A few years ago I was approached by a parent of a student that I had once taught. The problem was this. Her son, now in his twenties wanted to harm himself. Life was meaningless to her son – because he had failed to achieve one of his goals; he had not been recruited by an AFL side to play football. He was healthy, intelligent, had a loving family, a loyal girlfriend, and a good job. But all this was not enough. It was because he had not been offered a contract to play at the national level, that he was now seriously prepared to give up on life.

So now let us make a comparison. A boy is born in 1927 in Eastern Poland. He is very bright at school, and has a goal of studying medicine. But at the age of 13, World War II breaks out, and soon after his father is sent to a concentration camp. The boy becomes the bread-winner of the family, and after school hours works shovelling coal; and selling newspapers and cigarettes on a street corner, so as to provide for his mother and sisters. He is beaten regularly. One day German soldiers come into his class; and at gun-point they take all the Jewish boys out. Although he is not Jewish he follows his friends out. Lining the boys up against the wall, one of the adults cries out that there is a Christian boy among the group. The German soldier orders all the boys to pull their trousers and underwear down. Our subject is then dragged out of the line, given a smack over the head, and a warning as to make a better choice of friends in the future. His young Jewish friends are taken away. Our boy survives the war. He later comes to Australia as a Displaced Person, and works on the Birdsville Track, and then later on the Queensland Sugar Cane Fields. His back and shoulders become scarred from hard physical labour. He marries, has children, and although he never becomes a physician, he becomes a nursing sister, then a social worker, and then a welfare officer. He serves in the Australian Army, and volunteers for the Vietnam War. When I asked this man, had he ever thought about taking his life, he simply replied that he was too busy trying to survive to worry about such ‘bullshit’.

Two young men grow up, one sees the world collapse in a pyre around him – the other has all his needs provided for him and wants for nothing; yet the former strives to live, and the latter longs to die – over a game.

The English novelist Graham Greene, puts into the mouth of Harry Lime, the infamous character of The Third Man, (for the film version of his novel), the following words: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed—but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Although rich in sardonic humour, there in fact may be more truth in Greene’s comment than most people allow. Perhaps too easy a life, gives the individual little or no resilience, when a curve ball is thrown at them; for they cannot reframe by rationalizing this experience against any other personal hardship.

In an article for The Huffington Post (Are We Raising a Generation of Helpless Kids, 13th of February, 2102), Mickey Goodman writes that in trying to give Generation Y a better start to life than the previous generations had, we may have created an Achilles Heal. Goodman writes, quoting Tim Elmore, a youth leader: “We’ve told our kids to dream big – and now any small act seems insignificant. In the great scheme of things, kids can’t instantly change the world. They have to take small, first steps – which seem like no progress at all to them. Nothing short of instant fame is good enough. “It’s time we tell them that doing great things starts with accomplishing small goals,” he [Elmore] says. We’ve told our kids that they are special – for no reason, even though they didn’t display excellent character or skill, and now they demand special treatment. The problem is that kids assumed they didn’t have to do anything special in order to be special. We gave our kids every comfort – and now they can’t delay gratification. And we heard the message loud and clear. We, too, pace in front of the microwave, become angry when things don’t go our way at work, rage at traffic. “Now it’s time to relay the importance of waiting for the things we want, deferring to the wishes of others and surrendering personal desires in the pursuit of something bigger than ‘me,'” Elmore says. We made our kid’s happiness a central goal – and now it’s difficult for them to generate happiness — the by-product of living a meaningful life. “It’s time we tell them that our goal is to enable them to discover their gifts, passions and purposes in life so they can help others. Happiness comes as a result.”

By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania