Saturday, October 31, 2015

On Childhood Angst

Can children be existentialists? What I'm asking isn't so much whether or not it's possible, but should we allow it? 

If I dare to claim to define some central ideas here, the part about living authentically and embracing the freedom that comes with taking responsibility for all our choices with no excuses, that side of it is, I believe, pretty useful for everyone. But what about the darker edges of the philosophy? Life is objectively meaningless, and, since being unceremoniously dropped here, we're each of us alone in our quest to find meaning for ourselves. Things don't all work out in the end somehow; wonderful people can suffer many tragedies, one right after another. Nobody's controlling the game to make sure the good are justly rewarded. It's all a crapshoot.... And then you die. And, according to some, getting your head around the finality of our existence is key to the authentic life.

Is that too harsh for the little ones?

At what age is it acceptable to have conversations with children about this topic? What if your children bring up a sense of dread and angst at the possibility of their own demise. Is it better to acknowledge death, foster illusions of permanence, or deflect the issue entirely? Which will have the least detrimental effect?

A friend's daughter is suffering some anxiety; she's a worrier. Maybe it's because she has a gene for rumination. Or maybe she's a typical bright, creative kid.  One study, albeit with a very small sample size, found a link between intelligence and anxiety.
"Those with anxiety disorder tended to have higher IQ scores than healthy people, as well as higher levels of activity in regions of the brain that aid in communication between parts of the brain. These regions are thought to have contributed to the evolutionary success of humans. . . . High levels of anxiety can be disabling, and patients' worries are often irrational. But every so often there's a wild-card danger. Then, that excessive worry becomes highly adaptive. People who act on the signals of that wild-card danger are likely to preserve their lives and the lives of their offspring." 
But another study with an enormous sample size found a strong link between creativity and mental illness:
They found that people working in creative fields, including dancers, photographers and authors, were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were a staggering 121% more likely to suffer from the condition, and nearly 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population. . . . Earlier studies on families have suggested that there could be an inherited trait that gives rise to both creativity and mental illness.*
It can be weirdly comforting to know that anxiety has links to positive traits, but more important than understanding why it starts, is to figure out what to do now. How do we help our children when they worry they'll run out of food or get hit by a meteorite or get hit by lightening or get conscripted into a war or get abducted on the way home from school? We feel helpless. We are helpless. The reality is we can't guarantee our children's security. We do our best to try, but there are no guarantees we'll be successful. Should we pretend there are? How much control can we really have over this - over their security and over their sense of security? It can help to believe we can fix everything for our kids, but I wonder if it's healthier to recognize how often we can't.

We really like to find patterns in the world, connections that make it all seem predictable. If everything works through a rational cause and effect system, then we can have a measure of control over the outcome. If we can observe the effects of different actions enough to see where the connections are, then we can behave in a way to provoke a specific outcome. But however we might look back at a sequence of events and connect the dots to try to understand how we got here, sorry to say, that only works in hindsight. Our lives are largely unpredictable. We live with a comforting illusion that we can control events, but then random acts steer us in a different direction.

Things are generally predictable, but not specifically, and that trips people up. Like Mlodinow explains in one of my favourite books, people are like molecules. Heat them up, and we can safely predict they'll all spread out, but we can't accurately predict the trajectory of any individual molecule. So we know that, generally, a university degree leads to a better job, but we can't know if your university degree will get you anywhere. This can be a little daunting, so we seek out other factors that caused the unexpected effect. We fight hard to grasp at an illusion of control over our lives, but, for better or worse, we encounter the absurdity of the the world. But if we can accept that some things just are and can't be controlled or fixed or prevented, it can actually make it easier to live through the random events that mark human existence. 

I suggested to this friend that acknowledging death is the best course over pretending we can guarantee a long life or ignoring the heart of the concerns. He responded, "I'm not going to tell my 8-year-old that we're all going to die." And coming from that angle, my suggestion sounds crazy. And yet, after some time to consider the situation, I maintain my position because doesn't she already know that to be the case?

I asked my 11-year-old what she thinks about the idea of talking to kids about death and what she thinks about kids having lots of anxiety these days.  She said,
"I think kids should know the truth instead of thinking that the whole world is a perfect place. Because it's not. We've got a lot of places that have a lot of problems right now. I worry about stuff that's going to happen, but I worry about it too soon."
I think she's hit on something important about worry - that it's often a concern when it's a matter of inappropriate timing. It makes more sense when it's right in front of us and very likely than when it's further away or less likely. Anxiety can give us an adrenaline rush that helps us stay up late to hit a deadline when we need it, but it's fruitless when it's too far in advance.

