HELPLESSNESS

Our fear of helplessness, the perception of the cosmos and even ourselves as nonliving, and the threat of a meaningless and disordered world are all familiar complaints of the alienated modern man and, as I have suggested, are all associated with characteristic phases of psychological development. Insofar as they comprise or express our sense of a menacing disintegration, they serve a neurotic quest for control. From the self-abnegation and bodily humiliation of Christian flagellants, to the pious compulsions of fanatic cleanliness and sanitation, and finally the yearning for power over physical nature made possible by industrialized technology, we are engaged in a desperate flight from inchoate diversity and our own feelings of anonymity and fragmentation. Today we seek to fabricate a world in which we hope to heal our stunted identities and rear children in a hopeful and meaningful setting. But our rural/urban landscapes, generated by an ideology of mastery, define by subordination, not analogy. The archetypal role of nature—the mineral, plant, and animal world found most complete in wilderness—is in the development of the individual human personality, for it embodies the poetic expression of ways of being and relating to others. Urban civilization creates the illusion of a shortcut to individual maturity by attempting to omit the eight to ten years of immersion in nonhuman nature. Maturity so achieved is spurious because the individual, though he may become precociously articulate and sensitive to subtle human interplay, is without a grounding in the given structure that is nature. His grief and sense of loss seem to him to be a personality problem, so that, caught in a double bind, he will be encouraged to talk out his sense of inadequacy as though it were an interpersonal or ideological matter. Indeed, the real brittleness of modern social relationships has its roots in that vacuum where a beautiful and awesome otherness should have been encountered. The multifold otherness-with-similarities of nonhuman nature is a training ground for that delicate equilibrium between the play of likeness and difference in all social intercourse and for affirmation instead of fear of the ambiguities and liveliness of the self.

Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness.

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Then, of course, there is school, which plays a crucial role in the loss of all forms of capital: social, cultural, and spiritual. Here again, children progress through a more-or-less preset sequence of steps (the curriculum), their natural desire to explore and create confined to specified times, places, and subjects. They read about the world without experiencing it, reinforcing the notion that knowledge comes from the absorption of information, facts, and data provided by authority, and belittling all the while the very idea that they are competent to really learn for themselves through first-hand observation.

The restrictions we place on children arise out of two related concerns: safety and practicality, both of which boil down to some version of control. It is not as safe to let your children roam the neighborhood or the forest as it is to keep them at home. Prefabricated, programmed “experiences” are safer than real experiences in the world, which is beyond the human realm of predictability and control. Similarly, the education we foist upon our children so that they can learn the skills and gain the credentials necessary for a secure position as a paid specialist also attempts to avoid the inherent uncertainty of life. It makes nature provide instead of trusting nature to provide. It is the old distinction between the agriculturalist working to coax food from the land, and the hunter-gatherer accepting nature’s gifts. In this case, “trusting nature” refers to trusting that the natural fecundity of the child as a creative being will result in survival and even abundance. But there is more, because creativity is risky, as is unfettered exploration of the world. It is safer to keep Junior at home. But why has safety and security seemingly become our society’s highest priority? Just as “homeland security” can and is being used to justify any repressive measure, so also can child safety justify any limitation on children’s freedom to create, explore, and direct their own lives. Really, the emphasis on safety can be seen as a manifestation of survival anxiety, and the assumption that the purpose of life is to survive. From this assumption springs our entire preoccupation with safety as well as the entire technological program to control reality.

How do we keep our children safe? By confining them to a controlled environment where every possible danger has been eliminated. But this essentially takes away the possibility of real experiences, those that haven’t been set up and planned out for them. An experience that is programmed, laid out, all its parameters known by another, is somehow phony, like a public relations pseudo-event. It would seem that we are bent on eliminating risk from life and particularly from childhood. What is risk? It comes from the unknown. Testing the boundaries of our world, which are by definition unknown until we explore them, is inherently a risky activity. Since this is how we learn who we are in relation to the world, the regime of safety, confinement, and supervision in effect prevents children from discovering who they are; it keeps them, that is, from self-realization.

Our controlling of children reflects in two ways the technological program to control nature. First, it implements upon our children the program of security through control, which stems from the survival anxiety implicit in our scientific paradigms and underlying our social structures. Second, and more striking, is this: Our children are nature; they represent the very thing we are trying to bring under control. Their spontaneity, creativity, and playfulness, their unruly nature, is the wild that we seek to conquer or, to use less inflammatory language, that we seek to mold into the “responsible”, “mature” domesticated adult, someone whose behavior rarely sacrifices the rational self-interest of safety, comfort, and security (embodied to a large degree in money) for the creative risks of the unknown. In precise parallel, we use science to subordinate the unknown universe to human understanding, and we use technology to domesticate the world. The motivations for doing so are identical to those we try to foster in the mature adult: safety, security, and predictability.

The subjugation of children to a safe, controlled, programmed semblance of life does not end with high school graduation. By the time we reach adulthood we have become so conditioned to be consumers of a life prepared for us by anonymous others, and so helpless and fearful of creating our own, that we remain forever dependent on fabricated experiences. Another word for experiences fabricated by others is entertainment. In the absence of these, having lost or never developed the capacity for autonomous creativity, we experience the discomfort we call boredom.

In my earlier discussion of anxiety theory, I related boredom to Stephen Buhner’s “interior wound” of separation from nature, a hole in the heart so painful that we constantly crave distraction, entertainment, something to take us away from the pain. At the same time, we try to fill in the hole by acquiring more and more possessions, whether tangible or intangible: a futile attempt to fill up the void inside by adding more to the outside. In the context of the loss of spiritual capital, this hole in the heart is nothing less than life itself, our own life, the life we could create for ourselves but that has been sold off to the demands of technological society.

Charles Eisenstein, Chapter 4.7 Spiritual Capital from The Ascent of Humanity.
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