but honour, each other’s deepest experiences.

I think we can all understand on some level the ways in which we not only invalidate, but destroy, each other’s experience, and thus find ourselves leading alienated lives. We’ve all felt at some point that our truest experiences and clearest perceptions of the world were rejected or made to seem as though they were illusions or just didn’t matter, and we’ve dealt with these rejections in a variety of ways. My first memory of such invalidation traumatised me. I was about three or four years old. The doorbell rang and my mother asked who was at the door. I refused to tell her. It was deeply embarassing to me, for some reason, to say people’s names. Language in general had the ability to embarrass me — perhaps because I perceived its power — in ways that I couldn’t understand. The experience of embarassment was very real to me. I assumed my mother would respect my choice not to say the name of the person who was at the door. Unfortunately, she couldn’t understand why I would refuse to say the name. She thought I was just being obstinate, she feared she was a terrible mother because her son wouldn’t even tell her who was at the door, she just couldn’t understand what was going on inside of me. We both had valid experiences. She inadvertantly destroyed mine. She chased me around for what felt like hours, trying to get me to say this woman’s name. I felt physically threatened — she chased me around a chair, and I don’t remember if she hurt me, but I know I was incredibly afraid of that — and I felt profoundly misunderstood. I had a very real experience. What I needed was nurturing, but what I got was violence, in the name of love. (Just a few months ago, I finally had a chance to cry about that; and it’s amazing how much I could cry about something that happened to me 20 years ago.)

Laing suggests a number of common ways in which we commonly act destructively upon experience: “Jack can act upon Jill in many ways. He may make her feel guilty for keeping on ‘bringing it up.’ He may invalidate her experience. This can be done more or less radically. He can indicate merely that it is unimportant or trivial, whereas it is important and significant to her. Going further, he can shift the modality of her experience from memory to imagination: ‘It’s all in your imagination.’ Further still, he can invalidate the content: ‘It never happened that way.’ Finally, he can invalidate not only the significance, modality, and content, but her very capacity to remember at all, and maker her feel guilty for doing so in the bargain.” These sorts of things happen all the time; and we do it to ourselves, too. Not only do we destroy our experiences, but as Laing puts it, we overlay it with a veil of mystification, “a false consciousness inured… to its own falsity. Exploitation must not be seen as such. It must be seen as benevolence. Persecution preferably shouldn’t need to be invalidated as the figment of a paranoid imagination; it should be experienced as kindness…” (57)

Often our violence towards each other’s experiences is unintentional, but it does happen, even in the name of love. I recently purchased a book by Marshall Rosenberg, called Non-Violent Communication. It was definitely influenced by the work of R.D. Laing. The very title of the book and process suggest that most of our communication is, in fact, violent. Non-Violent Communication is a process of communicating with each other (and yes, even with ourselves) in a way that promotes empathy, helps people listen and express themselves more receptively, and helps people get their needs met — all while acknowledging that both (or all) experiences are valid. It directly addresses those common communication patterns that Laing writes about: for example, invalidating experience, invalidating content, shifting modality. It is a simple but powerful process, and before I started reading it, I didn’t realise the extent to which my way of communicating was invalidating the experiences of others. In fact, more often, I was afraid to state my needs, because I didn’t know how to do it in a way that would be heard. We so often aren’t heard, and our needs aren’t met, because we don’t communicate with people in a way that increases empathy; and empathy requires validation of experience. We may not even notice when our experiences are invalidated because it’s such a common occurrence. (The insidious so-called ‘universal’ pronoun “he,” for example, which Laing himself uses…) It’s something I’d like to write more about in the future, and if you’re looking for a way to begin putting Laing’s theories into practice, I think Non-Violent Communication would be a wonderful start.

Laing writes: “Personal action can either open out possibilities of enriched experience or it can shut off possibilities. Personal action is either predominately validating, confirming, encouraging, supportive, enhancing, or it is invalidating, denying, discouraging, undermining and constricting. It can be creative or destructive. In a world where the normal condition is one of alienation, most personal action must be destructive both of one’s own experience and of that of the other.” So, in an alienated world, how can we learn to honour each other’s experiences? How can we begin to heal? I would suggest awareness is a start. “Behaviour is a function of experience,” says Laing. We can no longer think in terms of behaviour alone without considering experience: “The relation between experience and behaviour is the stone that builders will reject at their peril. Without it the whole structure of our theory and practice must collapse.” Of course, as Laing admits, we can’t know another’s experience; but I can experience you as experiencing, and you can experience me as experiencing. I also experience you experiencing me, ad infinitum. We can, as Laing says, interexperience. (This reminds me of Husserl’s phenomenological concept of intersubjectivity.)

