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I haven’t heard the term  “existential crisis” used lately. I don’t think that is because they don’t occur any more. I suspect they occur more today than they did in earlier times.

An existential crisis is defined as a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life.

Despite having no proof to point to, I believe this questioning is as old as mankind.

Existentialism was a term that come into being in the late 19th- and 20th-century via a group of diverse European philosophers. It may seem odd that this “crisis” is attached to philosophical thinking whose predominant value is commonly acknowledged to be freedom.

Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher, though he did not use the term existentialism. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it “authentically.”

I came to know the term in my teen years through literature. Reading books by Jean-Paul Sartre (such as Nausea) and works by Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot and Herman Hesse, and then reading about them, existentialism kept being referenced.

I started to see it in many things I was reading. That “crazy cliff” that Holden Caulfield wanted to save people from falling off by being a “catcher in the rye” seemed existential to me. I started to see my own life that way. I can’t imagine getting through your teen years without an existential crisis.

Existentialism came into popular use after World War II in philosophy but also in theology, drama, art, literature, and psychology.

I’m sure that when I learned about an existential crisis I thought I was going through one. Mental health hypochondria is pretty common.

An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life. Does life have any meaning, purpose, or value? It is commonly wrapped up in anxiety and depression.

I have a vivid memory of seeing the film The Graduate for the first time and then again in college and when Ben was floating in his parents’ pool and feeling of a lack of purpose in life, I was floating right there with him.

But a true existential crisis is big. Questioning Life means questioning relationships, decisions, and your motivations. It is an illness. A serious one.

Currently I hear the term being used on more temporary states of mind. I did some searching online and found it in an article about spending too much time on social media. It was referenced in an article about suddenly not wanting to spend time with people and wanting to be alone. I found in searching this blog that I have used “existential” in several posts.

If an existential crisis is really a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life, it doesn’t seem like ending a relationship qualifies. Or does it?

An article that I read but won’t link to suggested that some warning signs of the crisis include drinking lots of coffee and using alcohol and cigarettes as a crutch and solution instead of coffee.

Very few of us have not felt a lack of motivation, unable to be productive to the point of depression. Mental fatigue can transform into physical fatigue, which drags you down further.

Is that an existential crisis?

Or is when it when you start to think about death, talk about death and live in the shadow of death?

When I went through a bad depression (which I and my therapist never called an existential crisis) one of the signs was that I began to cry easily for not very “valid” reasons. Movies, abandoned dogs on the drive to work, leaves falling from trees, a sad-looking woman drinking coffee at a nearby table, seeing homeless people or just sitting in the car at a red light would start me off.

Obviously, someone in a real crisis needs professional help and the support of those around them. I found that one treatment known as existential-humanistic focuses on your personalized concerns for your future. It is an approach that asks about the meaning of life.

I have probably written more about solitude than loneliness and I now view solitude – that choice to be alone – as a gift.

We all have our “dark nights of the soul” but when the night carries in the daylight and for more days and nights, I think it is a crisis.

I titled this piece “Just Another Existential Crisis” not because I trivialize the term, but ironically because I think we too often toss off depressions of other people and ourselves too lightly.

When I taught Romeo and Juliet to middle school students I became very sensitive to teen suicide. Of course, I didn’t want the play to be seen as saying that suicide was a solution, but in my research I found that it is very dangerous to not take seriously teen crises. As an adult, it is easy to dismiss the end of a seventh grader’s romantic relationship that lasted only two weeks as not being anything serious. That is a mistake. It is the same mistake that the Capulets and Montagues made. Call it existential or not, a crisis is real.

Holden Caulfield may have remembered the Robert Burns poem incorrectly, but his wish to save others in the midst of his own crisis was correct.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
– from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

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The nature of Americans sounds like a title that might these days refer to how we are changing as a people. But in this case, it is more literal – about our relationship with the outdoors.

Studies have shown that although the majority of Americans say that nature is one of their most enjoyable interests, they don’t spend much time outdoors. Why is there this gap?

A new study, “The Nature of Americans,” surveyed nearly 12,000 adults and children to try to determine why there is that gap. Are there barriers that keep people from going outside?

We know that even certain smells and sounds of nature can trigger happy memories. Being in nature brings people a sense of peace. This is true for children and adults.

Youngsters in the age 8-12 range said contact with nature “made them happier and healthier.” Their parents and researchers agree. Exposure to nature promoted their physical, psychological, and social well-being.

So then why do the majority of adults spend only five or less hours a week outside? Kids ages 8-12 are only a bit better averaging 6.5 hours a week outdoors. Add to that other studies that show those kids spend more than double that amount of time indoors on computers, televisions and electronic devices.

I feel like this has been “news” for about 50 years. We know it’s good for us but we don’t act upon that knowledge.

The study found a number of barriers. Some of this is pretty obvious. Where we live, work, and go to school can make it difficult for many people to have contact with the natural world. Not many Americans depend on the natural world for their livelihoods these day either. We don’t farm or work outside. We work in buildings.

In prioritizing our lives, nature has fallen down the list. Technologies and electronic media have moved up and they keep us indoors.

People who grow up without much contact with nature tend to be adults who are uncomfortable being outdoors alone. They probably don’t have many friends who want to accompany or encourage excursions into the natural world.

Children are kept indoors by a lack of available adult supervision. KIds, including my own, are rarely allowed to wander alone outdoors in a park or woods or even in their own neighborhood.

One thing the study found is that we need to change perceptions about nature. Too many adults perceive nature as something remote and inaccessible. Getting “out into nature” means a national park or wilderness – places that are often far from home. But neighborhood parks and small wooded areas and trails are also important. And making nature experiences social by doing things like group hikes connects us to nature and people.

