“Nothing matters out here except being yourself and helping other people,” he said, in tears; the late afternoon sun cut a slanted light across his face, where his glasses were fogged up from his thick, heavy, breath and the humidity of the forest.
He didn’t want to go home. He didn’t want to go back to the distraction, the anxiety, the mean-ness of school and city life. “It’s not real, like out here.” But it is, I told him. All we do in the woods is strip away some layers: of comfort, convenience, access, ease. It is easier to see the real, perhaps, the chaos of unlayered living, but not because this is where it resides.
The concrete, the grid, the buzzing and whirring of urbanity - it can’t get realer than that. We humans emerged from one jungle and another spilled out of our minds and into the streets. “Look for the life there, too.” It is fast, and anxious, and exhausting - because it is a complex and deliberate contrivance, a “civilization,” sustained by our endless effort of intention, and sometimes we just need to be able to let go, to feel the raw, unsustained, uncontrolled life-itself that will emerge and re-emerge whether we exist or not.
There are the things that are made and the things that make themselves. All are equally real, but not all can be relied upon, nor can all renew us, our life-itself. “Remember that this planet grew you. Remember to return to it.” But whether in the woods or the city, the making or the made, the same things are real: “Be yourself, help other people.”
* * *
I frequently hear people bemoan the effects of social media and constant screen-time on the youngest generation — and much of that is statistically supported; there are rising rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness related at least tangentially to the explosion of the internet society.
But what sometimes alarms me is the attitude that today’s kids are somehow different in their nature, or capacity, or potential — that it’s a problem with young people and not with their environment. It’s an age-old cynicism (“kids these days…”) and a pernicious one, that kids are soft, or scared, or weaker than we were.
I believe the opposite, at least anecdotally. It is the environment, the stimuli, the caterwauling chaos of internet-dom that is distracting our youngest into disarray — but it is doing the same thing to many older people also, equally susceptible to the toxicity of super-stimuli and soundbite idealogues that nurture already established dogmas — dogmas which, by the way, have a far more devastating effect than a kid’s texting habits. What’s that thing in the Bible about the log in your own eye?
What I have seen consistently is that today’s kids, when you remove them from their only known normal, very quickly adjust to a face-to-face reality. After an initial stunned learning curve, they prove deeply innovative, curious, resilient, and profound, the natural state of all children.
Of course there is important data demonstrating the developmental damage done by growing up digitally immersed, but I (choose to) believe that this is not irreparable. Other, equally important science is proving our minds more malleable than we ever thought before.
The human species has not lost its capacity or potential for deep and meaningful connection and communication, nor will it in the course of just a few generations. But the only reason I believe this is because I work in a space that deliberately pulls young people well out of their data-ridden lives and asks them to be fully human. I see over and over again that kids do see the difference, and embrace it, and make changes.
But we must make it easier for them. The reason that this generation of adolescents may grow up in some sense socially handicapped is not their fault. It has affected them most overtly precisely because it has not been in their control. It is adult society, with its present inability to hold compassionate dialogue, substantive analysis, traditional wisdom, that is to blame. We are equally stunted (though it is less tragic; we have done it to ourselves).
The work of simplifying children’s lives, putting them face-to-face with each other, with struggle, with beauty, is more important now than ever. There is nothing wrong with them; but it is our responsibility to restructure our cultural priorities so that they get the chance to flourish as humans with depth and grit.