As a consequence of our alienation, we split experience into inner/outer, objective/subjective, but says Laing, experience is experience, neither inner nor outer. “Perception, imagination, fantasy, dreams, memory are simply different modalities of experience. None are more inner or outer than the other.” Both Laing and I agree that the so-called inner world of dreams, fantasy, imagination is hugely neglected in our society. (He says we should value inner explorers of consciousness as highly as we value those who explore the world outside of us.) I’ve come to see many of our culture’s problems in relation to the fact that we place such a high value on the external (e.g. behaviour) and so little on the internal (e.g. feelings, dreams, inner experiences, etc.) When I was four years old, and didn’t (perhaps couldn’t) say the name of the woman at the door, my mother saw my behaviour, but not in the context of my experience. You could call my behaviour obstinate only outside of the context of my inner experience.

“I shall state as axiomatic that behaviour is a function of experience, and experience and behaviour are always in relation to someone or something out of oneself.”

The focus on the external, and the dissociation of behaviour from experience, is particularly prevailant in schools. There is little acknowledgement in the conventional one-size-fits-all school of what is going on “inside” a person. Schools value whether students turn in their assignments on time, whether they answer questions “correctly” or to the satisfaction of the teacher. They value obedience and docility. It matters little, if at all, what a student is actually experiencing. Are they finding the material completely uninteresting and irrelevant, and thus, experiencing boredom? Would they rather be outside playing? Do they have a different way of thinking about things that can’t be fit into a procrustean bed? Do they have issues with the teacher? Do they have emotional issues that are more of a priority for them than doing the tasks they’re assigned? Have they developed insecurities about their intelligence and ability because of past experiences in school? All of these are incredibly valid experiences — much more valid than the presumption that students should sit down and do what they’re told no matter what — and yet schools completely fail to acknowledge them. Were we to honour the experience of each individual, we might find them ingenius. (How smart *is* it, really, to sit down and do what you’re told all the time when you’d much rather be outside playing?) Unfortunately schools destroy our experience. As far as they’re concerned our experience is irrelevant. If you spend six months on a school project, which thrilled you to the extent that you got excited about it every day, ready to learn more, but lost the project just before you were to submit it, your experience is meaningless. It’s as though it never happened. Your experience is meaningless. Your project in the teacher’s hands is what matters. Your external behaviour and obedience are what matters, and according to that, we quickly label you as ADD or learning disabled or slacker or college bound…

In fact, Laing says: “In order to rationalize our industrial-military complex, we have to destroy our capacity to see clearly any more what is in front of, and to imagine what is beyond, our noses. Long before a thermonuclear war can come about, we have had to lay waste to our own sanity. We begin with the children. It is imperative to catch them in time. Without the most thorough and rapid pbrainwashing their dirty minds would see through our dirty tricks. Children are not yet fools, but we shall turn them into imbeciles like ourselves, with high IQs if possible.”

I have been exploring the connections between schooling, trauma, and mental abuse. I want to explore the violation we might feel (whether or not we’re able to express it) when we’re told to repeatedly memorise things we perceive no need for; are forced to spend years of our lives devoted to this kind of inculcation; and then are led to believe that our worth and future success are contingent on it. Basically, I want to formulate a case that school is traumatic more often than we realise, and the effects of that trauma more pervasive. Laing has certainly helped my thinking in this regard with his ideas about violation of experience. I’d be very interested if anyone has any ideas on how to pursue this issue further.

I have more to say about issues that came up while reading The Politics of Experience, but I’ll save that till a little later.

Why sacred awe?

•January 30, 2007 • 10 Comments

It took me a while to come up with a fitting name for this blog. I spent some time thinking about various expressions and metaphors of interconnectedness, sustainability, and hope that appealed to me, and might serve well as a title. Many of those were Native American: the idea of living in harmony with “all my relations,” mitakuye oyasin; or walking and traveling as a metaphor for living, as we find in the phrase “walking the good red road,” or in the Navajo “walking in beauty”; or the inspiring words of the Hopi elders: “The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” I first encountered that phrase — we are the ones we’ve been waiting for — in a song by Cori Rose Benitez, and it struck me as a beautiful, deep acknowledgment of our personal power to transform ourselves and the world.

The Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, of repairing the broken and shattered world, and the notion that each of us has a role to play in that process, has been a motivating vision for me. Also, theologian Matthew Fox’s 95 Theses or Articles of Faith for a Christianity of the Third Millennium has been an inspiration. I read his 95 theses again today and there encountered the phrase “sacred awe” in his 87th thesis: “Authentic science can and must be one of humanity’s sources of wisdom for it is a source of sacred awe, of childlike wonder, and of truth.” That was it. I had found my name for this blog.

I often find myself wondering what it is that humanity needs most. Is it love, or wisdom, or compassion? Is there any single need that can be seen as encompassing all the others? Probably not. But is there a need that is particularly neglected and essential, at this point in time? Love is so little understood. So much injustice can be done in the name of wisdom. Compassion is vital, but for most of us, its scope seems limited to relationships with other sentient beings. (Can we be compassionate towards a stone? I’m sure, but…) Often, seeing the destruction and the uniformity and ugliness of the modern industrial world, I would say that our greatest need is beauty. A beautiful world is one in which we love and nurture each other, a world where we live in wisdom and with compassion, a world in which we are valued and have something to contribute, to bring wholeness to the world. I think that’s pretty universal. The more receptive we are to beauty, the more likely we are to feel a connection with others, and the more likely we are, I think, to feel compassion for a stone.

However, to be truly open to beauty, we need to possess a capacity of awe. I think awe may be our most essential need right now because it’s so radical. If we are in awe of other human beings, and allow ourselves to honour the mystery of them, can we possibly conceive of killing them, of allowing them to go without the most basic sustenance, of living lives deprived of happiness? Awe (which basks in mystery) is completely at odds with fundamentalism (which seeks certainty). Awe allows us to experience beauty, humility, love of mystery, and acceptance of fear. I think awe brings us to love, compassion, that sense of social justice, and finally… wisdom. Abraham Heschel wrote something both psychologically and spiritually profound: “Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.”

Awe is (in part) about overcoming the dichotomies of child/adult, and work/play. Most of us don’t remember how to be childlike. We’re too busy working, worrying, and taking everything seriously. The vast majority of us don’t like our work. We don’t find any play in it. Often, we’ve also forgotten how to play: we come home from work and don’t want to do anything but watch television. I think revisioning education — which is one of the first things that teaches us to separate work and play — is going to be one of the first steps towards integrating them. And that, I believe, is at the root of social change, and our hope for a positive future.

The Master in the art of living makes little distinction between her work and her play
her labor and her leisure, her mind and her body
her education and her recreation, her love and her religion.
She hardly knows which is which.
She simply pursues her vision of excellence in whatever she does,
leaving others to decide whether she is working or playing.
To her she is always doing both.

— Zen Buddhist text

It’s so inspiring to me whenever I find people who successfully overcome this dichotomy: people who love what they do, and do what they love. Unfortunately most of us are conditioned to believe that we need to “get down to business,” that play is what we’ve done after we’ve worked long and hard. I think that kills spirit.

More and more, people are seeking out new ways of relating to each other and the world around them, but I’ve yet to see anyone adequately describe this cultural shift. There is the term “cultural creatives” but no single term feels expansive enough. People are beginning to understand that creative solutions to our problems are needed more than partisan and ideological ones; yet we can’t be defined by the solutions we offer to these problems, because the myriad solutions we have offered are as diverse as we are. We are not a movement in the traditional sense. We are simply seekers who feel inside of ourselves that a change is necessary. We feel the call to start respecting the web of life and celebrating its diversity. We understand that we are part of that web of life, and that all our actions affect it. We are becoming sensitive to the ways in which our actions affect others, and the ways in which it’s difficult to impossible to avoid being complicit in our culture. So, we envision alternative social structures which respect diversity and the web of life, and we seek to create our own lives in accordance with our values. This is happening… I think we’re rediscovering the importance of awe.

I’d enjoy hearing what metaphors, images, and ideas inspire you to envision a better world.