February 28, 2021 7:00:02 am
Isn’t it odd that despite the global pandemic, we are much harder on ourselves than ever before?” This observation by 19-year-old Rhea (name changed) echoed the experiences of people around the world. “We respond to anxiety and uncertainty by pushing ourselves. We are under the illusion that the only way we can survive this pandemic is if we ‘do more and do it fast.’ This idea is being presented as the only recipe for staying relevant,” she said.
Rhea’s words got me thinking on how we define “relevant” as this narrow idea of assembly-line success — admission in “best” colleges, high-salaried jobs and a fancy lifestyle. What if this problematic notion of success does not align with what young people value? What if they feel that the normative notion of success promoted by patriarchy and capitalist culture is the root cause of all that is wrong with the world — climate change, politics, marginalisation and discrimination based on gender, sexuality, religion, race, disability, class, caste, etc.? In spite of their conviction, it might be difficult for them to move away from this illusionary ladder of “success and happiness”, particularly when society dismisses their attempts at finding meaning as “waste of time” or “this won’t get you anywhere (aka culturally-sanctioned ‘productive’ pathways)”.
As Rhea explained, “There is a constant switch between productivity guilt to a sense of frustration at not getting to do what I really want to do. Social media doesn’t make it easy. It is always telling me I’m less than others, that everybody is doing better than me, looking better than me and in places better than me.”
I found Rhea’s ideas very interesting as they gave me a new perspective on what I have been witnessing through the past one year. Our culture of hustle is pushing our young people to “succeed at all cost”, making them evaluate their worthiness against socially-constructed norms. Inevitably, it ends up taking away their sense of agency to lead the life that aligns with what they value, leading them to despair: “What’s the point anyway?” No wonder this crushing of hope is leading to a rise in mental-health struggles globally. Let’s not forget that it is our society’s norms of success that are sick, not our children. They are just collateral damage.
Shiv, 16, used a very interesting metaphor to explain this conflict. According to him, young people are encouraged to take a highway approach to life — chart out a destination and reach it in the minimum time with a single focus. During the pandemic, the speed of this highway has been cranked up with a message, “whatever you do is not good enough”. But what if young people want to get off the highway and choose the lanes that meander and are full of surprises and adventure, and focus on the journey, not the destination? Shiv understood that stepping away from the highway was not easy as it comes with a lot of judgement and censure: “You are setting yourself up for failure”.
I wonder how young people (and, maybe, all of us) are caught up in this liminal space between the “move faster” highway and lanes that are “not good enough” or lead to “failure” and how our hopes get crushed.
The World Health Organization seems to be colluding with the highway culture when it defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his/her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his/her community.” It’s a farce that mental health is being equated with realising our potential and work productively! What they subscribe to as a cocktail for mental health is possibly the biggest challenge to it. It is the highways of hyper-productivity that have led to the mess we are witnessing, be it climate change, pandemic or millions of people living with structural inequality and oppression of productivity. Writer Arundhati Roy talked about COVID-19 being the X-ray of our times, showing the fault lines of our culture. Thus, it is the marginalised, the youth and the vulnerable who have been impacted the most.
The reason that art, movies and music of resistance have such a huge appeal for the youth is because they can resonate with the angst that these expressions highlight about structural inequality and injustice. They question, challenge, dig us out of the lethargic stupor that we have let ourselves slip into. Their inborn sense of justice, fairness and forthrightness makes them natural agents for change.
These words from Judith/Jack Halberstam’s book The Queer Art of Failure (2011) resonate with me: “I believe in low theory in popular places, in the small, the inconsequential, the anti-monumental, the micro, the irrelevant; I believe in making a difference by thinking little thoughts and sharing them widely. I seek to provoke, annoy, bother, irritate, and amuse; I am chasing small projects, micropolitics, hunches, whims, fancies.” I take their low theory as the lanes that young people need to reclaim. Where small acts of resistance help build a counterculture, which aligns with what they hold precious. A counterculture that does not elevate the life of hustle and productivity but a life of doing things that matter — conserving biodiversity, making films on the marginalised, bringing curiosity into classrooms, starting environmentally-conscious mountain treks. Teenaged climate-activist Greta Thunberg spoke for a lot of young people when she said, “We are a wave of change, together and united, we are unstoppable.” Go on, be the change, smash the oppressive highways and choose the lanes that provoke, resist, question and chase your whims and fancies.
(Dr Shelja Sen is a narrative therapist, co-founder, Children First, writer, and, in this column, she curates the know-how of the children and young people she works with. Write to her firstname.lastname@example.org)
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.