Everyone is passive

I was deeply concerned about this article centred around an epidemic of self-harm among girls at a boarding school; it made me wonder why children of wealthy parents who have nothing to worry about would be so mentally ill as to want to seriously injure or even kill themselves. This is not to say that their plight is nothing when it clearly is a big something – but, something’s not right here. Why is it that a family friend who had seen her own relatives set alight, burned alive and then had walked thousands of miles to try and get to Britain the most happy, positive and hard-working person I have ever known in so much better mental health than all these boarding school girls, for example?

Natasha is right that teachers cannot simply be chucked all the mental health hot potatoes simply because the taxpayer doesn’t deem CAMHS to be a worthwhile enough cause, but I don’t think there should be all these hot potatoes in the first place. I think part of the problem is that an underlying current of Western culture, this collective psychology that dominates, where everyone is waiting.

“I just want my child to be happy.”

How many times have we heard that one? Too many. But when you really think about it, it implies that happiness is something that comes to us if we just wait: let life take its course, let the opportunities come to us. For a lucky few (mainly the wealthy), those fulfilling opportunities will come. For the majority, happiness will never materialise the way it does in the movies. Many parents let their children choose the easy option in life of not working incredibly hard towards exams and in academic subjects (so many parents have told me that it’s more important their child is happy than becoming ‘mentally ill’ through having to work hard for exams); they are under the false impression that happiness is a fragile flower that, at any moment, could fall apart at a mere gust of wind, leaving the onlooker patiently waiting for the next flower to grow in its place.

flower

If happiness is something that just comes to us when we are waiting, then unhappiness is also something that just ‘happens’ to us too. The dangerous thinking here is that the unhappy person sees herself as a victim and never takes positive steps herself to brighten her own mood; one of the unintended consequences is that she never makes an effort to be a good friend to others (because, of course, it is her friends’ jobs to cheer her up, not the other way round) and then wonders why she ends up even more isolated, constantly thinking about how unhappy she is and how it is so unfair that everyone else seems to be happy. My friend whom I referred to earlier could’ve allowed herself to sink deep into a pit of despair, but she dug deep and chose to pursue a positive future for herself. Ah yes, it’s easy for her, isn’t it? She’s not a white Westerner and therefore must possess some kind of genetic advantage over us.

We’re all guilty of it. This passivity. We’re all waiting for everything: the perfect relationship, love, general happiness, a job that finally makes us feel worthwhile, a career path, to ‘find’ ourselves, the perfect lipstick, a mysterious affinity with an academic subject so that we don’t have to work so hard, readiness to settle down, the ‘right’ time to have a child. And if all these things that we are waiting for don’t arrive, then it’s everyone else’s fault, or perhaps just the fault of The Universe. Parents encourage their children to think like this right from day 1 by patiently waiting for their children to be ‘ready’ to behave, go to the toilet, use a knife and fork, read, write, develop good study habits, form a sleep routine, take in interest in others, choose to work hard, find the perfect extra curricular activity, choose to be kind and then if these things don’t happen naturally then that’s just the way it is, clearly some kind of SEN and therefore the responsibility of others to adjust their own lives to accommodate yet more people who are not ready to fully take part or be responsible adults in society.

Ask yourself this. What are you waiting for? I’ve long since realised that career, happiness, relationships are down to hard work and being proactive, but you know what? I’m still waiting for my wine habit to suddenly disappear, or for my body to suddenly want to go for a run. It’s never going to happen, but this whole waiting thing is so ingrained in my psyche that I am still having to root it out like the knotweed of my life that it is.

So, I recommend we all think about what we are waiting for and then we seriously need to think about how we are encouraging young and vulnerable people to wait for things that they absolutely could have control over and could choose to have. And that includes, sorry to burst a bubble here, happiness.

Who’s with me?

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6 thoughts on “Everyone is passive

  1. I hate to get political, but I think this passivity is an inevitable consequence of the mentality engendered by the welfare state coupled with unprecendented wealth and technological advance. We’ve largely render our species redundant, and I fear that the mental health issues you mention are pretty small beer in relation to the problems this will engender.

