This is not a reference I throw around lightly. This is something I have studied. I worked at the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco when I was younger, helping maintain their library of groups they watched for hate crimes or atrocities in the making. Every day, researchers would hand me stacks of articles from periodicals around the world to chronicle and file. They kept records of references being made casually, always staying alert to the misuse of history, the diminishing of it, which leads to a lack of importance being placed on it, which leads to repeating history. I remain appalled when Nazi references are tossed out by people who, by simply using them, seem to show how little they know of the true horrors they are referring to.
It is a difficult book, so I’m only dedicating one day a week to reading even a little bit. It is Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl, a holocaust survivor, and former inmate at Auschwitz.
Today, I read about the stages of mental deterioration of the inmates, and the phases of disbelief they went through. The author was a Psychologist before being a prisoner, and because of his training, he couldn’t help noticing the state of his own mind within the circumstances, and the various states of decay around him.
“I think it was Lessing who once said, ‘There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.'”
He started a passage with this quote and talked about abnormal reactions to abnormal situations being, in fact, normal. Admission to a concentration camp, being an abnormal situation, justifies all sorts of abnormal reactions, which are quite sane and normal.
He then talked about the change that happened within a few days.
“The prisoner passed from the first to the second phase; the phase of relative apathy, in which he achieved a kind of emotional death.”
He talked about the deadening to pain, which was constant – from frozen bodies, undernourishment, illness, and daily, hourly beatings. One became numb to these things, because they were ever-present. Empathy died too. It became possible to be numb to the sufferings of others, because suffering was also prevalent and monstrous.
He talked about being beaten mindlessly for insignificant things, like the person behind him in line being out of alignment, and suddenly, he himself was being beaten.
“At such a moment it is not the physical pain which hurts the most (and this applies to adults as much as to punished children); it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.”
I had already been making correlations to adolescence, because the Linkin Park song, Numb, has been on my mind for the last couple of days. Ben asked me, after we’d heard it on the radio, if I knew what the song was about. I said it seemed like it was a kid who was feeling pushed into a certain way of being or believing by a parent or some other authority, and he wanted to be or believe a different way – he wanted to be able to be himself instead of a little version of this other person. Then he said, “Yeah, the lyrics kinda give it away.” That cracked me up, but yes, the lyrics are quite specific and sad, and the song is popular among teens. I don’t think I’m pushing Ben into anything, but I know this is something that happens a lot during this time, and which is one of the reasons for so much teen angst and rebellion.
After the author mentioned punished children, I couldn’t help putting the whole thing together, and the result is terrifying. I’ve heard other things related to the Nazi’s – like politicians referring to their opponents as acting like the Nazi’s – for effect. It’s always horrible, and always a stretch, and not relevant, and usually seen as grandstanding and inappropriate. Here, though, it seems justified and nightmarish.
Sadly, the parents most prone to pushing their kids to get them to conform to their way of believing, or seeing things, or going into a profession that is more a result of their own lost dreams than their child’s passion, are the parents who will least likely see themselves in this comparison.
The idea keeps me in check though, and keeps me alert to the young people around me. I listen to the songs my kids are listening to, I Google the lyrics if I can’t understand them, and I think through them. I ponder the meanings, and the realities behind the words. Who are they meant for, why are kids singing along? Does this help them understand their own lives, does it give validity to the emptiness they are feeling as they sink into some sort of apathy or emotional death because their thoughts aren’t being heard, their interests are not encouraged, their questioning of authority is met with such defiance?
The dawning of adulthood in the years of being a teenager should usher in a season of questioning, reasoning, wondering and imagining, not years of hiding a true self from one’s own family, not years of emotional death or mental agony over the injustice of not being able to dream one’s own dreams, or think one’s own thoughts. The unreasonableness of it all can be so frustrating and enraging for a teen who feels trapped.
It seems I am focused on rebellion lately. I am curious about it. I want to understand it and where it comes from. I think we glorify it in grown-ups, on television or in movies; bigger-than-life characters are seen going against the status quo, standing up for the little guy, or something like that. Only during this precious time in a young person’s life, when they are still at home, but very nearly grown, and beginning to get ideas of how they want their life to unfold – is this seen as bad and to be squashed or punished out of a kid. Kids are sent away to military school or some other sort of refining establishment where they are whitewashed, indoctrinated, intimidated and cleaned up and sent back to mommy and daddy devoid of the rebellion they had started to show. Then they are sent out into the world – to go ape-shit crazy because they finally have some freedom.
I just think there’s a better way to handle the conflicts inherent to this time in a kids life. I think we can appreciate them, and where they are coming from instead of making them bottle up their psyche’s only to have them explode later.
photo of a decaying, empty, rotted cabinet – which seemed a fitting analogy to the soul of a teen experiencing emotional death or mental agony… from here