Last November, I published an article here on BigThink called, The Apocalypse May Already Be Here, or “Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark,” where I shared some of my thoughts about the state of culture in one of the most progressive societies on earth.
The article centered around a comment shared with me during a trip to Denmark by my friend, the well-known Danish psychotherapist Ole Vadum Dahl, that “the Danes are bored and they don’t even know it.” The article was later re-published in a popular Danish newspaper and generated such a stir that Ole and I decided to follow-up with a 3-part written dialogue that I’ll be sharing here on my blog over the next few weeks.
In Part 1 below, we explore some of the most significant existential and moral problems that both of us have recognized in the most progressive pockets of society around the world, but particularly in Denmark.
What Do I Stand For? The Postmodern Predicament
By Andrew Cohen & Ole Vadum Dahl
My friend Ole,
I have been thinking about young people recently, and also about the future of our species. The world that we’re living in today, in the second decade of the 21st Century, is one of rapid flux and accelerating change. The renowned genius inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has made a very interesting statement about the unique nature of the time we’re living in. He says that the rate of technological change has become exponential. That means that in our time changes in technology, and its influence on culture, are occurring at an ever-faster rate. This makes it a very interesting time to be alive and, existentially, quite a challenging one.
I think this is especially true for young people. Because things are changing so quickly, it is exceedingly difficult to get one’s bearings on the purpose and significance of the human experience. In such a rapidly changing world, the past is less and less a valid and meaningful reference point for the present and the future like it has been for all of human history. This unprecedented situation tends to put young people in a challenging position. As they make the difficult transition into adulthood, how do they develop strong and stable self-structures when the very ground they are walking on seems to be moving faster all the time?
In the wealthier countries, like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and also the USA, young people are showing signs that they’re having trouble adapting. For example, things like excessive exposure to hardcore pornography on the internet is having disturbing consequences: many young men are finding it difficult to relate on an intimate level to the opposite sex. And a lot of young women are objectifying themselves more than ever to live up to the same images that are reflected back at them through technology and media. Also, there is an alarming degree of alcoholism and drug abuse among young people that I believe signifies a deep existential dis-ease, alienation, and disconnection from the all-important sense of purpose, place, direction, or meaning.
You’ve been a highly respected teacher of psychotherapy (and also a practicing psychotherapist yourself) for many years. What is your experience of these problems and your thoughts about them?
Yes Andrew, both as a professional and as the father of 3 children ages 1, 3, and 18, I often reflect upon what kind of a world our children have been born into, and what kind of challenges they face at this both exciting and scary time in history.
Just to give a few concrete examples of some symptoms of the kind of dis-ease you talk about, here in Denmark our young people hold a sad world record for drinking alcohol. Also, 30% of young people partying in Copenhagen in the weekend are on drugs. And a growing number of young men and women in Denmark, have anal and oral sex as their very first sexual experience, trying to live up to pornographic stereotypes. The number of youngsters hoping for easy fame by signing up for auditions to all kinds of talent shows and reality TV programs is on the rise.
It’s as though a lot of young people are desperately searching for recognition, for a purpose with their lives and a feeling of belonging.
I often ask myself if young people would drink so much if they felt confident about themselves? Would so many youngsters take drugs if they were in touch with their natural inner sense of aliveness, happiness, and excitement? Would so many thousands desperately try to be heard and seen without actually having any unique idea or message to share, if the had an inner feeling of being valuable and important? Would so many young ones be so vulnerable to the manipulation from the media and the fashion industry if they were connected with who they truly are? Or would so many confuse hardcore pornography with sexual intimacy if they felt good about their bodies, their sexual identity, and they dared to be emotionally open? I don’t think so!
My experience is that both our ability to adapt to rapid changes and our capacity to relate deeply to others is highly dependent on having a good and healthy sense of self. In other words, our relationship to others and to the world will never be better than our relationship to ourselves.
In my opinion the rapid changes of our culture and the massive impact from the media is not the only cause of the identity problems and feeling of alienation by the young people of today. Part of the explanation is to be found in the way we deal with our children in their very early childhood.
I really wonder, what happens to children’s sense of identity, when they already as infants are placed in daycare for many hours every day, while their parents are working long hours. How ever competent and loving the pedagogues and other professional caretakers might be, they cannot compensate for the early bonding with particularly the mother, which is so important for both the sense of self and for our ability to relate to others later in life.
So Andrew, how do you see this?
… Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!
Photo © Jeff Habourdin – Flickr.com