    I’ve always believed that civilisation is a pretty fragile construct–as a historian, it’s difficult to believe otherwise. The barbarian is always at the gate, eager to pounce on those rendered idle by free bread and circuses. I suppose that’s why we created our own smallholding, and why we never worried overmuch that our son played in the village where a large percentage of the kids on the streets were from travelling families. It’s why I joined the TA and encouraged my son to join the Army, and why I never got anxious when he did his tour in Helmand. It’s why I’ve been largely self-employed for almost all of my life and scorned any opportunity for a pension. Now I’m well past retirement age and as active physically and mentally as I’ve ever been.

    This said, I think it far more likely that we will see advanced economies slowly crumble in the face of more vigorous competition from unlikely places like Africa and South America, and even from Russia and the Moslem world. I don’t expect my son or even my granddaughter to live in the sort of dystopian hell so frequently predicted by writers and film-makers. Which is why it is even more important that some of us, at least, have the kind of education that it will take to survive mentally and physically in a far less benign environment.

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  2. I think you would be surprised at how easy it is for an individual to learn almost anything without too much difficulty. If the teacher actually understands both the teaching and learning processes, and the learner understands the learning process and has some metacognitive skills then learning is actually quite easy. My experience is that if a teacher can design the process to make learning effective and efficient then students are motivated and so it goes on.

    I believe the idea that learning by it’s very nature requires a tremendous amount of hard work is just wrong. The idea that stoicism which allows students to work through the suffering that results from unnecessary suffering and stress is for me deeply misguided.

    You have a real knack for reducing any issue, no matter how complex, to a problem of kids not working hard enough and teachers letting them do nothing.

    I agree with just about all of Tom’s analysis, there are very powerful transformative processes taking place in the world. For me these processes are having profound effects on governments and people and all of us.

    Unfortunately we live in a world in which “hard work” does not guarantee success and happiness. In fact those who work hardest in this world are usually those who manage to achieve least and suffer from more mental health problems.

    The idea that mental health problems that are manifest in UK society and more widely are caused by children just waiting simplifying the issue to the level of absurdity for me. If only it were true. We could simply instigate a program of Direct Instruction across the country, we could tell them and they would track us and soak up that invaluable knowledge and everyone would be fulfilled and happy.

    If only. The more people listen to Natasha the better. In my experience when the establishment silences someone they have put in place to address an issue it usually means they are onto something the establishment doesn’t want people to know. And it is isn’t that children need to work harder.

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    • I don’t doubt for a minute that a lot of people who work hard in education achieve very little and consequently may be deeply unhappy. I sure as hell wouldn’t like to spend all of my spare time for weeks on end marking coursework (happily, this should be the last year!), trying to make sense of mark schemes–especially when you know that the parent did most of the heavy lifting and in any case everyone knows that it was introduced because so many kids couldn’t pass a real test. But it’s completely wrong to suggest that hard work is associated with mental health problems when it’s productive work. Rather, work takes you outside yourself and focuses your attention on the world around you, and it enables you to have a positive effect on yourself and others. If nothing else, it gives you something to think about other than yourself.

      I wouldn’t be so dismissive of direct instruction. It’s by far the most effective means of building up the critical mass of knowledge and expertise that is necessary to make any subject interesting–in other words, to enter that virtuous loop where new information makes meaningful connections with what we already know, and where we actually go out of our way to find out more about it entirely of our own volition. From what I’ve seen of direct instruction in a variety of environments–schools, work and the military–the sense that everyone is achieving common goals does wonders for morale. In any case, I trust that we’ll soon have enough data from Michaela to find out if direct intstruction and hard work really are prophylactics agains mental illness.

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  3. In my opinion some of the blame is due to the knowledge light curriuclum in the West. Many kids are vacuous and have no sense of the world they live in. They exist solely for themselves, having never endured much real adversity. Added to this is the notion of therapeutic education, something that has insidiously invaded our schools in Aust..

    If you want kids to be more self-absorbed and narcisstic, which ultimately brings them no joy, add dollops of therapeutic ed. lessons to your curriculum so they believe themselves to be fragile and that the slightest hint of upset is reason for alarm. On the other hand if you want kids to be outward looking with an interest outside themselves and the shallow stuff that kids often naturally gravitate towards, give them knowledge. Knowledge opens up the world and frees them from self inspection.

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