Messaging Matters—Our Obsession with Doom is Hurting Our Children

Our kids are hurting. From watching one another self-hurt on Musical.lyto the high rate of male college drop-outs, to the increase in suicide and mass-shootings led by our youngsters, it appears the next generation is crying out in pain, and most of us don’t want to see our role in their angst. We’ve done the best we could. We’re busy. There isn’t enough time or money. It’s the government’s fault. It’s the gun owners’ faults, it’s the media’s fault.

At some level, all of that is true, but we need to step back and admit it’s our fault as well. Each of us who lives in this society takes part in the society, particularly in the messaging that our kids receive. The culture we give them is the culture that they will literally embody, whether we like it or not. So perhaps we need to take a moment to look at the culture, and more specifically the messages we share with one another and our children.

The Buddhists practice the Noble Eightfold Path:

Right understanding (Samma ditthi), Right thought (Samma sankappa), Right speech (Samma vaca), Right action (Samma kammanta), Right livelihood (Samma ajiva), Right effort (Samma vayama), Right mindfulness (Samma sati), Right concentration (Samma samadhi)

The idea here is profound, yet one we often overlook when creating the societies in which we live. Beginning with the right understanding, we are able achieve right concentration and overcome the suffering of our souls. That lonely ache of being human can be transcended, if only we have the right understanding to follow the rest of the Eightfold Path.

We learn this understanding initially from those around us. If the elders practice right thought, based on right understanding, then through their speech, actions, livelihood and efforts they will hand down right understanding to the next generation.

Therefore, what we do reflects what we say which reflects what we think. Taking a sample from my Facebook, Twitter and Medium feeds, it becomes clear that the understanding we are teaching are kids is FAR from right in it’s thinking, speech or action. Rather than follow hope, we follow doom, and we sell it to anyone with eyes to see it and ears to hear it. Unless you live in a cave, you can’t escape the myopic American vision of death, destruction and hopelessness. Given our obsession with doom, is it any wonder that our kids want out? Whether through cutting, killing themselves or others, or escaping into video games, the world we’re telling them, the world we’re showing them, isn’t one of empowerment, it’s one set on pity and helplessness.

What exactly do I mean? The examples are endless, but here are four lies I think we feed each other, and thus our children, that teach them the world isn’t worth their time and that they themselves are irrelevant.

1.       The world is better off without humanity.

Yes, we’ve all heard this one. I hear it several times a day, when I bother to leave my cave and partake in this world I love so much. And every time I hear these words uttered, my heart breaks. Why, dear humans, do you hate yourselves so much that you would think this? Of course, we may have gotten ahead of ourselves when it comes technology combined with our yet-to-be-fully-developed frontal lobes, but we know enough now about biodiversity and the web of life to understand that the eradication of any species brings imbalance and great harm. We try to get rid of mosquitoes so that less humans die, only to create other pests intent on killing us. Hey, the fact that some parts of nature want to kill us isn’t because we’re evil. We really need to get over that concept. Viruses keep our population under control the way mountain lions keep the deer population under control the way birds keep the mosquito population under control. If humanity were to just die off, then who would be the hands of the Earth? Do you really think we’ve nothing to offer? Nothing at all? We have much to learn, that’s true. But the same minds that built oil rigs can figure out how to turn the sun into the next sustainable power-grid. Someone will do it, all we need to do is encourage them. And if that someone(s) happens to be the next generation, do you think teaching them that the world is better off without us is the road to such a monumental discovery? Not sure this message is one of motivation folks.

Rather than focus singularly on how much we suck because we used nuclear energy as a weapon of mass destruction rather than a tool for clean energy, we might want to also use that unfortunate event as a lesson and focus on how clever we are and how we can advance to the next level in our quest for renewable, constructive energies. The same brilliant minds are behind both destruction and redemption, but feed the soul with too much despair, and you’ll get what you fear. We can learn just as much from our successes as our failures, so a little truth, beauty and goodness can go a long way. Humans have made beautiful things as well: vaccines, the Davinci robot, bullet trains, art, physics, stories, comedy, music that will make your heart soar as well as cry, other humans. We can do that you know, create other humans. Just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s not a miracle.

