The lonely adolescent
One of the best kept secrets in our Caribbean society is that by the time a young man picks up a weapon to do violence to another human being, an incredible amount of violence has been visited on him by unenlightened or uncaring nurturing practices. But no one appears to be interested in these root causes.
Over the last twenty years, I have talked to hundreds of adolescents and older people and in most instances I hear the same story:
“I am so lonely, so empty – I need another”
“I seem to look for love in all the wrong places”
“No one pays attention to me, no one respects me, no one really considers me important”
“There is something wrong with me, with people, with the world; there is something missing in our life. What is it? How did it start?”
I am convinced that a great deal of the modern problems of loneliness, alienation, restless searching, and addiction come from the way we were brought up and treated. It is centred on our bodies, how they were treated and how we were taught to treat them. Contrary to what many wise and holy people say about the importance of concentrating on tuning our soul, our spirit, to God, I am suggesting that it is even more important to begin with the body. We must make sure we get that straight or else we’ll be confused for the rest of our lives. I will argue in this article, that what appears in the bodies of our infant children is created by the culture that surrounds us, and it in turn reproduces this culture.
I wish you could attend the self-awareness class which is the centre of the SERVOL Adolescent Development Programme and in which, over a period of 13 weeks, we guide our young people towards an answer to the vital question: “Who am I?”
Through a process of exhilarating dialogue, we arrive at the realisation that we have to begin our exploration from the very start, as a fertilised egg in our mothers” womb.
The loneliness starts from the beginning
At this early stage, I am confronted by a situation that will absorb my attention for the rest of my life: the problem of “I” and the other. In the womb, the other is the placenta, but it is a beautifully harmonious relationship so that the sense of other is hardly perceived. About the sixth month in the womb, I slowly begin to perceive that the placenta is other. This gives rise to anxiety but this, in itself, is not bad, as it prepares me for the world where there are lots of other people. It all depends on whether the foetus, which is me, is experiencing this feeling in an environment which is loving or hostile. Is my mother’s blood clean and wholesome, or is it saturated with alcohol, nicotine, drugs or the AIDS virus?
This is the first, prolonged, emotional shock that children receive and they never forget it. Doctors and nurses, convinced that their duty is to protect me from infection, ignore my signals that I want to touch, smell and taste my mother’s body, the only comforting familiar thing in this alien new world. They place me in the sterile atmosphere of a nursery where my pathetic cries are added to the chorus of other newborn babies. We are inflicting terrible violence on newborn children, because we refuse to listen to them.
During the next three years children gradually become aware of themselves as separate. Their mother’s face acts as a mirror and their development during those first three years is closely tied to the way their minds perceive their own bodies and how comfortable they are with their bodies. “I am I” is another birth, but this takes three years instead of a few hours.
The importance of touching, feeling,
Infants are curious, exploring people and use touch, feel, smell and taste much more than sight. But: how do we treat infants who
pull down tablecloths
eat grass and dirt
play with their genitals?
We “correct” them, slap them, tell them “don’t touch” and in so doing, we do an incredible amount of damage to them that may never be repaired. We are convinced that we know what is good for children; as a result, we very often end up by confusing them, making them unsure of themselves and suspicious and afraid of the world.
Over the last fifteen years I have asked more than 2,000 adolescents in my self-awareness classes: “At what age should you discipline children?” The vast majority answer: “From birth Children have to learn to wait; they cannot expect to be fed just because they are hungry, or cuddled just because they cry. By the time they have finished their Adolescent Parenting Programme, these adolescents have very different ideas but I weep for the tens of thousands who will continue the cycle of violence on their unsuspecting offspring.
Because it is violence. Whenever we ignore a baby crying, that is violence; whenever we stop children from exploring the world in which they live, that is violence; whenever we prevent a child from touching, that is violence. We are forcing them to suppress an urge within them at an age when they cannot understand why.
The Yequana Indians of Brazil make sure that their babies are in physical contact with the skin of another human being 24 hours a day for the first two years. These children grow up without that emptiness that we modern people spend our lives trying to heal or cope with. A lot of our modern preoccupation with “feeling good” through sex and drugs dates back to the fact that the way in which we were brought up didn’t give us the opportunity of feeling good about our infant bodies.
The great physicist Albert Einstein was once asked: what is the most important question being asked by modern man? His reply: “is the universe a friendly one?” Yequana children, because of close bodily contact, not only see the universe as friendly but feel it to be loving.
A friendly universe gazes approvingly at the
A loving universe holds the child.
That’s where it all begins.
Movement from feeling to seeing
That moment when children look in a mirror and understand for the first time clearly and unequivocally that what they are seeing is what other people see when they look at them, is most important. That is when they realise:
“I belong to the world”
“I do not feel comfortable with the world.”
This is a movement from feeling to seeing and it is the heavy price children have to pay in order to belong to this world. Children are asked to give up their comfortable, trusting way of knowing the world (touching, smelling, tasting) and are forced into a sort of play-acting. “Eat slowly!” “Don’t run so fast!” “Don’t play in dirt!” “Don’t touch your private parts!” But the need to feel remains very strong in us. To know and to feel are closely connected: it is why children never learn from teachers they don’t like, and why, if small children are not cuddled, they die.
