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The Black Hole

By Will Baker

I have been thinking about our children lately. And when I say "our," I do mean our collective children. In the wake of the most recent school shootings, who hasn’t been thinking of our kids? There is a woman that I work with who has a child that is so upset, so afraid to go to school that he has been physically ill. She has taken him to a psychologist, and the conclusion they reached is that perhaps it is time to consider private schooling-at a cost of over ten thousand dollars a year. In the same breath my colleague says that she may need to take another job to pay for this--another job, additional time that she will be away from this poor kid…what a choice for her to have to make.

When I think about these shootings, I consider what they imply. It seems to me that these "shooters" are demonstrating an incredible degree of hopelessness and despair. Out of concern that this might be some form of generational hopelessness, I spoke to some teenagers on the subject. In the small Vermont village where I live, I volunteer my time and work with kids on a weekly basis. So I took the occasion to pick the minds of some kids that I happened to be able to "connect" with. They trust me, and I trust them, therefore I knew that the conversation would likely be a candid one. It was, and what they said troubled me. Their words evoked imagery that speaks to a culture of despondency.

You know, when a farmer grows a good crop of something, there are really only a very few things that his or her success can be attributed to. First there is the farmer’s skill, knowledge and experience in providing her crop with the various things necessary for a bountiful yield. The second item is the weather. With poor luck, the farmer can do everything "right," yet drought or excessive rain, or a good hailstorm can wipe out everything. I believe that raising our kids represents a similar proposition.

After the Columbine shooting I spent some time thinking about all of this. For background regarding my thoughts at the time, you can read an essay on the matter by clicking here: "Have We Lost our Way?" Anyway, although I stand by the conclusion reached in that essay, that we must all make a greater effort to be present in the lives of our collective children, I would like to amend my position by injecting a note of urgency. To get back to the above analogy, there are some farming problems that can’t be dealt with by utilizing a "tincture of time." For instance, a gradual decline in yield might suggest that it is time to rotate crops. However, in the case of a severely impacted crop, say due to an infestation of pests, unless quick action is taken, the entire crop could be lost. For if the farmer allows a certain negative critical mass to be achieved the results could be devastating.

When I spoke with the kids, they articulated some ideas that made me uneasy. Now, these are not what would be considered troubled children. For the most part, they do well in school, some are quite active in their church, and most are involved in various community activities. Yet they acknowledged that many of their peers, and on some level, they themselves believe that "nothing really matters." When I pressed them for clarification, they indicated their belief that many kids today, perhaps even the majority, believe that one can do whatever one wishes to do. It seems to me that their mind-set demonstrated an attitude of pointlessness. Now when I was younger, my friends and I certainly had the angst-market cornered. But what I was hearing from these kids was not an articulation of typical teen-age angst. No, they were describing a sort of Nihilism.

Among philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche is most often associated with Nihilism. For Nietzsche, there is no objective order or structure in the world except what we give it. The caustic strength of Nihilism is absolute; Nietzsche argues that, "under its withering scrutiny "the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking, and 'Why' finds no answer" (Will to Power). He believed that Nihilism would inevitably expose all cherished beliefs and sacrosanct truths as symptoms of a defective Western mythos. And that this collapse of meaning, relevance, and purpose will be the most destructive force in history, constituting a total assault on reality and nothing less than the greatest crisis of humanity. Now the Existentialists that came after him put their own spin on his ideas. Therefore, while Nihilism is often discussed in terms of extreme skepticism and relativism, for most of the 20th century it has been associated with the belief that life is meaningless. Existential Nihilism begins with the notion that the world is without meaning or purpose. Given this circumstance, existence itself--all action, suffering, and feeling--is ultimately senseless and empty.

It seems to me that the ideas described in the above paragraph are exactly what I heard being articulated by these kids--residents all of a tiny, secure, out of the way Vermont Village. And then I project this mind-set onto the national scene and ask: what better way to demonstrate these notions than by becoming a "shooter?" Yes, I am very concerned that generationally speaking, our children have bought into a hybrid form of Nihilism. Well, if this is true, then more needs to be done than simply being more present in the lives of our children. Although that is still a very important piece of it. It seems to me that the only way that our kids could have developed this affliction is from observing how we, the adults in their lives operate. And if we simply become more present in their lives, we could run the risk of giving them a higher doseage of the wrong medicine.

The conventional wisdom around the Columbine shooting is that it was an act of retribution. That the kids involved in the shooting were outcasts subjected to the brutal treatment of their peers. And that, for whatever reason(s), they did not possess the coping and communication skills necessary to resolve their issues in a productive manner. Well, it seems that Andy Williams, the boy who recently killed two and wounded thirteen in a boy’s bathroom at a High School in California, did not fit the profile of the alienated outcast that bore close scrutiny. No, his act surprised everyone: his friends, parents, teachers, his former girl friend, they were all surprised.

As I think about all this, the expression: "little pictures" comes to mind. Our children are watching and learning from us. They know what motivates us, and what makes us afraid. They know all about our hopes and dreams, and our failures. They know full well when we are being sincere, and when we are full of shit. It seems to me that, unless we turn this ship, and turn it quickly, a negative critical mass might well occur, and Nietzsche’s "greatest crisis of humanity" might very well come about. So let’s look in the mirror, what do our kids see? Do they see our pained faces when we drag ourselves home from work? Do they sometimes notice that the time that we spend with them seems to be a bother to us? I think that they see us trying to make money, for we have taught them that it is the fruit of success. And maybe we have taught them to lie, for we lie ourselves. And by our behavior, we have shown them how to resolve problems at the expense of others. And most unfortunately, we have taught them that they are quite on their own.

But then it occurs to me that all is not lost. For there is change available to us in every moment. And just like we teach our kids, life is about choices. We all define ourselves by the choices that we make, and we can choose to leave as a legacy a society that is devolving, spiraling downward into Nietzshe’s Black Hole, or we can choose to transform the situation, and create a new day.

I wish my colleague well in attempting to resolve the issues with her child. But I’m not so sure that private school is the answer. For what will that tell her kid? Avoid your problems by failing to confront them. "Run away son, take a 'distance cure' (and hope that you don’t bring your troubles with you), while I try to make your problem go away by throwing ten thousand dollars a year at it. I guess that I need to work a little harder. Your dinner is in the fridge…"



 (Essay Collection)