STICKS, STONES AND NURSERY HOMES
“I wonder what it would feel like to kill mommy.”
This came from the mouth of a four year old child. Not something I pulled from the newspaper, but the child of a friend’s friend. Your completely average four year old American child. Smiling pictures, piles of toys, and loves fast food. A child I’ve seen off and on since he was born.
And he’s hardly alone.
The same day I heard about that line (which I later found out wasn’t a single thought or bad mood but an everyday topic), I heard about another friend of a friend’s child. This one is nine years old and duct taped a butcher knife to his hand and ran around trying to slash everyone. His parents hide food and drinks because he shits and pisses in them. Another otherwise average American kid.
True enough thoughts alone don’t kill. But the line between thought and action is becoming easier to cross. It’s becoming easier to kill. But the issue isn’t about being more psychologically prepared to kill. It’s about being psychologically separated from life and reality.
If these four and nine year olds aren’t convincing, you probably don’t have to look very far for much more of the same. Two years ago, in this area, a sixteen year old boy killed his brother with a hammer and went to a school dance. Now he’s a child in an adult prison who is considered hopeless.
If those stories make the local news anymore it can be surprising.
Let’s face it this sort of thing is hardly shocking anymore. Everyone wonders what’s wrong with kids these days. Most people have their theories: lack of strong morals, weak education system, or hell bent right wing parents, bleeding heart liberal parents, not enough good ol’ fashioned ass whippin’, not enough therapy, lack of attention, too much T.V., too spoiled, and so on.
It’s become an all too familiar topic and rarely do people have enough time or attention to actually try to change things (short of violence or anger). Opinions, of course, don’t always have a lot of meaning. Unfortunately sedatives do, and they’re much easier to come by. But no matter how the problem is or is not dealt with, we all know that there’s a problem. But it’s always ‘their kids’ or ‘those kids’. We all know how to look the other way.
We all know how miserable modern life can be. Knowing this is a full time job, literally. We can talk about the problems of civilized, highly technological living and safely fall back into the passive nihilism that things aren’t going to get better so we just have to make the best of it. We could always improve things for ourselves if we really tried. Or we could win the lottery.
But when we look at ourselves, it can be really easy to just stop thinking about it all. Life’s just too short and it’s easier to go with the flow. Young adult to middle age, we just deal with what we’re given. Let’s step outside of that for a moment and think about the other parts of life where we’re not just out to get ‘what’s ours’: being young and being old.
All of us have been young. Most of us will probably be old. As Future obsessed as our rationally defined reality is, its just as much about eternally living in that mid-range of twenties and thirties. Or at least looking like it. Not many of us look forward to going ‘over the hill’. We spend billions of dollars and thousands of hours to keep ourselves looking ‘young and sexy’. We become very high maintenance.
But part of the dream of a better tomorrow is that we’ll be there to live it. Happy, healthy, synthetically balanced us. We’ll be slaves to the technological Future so long as it’s to our benefit. We can ignore the consequences of Progress and the wonders of chemistry when it gives us stuff. We don’t want to die, but we certainly don’t want to grow older.
Either way, we’re happy to report that modern technology allows us to live longer than ever before. This much may very well be true. More often than not though, a long life is really just a very slow death. Alzheimer’s may be less of a physical condition than a psychological escape from the reality that things didn’t get better.
In the First World, one of the fastest growing areas of population is the percentage of elderly people: a major selling point for Progress. But in a society that changes as quickly as ours, the elderly are quickly outdated. We keep them around for sentimental value and they’re stored in tall, cheaply built filing cabinets called nursing homes where they receive the best babying and prolonged misery that money and social security can buy. Or is that tender loving care?
Once upon a time, people lived in egalitarian societies. There wasn’t equality in the sense that we know it, but in the sense that there was no system of rank or worth. People were just people, young, old or in between. That can be hard to imagine. Damn hard really.
But for those of us basking in the wonders of modernity, it’s hard because Progress and evolution make it unthinkable. We’ve naturalized hierarchy so much that we can’t think of anything without it. An infant is without strength and knowledge and has no leverage or economic viability. An elderly person has knowledge but less strength. Might makes right and the strong and knowledgeable take control and determine all the rest. Any reality based off of this kind of thinking can’t help but apply it everywhere. Our bosses make us feel inferior, our parents establish authority and we learn to trust experts rather than ourselves.
Somewhere something went horribly wrong.
The complete depravity of modernity is only the most obvious proof of that.
Economies breed economic thinking. We learn what is utilitarian or useful to carrying civilization forward. It’s all about efficiency. When our lives are run like machines it should be no wonder that they must start and end that way, from sonograms to oxygen tanks.
All animals are born with a will to survive. Humans are no exception. Most infants will not crawl off a cliff unless everyone is convinced (and has convinced them) that they don’t know better. Likewise, a baby isn’t likely to cry unless it needs something. That something is not ‘tough love’; it is a cry for attention. This is something most people know, but civilization teaches us differently.
