Commentary: The Journey to Individuation—and Responsibility: Part II

In Part I, I talked about the issue of kids and education, following President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren in Virginia following the Labor Day weekend. I discussed how children are truly deemed numbers by education, despite their protestations to the contrary.

I talked about how kids are being forced to grow up before their time—are being pressured to adopt a sense of adult responsibility for their futures—when even in elementary and middle school, which was a time for many of us to dream about what we would become instead of being forced into making a decision and preparing for it at such a young age—including in elementary and middle school.

I talked about teachers sometimes being the last bastion of support for school-age kids, and that last positive adult contact being taken away form them by the very system which is supposed to be supporting their growth as human beings. I also suggested that conceptual learning is being forced onto kids before their minds and development are ready for it—making existential issues muddy and confusing—when what kids need during adolescence is structure, safety, and solid foundations which give them the confidence and the ability to walk forward, without taking the ground out from underneath them and forcing them to accept adult concepts just for the sake of appearing progressive.

I talked about how the perception of schools counted for more than the welfare of students themselves—and how those are indeed these days more often than not mutually exclusive.

Last but not least I mentioned the responsibility of adults. Adults in these last decades have sometimes not understood what it means to be adults themselves, not accepting responsibility for themselves or others, including their children. (As an aside, the current financial collapse is an example of that lack of responsibility—short term gain over long term considerations.)

How can they expect children to act like responsible human beings when they themselves are confused by life, unsure of who they are amidst the whole, but asking their children to determine those same things? How can they expect kids to grow up emotionally healthy without that time of letting kids be kids—when that time is precious in letting a child dream and explore enough to determine their own destinies—when it is time to do it, and not by some artificially accelerated framework which demands such decisions by an early age? What “elders” can kids turn to these days who remember what true responsibility is and act like the very “elders” these kids most need?

Again, the concept of individuation here is important. Again, individuation is the concept Jung came up with for the second phase of life, after the education and structures of young adulthood—when one in middle age seeks to answer larger questions about him/herself and his or her place in the whole—while seeking, too, to be a whole human being. You have already established yourself and have given of yourself to your family and to the community. You have already outgrown the more immature phases of life that demanded structure—you are ready now to ask the deeper questions.

But this is definition of individuation may need to be altered for this older, “adult” generation. The former definition is, perhaps, no longer true, because adults are asking these questions—not just of their kids now, and far too early, but also of themselves, perhaps because for us they are just as relevant. Both the adults and the children, are, perhaps, growing up at the same time, both literally and figuratively. And there is a lot of cleaning up to do because the definition of even being an “adult” is amorphous at best.

I remember one of my most dynamic professors in college, when I was studying literature (which I did in addition to international relations and international security policy), taught a course on post-modern literature: i.e. literature following the advent of the nuclear age. His perspective was that after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we ostensibly lived in a wholly disposable world. Everything could be destroyed—including life as we know it—and by our own hands. We had already proved that such destruction was possible. Somehow, that knowledge seeped into the collective unconscious to such a degree that we all—in some way or form—have become fatalistic about life itself. Again, if we can blow ourselves up—if a flick of a switch by some madman can make us for all intents and purposes disappear—on some fundamental level, with everything and everyone being disposable, what’s the point? Why not live for ourselves? Why not just live in the short term instead of the long term? There may only be a short-term anyway. Why not live with an inherent sense of “WTF” and just do whatever the hell we feel like doing? We don’t trust authority anyway—the system sucks—whatever system—and all we can do is rebel by being as nihilistic as possible. Whether or not we believe that consciously,some aspect of that is in our subconscious. The hippie generation seemed to prove it—peace, love, escapism, and rebellion against authority—responsibility is for the older generations—and hell if I’m going to be old before my time. I’m going to go off and find myself…no matter how long that takes. This, however, still devolved into: the world is screwed, everyone is out for themselves, so why not me, and f*ck the world. As long as I look like I care when I have to, I don’t really have to give a damn. Take what you can where you can get it, baby.

Granted, most would never admit to saying that out loud, but we sure seem to be living that way. And as we know, actions speak louder than words.