The message is this: Humans are stupid and evil. The world would be better off with us. Maybe the world is better off without me.

2.       Raising children is beneath us.

Many believe that by increasing their wealth, sending their kids to fancy camps and lessons, hiring the best tutors, being able to afford private school tuition and granting their kids the best in life is showing love. But more than anything, giving them our time and attention is what matters most. Yet in today’s world, wanting to spend time with your children is a big no-no if you want to be a successful, independent adult. Caring for kids makes you weak, puts you at an economic disadvantage and according to feminist theory, the very act of homemaking is misogynistic, patriarchal and designed to keep women down. Sick kid? Unless they're vomiting, have a fever or a rash, stuff some Mucinex down and send them on the way. Can't be late for work, the boss will notice and the promotion depends on pretending no one needs you at home.

Kids can feel this resentment. They know that their mothers feel vulnerable and afraid to leave the office at three to pick them up from school and care for them. They know that society would rather encourage they be sent to daycare, where other women, often the lowest in our caste system, working for $10/hr, raise them, rather than their own mothers or fathers. Here’s the thing though, kids take work. The human mammal needs tons of physical care the first seven years of their lives, and then a lot of emotional care until they’re young adults. But if we do this, if we invest our time in them, then they launch from the home, become adults and take their place beside us in the work of citizenship.

What message do our children hear when they’re told that having kids is the number one way to ruin their careers? We message this mostly to young women, but do you think the males don’t hear as well? Even Betty Friedan was wise enough to suggest that women would never be economically free until men entered into the work of the home. We pitted women’s needs against our children’s needs and now wonder why more men haven’t opted to be the main caregiver? When you spend decades messaging motherhood and caregiving in a negative light, who’s going to want that job?

Moreover, the kids know at some level their needs conflict with the economic and emotional freedoms their mothers deserve. We message that they’re a burden, that they’re the number one reason women are trapped, and are victims in society. Do we think they don’t internalize this? Do we think we haven’t internalized it in some way ourselves?

The message is this: Our mere existence puts our mothers—the first voice, the first heartbeat we hear in this world—between a rock and a hard place. Maybe it would have been better to never have been born.

3.       Everyone is either oppressed, or an oppressor.

Identity politics is king right now, and as a result you are either a victim of your identity or oppressing someone with your identity. There are many examples of this, the one that I’m most familiar with is the idea that the future is female, but only if you’re a badass female. Heaven forbid you might like to have babies and spend their early years with them. That makes you a victim, not a real female. As for men, particularly white men, you’re an oppressor. You can’t be anything else, due to your privilege, and god help you if you want to be an elementary school teacher, because only perverted men want to spend time with other people's children, and if you stay home with your kids you’re just as much a victim as any woman who would do the same, so we really don’t need you at all, unless we want a baby, but then we’d be victims again, wouldn’t we?

That’s an exaggeration of course, but it isn’t easy wearing the face of the oppressor and being told that’s the only role you can hold. Worse is being told you’re a victim due to your gender, color, etc. and that due to the natural imbalances in our society you will never be anything but, even if you do hold the role of CEO or Prime Minister. You’re still a victim because if you’re not a victim, then you’re an oppressor. There are no other options.

What point would there be to overcome your victimhood if the only other role in our Western world is that of oppressor? Yet who would give up being an oppressor if the only other option is to be oppressed?

Real life isn’t like this. The people I meet in my daily life don’t line up into such simple categories. At any moment, with the right understanding, thought, speech and action, we can be neither oppressor nor victim. We can be human together. To think otherwise is lazy thinking. We can’t control what others do, but we can control how we react to them.

To claim that either you’re a victim or an oppressor is to teach one another that there’s no hope, no room for growth and no personal accountability. The victims will never be truly satisfied, and the oppressors can never be truly forgiven.

The message is this: You’re either a victim or an oppressor. You can never break out of your role, for the other option is no better. Maybe I should just stop trying.

4.       Robots are going to replace you.

I’ve mentioned this before in an essay on resiliency, but it’s worth bringing it up once again. It may be that robots may replace many of the jobs that are familiar to us right now, but that doesn’t mean they will replace US. You and me. We’re people, how in the world does that robotic arm in the surgical unit replace US? My surgeon’s role will change, but her role didn’t even exist three centuries ago, not like it does now. Technology has brought surgery to a whole new level and will continue to do so. Would you go to a surgeon who only used ether and a rusty knife? Hell no. We should celebrate the fact that the surgeon today is joined by a robot. This is cool stuff people, and it’s only going to get cooler.

It’s hard to know what the future will bring, but we will need each other. We aren’t defined by the work we do in any given moment, rather our lifetimes tell the story of our efforts. We will do many things, but we will still be here. Star Trek’s Data might just be the ideal companion, completely programmable AND fully functional, but is he really the final solution? Perhaps, given lie number one above, many of you think this is a good thing. You pray that robots replace us in all ways, and rather than evolve ourselves into the new work of the future (whatever that will be), we die off. Or AI kills us.

But I don’t think that will be the case. As I suggested in The Zen ofArtificial Intelligence, AI might just be the Buddha we need, the mentors we will create ourselves in order to teach ourselves that we are worthy, that we are made in the image and likeness of the gods (all the creation myths claim this you know), that the Earth is better off with us, that we are worthy of care and that we can be more than victims or oppressors.

Otherwise the message is this: The robots our parents are creating right now will eventually take our jobs, our wealth, our sex partners and render us useless. Honestly then, what’s the point?

Pass me that bong, I got nothing but hours of Fortnite and several Netflix series to binge on the agenda—today, and every day.

1972—A Great Year to be Born Both Culturally and Technologically

Perhaps everyone thinks the year that they were born was the best. We humans are naturally narcissistic, aren’t we? Yet middle age often forces us to look backwards in order to look forward, and as I review my life and it’s various stages it becomes clear that the timing in which my childhood played out was truly blessed. Particularly as a female. The work had already been done to allow me agency over my body and mind, yet we still had a sense of humor when it came to gender relations. Moreover, both technologically and culturally those of us born in or near 1972 seem to have hit the mark with each monumental shift.

Of course, there were issues—we were latchkey kids, our parents beat us, and the food and air were quite toxic, but when seen from an evolutionary viewpoint, Generation X seems to have grown up with the best of the “good old days” when it comes to culture as well as a front row seat in the digital revolution. And that my friends, makes us unique.

The Seventies
If you were born in 1972, most likely much of this decade is forgotten. I personally can’t remember anything before 1977. However, those last three years of the decade that I do remember are remarkable. First, there was Soul Train. I can’t even tell you how much I loved turning on the TV and dancing every week. This was by far the funkiest thing to ever hit the tele, and it would shape the way I dance and dress for the rest of my life. I still prefer a good disco/funk song and platform shoes make my heart sing. The show began in 1971 and was the first must-see-tv for me.

When I wasn’t dancing inside, I was outside. We were ALL outside. Let’s put it this way, we woke up and ate crappy cereal with cold milk (my favorite was Honey Comb) then our mothers pushed outside and basically said, “Don’t come home till I call you for dinner.” Such was the day for the child of 1972.

What in the world did we do all day? I made mud pies in the lake, played kick the can at dusk, rode my bike all the places my mother said I couldn’t (sans helmets) and hung out at the parks, which were places of injury, screaming and challenge. Our slides were so tall, you’d get vertigo standing on the stairs, which was were the line would form. Yes, kids pushed each other down. It was everyone for themselves. The teeter totter was where you discovered your friends and your enemies. The merry-go-round made you sick.

Lunch would be at whatever home you happened to be at when you were hungry—the mom of the house would hand out baloney, mustard and cheese sandwiches on Wonder Bread that we’d eat with dirty hands as we ran on to the next event.

In the evenings, the calls from mothers all around the neighborhood would sound out, “Dinner time!” Games would end, bikes were mounted, and tired, skinned knee children headed home to meals of Shake ‘n Bake chicken and fries cooked with Crisco in the FryDaddy.

While I wasn’t in charge of the music in my house at this age, some of the greatest rock and roll ever made was recorded and performed during this decade, and I grew up to the sounds of The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder and Blondie, the list just goes on and on.

And my first movie…Star Wars: A New Hope, at an drive-in movie theater.

The Eighties

Oh, where to begin? While I admit there are some questionable fashion trends from this era that should forever be forgotten (like leg warmers, big hair, neon, the mullet and overuse of the word like), this truly was a great decade to be a kid. I was eight when the eighties arrived and would spend the decade in wonder as so many firsts began to come our way. Before this decade, I listened to 45-inch records on my little blue record player (I still have it, just in case the Smithsonian calls). By the end of this decade, I had a CD collection that would take up half of my dorm room, and a CD player that I could hold in my hands. I still remember my first Walkman, as well as listening to the radio all day to hear that one song I wanted to record for my mix tape. I experienced the technology as it arrived, from the record to Spotify, and that alone makes this life of mine special. But the digital revolution would cross all areas of life, not just music.

Trips to the local, single screen movie theater to watch E.T. or Ghostbusters were a treat, often topped off with Dairy Queen after the show. But then came the VCR, and with it, video rental stores, movie marathons and terrible, cheesy horror movies like Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween at every sleep over.

Speaking of sleepovers, spin the bottle anyone? Five minutes in the closet, or in the confessional during recess (I went to a Catholic School) were a favorite middle-school game that often never went further than kissy-face, as my husband likes to call it. Oh, the scandal of it all.

The fastest way to find a girl during the 80’s was to follow the spiral telephone cord as it wound its way from the kitchen into the nearest closet, hallway or bathroom, where she’d huddle away for hours, gossiping about absolutely nothing. But by the end of the 80’s, I had one of these in my car. It was for emergencies only, but boy it was cool.

Say what you will about some of the pop culture of this time, I admit Paula Abdul and Wham! weren’t always easy on the ears, but Michael Jackson and Madonna ruled the radio waves while bands like REM and Guns N’ Roses launched their careers. And U2’s Joshua Tree…wow. Just wow.

One of the most amazing things about being a child in the 80’s was the introduction of the personal computer as well as video games. While we still played kick the can till dusk, we also had Mario, and my personal favorite, Pitfall. We are the first generation to have both worlds to play in—real and virtual. I learned to program in 1985 on a TI. We learned to play Pac-Man in the arcade and then some of us went on to work in technology and found PayPal, Twitter and Tesla (yes, Elon was born in 1971).

And speaking of careers, while college was something many people did, it wasn’t so competitive. I never took an AP class or test, didn’t even take math my senior year, took the ACT twice, applied to three Big Ten schools total, accepted the one who accepted me first, and headed to Purdue University in the fall of 1990 to study computer science. Fast forward to today and my own sons, with their eight AP classes and ten standardized test scores, can’t get into a CS program, because they got B’s in their foreign language classes. My how times change.

The Nineties

Oh, the music. Eddie, Kurt, and Courtney. Seattle changed our lives and as the music went from poptart to dark grunge, our bangs fell from the heavens (thank GOD!!!!) and we traded in our neon jelly shoes for soft flannel shirts and torn jeans. Star Trek: The Next Generation (oh Data you sexy thing), Twin Peaks (the first time around) and X-Files (I want to believe, I really do) were now my must-see-TV.

As I mentioned earlier, 1972 was an ideal year to be born as a girl in America. I bring up my gender because all the hard work had been done already for me when I came of age sexually. In 1990, a young woman could go to her college Planned Parenthood and get affordable birth control. We never had to worry if the clinic would close down. It was the same with abortions—yes, both conservative and liberal girls got them—and we’d stand by our sisters, knowing it was never an easy choice and helping them cope with the decision both before and after. Yet never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that our rights to family planning could be taken from us. Our mothers fought for it, and we demanded it.

Coming of age sexually in the 90’s was almost a dream compared to times before and times after. Given the AIDs scare of the 80’s, we were sexually more conservative, sometimes choosing to have a one-night stand, but mostly making out with strangers in bars, leaving them with our phone numbers written on a cocktail napkin, wondering if they’d call. Sometimes they did, often they didn’t, but while a kiss is a sweet, intimate thing, it isn’t sex, and it’s no big deal if he doesn’t call. The next night we were most likely kissing someone else. Once I was at the local bar in my college town and a friend of mine, someone I’d had a crush on for a long time but never did anything about, came in, grabbed me and kissed me, quite passionately I might add, in front of everyone! When he pulled away he said, “I’ve always wanted to do that,” and then he left. It was exhilarating, fun and all part of the dance of flirting.

Yes, there were consent issues, it’s not like Millennials invented date rape. But we weren’t so scared of one another as a group. You knew who the players were (I think you call them douche bags now) and you stayed away. We didn’t demand they changed, all the women on campus knew that the Beta House wasn’t safe. We went to parties in groups and left in groups. No sister left behind. We also said no, a lot. But we also said yes. We flirted with one another. We pinched each other’s asses and bought each other drinks and danced closely, face to face. We dated, and actually went out to dinner and a movie without the expectation of getting laid.

The men I came of age with sexually had not been fed a steady diet of internet porn since the age of twelve, and I think that makes a big difference. The college boys of the 90’s grew up stealing their Dad’s Penthouse or watching the same rare porn video from the “bad” father’s collection over and over before Mom came home from work afterschool. I could trust them, because while their behavior wasn’t perfect, their expectations matched mine. Yes, they wanted sex more often than I did, but saying no wasn’t a big deal. They continued to date me. They weren’t expecting a porn star.

People my age know what we’re losing when it comes to gender relations, and it makes us sad. We want to have fun again. To flirt again. To not have to take every damn thing a man does so seriously. Sure, it got a bit annoying when every guy I met would ask me my major and then say, “No really, what is your major?” when I answered I was in computer science. But I didn’t take it personally, I’d still be single if I let everything a man did offend me.

But I have that luxury, because in the 90’s, sex was natural, sex was good, not everybody did it, but everybody could.

And as I graduated in 1994, I entered a fairly good job market. In technology, things were booming, and would continue to boom, until the year 2000, when the whole bubble burst the first time.

The 21st Century

What have the babies of 1972 been up to? We seem stuck in the middle between aging Boomers who won’t let go of power and angry Millennials who feel the world has screwed them. We’re also taking care of both of those generations. Many people just a bit older than myself have an aging parent they’re caring for as well as young adults still living in the house. I’ve been busy since 1999 raising my own children (let’s hear it for Gen Z) and trying to figure out how to give them the same world I had, or at least the best parts. By the time I had kids, the playgrounds were coated in rubber mats and there wasn’t a dangerous activity within miles. I was a young mother for working women in my generation, married with two small boys by age 29, so I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my generation who took away the scary slides. We’re the ones trying to get them re-installed. Worse, those playgrounds were empty. As I’ve written before, the SAHM experience was lonely and isolating for me. The neighborhoods were desolate, no kids in sight for my own to play with. Such a difference from my childhood where we spent hours with other kids, not a parent in sight, unless we wanted a baloney sandwich.

Makes it pretty tempting to just put my kid in front of the Wii for entertainment.

I can’t give them the experience of all the firsts I went through. I do let them play with my record player though. I can’t change their pornafide dating culture either, but I flirt with their father and encourage them to be clear about their expectations with their lovers. Nor can I ease the college application process, reduce the student debt they now all face, or improve the job market. Things seem to have moved to a painful place and turning around appears impossible. The only way is to go forward and create a new story.

We have something to share, those of us born around 1972, the dead center year of Generation X, technically defined as those born between 1965 and 1981. As a larger group, we’re a bridge generation, the last to know what life was like before the information age, yet the first to adopt the digital world and shape it. While we’ve been busy raising kids and figuring out the work/family balance, we have been in the shadows between the massive Boomer and Millennial populations. We’ve been a neglected and overlooked generation in many ways, but perhaps that’s because we’ve never had to really fight for anything. The Women’s and Civil Rights movements were fought by our parents. The identity politics wars of the now are being fought by those younger than us. We’ve been able to reap the best of the modern age, hitting the mark every time. But our culture needs us to lean in and make our mark. What we choose to do with our time now that the reigns are being handed to us will determine the course society takes. We were a generation of latch-key kids and allowed to manage our time on our own without the distractions of today’s world and no one checking in on us. This makes us quite independent and resourceful. If anyone can help create a new story and usher in a better world, it’s those of us who have reaped the benefits of being born at just the right time, don’t you think?