SAPLING PLUCKED

img1 Dr Joan Antony
16 Nov 2020

Tabula Rasa. The new born is placed into our hands. A perfect tiny human ready to be molded – emotionally, socially, intellectually, spiritually – enters into the world of adults to manifest it’s full creative potential. Born with the instinctual capacity to pick up signals of approval and disapproval, it begins its learnings very early in life. With reactions from the external environment to its crying and babbling, to its picking and dropping, to its eating and rejecting – conditioning of behavior is in full force. The adult world seems to know for certain what is good and bad, right and wrong for this new creature that is born to manifest its uniqueness in this universe.

Karishma (name changed) stopped me just as I was entering the lecture room to take class for her batch of 50 undergraduate students. “Ma'am I want to speak to you.” I responded, “Can we meet after class?” “Yes, ma'am” was her whispered reply.  So I began my class with Karishma too seated for my lecture.  Soon my mind got disturbed, distracted, pulled into a mental tug-of-war between the ‘Individual’ Karishma and the ‘collective’ class. Towards the middle of my lecture, I was called to attend an unavoidable official meeting and had no choice but to go for it. By now my thoughts were fully hooked on Karishma. Deep within me I knew she needed to talk, knew she should not be left alone, knew she needed the protection that comes from the presence of others. Dismissing the option of  dismissing the class, I instead decided the opposite – requested all 50 to remain in the classroom till I got back. Restless, unable to focus, half hour into the meeting, I requested to be excused and ran back to the students. The class had waited oblivious to the reason for being unnecessarily kept together. Now they could leave. I waited at the door. As Karishma came out of the room, I placed my arm around her shoulder and enquired “Shall we talk?” To which she replied “Ma’am I am ok now.” “Are you sure?” “Yes ma'am.”

Often with passage of even a few minutes, human mind is capable of suppressing the emotional turmoil caused by a thought or twist the truth of the thought itself through intellectualization. The resultant detachment from the thought brings  an internal state of homeostasis in body-mind-spirit, an equilibrium of existence, which could last for anywhere between the time-span of the temporary to the permanent. Well, this is what happened in the time-gap of the class  from stating “Ma'am, I want to speak to you" to “Ma’am, I am ok now.”

Next morning as I drove my car into the premises of the college, Karishma's classmates came running to me , “Ma'am, Karishma is gone. She is no more.” “She jumped off the window of her high-rise building home.” “She had informed her friends on Facebook just before she did so.” The image of this young girl with grace in gait, sparkle in eyes, peaceful silence in demeanour flashed repeated in my mind. And her soft voice “Ma’am, I want to speak to you" came drumming back. I was gripped by shock and ripped with guilt. 
I realised I had put the ‘collective class’ before the ‘individual’. I had put the ‘structured syllabus’ before ‘life itself’. I had lost a life. I had let that sapling be plucked. Plucked by itself? Plucked by what else, I have no idea. Speculations about reasons were afloat. Nothing specific to pinpoint to anything specific. 

I was one amongst the gathering at the prayer meeting for Karishma at her residence with her family and friends. In queue to convey condolences, to her mom I introduced myself as Karishma's teacher at college. Mother hugged me saying “She spoke a lot about you". It was as though the spirit of Karishma had enveloped and bonded us two. Two persons unknown to each other, yet two significant figures, microcosm of her young world. 

She must have been 18 years of age then. The incident was let to pass. She was let into the past. No one bothered much thereafter. Classes resumed the very next working day... and continued with the same ‘structured syllabus’... and with the same ‘collective’ of students... MINUS ONE.

Tabula Rasa. What had been scribbled on it? 

Suicide is a conscious act of cutting-off life, dictated by the power-propeller of the mind – the will – which blocks all other possibilities and reasons for living. The World Health Organization has specified 800,000 as the count of lives lost each year due to suicide and attributed it as the second leading cause of death amongst 15-29 year age group in their 2019 report (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/suicide).

So what’s going wrong? 

The concept of imprinting is seen as an adaptive characteristic innate to certain species of the animal kingdom, like when the eggs hatch the ducklings or the chicks will follow the first moving figure, irrespective of whether it is the mother duck or mother hen or a person or a thing. This rare gift is not bestowed on the homeo-sapien. In case of the human infant, imprinting happens in the reverse order. The adults waste no time in playing on the child’s innate instinctual ability to pick up signals of acceptance and rejection. These agents around the child consider it their responsibility to imprint their own value-burdened life, each adult in their own way, on this little being. 

The human child is a receptor of things fed, both in terms of physical food given and the cognitively stimulating environment provided. Cognition or information processing is all inclusive of varied domains of human life encompassing the understanding of the social, spiritual, intellectual, physical, emotional, behavioral realms with their multi-directional interconnectedness that make a complete human. The human child is potentiated to grow, make their own meanings of the inputs, and emerge with distinctive characteristic unlike any other. However, culture and its proprietors do not let go of their grip on the new being, mainly out of fear that the new creation may not resemble the cultural prototype. 

There is a strong tendency to blame it on the micro-environment of which the youngster is a part: the individual’s physical and mental state, the family attachment styles and related disturbances, the modern social system of virtual networking and excessive reliance on it for friendships, the present academic pressures and overemphasized competition, bullying by peers and harassment by teachers, financial difficulties and discriminative practices, and the list is unending. These situations impact life either as an independent singular factor or as a confounded set of issues. 

The other remote yet strong influences that play on the psyche of the youngster are the contradictory and misleading: portrayals of success and failure, symbolisms of belongingness and rejections, notions of power and submission, demarcations of privacy and intrusion. 

The macro-system of the 21st century world-order is etching its own story on the young minds. In hope, they stand up to fight for their own and the rights of the speechless, aware that they are no match before the powerful, yet they raise themselves up repeatedly to be the voice of the ‘collective conscience’ in support of the helpless.

In the midst of all these influences, the Gen-Z is a brilliant generation not lacking in their ability to discern or to differentiate between the dichotomous values that resurface frequently in life. This is a unique generation with a brain full of knowledge, information of varied sorts, with strongly formed opinions, almost like a live volcano ready to explode and ready to risk the consequences of lava flow. Yet why the sense of dejection? The immensity of the number of youngsters getting drowned in the deep dark abyss of depression amidst their high flying colours of accomplishments requires urgent attention from adults. 

With each life lost, the adults begin to scramble around for reasons often not identifiable with clarity. Is it about the absence of the core attributes of ‘living’ or is it about achievements and accolades of competitive ‘existence’? Is it about the struggles of finding joys in ‘real’ down-to-earth life or is it about the craving for pomp and show of the ‘reel' illusionary life? Mental health professionals are called in to identify the cause and to design interventions as a post-incident query. Going by the idiom ‘prevention is better than cure’, shouldn’t the strategies for avoidance of such tragedies be placed on the study-table of the education policy makers as a pre-incident priority agenda? 

The study of suicidology indicates an incubation or pondering phase following the creation of the idea, often called the ideation of suicide, which could later get translated into the actual act of the volition. What the youngsters lack, even after having reached an advanced stage of reasoning ability, is appropriate life-skills for communicating their anxieties. At the same time, we as adults need to question ourselves: do we create a non-judgemental space for dialogue with respect to all life's issues? The onus of providing an environment for an honest, uninhibited expression falls on the adult mentors, whether it be parents, teachers or religious leaders. 

(1)    Life-skills for communicating anxieties (by the young)

The macro-level planners of the educational system, while exclusively focusing on the academic syllabi, have dangerously ignored, from the kindergarten stage upwards, life-skills training and communication-networking skills. The ‘Herd' is being driven in one direction to pastures for feeding on one kind of grass. Starting the day with morning at school, home by noon, tuitions post-noon, extracurricular in the evening, back home at dusk to sleep, next morning to wake up and begin the same cycle of activities has become the daily routine for children of today. 

Bruises on the legs are missing while games are played on bruise-free computers – so, no chance for enduring physical pain. Chasing butterflies and fireflies are replaced by shooting down the digital ones – so, no chance for finding emotional relaxation with nature. Rolling over each other in a rumble-tumble game is lost in the melodrama of achievement oriented lives – so, no chance for experiencing social-pinning down by another. Argumentatively playing monopoly are replaced by independent solitaire on the computer – so, no chance for losing in the cognitive-verbal exchanges. A rushed life with its overwhelming noises leaves no time to touch the silence of the inner self – so, no chance for knowing the power of the spiritual within. 

It is said ‘simple little pleasures are life’s wonderful treasures'. Life skills learned by living life with its earthly elements is almost non-existent to Gen Z. The ‘Herd’ is encouraged to run the race on the common track programmed by policy planners. It primarily includes the accumulation of academic merits and job promotions on the plate of life, both with a lopsided view of the purpose and success of living. The multiple intelligences pathways that can cater to the varied needs of the young minds, arenas for excellence and channels of communicate in ways best suited to each have been unfortunately ignored.

(2)    Non-judgmental space for dialogue (by the adults).

Each era has it’s own challenges. The notion of each individual striving to become “fully functional" and “self-actualized", concepts propagated by the humanistic theorists, Rogers and Maslow respectively, reflect the positive stroke underlying human development. The continuum of disciplining stretches between the old saying ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ and Rogers' view of ‘unconditional positive regard'. What the young generation of today needs from the older generation is simple – lend them a non-judgemental listening ear. 
Acceptability and shift to understanding the views of the new generation can be a challenge to the adult. Once the youngster’s thoughts and the adult's understanding of it get synchronized, the channel of communication should ideally open itself for dialogue. Extra effort from the adult will entail: time spent with patience in listening, accurate assessment of the needs of the youngster, acknowledging its value for the youngster, putting across the perspective of the adult in unambiguous words, the youngster’s understanding of the adult's views, and working towards a meeting point of the perspectives of the two. 

The old saying still holds true: man is a social animal. Acceptability measured in terms of thumbs-up and thumbs-down on the computer screen or just emojis on WhatsApp are no substitute for the real handshake and a hug. I once again reiterate, IF ONLY I had prioritized the ‘individual’ over the ‘collective’, Karishma would not have left a written message on the computer screen... leaving her mom and me hugging each other. A delicate life could have blossomed by just that moment of time spent together, that moment of listening, that moment of touch. Only if she had spoken... Only if we had listened... the sapling would not have been plucked.
 

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