This is something Jean Liedloff learned when she lived among the Yequana and Sanema, indigenous societies in the Amazon. Children were always touched and always treated with complete confidence, but were never pampered. They got what they needed without ever being told what to do and parents never expressed anger towards them. Every step children took was of their own will and motivation. She refers to this as instinctual parenting. That is something primal. Her realizations are rather universal. Should it be any surprise that few children raised this way ever thought about killing their mothers?
But civilized living is anti-primal. Children must be broken and must learn to obey orders from the start or they may never be of use. To become a part of the machine, we must start from birth. We must learn very early the need for efficiency. And what’s more efficient than complete standardization?
Liedloff saw that a baby is taken immediately from the womb into the arms of its mother. She’s the first thing the child will see. It hears the familiar heart beat and feels the heat of bodies. She saw births in the hospital where children are taken in sterile hands, measured, weighed, and set alone to learn the most central message of civilization: infinite need. What it eventually gets is a pathetic substitute for being held: bottles of formula, mechanical love, noise, and the loneliness and boredom of the crib. It cries for distant parents who are eager to ensure their independence and gets more attention from soft fabric than warm skin. It learns the importance of compromise.
Confident and fulfilled children are not efficient machines. Everything must be done to undermine them.
But the psychological pain goes deeper than this. It begins at conception. It takes in the anger, hate, love and fear of its mother in a world of compromise and the misery of not being efficient enough. We are assured that children are not thinking even if the religious say that they are full beings crafted by god. They’re just lower on the social ladder.
We are told not to listen to the senses. Words are more important. Science can prove it.
With this divine knowledge, we can continue to inflict the original trauma without consequence. And even better, we can take no fault for children with homicidal and suicidal tendencies.
Chemical imbalances, chemical solutions. We breed the killers and they are increasingly efficient.
We stock pile the elderly because it is our badge of success. We hide them because then we don’t have to see how miserable life is when you can no longer control your body. We don’t have to think about what it would be like to feel physically numb (we’re actually experts at numbing our minds), to have someone help you to the bathroom, to be completely frail and not be able to do anything about it.
We visit. We bring sedatives. We do our good deed.
We think that will never be us.
Senility becomes a retreat for the elderly left with nothing. The Future that they spent their lives building leaves them in a cookie-cutter room and with a TV they often can’t see or hear: another pathetic substitute. The original trauma comes full circle.
A life lived for the machine is not a life lived at all. Threats of going to hell for not working or threats of poverty were enough to make someone sell their days rather than live them. When that realization starts to set in and you’re left alone to think about it, you can become bitter, sentimental, or your mind can shut down. There’s not too much you can do about it at that point and when we can shove that reality away, it’s something we don’t have to think about either.
The problem with confident children is that they won’t allow themselves to be sold. They can live in horribly inefficient ways and they can be happy. They don’t need stuff. The purpose of life is something known and enacted rather than an interesting philosophical question. Or a basis for dissecting, measuring and weighing the world.
Someone raised to be confident and happy doesn’t wait for the Future. They won’t make that compromise. When they feel their life can no longer be lived to its fullest, they don’t fear death. They know that living in fear of death is not living at all. They know that they have lived well. They are ready to move on.
In our wonderful modernity, suicide is a crime. It cuts a wonderful, mechanically reproduced life short of the bounty of Progress. It’s called a pathetic and desperate act. Morality tells us that life is sacred because our bodies are the property of god. Dependent, domesticated people aren’t even allowed control over themselves.
But elderly suicide is an act of confidence. It is faced with glory and seals a live well lived.
By civilized values, this is unthinkable. Death cannot be accepted any more than life can be lived. We can never give up our faith and our blind hope that technology will make us young and vibrant again. We can never give up on the Future. When our last days are drawn out by the iron lung, we have nothing but incomplete lives to think about and we aren’t able to give up.
As we listen to our heartbeats mechanical reproduced and amplified, all we can do is hope for a miracle. A cybernetic fountain of youth and another day to fight off the reality that we are animals and like all living beings we will die.
But this is not the suicide of our modernity. Everyday suicides are tragic. They are tragic because the passive nihilism of our reality allows only for confidence to mean an end to a life not lived, rather than the confidence to refuse compromise and fight. It is the last and boldest act of defeat. And sadly, it is often seen as the only possibility.
Our efficiency is destroying the earth just as it turns beings into dependents. Our hope for the Future relies on ghost resources, of finding more fuel for the machine. We will kill to maintain this civilization rather than ask if its end wouldn’t be the best thing for us and for the earth.
Carrying capacity, human impact analysis, and human ecological footprint, all names for studies that show us this reality is running on finite sources: that maintaining the great escape from death is running the planet dry. We’ve been warned that the search is running out of fuel and its end is a matter of time. As William Catton pointed out, the inevitable ‘tomorrow’ was yesterday. We’ve peaked and the bright Future of hope is fading, and quickly. If we have anything to learn about collapse from past civilizations it is that no crash landing is a good one. And most of us won’t even notice till it all comes crashing down.
And all of this is for a way of existing that cannot be fulfilling. A way of being that always looks to the Future and never just is. A way of life that we create, maintain and reproduce daily.
We have to play dumb when kids talk about killing.
We say they are desensitized.
What they are is efficient.
Most often we look towards technology. That’s a search in the right direction, but rarely does it go all the way. TV and video games are efficient ways of keeping kids from thinking. It makes them passive while causing sensory overload and fills in for sensory deprivation. It’s a cheap and constant thrill, a fast paced adventure without any involvement.
System overload, system crash.
Children have almost always known how to kill. In gatherer/hunter societies, this is something they start at early. But they learn how about the connectivity of life: about the link between us all and the importance of not abusing it.
Zygmunt Bauman writes: “It has been perhaps the unique achievement of modern civilization to enable ordinary folks, “just good workers,” to contribute to the killing—and to make that killing cleaner, morally antiseptic and efficient as never before.” It is true that video games have been a virtual target practice and glamorized killing has numbed children. But these efficient killers are not full of blood lust. In fact, they have no lust, no passion, no being. They are becoming more mechanical daily.
This is not science and technology gone wrong. This is where Progress must go. This is how the Future must be. The end product of domestication is efficient dependents. As our technology becomes more advanced and creeps into every bit of life, this is how it looks.
This is the Future.
We hide animality and nature from the children. We hide everything that makes us human. We deny touch from birth. We deny confidence.
For millions of years people lived closely and without secrets. People would have sex by the fire at night and children knew and accepted it. Sexuality and curiosity were never sins nor outlawed. Children could play and experiment. They could be confident about their bodies and desires.
There was respect: the kind that exists between beings, the kind that comes together for mutual desire and not violent rage. The kind that is cooperative and not competitive.
No might, no right. No rape, murdering rampages, and death came with dignity. Life was lived and there was no compromise.
This is how things were and can be.
What separates this reality and ours is the willingness to compromise. A compromise that means our complicity to efficiency and blind faith in the Future that is killing our home and our being. A complicity that makes us do onto our children what has been done to us.
Chellis Glendinning wrote that the original trauma is domestication. It creates rage within us, but is given no safe outlet in society. It ends in battered children, relationships based on domination, dead classmates, and children born knowing that they are not wanted.
The reality that we reproduce daily is inflicted upon the planet. And each child that is born is given this burden. Part of ending this cycle of domination and submission means not inflicting that original trauma: it means refusing domestication for ourselves and refusing complacency. Most of all, it means breaking a blind faith in the Future. Breaking the morality that denies what our bodies tell us and what the earth tells us.
It means being confident. It means no compromise. It means passionate love and hate instead of an emotionless, efficient void.
The hallmarks of modernity and Progress are the nursery where babies learn the harsh lessons of civilized life: that nothing comes easily and infinite want. It ends in the nursing home where lives of devotion to blind faith drag out our last days and ensure that we never stand on our own. When we are finally ready to do so, we are no longer physically or mentally capable.
We are told that this must be better than where we were: a savage place with only sticks and stones. Where we didn’t have a greater purpose in life and children and elderly were killed madly.
We think this as the empire of Progress takes over the planet, predators feeding off life so that they may one day live forever. Our fear of death is pathological. It breeds an efficient world without love. It creates morality that says we have no right to end a life that we can not give the most absolute care for in the world. A choice that carries the promise that no child will exist unless it can be given everything it needs to be confident and live fully. Or that we can end our life when we are satisfied and know that things cannot go on forever. That we can leave this world with dignity and pride.
The only thing 6 billion predatory people can do is die slowly and take the planet with them. It was announced recently that the world population will be 9 billion by 2050. The inevitability of the Future goes unquestioned. We have faith in our illusion. But our illusion has no reality.
A child recently asked me if I would kill someone if it would save the planet. He is eleven years old.
I thought, “if only it was that easy”, but you can never know how an answer might be taken anymore.
I’ve thought about that a lot though. I found myself asking if I really care enough that I might kill an infant that I could not offer everything they needed to be full. If I could break the morality, the little god in my head that said all life is gods’ property and only she/he/they could make that choice.
I was reminded of the supposed glory of Progress. Of the long life we’ve been given.
I had to wonder if I loved an elderly person enough to help them die with dignity or if I could leave them behind when they asked for it.
I think of the love these ‘savage acts’ must take. The love of the world and the love of life.
And, most of all, the confidence and passion behind them.
The Future of Progress need not be inevitable.
The original trauma, once confronted, can be challenged. We need not be victims. We can be survivors. We can be active. We can live on our own terms.
But it requires a lot from us. It requires us to stop compromising.
It requires us to stop being efficient.
We’ve seen a glimpse of where this is heading and what the consequences are beyond the daily reality that we can chose to confront or to ignore.
The question I’m left wondering is whether I would destroy the machine (the engine and lifeblood of civilization) that is killing, dominating and subjugating life.
What I’ve discovered is that I still have a whole lot of very inefficient passion and an unspeakable will to live without compromise.