The need to feel is why many children keep on holding on to transitional objects (teddy bears, old blankets and urine-soaked pillows) for comfort. We grow up needing them in order to get through difficult periods of our lives. It seems pretty harmless, until we start to use drugs and sex as transitional objects. It is only then that it dawns on us how broken and vulnerable we are.
Violence in the schools
If, as children, we are fortunate enough to be placed in an early childhood centre with a well trained carer, we get a temporary respite. Wonder of wonders, we are allowed to play, to touch, to dabble in paint and to thrust our hands into sand and water so that we begin to hope again. But before we know it, we are in primary school and have to sit quietly and listen as the teacher, who knows everything, proceeds to teach us, who are supposed to know nothing. As a result, something very precious, very beautiful, shrivels up inside us. The tiny voice in each child that continues to cry out despairingly “I am beautiful! I am creative! I am gifted!” is ruthlessly silenced by this system.
For some there is a sense of achievement in being at the top of the class and getting into the school of their choice. But the vast majority of children, particularly those who are gifted with their hands, are put down and their self-esteem is quietly but efficiently extinguished.
The violence continues in secondary school. Success in exams is the goal and teachers are judged by their ability to enable their pupils to succeed. Then we turn them out into society and tell them “Forget the fact that we have violently suppressed practically every one of your inner urges from the time you were born; we expect you to be a caring, sharing, creative, compassionate adult member of your society.”
This accounts for much of the rage and pain we carry around that leads to crime, violence and war. Because, whatever we do, and however much TV and computers are the future of the world, the need to feel remains very strong in us.
The remedy for this crisis
On the basis of what we in SERVOL have been doing for over 25 years, I would like to propose a philosophical approach to the problem.
The first step is to accept the fact that all adult human beings are infected by a virus, that we in SERVOL have named “cultural arrogance'.We discovered it in ourselves all those years ago and have since found out that it is very widespread. Those infected by this pernicious virus are convinced that because they come from a certain society, belong to a certain ethnic group or have benefited from a certain type of education, they are superior to other people and in particular, the people they are trying to help. The result is that they almost never consult, or even listen to, the people who are supposed to benefit from their help. This leads them to overlook the obvious and to make a lot of very elementary mistakes.
SERVOL has discovered two vaccines that are very effective and easily affordable. The first is called “attentive listening” and it means that before trying to help anyone we must listen to them for days, for months, for years; always convinced that what they have to say about themselves is just as important as the brilliant insights and innovative solutions buzzing around in our busy little brains.
It is only when we have rid ourselves of most of our cultural arrogance that we are ready for the second vaccine, which we term “respectful intervention”. If we feel called to interfere in the lives of other people, then let us do so respectfully, recognising that we are not experts and know- alls and they are not ignoramuses and know-nothings, but that both parties can agree on a course of action in which they have both made a serious input.
This philosophy applied to children and
If we listened to the cries of newborn babies we would realise that their place is with their mothers. Mothers who were immigrants from Papua New Guinea to Australia, made such a fuss when the nurses tried to take their newborn babies from them that the authorities were forced to listen. Now all mothers who so desire go to sleep happily with their hand resting on the body of the child. Wonder of wonders, the children sleep peacefully.
If we listened to the body language of toddlers who tell us “I have to touch, I have to explore, I have to taste” then perhaps we would not see them as wicked, disobedient children. We would offer them a safe environment in which they can crawl about and touch to their hearts” content.
If we listened to the need of primary school children to express themselves, to find out things for themselves with the guidance of teachers, we could begin to design our primary schools along the lines of the Colombian Escuelas Nuevas (New Schools). In these there is a strong bond between the community and the school, which allows children to learn at their own pace.
If only we listened to adolescents. 90 per cent of adolescents say that: “no one ever really listens to me; parents say they are listening, teachers say they are listening but I know from their body language, from the way their eyes drift away, that they are only going through the motions and waiting patiently for me to stop so that they can tell me about their solution to my problem.”
That is why so many adolescents do things that are specifically designed to make parents notice them, like wearing outlandish (by adult standards!) clothes, by deliberately speaking in grunts and by inventing music that only adolescents understand and that literally has to he translated for adults.
I suggest that every programme must be built on a foundation of years of listening and that this listening must continue even when, or should I say especially when, you seem to have come up with a “successful” project. This is particularly true for programmes that are designed to help parents and communities work together for the development of adolescents who are capable of coping with the pressures of modern day society.
Up to the early sixties, there was a support system based on the nuclear family, the extended family and a society in which people generally agreed on what was good or bad, right or wrong. In such a situation, children were provided with a safety net to make up for the deficiencies of unenlightened parenting practices. Today’s world is quite different and from an early age, children are being faced with stressful situations and with less support from family and societal structures. Because of this it is essential that parents and educational authorities work together to ensure that children emerge from school with a solid sense of their own identity and self-worth. This will enable them to cope with a universe that is becoming less friendly by the day.
This cannot be achieved by crash programmes in self-esteem for adolescents, by quick fix or bandage-it-up solutions, but by an awareness of the importance of the early years in the development of personality in small children. If we fail to do this, we can expect a steady increase in the level of violent behaviour exhibited by adolescents. Maybe it is their final, despairing way of pleading with the adult world:
“Would you please listen to us?”