On countless occasions I have been awe-struck by the insights my pre-pubescent children have deduced on their own. One afternoon, as we drove to a local nature reserve tucked in among a city suburb, my son Owen observed of the scattered mansions dotting the road we traveled “Why do people need such big houses? It’s such a waste of natural habitat.”
I had never coached him in the environmentalist’s creed, largely because I am a fossil-fuel consuming pig like any other North American. We were driving in my compact SUV to the nature reserve, after all. The observation was his alone, which made me proud of him and ashamed myself at the same time. I’ve since been bracing myself for him to say, “Yo dad, what’s up with the SUV anyway?” My comeback is already locked and loaded, “to carry all the stuff we need to go camping as a family, because that’s how happy memories are created.”
For a time, Owen had a fascination with supernovas. He was awed by the idea such energies exist in the universe; the truth immense phenomena completely beyond the will of humanity to influence. For weeks he would ask me about the prospects of a supernova jeopardizing earth’s existence. I said “nah,” without having a clue. He consulted more authoritative sources on the subject and learned there is geological evidence gamma rays from supernovas did in fact reach the earth. The effect on the ozone layer of these phenomena is theorized to have caused massive extinctions of oceanic life. Irrespective of the risks they may or may not pose to earth in the future, supernovas definitely extinguished my son’s faith in his learned father as a source of edification.
These are just a couple of examples that scream to me in the starkest terms possible my child is no longer child-like. He isn’t just letting things pass him by, but is reflecting deeply about things in his experience. It’s a harrowing prospect if he’s anywhere near as skeptical, self-critical, and emotionally mistrusting as I was at his age. Innocently, out of the blue the other day, he said “I notice I don’t laugh as hard at certain funny things like I used to when I was a kid. Why is that?”
My first impulse was to say, ‘It isn’t. You’re wrong. Just keep laughing kid and forget you ever asked the question.’ The truth is, the question made me want to curl up and die a little. It is disheartening to realize he’s lost some of his childhood bliss, no matter how much I knew that day would inevitably come.
It was also amusing to hear my son imply he is no longer just a kid. It suggests he is beginning to formulate a self-concept; one I hope will help to guide him responsibly, conscientiously in the world. In the end, I simply said, “Maybe you’re applying a little more opinion than feeling to certain things as you grow older. What do you think?” His eyes said, ‘maybe.’
Owen just turned thirteen. Sometimes he wanders into the living room without me noticing, curious about the not kid-friendly movie he overheard from his bedroom. I continue to forget – or am still in denial – about the fact my kids aren’t nine; that, at ten o’clock they probably aren’t fast asleep dreaming of dancing in lollipop fields. Invariably, a scene with nudity or violence propels him to reveal his presence “I guess I shouldn’t be watching this, hey Dad?” Neither should I, son, neither should I. Ninety-nine per cent of it is nuclear waste for the mind.
After a few instances of this, it strikes me he is genuinely interested in these movies, for reasons I cannot fully apprehend. It’s not just the sensation of flesh and gore that piques his imagination, it’s the existence of social dynamics so utterly foreign to him; I can see from his eyes he is intrigued, as I would be if I had seen something unprecedented in my life.
He’s curious; the situations are so much more emotionally nuanced, the characters not so one-dimensional in their psychological métier, unlike the cardboard cut-out characters he’s been exposed to in kids’ movies. There are no caricatures of good guys and bad guys; there are good people doing bad things and vice versa. There is no easy fix, no simple aims to accomplish. The world is not flat, and its problems are bigger than who will become king or defeat the bad guy.
I can see his mind swirling with questions about what he sees in the movies I’m watching, or what he sees and hears on the news of the world. People are dying all over the place. Bombs are going off with intent to kill and maim. There is rampant, abject poverty and crass wealth. We humans are degrading the planet more and more every year. Things aren’t always joyous and happy in the world, at least not for most of us. These create conflicts in a young mind cradled in simple, easy-to-digest fictions, one writhing in a body teeming with hormones and bursting out of clothes he fit last fall. It’s all a bit unsettling.
It pains me my son is no longer laughing with the same uninhibited abandon he once did, and I wonder if there’s a sadness or trepidation at the broader realities he is learning about the world that is to blame. I will never forget the sheer force of that laugh several years ago; a laugh which energized a theatre of movie-goers as we watched Kung Fu Panda. By the end of the movie the entire audience was basking in the glow of Owen’s undaunted joy as he watched the movie. His amusement was infectious and intensified others’ delight in the experience.
Since then, I assume it’s been an increasing sense of ‘been there, done that.’ Things may be funny, but they’re not that funny. As we watch movie after movie specifically made for kids his age, he betrays a growing weariness about the lack of imagination, depth, and substance in the characters and situations that typify these stories. I wonder if he detects how little they challenge convention. He has been saying repeatedly for about a year now, ‘filled with clichés,’ which suggests he does. He prefers to watch the wide selection of nature documentaries available on Netflix, which suits me fine.