Last week on Facebook, a video went viral—one titled “The Girl Who Silenced the World for Five Minutes” which can be seen here. While talking primarily about the environment, climate change and humanitarian issues surrounding it, in her own way, she could have been saying the same thing as my professor did back in 1992, however expanding it to address some of the most important issues of this generation. And speaking as her generation, her admonishments for this mentality were truly and appropriately scathing.

What moves me most about this speech is that this girl is unknowingly tapping into the heart of several issues that are inherently connected—and this includes, whether out of ignorance, apathy, anger or rebellion, we are indeed faltering as a society, and for the very reasons she delineates—as did my professor, in his own way. We have lost our way, and we know it. We are rapidly proceeding into the Wasteland, as it were, on myriad fronts.

Helplessness, anger, rebellious short-sightedness, frustration, escapism—we are dropping the ball and shirking responsibility to anyone else and for everything imaginable. We are not acting like adults, but instead are acting like petulant children who need the adrenaline fix of sticking our hands in the proverbial cookie jar, and honestly, not giving a damn if we get caught. We’ll talk our way out of it. We’re damned good at talking.

Before this generation was the time when Jung was also offering his most profound writings on what it meant to be human in this world—what it meant to be an individual—and what responsibilities come from that—not only to one’s self, but to others (Some examples: Modern Man in Search of a Soul and The Undiscovered Self, both of which I’ll be quoting later). There is an inherent responsibility in both senses, and when that isn’t honored, life is distinctly out of balance. I would say we embody that rather profoundly at the moment.

As I also asked in Part I, what do we do to counteract this pervasive mire in which we find ourselves? How do we once again learn responsibility? We know we must if life is to improve, but in many cases, we don’t really want to go to the trouble.

But as this brave girl in the video mentioned exemplified, we have to—no matter what it takes. In other words, she’s suggesting we who are older, and for all intents and purposes responsible for this mess, need to indeed buck up and face the music. And the bottom line iswe have to whether we want to or not. This girl was truly and rightfully angry. Actions and inaction have distinct consequences. Otherwise we are going to leave it to this girl’s generation, and the ones afterward, because we are too selfish and basking too much in the afterglow of too much escapism.

So, the only way we can catch up—become adults—and face responsibility is to do what past generations have done—if civilization indeed goes through such cycles as many historians believe we do—and find those means necessary to move out of the Wasteland and take up the gauntlet. Instead of undergoing the process of Individuation, as Jung suggested, after that time of inherent responsible adulthood, we ourselves as adults, even in our own “over-aged” adolescence, must do it now. We cannot foist this upon our children and make them clean up the mess—as they’re distinctly and reasonably afraid we will. We have to come into our own. The prodigal sons and daughters have to return from the haze of excess and using adult ADHD as an excuse and learn once again the meaning of responsibility. And this includes all post-WWII generations for whom this condemnation hits harrowingly close to home.

If we believe that “post-nuclear” or “post-atomic” theory—which as I get older, tends to make more and more sense as to one of the reasons why this has happened to us—then, like every other society has during any renaissance following a dark, nihilistic and pessimistic age, we must focus on some paradigm that will teach us what we need to know—reawaken that inherent streak of responsible and illuminated humanity—and distinctly walk forward.

Let me note, this is no “kumbaya” moment, with the lot of us sitting in abject, momentary virtue around a campfire feeling good about ourselves. Flakiness doesn’t count. And no matter how eloquent and seemingly profound we can be when trying like hell to get ourselves out of a situation, substance counts for a hell of a lot more than dime-store profundity. Solid gold is a hell of a lot heavier, and it’s worth a lot more, than gold plating—no matter how authentic it looks on the outside.

And as for the paradigms we can use—one possible one comes to mind, and it comes from what began for me in studying not only Jung, but also the Romantics, as mentioned in Part I. And it is connected to something even more ancient than that. If individuation is what we need—right now—than individuation can come, and this is one way to do it—including the reasons why this paradigm might indeed be tailor-made for our generations in particular.

It may prove to be a harrowing journey, but one worth taking.

[Continued in Part III]

K.J. Wetherholt is the Co-Founder/Board Chairman of The Humanitarian Media Foundation (HMF) and the HMF Consultancy, a published author, and a producer of an upcoming documentary on the power of the media with MediaStorm.

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