My concern here with an avoidance of existentialist thinking is that our culture's drive to protect children from anything remotely painful might be creating a society of people with lowered resilience who struggle to cope with the most minor setbacks, like students weeping over an essay because they can't think of a topic. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, or, at least, it's only recently that it is being openly displayed to teachers. 

Maybe previously we were all ashamed of feeling anxious, so we hid it. If that's the case, then it's a positive that we're seeing more of it.

But I wonder if it's the case that, previously, our anxiety over having enough food or money or supports in the face of plenty and a general fear of losing everything we've worked for was met with "Yup you might. Get over it!" comments that convinced us to cut-off those thought instead of dwelling on them and talking about them and bringing our concerns to person after person who would share their deepest fears, thereby giving credence to our worry and further embedding the pathways in our brain that allow worry to flourish! Flippant reactions might have a similar effect as current CBT methods in which people might be told to stop negative thoughts by imagining a big red "X" over the negative idea, then replace them with alternative thoughts, and then those troubling ideas will eventually decrease in frequency and intensity. Flippant reactions to worry can have the same effect of "You're fine!" in response to a tumble on the playground instead of rushing in with peroxide and bandaids. We rush in an awful lot these days.

We've gone down a different road of listening to everyone's feelings to the point that now we have a generation of second-order anxiety: personal anxiety plus anxiety over our children's anxiety. Have we fostered discussions of our concerns to a point that they've become normalized and entrenched in our brains? We feel like we worry for good reason about our anxious children because sometimes anxiety can turn into something worse like self-mutilation or suicide ideation. And then then we worry that worrying about our children's anxiety might actually make it worse! I think it was easier for my parents to acknowledge the worst case scenarios because they were born in the '20s and lived through the depression and then WWII. They experienced the worst and survived. We've been too sheltered from real trauma in our generation's past to be able to acknowledge that it could be a very real part of our future and to just get on with things. We're here today, and we have food and shelter, and we haven't been hit by a meteorite, so do your homework already!

Worrying about what might happen (like a child's anxiety turning into something worse) helps us feel like we're doing something productive about something we might have little effect over. But it could just an illusion of productivity. The tricky business is figuring out when we can have an effect and when we can't. We might stand back as parents and watch our kids fight through various stages of depression and anxiety, trying one therapist or medication after another wondering if doing nothing would have been as effective. It's complicated. But when they're beginning to express some fears over things clearly outside our control, a brush-off might be the trick. 

I can be a pretty intense worrier, and I actively work to decrease those thoughts. When I was growing up, I was terrified of the cold war. I was absolutely convinced we were all going to waste away from radiation poisoning if we weren't lucky enough to be hit directly.  This cartoon didn't help. It's of a middle age couple slowly dying, yet in denial the entire time, desperately trying to look on the bright side: "I should put some skin lotion on these spots. They should soon clear up." No wonder I had nightmares. But we lived, and all that worry was for naught. It did nothing to affect nuclear disarmament. Nothing.

I recognize this might not work for everyone, but what helped me cope as a child and now, what I believe prevented a journey into deeper anxiety or spells of crying in front of teachers, was my mum's very Epicurean acknowledgement that, "We all have to die of something," as she'd light another cigarette. Epicurus explained that, of course we're going to die, but we're not dead now, and, when we're dead, we won't know about it anyway; therefore, it doesn't make sense to worry about death. My mum was the kind who required a bloody appendage stapled to any request to miss a day of school. She'd soften the blow by tacking on, "But it likely won't happen for a long time....But, then again, we never know!" It had the effect of making me very productive. If death could be around any corner, then maybe I should drag myself from the TV to seize the day. And it helped me see that we're all in this together, Kings and paupers alike.

Recognizing the randomness of our lives, and how little control we have over it all, and the reality that death is inevitable, can actually help us live a more satisfying existence. I didn't wait for a magical age to share this with my children, but aimed to answer questions and concerns as authentically as possible throughout their lives. It's not all bad news. The worst might happen tomorrow, but if you're alive and well today, then let's celebrate that fact.

from this cite of awesomeness


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*I'm not sure the difference between being an author and being a writer, but for the sake of my mental health, I hope I'm in the former group.

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