In today’s Independent Ian Johnston makes a point that is becoming increasingly clear to me. ‘Children are living in an “unprecedented toxic climate” in which they skip meals to stay thin, are bombarded by pornographic images and fear they will be failures amid a “continuous onslaught of stress at school”, according to research published today.’ http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/mental-health-riskto-children-trapped-in-toxic-climate-of-dieting-pornography-and-school-stress-9070710.html
As my children traversed their school years they have experienced that “continuous onslaught’. Couple that with, as the article says, the pervasive ‘toxic climate’ and it is no wonder the ‘mental health time bomb’ is ticking towards disaster. What is the answer? Better mental health provision of course. But surely that is dealing with the symptom not the cause?
When I talk to parents they are as stressed as their children, convinced that the world is increasingly competitive and that failure is tantamount to the scrap heap for their offspring. Where are these messages coming from? The media, the school, the marketplace? When my kids expressed an interest in drama as a career the overwhelming reaction of educational professionals was a patronising silence and then an encouragement to be serious and think about jobs that offer financial security. My son suffers from Type One Diabetes which means that if he is overstressed his blood sugars become erratic. He too is interested in Film as a career. Somehow the ‘toxic climate’ we are surrounded by eats away at his self belief. My daughters, and increasingly my son are surrounded by visual images of the way they ought to look. Pornography, now just a click away gives a very powerful message about how sexuality should be, a very skewed perspective! The other day I watched a film with my son called ‘Lovelace’. It tells the heart-wrenching story of Linda Lovelace; one of the first porn-film stars of the 70′- she made a film called ‘Deep-throat’. She is appallingly abused and finally escapes with her story and a newly found dignity. Amanda Seyfried is excellent in the title role. I was really happy to watch this with my son as it gives a true picture of the porn industry.
What are we to do then? We have to believe that our self-worth comes not form outside but from within. Can we find that silent space where the messages from the deep-self or soul can emerge into our consciousness? Our connection to the other, the other greater and more magical than we can imagine, comes from our willingness to go inside and downwards to the centre. Our imagination, our creativity, our stillness, our calm ability to look at life as it is, these are the faculties that will counteract this “unprecedented toxic climate”. In Henry the Fourth Part One – Falstaff, Prince Harry’s carousing playmate says ‘banish plump Jack, and banish all the world’. Plump Jack Falstaff may not be the ideal companion for our children but he represents a spirit of fun and joy that has been banished from our children’s lives. I went into one of my son’s friends house when he was younger and saw a whiteboard timetable with schedules for the children. It began at 6.30am on weekdays and then Saturday was the busiest day! No boredom there. No aimless moments to daydream and experience the ability to go inward and find true mirth and play in the imagination. We are in danger of banishing the spirit of Plump Jack for ever and replacing him with the need for medication whether it is sugar, alcohol, porn, or the cornucopia of drugs we have devised to treat the symptoms and not the causes.
How can we get back in touch with a sense that our life is a narrative, a story that requires our attention. I recently read a number of Grimm’s Fairy tales including the Handless Maiden. In this story a Miller sacrifices his own daughter’s hands for technical mastery and financial security. She has to go on a long journey into the forest to finally enter a space of recuperation and recreation where her true hands can grown back. In one version of the story she tries to bathe her child in the river with the stumps of her arms and drops it into the water. As she, in her extreme anxiety, reaches for the child her hands miraculously grow back. Perhaps we have to reach this extreme “unprecedented toxic climate” to reach for our children again with joy and affirmation and invite them to see their story as always being one of death and resurrection, loss and renewal and that failure is a very good teacher. Then we may all grow hands again.