On the outside, it might not seem like the rise in allergies and asthma is in any way related to the dissatisfaction that many young people, with more opportunities and wealth than any past generation, feel today.
Both are actually consequences of the war our society has embarked upon to eliminate everything we consider unpleasant.
With the goal of creating clean, healthy environments, we’ve used antibiotics pills, soaps, and cleaners to eliminate pathogens. This has certainly produced large scale benefits, but we’ve now begun to realize that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. As diseases continue to evolve with our attempts to eradicate them, we’ve become victims of our success. Every year, we hear about new drug-resistant superbugs that are more dangerous than the relatively minor sniffles and aches that we’ve mindlessly thrown antibiotics at for decades.
Positive intentions can lead to unforeseen consequences.
Similarly, it’s tempting to protect and shield our children from unpleasant experiences. Parents quite naturally want to create an environment free from serious challenges and dangers. But the tendency (especially in the US) to bestow praise at every conceivable moment and rationalize failures away has created a generation more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and suicide.
An Atlantic Magazine article (“How to Land Your Kid in Therapy”) argues that the emphasis on shielding kids from sucky-but-normal childhood events (like losing a soccer game) has created a new generation of spoiled young adults who lack the capacity to overcome obstacles. A similar article on Wait But Why makes the same point with funny drawings. The article quotes Paul Harvey, a professor who has researched Generation Y’s malaise, and concluded that many young people have ”unrealistic expectations and a strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback,” and “an inflated view of oneself,” due to the fact that childhoods of constant praise lead to feelings of entitlement.
To be healthy, we need to be exposed to dirt, both literal and metaphorical.
If a child is kept in a sterile or over-prescribed environment, then his/her immune system will never have the chance to develop, and s/he will fall ill more easily. Similarly, when a child deals with adversity and challenges, s/he builds up resilience, making it more likely that s/he will persevere through life’s inevitable difficulties. Being exposed to small ‘failures’ trains us to handle larger challenges.
Now, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to go a little out on a limb (metaphor!) by riffing off an idea that I first heard from Alan Watts. I’m not saying I necessarily agree with this point of view, though I do think it’s interesting to consider.
Right now, in this very moment, millions of white blood cells, antibodies, T-cells are hunting down and ruthlessly destroying foreign bacteria and viruses in your body. If you limited your focus to this level, you’d probably think, ‘how terrible! this is a hideously gruesome war without end!’ And yet, this chaos and violence in your bloodstream is responsible for the harmonious functioning of your body.
Failure, violence, and breakdown are necessary elements to maintain order, balance, and equilibrium. We need only to look at Shiva to remember that destruction and creation are part of the same process.
If it’s the case that ‘chaos’ is necessary to bring about ‘order’ on higher levels, then what if we expanded our perspective to accommodate the possibility that perhaps the destructiveness that humans are wreaking across the planet is somehow necessary for the unfolding evolution of consciousness?
In other words, what if we are the white blood cells, and the higher order that our destructiveness is producing is….who knows? Are we a sort of ‘mopping up squad’, enlisted to clear the way for higher order to emerge?
Is that really so inconceivable? Is our behavior really all that different than that ‘automatic,’ ‘unconscious’ activity of the cells in our immune system?
It’s undeniable that many people simply drift through their lives, unaware of why they’re doing what they’re doing. Yet most of us, if pressed, would defend the position that we are freely creating our lives. Like generations of philosophers, I wonder if that’s really the case. I wonder if we are somehow instruments of a higher consciousness advancing and evolving itself through us (and every other form of life).
There is, of course, no way we could ever validate or negate this idea. I do feel, though, that meditating on whether the immune system may be a microcosm of something larger reminds me that I don’t really have all (or any) of the answers. The most I can do is to continue diving deeper into the mystery of what IS.