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  • Jason McCarty

The Paralysis of Younger Generations

I wrote a piece not too long ago entitled “The Lost Generations” that addressed some issues with the younger, more postmodern generations.  I want to write on this topic again using some theoretical concepts from two authors.  Ernest Becker, who wrote The Denial of Death, and Soren Kierkegaard, famous philosopher and writer.

The reason for this topic is I continue to see young people in my office who are lost in what seems a new kind of way.  Whether I am seeing parents to discuss their adult children, or seeing young adults themselves, much of the narrative is the same.  Stuck, don’t know what to do with their lives, can’t leave home, etc.  This is leading to depression and anxiety for some of these people.  I do not believe they are stuck because they are depressed; they are depressed because they are stuck.

So the question is, what is new about this?  Haven’t people dealt with “stuckness” forever?  Yes, but what I stated in my previous article is that younger generations are “struggling to struggle.”  But more than that, and what I want to address in this article, is that young people, more than ever it seems, are struggling to BE.

Ernest Becker (1973) in his book, The Denial of Death, builds an amazing theoretical perspective on a dialectical tension that exists for all human beings.  He explains that we have two desires of being: one, is to merge with nature, with others, in order to feel accepted, involved, a part of, and safe from the reality that life will end; and two, to individuate, grow out from the group, to stand out as an individual who is unique.  As you can see, this makes for difficult living in that these are opposing desires.

Becker writes:

“The first motive – to merge and lose oneself in something larger – comes from man’s horror of isolation, of being thrust back upon his own feeble energies alone.”  He continues later on, “Individuation means that the human creature has to oppose itself to the rest of nature. It creates precisely the isolation that one can’t stand — and yet needs in order to develop distinctively…it accents the smallness of oneself and the sticking-outness at the same time.”

This is so very poignant in understanding not only the human life in general, but even more specifically, the developmental stage for the late adolescent/young adult, who is growing up and out.  The safety and merging-experience one has living at home or amongst a group is not easy to grow away from.  But the desire to actually grow up and into one’s individual self is powerful.

Here’s where our current culture has made this even more difficult.  Parents since the Baby Boomers have attempted to give their children everything they could, to give them a better life then they had – to make them happy.  Parenting before this was not so much about making children happy.  Also, parents have overly sheltered their children, protecting them from the world.  The more advanced we become, the more, and various types of, protection is possible.  But the more we protect, the scarier it will seem for the child to individuate, or “grow up” and become a responsible adult.  Because to do so, means to stand on one’s own, to withstand the feelings of not being protected, and to venture forth in a developmental stage that is the opposite of being happy and safe. When the young people I see describe their experience, they are describing an experience of inability to cope with pain, confusion, displeasure and uncertainty.  They don’t “know who they are”.  I see part of this as a real result of the cultural shift in parenting over the past 50 years, as well as a result of the superficial way that pop-psychology has laid out what it feels like to know who you are.

I want to make a quick note by saying that this is not intended to say parents are  parenting wrong in some sort of moral way, but to show how culture, advancement, and ideological changes influence parenting and the larger culture.

Another cultural factor that influences young people is postmodernism.  To put it simply for this article, we live in a time of deconstruction, where much of what was accepted as the norm is being challenged, much of the cultural ideology or belief system is not so stable/secure.  As a society we have ditched the stability of held values obtained by religion, and are in the midst of questioning them.  This questioning process creates anxiety because it can leave one with no stable or safe ground to stand on.  Even those who still subscribe to a religious faith and find meaning and security there are living in a cultural time of questioning and cannot escape that anxiety provoking influence.

So as young people grow up, they do not have the cultural stability of “faith” that their parents may have had, or grandparents.  This makes Ernest Becker’s theory of the denial of death all the more poignant for our time.  One can utilize religion or belief to inoculate themselves from death-anxiety, but when that breaks down, we are left much closer to the reality of life – that it ends.  So who cares if life ends, what’s the big deal?  Well, as a human being who is an individual, we are naturally striving toward our self, toward a life that matters.  Dying means the end of this possibility, or any possibility in this life.  For young people, as they step out from under the wings of their parents looking to create a life for themselves, there is less of a collective belief system to stand on while they explore the world and “who they are.”  As well, a large part to “finding who one is” comes from struggle, comes from working through a crisis, and evolving into a movement forward.

This brings me to Kierkegaard.  Much of Becker’s work was built on the foundation that Kierkegaard built.  Kierkegaard saw that life is about numerous dialectics and the one I want to focus on for this article and the younger generations is that of Possibility and Necessity. I cannot do Kierkegaard complete justice here, so bear with me in this short article.  He wrote in Sickness Unto Death, that we need to learn the balance of living in possibility as well as necessity.  Possibility is focusing on the life that could be, on all the possible choices one could make, on the person one could be.  Obviously we can see how this is important in keeping us on our toes and working to be better selves, as well as continuing to create a life that matters for ourselves.  This doesn’t ever just stop at some point where we are completely satisfied with the present.  People can find contentment but we do not stop growing into more possibility.

Necessity is the reality now, the limitations that do exist, the person you actually are, the world that actually is, right now. Necessity is what does become actualized.  It is possibility becoming actuality.  Necessity brings us back to living our current situation, not just the endless possibilities of our situation.

Because of the affluence in our north american society over the past 50 years, parents and more accurately, society, has been able to give young people more than ever.  Not only stuff, but also the belief that happiness is attainable in a safe and secure fashion, and that it kind of comes easy.  When those who have learned how to struggle and work and take responsibility create a structure for those coming after them that is safe and secure, they can move past that to also helping create happiness, good feelings, and avoid pain and struggle as much as possible.  Why wouldn’t we?  If we can protect children from pain we will, it is our natural inclination as parents! But we are finding that this needs a balance.

The reason that Kierkegaard’s dialectic of possibility and necessity is so poignant for young people is because they are stuck in the realm of possibility.  There are more choices for young people than ever before and this is paralyzing them.  Kierkegaard states, “more and more becomes possible because nothing becomes actual.” One can get lost in possibility as though it were an abyss.  If a child is given the world and told that happiness is number one, then deciding on a course of action, making possibility necessity should come easy – at least that is what I believe is where young people are stuck.  Young people are struggling to actualize their realm of possibility and so they think they should keep trying to “figure it out” but the problem is that “figuring it out” is done in their heads, in the realm of possibility, the future, not making choices and taking chances and moving forward.  They are afraid to make the wrong choice, because the wrong choice could bring disappointment or bad feelings they are not used to having.

Young people need to learn to struggle and to do.  Just start getting dirty.  Take a step, any step in the direction of your interests and if that doesn’t work out, you can make adjustments.  Not doing this is leading to a paralyzed group of postmodern generations and this very paralysis keeps them from that natural inclination toward life.  As well, young people and their parents need to find a value system that can ground them and give them a sense of meaning or at least how to create it through the dialectic of possibility and necessity.

Lastly, I want to say that I do not believe this is a “bad” thing.  My hope for the younger generations, of which I am a part, is that new and more powerful meaning will arise, that out of this struggle-to-struggle will come a better way to struggle and create meaning.  All systems must go through crisis in order to grow, and postmodernism has been a crisis of thought and culture, a deconstruction of too easily defined “truths” that I believe is leading us to a new kind of ground, a new kind of existence based more on experiential truths and for many, a stronger “faith.”  So, even though we have a lost culture and lost generations, I see that we are on our way toward a possibility that helps us move forward as a society.  But to do that, we do need young people to find their way out of paralysis and into risk taking endeavors that help them actualize themselves and the greater culture of which they are a part.

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