It’s clear my son is filtering his experiences through an emerging, more sophisticated sense of judgement. For most teenagers there are two crude dimensions of this faculty: “Suck” and “Does not suck.” In my son’s case, I worry he will inherit a yardstick with the taint of my own skeptical, idealist bent; one that is quick to detect, denounce, and despair of the cruelty, duplicity, and corruption that defile humanity. Thus far, he’s only gone so far as casting aspersions at the preponderance of clichés we seem to live by, but it’s a slippery slope.
I’ve tried to raise my son without over-indulging him with my opinions about everything under the sun to spare him the perils of my own cynicism. I was raised that way by well-meaning, ideologically zealous family members, who didn’t seem to realize they were imposing an outlook; one that took considerable concerted effort over several years to shake, not because it was right or wrong, necessarily, but because it was not of my own making. It felt like there was a being inside me who was desperate to unlock the blinders put upon me as a child and see things for myself.
Despite my struggle to exercise ideological forbearance in his life, my son sees certain things critically in his own right. I am relieved; he’s already destined not to be a cultural dupe. He already is beginning to have his own mind about why he’s unconvinced, a doubt that is more rooted in inquisitiveness than stridency acquired from me. I am proud he is thinking for himself and proud I have not smited him with my own blinders.
Owen is intellectually curious and takes the time to follow up the big questions in a conscientious way. It’s encouraging to see him chasing after his own informed view of things. I respect his brains and ideas about the world he sees, and am relieved he isn’t applying the “Sucks/Does not suck” dichotomy to that world. That will be his salvation from the neurosis that began to imprison me at his age.
Most of all, I am relieved he expends the energy to understand his world without relying on others to do it for him. The habit of looking outward for all our ideas about experience turns a potentially infinite mind into an intellectually lazy, ignorant, dull mind; one that merely parrots whatever has been served up for mass consumption. Most “common sense” is trite nonsense. I wretch with disdain for politicians or public figures who invoke it as though it was akin to a rhetorical bird in the hand.
The habit of looking only beyond ourselves for a way out of the onslaught of struggles, fears, and confusion in our lives is tragically flawed. It intensifies the layers of obscurity between the consciousness seeking answers and the place within ourselves where the connection with wisdom and truth (with God, if you wish) is deep-rooted and unbroken. Beneath the conditioning is a universal spirit that all humans and creatures possess. This is the place from which the potential to clearly apprehend reality exists – were it not so often hindered by social constructions – ideologies, religions, and cultural norms – that obstruct our perception of it.
Finding this place of wisdom is an immense source of freedom at times when the difficulties in our reality make us feel so utterly powerless. But we have to look there, within ourselves, if we wish to access it. It is ironic how our freedom to acquire knowledge and the relative ease by which it is shared has achieved the opposite effect of freeing many minds from the prison of “common sense.” This is particularly apparent when we reflect on ethical or moral issues; those that require objectivity in making judgements.
The exercise of this faculty requires those doing the reflecting to stand outside themselves in perceiving the realm of reality they intend to critically assess. The task takes both imagination and foreknowledge to be done properly and done well. These are the basic requirements for anyone to make the claim their view on complex ethical matters is relevant or authoritative. The more knowledgeable, the more personally-situated the interlocutor, the more authoritative or reliable is their view. Cultures that extol individualism, selfishness, and simple-mindedness (ignorance) as unassailable virtues will create citizens bereft of the basic cognitive faculties needed to inform their judgement, and civil societies easily strung along by shrewd, intelligent demagogues.
In a society comprised of millions of dull, ignorant minds the ubiquity of social media becomes a useful tool to imprint lies and falsehoods as “truths” in the collective consciousness. When we turn to social media, our minds are not well-primed to make good judgements; they are not “on the defensive” when propaganda-filled messages come at them. It is the passivity by which most of us engage social media that makes any of the messages encountered appear more convincing, more hostile to our firmly held views, more threatening, more affirming.
Social media then becomes not only the means by which the “common sense” is imprinted, but also the means by which “common truths” are enforced and re-inforced. It is a recurring cycle of lie-repeat-lie-repeat until it becomes impossible to locate the source of the original lie and the less emotionally-charged, more “cerebral” counter-factuals are silenced by the sheer volume of lies.
In this context, social media is an incredibly useful tool to instill ideals serving the narrow interests of a society’s most powerful and to win their adoption, even among those most adversely affected by the implications. The ideals are compelling not because they are morally, ethically, or factually robust, but because they are transmitted when people’s higher-order cognitive minds are effectively switched off. In addition, the appeals are made most often by inflaming the emotions of the recipient.
The two combine to severely diminish a citizen’s judgement; when they are more apt to engage the issue with their primitive impulses stoked. Fraudulent ideals become compelling because they are incessantly re-iterated and, by that token, appear reasonable and legitimate to passive, dull, emotionally-inflamed minds. This explains how educated, accomplished, and otherwise highly-intelligent people can also be ardent racists and bigots; how they are capable of supporting morally repugnant policy agendas.
I am heartened my son already shows the hallmarks of a mind capable of seeing through the demagoguery; one that is self-reflective, sharp, and curious. He has an almost compulsive need to acquire knowledge of anything that piques his curiosity. He has curiosity that needs to be piqued; an uncommon trait among many in my generation, most Baby Boomers, but is far more common among his generation. I suspect it is because of luck. It is relatively easy to find answers to burning questions today; it requires less physical and mental effort than in the past, a fact that may have been enough to squelch curious impulses among my peers and forebears in their formative years.
The effect is that, not only will Owen and his peers be far less ignorant about phenomena not necessarily in front of their noses day-to-day, but they will also be more habitually-inclined to instantly sniff out, and then verify, lies and falsehoods when they see them. They will be more inclined to seek out sources of truth beyond the mainstream bellwethers that have in the past been used to enforce, or reinforce, deplorable cultural norms. I see this knee-jerk skepticism in a lot of the kids his age, and it makes me smile, even if it sometimes means my son calls out my bullshit beliefs with facts.
Today’s youth have an almost reflexive revulsion the moment they encounter instances of crassness and stupidity from society’s empowered elites. They are educated in modern realities, their minds are routinely exposed to a much broader cross-section of facts and historical narratives. Their education includes scientific and technical advances that render obsolete many widely-held “truths” from even twenty years ago. They have access to information from wherever they choose to seek it, making it far more difficult to inculcate the youth to the same narrowly-constructed ethic.
For these reasons, my son and the under thirty crowd are discounted as “snowflakes” according to the know-it-all sophists on my social media feeds. The crime of the youth: they are audacious enough to hold the mirror up to the intellectual paucity, the hollow bromides, self-serving ideologies, and toxic, oppressive behaviours normalized in the past. They see first-hand how these cultural norms enabled a shrinking number of elites to steal, squander, and horde an exponential share of society’s wealth; how they have poisoned civil society with divisive ideologies and degraded the planet with an unsustainable model of “progress.”
Systems and structures of power enforce the rationales beneath the ethical facade and silence or side-line alternative narratives repudiating the logic of the prevailing belief-system. The death of the self-serving, narcissistic ethos from our collective consciousness will be the only funeral in my life I gladly attend. When that happens we will have been liberated from the moral and political stalemate imposed by the clashing of two moribund, irrelevant, and baroque dogmas – capitalism versus socialism. I am relieved my son will be spared the gauntlet of living his entire adult life smothered by the corrosive deluge of the ethically-debased, ideologically-intransigent society my generational peers and I endured.
The day after my son asked me his inconvenient question about supernovas, David Bowie’s song “Ashes to Ashes” came on the radio. I remember vividly when I first heard it in the summer of 1981. My best friend’s older brother, who had exquisite taste in music, filled their home with the elegiac yearning of that song. I was instantly overwhelmed with wonder in the experience; that something so simple as a song could be so strange and wonderful at the same time; that it could instill in my soul something meaningful and true, even if it was inarticulable to my childhood intellect.
I fought back tears as the song ended. It reaffirmed my adoration for Bowie, who so transcendently encapsulates the indescribable repercussions of loss; lost childhood, lost youth. The song is a wistful rejoinder about how our spirit smoulders under the emotional weight of adult lives too often tilled from the ashes of forsaken youth. The drugs and excess of so many successful people are a failed attempt to prop up perpetually wilting egos heavy from the artifice. It seems to me the better solution would be to exhume the child buried beneath the ashes. The notion gave me pause; I think of children my son’s age crafting their identities, one judgement at a time, stoking the flames that engulf their true essence to fit the cultural mold of adulthood.
What dies in the process is the sense of wonder to keep the spirit yearning for more of the simple graces life has to offer – that fuels curiosity and stirs efforts to see it fulfilled in authentic ways. The richness of life can’t be experienced fully by those entangled in the spiritless life of most adults. It is essential to leave the confines of that existence to cultivate a connection to the feeling in our bodies telling us what the world reveals in our experience, and to trust the wisdom arising from that.
Uncontrollable laughter is as all-consuming within our bodies as crippling sadness. The truth in those experiences is undeniable, despite the qualification our minds impart to temper our bruised psyches. I want to say to my son ‘If something is truly unfunny, don’t laugh; if it is, do so fully. Let go to how it feels in your heart, not your mind.’ Trust is maintained in that purity of feeling by holding up the mirror to ourselves often, with spiritual intention, to ensure what is reflected remains the person we knew intimately as children; that the view isn’t dulled by the ashes and dust of abandonment to adulthood.