I first heard the word anomie when I was a postgraduate student. A little French word that described a profound feeling of disconnect that people experience when life goes so out of control that it starts to feel meaningless.
I remembered the ‘meaning of Life’ discussions with friends at undergrad college. None of us had read the philosophers; nobody did anything but study science in the years leading up to medical college those days. Some of us had heard of nihilism, but we didn’t subscribe to that. We had been brought up to believe that God watched over us, and there was a reason for everything that happened. For that reason we didn’t despair; we soldiered on with a ‘que sera, sera’ attitude.
Newspapers now frequently carry stories of teenagers taking their lives out of ‘despair’. And readers anxiously wonder why this is happening to our kids.
In the nineteenth century a French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, used the word anomie to describe the feeling of alienation, the disconnectedness that one feels when there is a mismatch between a personal goal and a social one. There is a breakdown of social bonds between the individual and his community.
This, I suppose, is what those youngsters feel: expectations from parents and society are either different or higher than their own, filling them with despair and a sense of failure, with no inner strength to deal with it.
If a kid who wants to be a pilot is forced to take up a course in Medicine, what happens to his personal goal? Won’t he feel isolated from his classmates who are obviously passionate about Medicine? Won’t he feel a disconnect with himself, his own identity, and ask “Who am I, really?” How does the future look to him?
If a kid growing up in poverty wants to get rich but can’t get admission into a college to fulfill his dream, won’t he feel a lack of meaning and direction? Won’t he feel lonely, desperate and angry? One can quite imagine why some youngsters get talked into get-rich-quick schemes and have run-ins with the police. Strain Theory, based on anomie, explains it as a discrepancy between common social goals and legitimate means to attain those goals.
In recent years norms have changed. There was a time when it was usual for a child to pray before leaving for school. No one does that anymore. Most city children don’t anyway. A child never gets a chance to learn how to connect with his innermost self every day, for that’s what prayer is partly about: connecting with and learning to believe in ourselves, deriving strength from a benevolent God who we imagine is watching out for us. Over the years a source of strength is lost, leaving . . . what? When a teenager encounters a setback in school or college and ends his life because he can’t deal with it, we are shocked. How did he become so fragile? Shouldn’t he have been more resilient? Shouldn’t he have been stronger?
The German philosopher Frieidrich Nietzsche said that belief in God acts as an antidote against nihilism, against despair, against meaninglessness. Why is Moral Science no longer taught in schools? In our country we have never had difficulty dealing with dichotomies; though we give science its due, we believe in a force beyond science too. We start scientific seminars with five dignitaries lighting a lamp, and having someone sing an invocation to God to ensure the seminar’s success!
Emile Durkheim also said that traditional religions provide the basis for the shared values that an anomic person lacks. These values give him a sense of rootedness, a connection with his community, and a faith in God, so he has both people and God to reach out to in a crisis. He doesn’t sink into the terrifying emptiness that is anomie.
Over the years I have received phone calls, mostly in the middle of the night, from young patients on the verge of giving up on life. Each time I’ve sensed that they are in a place beyond depression, an empty place where nothing seems to matter. They cry in such anguish that I know it must be very, very frightening. I imagine anomie feels like being all alone in a rudderless boat on a rough sea, in complete darkness, the oars already yanked out of your hands by the wind long ago.
The American philosopher, George Santayana described faith as that ‘splendid error, which conforms better to the impulses of the soul’. He apparently wrote this when he mourned his loss of faith. Faith may be unscientific, but so what? As long as it works when a kid needs it. . .
Encouraging a child to have faith in God may help him through the tender adolescent years when he needs support. As I’ve said elsewhere in my blog, religion can be seen as a scaffold to stand on while he’s building his value system brick by brick; he may discard it when the stronger structure of his adult personality is firmly in place, if he wants to.
Note: The paintings in this post were made by two young patients of mine to express their sense of isolation, despair and inability to control what they were going through.