Today's Adolescent: Addressing Existential Dread

By Ellsworth, J'Anne | Adolescence, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Today's Adolescent: Addressing Existential Dread


Ellsworth, J'Anne, Adolescence


Nearly two decades ago, as a graduate student in humanistic psychology, I read the works of May (1961) and Kierkegaard (1842/1968) and was struck by the notion of existential dread. Although it did not ring a true note within me, I am hearing the reverberating tones of existential dread now - in my interactions with high school and college students. The dark lyrics of their music, the morbid images in which they costume themselves, and their apparent lack of interest in their future, or even personal survival, are ominous.

Experts and the general public have a choice of sources for the current situation. Television and movies, violent video games, drugs, and rock and roll are frequently cited as having an adverse effect on adolescents' attitudes and behaviors. There also may be powerful causal forces in the class distinctions that are so clear to children - those who can afford name-brand clothing and those who would kill for them. Many blame it on the breakdown of the family. Still others believe that our values have gone awry. I suppose we may be seeing phenomena unique to our historic times, yet I recall similar themes in Greek and Norse mythology, in Jewish historic and sacred writings, in the journey of Buddha, in the oral traditions of Native Americans, and in classical literature.

Giftedness may be another element. What if being a gifted youth has a dark side? What if there is a heavy burden to knowing too much, feeling too much? The following essay by a gifted high school student is illustrative.

No one seems to be able to label this generation. It is a generation so filled with inconsistencies any label would prove itself incorrect. We are going straight to hell and some of us are dragging our feet, being pulled kicking and screaming. But the majority are enchanted by the idea - maybe we want to say to our parents, "You're right, we're losers," or maybe we are hoping they will hear us say, "Look what you've done. Now live in guilt."

We have all had the world at our fingertips. There is nothing left for us to want. We can sit down and the world is brought to us. We have never had to work for anything. We have had everything, so there is nothing left to want - nothing! And so little has any meaning left. We don't have to work at being socially appropriate or liked. We have the asylum of television. It likes you no matter what. And nearly everyone likes it better than other people. It certainly is more amusing!

Besides, why do you want to get close to other people? You'll just be hurt. Everyone keeps telling us that all of us are going to keep on losing the people that matter most to us to AIDS. So who is left to live for? The TV won't miss us and no humans will be left to miss us. We might as well go down with smiles on our faces, might as well come and go unattached, as most people seem to be. And why not? "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Sometimes sex without concern for the partner seems like a good solution. Sex seems to be the only thing left that doesn't lose intensity. It is as intense for Generation X, maybe more. So as it was for the "me" generation or the baby boomers, or anyone else, it can give us solace.

We have causes. We have wants, hopes, dreams. But because we have never had to get anything for ourselves, we have no idea, no clue, on how to empower ourselves. We don't know how to let the world around us know. So we work to effect changes within our own peer group. The adult world around us doesn't see how we are conquering discrimination among ourselves - how we are slowly becoming accepting of those who have different sexual identities than what is considered the norm. Adults do not see this as they look at us. They don't understand the silent revolution and evolution.

The question remains, "Will we live to see the revolution, the undercover changes brought about, or are we going to flounder in our own boredom and end up changing our lives by ending them? …

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