As a child and adolescent psychiatrist for more than 30 years I am, like everyone, shocked and saddened by the recent violent actions of James Eagan Holmes in a Colorado movie theater. Certainly, I cannot speak to the complex and multi-focal factors that drove him to this tragic end nor have I worked with young people who exhibit this degree of violence.
However, I am extremely sensitized to the stresses and pressures young adults face today, struggling as they do with emptiness, isolation and despondency in their culture that is basically out of balance.
Participants in our Optimum Performance Institute are bright, talented and delightful but they came to one our OPI Living programs because they were “stuck.” Many tried but failed to complete college. Some could not keep a job or sustain relationships with family and friends.
“Something is missing from my life,” they would often say and indeed, they are skeletons of joy. When asked “what do you enjoy doing?” they respond very honestly, “I don’t know.” They understand what activities they are supposed to do, but get confused when these activities result in feelings of emptiness and loneliness.
To understand what “is missing,” just look into the eyes of a child who is beginning to explore a world they view as full of possibilities and excitement. Watch them learn to walk: Getting up, falling, getting up again. They may express their feelings directly by crying or laughing, but there is no cognitive self-criticism, no cognitive judgment or disappointment. They are motivated by their biologic imperative that allows them to be flexible, moment-to-moment. Each new moment is imbued with a spirit of curiosity and perseverance until they finally succeed and their joy is reflected and thus sustained by proud adults.
But these virtues and values of spontaneity, of laughing and joy, are systematically de-emphasized as they grow. They are not reinforced and may even be considered distractions to completing measurable “objectives.” Many Participants we see are overwhelmed by fear, anxiety and the need to be perfect, to win and be better than others.
They may react by withdrawing from activities, become reclusive and non-participatory. But in truth, they don’t want to be alone. They want to interact with others, but may not have had the socialization experiences that come from feeling free enough to really express themselves and be accepted by others, especially when trying new activities or engaging with peers they are not already connected with.
We see contributing causes all around us: School districts have eliminated music and art classes and other traditional opportunities we use for self expression, in order to focus on production. Early childhood years are filled with the obsession to learn skills without developing the social context of an appreciation of the self and others.
A tremendous dilemma has resulted: A sense of isolation and loneliness with no long-term, internal, sustaining sense of balance or peace. Our young people are becoming more out of contact with the ability to appreciate and intuit how others feel.
The void these young adults feel may seem inconsequential in our extremely competitive world. Yet this void is part of what spawns the need to experience life through the use of substances, self-harm or by participating in violent or aggressive acts of fantasy.
This emotional void represents the essence of what is missing in order to have a healthy, balanced life.
How can we re-stimulate in our young adults the biological imperative and intrinsic motivation we all had as children to try hard, succeed and discover our full potential?
How can we help our young people discover the personal passions that will nourish them throughout their lives?
- Opportunities to share creativity, joy and love with others
- Simple curiosity
- Small successes
- Time: The time that is needed to explore our creativity, curiosity and feelings of joy and a love that is fundamental to our ability to re-ignite perseverance, energy and purpose.
When all our senses are fully operational we actually become more adaptable, more resilient and more successful human beings.
When I speak of “play,” I do not speak of competitive types of sports where there are winners and losers. I speak of a different world beyond a sense of time and space, where there is time for curiosity and “just being”– time, support and space for simple exploration with no hyper-focusing on external achievements or perfectionism.
My wife speaks of times as a teenager when she went outside to “play” which really meant sitting down against an old oak tree in the yard and watching clouds move through the sky.
In times like these, we become aware of the moment, and the flow, and the space between the moments. It is within these spaces – these gaps – that opportunities to transform are found. Here is where we find an intimate sense of inner balance, moments of feeling at peace and singular moments in which we discover our spontaneous self that is “becoming.”
We begin to experience ourselves and our world intimately, recognizing the sense of calm and oneness that comes from the “beginner’s mind”* as in the child’s first taste of sweetness, the child’s ability to viscerally and sensorially experience a life in which there is a newness and excitement about the next moment.
In these moments we can overcome our fear of isolation because we are experiencing a timeless state in which we are in more fluid contact with our own senses, a more intimate relatedness to people and our environment.
In these moments we have the opportunity to influence the probability of what will occur in the next moment. In this way we truly are capable of creating our own worlds which I believe that we do.
Compare this to being immersed in chronic fears and apprehensions based on residual thoughts of past failures and suffering and projection of those fears into the future. We cannot grow, here in this state of being, nor can we be present in the next moment because we are so distracted and preoccupied by all the internal and external events of our mind and the world that’s being experienced in that space.
We need to regain a balance between the “thinking mind” and our mind of “becoming” that is in awe of the complexities of the experience of life, a mind that has an appreciation and awareness of the inner-dependency of all things, of the constant dynamic process in which we are all involved.
Developmentally, this balance was achieved through the medium of “play.” As young adults it is “play” informed by wisdom.
I am not saying we should omit vigorous and successful competition. All I am saying is that there is little value given today to finding a balance with the non-competitive. We must allow for a different space with different objectives and different circumstances.
The first step is to truly appreciate the value of spontaneous play, of having no particular objectives, of being able to share passion that is not of a competitive nature.
We need to re-learn how to be silly because it is in that silliness that the kernels and bonds of love, compassion and tolerance evolve and grow.
When we become solely obsessed with the end product—when the stresses and pressures become too intense—very little attention is paid to the value of the present moment and the experience of joy that is based on sharing creativity and love with others—the kind of joy that is the essence of a healthy, productive and balanced life.
By Robert F. Fischer, M.D., with Anne LaRiviere, co-founders of the Optimum Performance Institute
*from “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki.