In my practice, I’m privileged to meet the most amazing people. People who are, for now, in need of a good ear, a warm smile, and some positive vibrations. People who are going through tough times. And something about each and every one amazes me.
As we plod through life, we all follow a developmental cycle. This starts in the earliest phases of infancy and continues on through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age and the golden years. At each point along the timeline, in addition to observable physical changes taking place, we experience psycho-emotional growth as well. We begin questioning and relating to the world around us in new ways, based on our (hopefully) developmentally appropriate circumstances. We have no choice but to make sense of our newfound insights, and it becomes integrated into our personalities and defines who we are. We gain perspective — in the olden days, this was called “growing up”.
While wonderful to watch unfold, often times, these little steps are like mines in a battlefield. For some people, the developmental questions we have are never asked and come back to bite later on in life. And for almost all people, we construct answers that never really satisfy, and eat-away at our understanding of the world, forever.
Perhaps one way of viewing mental illness is to declare that “normal people” are built to contain and exist with this dichotomy — to have important, life-sized questions and confusion, and yet function well and harmoniously within the world. We have a combination of firewalls, barriers, compartmentalization, and a will to live that pushes us through the painful contradictions of life.
If I’m being too obtuse, take death — mortality — as an example. Many people begin to gain an exposure to death at an early age — somewhere between five to seven years of age. But we never really understand it. We cannot fully process it. We struggle with our mortality literally till the day we die. For “normal” people, we tuck-away our questions, confusion, and fear of death into a little box in our mind, to be taken out very rarely — perhaps at a funeral, or during a philosophy class in college, or the death of a loved one. We put it away somewhere, to the right of “where did I really come from?” and to the left of “why am I really here?” like a fine wine to be explored on unique occasions.
But for some, this secret vault is broken. Some people cannot just shove things out of their consciousness and move-on, like the rest of us. These questions linger in the forefront of their minds, and plague them day by day. Every thought and decision is related to life and death. To ultimate purpose and meaning. To questioning of their own existence. They are tortured souls, unable to juggle the paradox of life and death, meaning and insignificance. Ultimately, this leads to anxiety, dysfunction, depression and possibly suicide.
As both a therapist and a father, what astounds me is the early-age that this process begins. Young boys are already dealing with the pressures of the meaning of life and the fear of death starting between the ages of 4-8. By thirteen, if they have not learned to cope with this dynamic, you have a problem on your hands. And death is only one of the many existential questions that boys are asking. Other include: What is the purpose of life? Why do good people suffer? Why do people get sick? Why is Gd so mean, and where is He when I need him? When will my suffering end?, and If I will die at some point, why not just kill myself now and get it over with?
These are real questions. I struggle with them, and most likely, you do to. Newsflash: so does your child. It’s never too early to start discussing these issues. You don’t have to have all the answers. None of us do. But you do have to model the ability to be a happy, functioning person while contemplating these deeply-personal, challenging topics. That is really what your child needs — the security that even if these eternal questions remain unanswered, they can still lead a healthy and happy life. Like you.
Parenting is not about explaining away all the questions, or inculcating your children with dogma that placates their soul. It is about introducing and modeling what it means to be a human. A good human. A human with questions that remain unanswered, issues that torture your soul, and the unending commitment to live another day, with a smile, until your last breath. For that is what all our lives are really about. Welcome to the world, my son.