Some of this nature wisdom is also a natural knowledge. The study shows that children perceive nearly every outdoor place as being part of nature, but that concept fades as they grow up. Watching ants climb over the ground, fishing at a park pond, climbing a jungle gym or a tree, watching chipmunks run in and out of their stone wall home or wading in a creek and rearranging the flow by moving rocks and making boats from leaves and sticks are all great ways of being in nature.

In the book Blue Mind, the author considers in a very long subtitle “The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.” Most of us are drawn to water. Even when it’s not summer, I feel the pull of the ocean. This connection to water is also in our nature.

I read Last Child in the Woods  years ago when my sons were children and I wanted to make nature part of their childhood. Along with other books by Richard Louv, such as Vitamin N and The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, they can introduce you to the New Nature Movement that looks to the restorative powers of the natural world. It promises much: boosting mental acuity and creativity, health and wellness and even smarter and more sustainable businesses. It is an optimistic vision in an increasingly pessimistic world.

 

                   

All the gardeners I know, including myself, feel better when we are working in the garden. Some people say it is a meditative experience – a way to separate yourself from the troubles of the everyday.

I love getting my hands into the soil. I rarely wear gloves because I like the feel of the soil.

Recent research has given some scientific basis for that good feeling we get in working the soil. Contained in soil is Mycobacterium vaccae, a nonpathogenic species of bacteria. It occurs naturally. Researchers have been studying how killed Mycobacterium vaccae vaccine might be used as immunotherapy for allergic asthma, cancer, leprosy, psoriasis, dermatitis, eczema, tuberculosis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis – and depression.

That last area of research is what brings me to happy soil. It has recently been hypothesized that exposure to Mycobacterium vaccae may result in an antidepressant effect, because it stimulates the generation of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. There may be some natural Prozac in that dirt.

Lack of serotonin is linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar problems. Many antidepressant drugs are ones that trigger the production of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain.

Now, don’t go out in the backyard and start eating dirt. Working the soil means we make contact with the microbes through the skin and also by breathing some in as we stir up the soil.

The research shows that these microbes cause cytokine levels to rise and that results in the production of higher levels of serotonin. In the studies, the bacterium was tested both by injection and ingestion – but that was on rats. The natural antidepressant effect can be felt for up to 3 weeks.

Maybe those pigs and other animals rolling in the dirt were doing more than keeping cool and keeping off insects.

Sources
healinglandscapes.org/blog/2011/01/its-in-the-dirt-bacteria-in-soil-makes-us-happier-smarter/

gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/soil-fertilizers/antidepressant-microbes-soil.htm

Think about your relationship to your partner, your work and your inner self. Is that 3 different things, 3 interrelated things or one whole?

According to David Whyte, most of us are in more than the one “marriage.” One is with a significant other (even if we are not legally married), but also ones in which we have made secret vows to our work and to our self.

In his book, The Three Marriages, he explores those three marriages, their commonalities, their mutual relationships and the way they can together contribute to a life.

David Whyte, who is a poet and Associate Fellow at Templeton College and Said Business School at the University of Oxford. I can’t think of any other poets who use poetry and concepts of creativity in organizational development. Apparently, Whyte does in working with companies to foster “courage and engagement.” He views this as part of  individual and organizational change and calls it “Conversational Leadership.”

He subtitles the book “Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship:”

“We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and … they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously… To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.”

All three renewed dedication as the years go by. We hear so much about having a “work/life balance” but he believes that to separate these three (split life into two parts) in order to balance is harmful. He doesn’t believe you can sacrifice one marriage for any of the others without causing deep (psychological) damage.

Whyte grew up in England and now lives in the American Pacific Northwest and along with six books of poetry, he has written three books of prose.

He has a degree in Marine Zoology and has worked as a naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands, lead anthropological and natural history expeditions in the Andes, the Amazon and the Himalaya.

Looking at some of his poems, you might see that they often live in the different marriages too.

Some are in the usual realm of poetry, while some enter more deeply psychological, theological and philosophical areas, and others look at work. I suppose many poets use these areas, but with this book of marriages as the lens in front of me, the separations seem more apparent.

Her is how his poem “Start Close In” begins:

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way of starting
the conversation.

Start with your own
question,
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
simple.

One of the articles read this past year, said that “The equilibrium between productivity and presence is one of the hardest things to master in life, and one of the most important. We, both as a culture and as individuals, often conflate it with the deceptively similar-sounding yet profoundly different notion of “work/life balance” — a concept rather disheartening upon closer inspection. It implies, after all, that we must counter the downside — that which we must endure in order to make a living — with the upside — that which we long to do in order to feel alive. It implies allocating half of our waking hours to something we begrudge while anxiously awaiting the other half to arrive so we can live already.”

I am committed to that first marriage – the traditional one with a partner. The one with work is going through some transitioning.  The third marriage, engaging the soul and senses, feels to me to be the one that supports the other two. There is some things of the traditional marriage that he carries into the others. Living with the Self, and Divorce, Forgiveness, even Remarriage. Any of these marriages can fail.

Can we surrender ego to something larger than it?

This is not a question of balance or balancing amounts of time and resources.

Yes, you can have all three marriages work at the same time and  what we learn about life and ourselves in one marriage, makes us better partners in the other ones.


Listen to a brief excerpt from the book

Whyte’s  website

 

It has been hot and dry for the past month, but I am still feeling a damp November in my soul. Like any despondent Ishmael with nothing particular to interest me on shore, I am sitting here looking at a pond, paging through this book again, and wishing I could be in a watery part of the world.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

Last night, looking up at the night sky, I saw indefiniteness, voids, and the immensities of the universe. The white depths of the Milky Way made me think of the albino whale. “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

ahabOn the way here this morning, I passed a Starbucks store which only made me think about Starbuck watching the old man at the edge of the ship heavily leaned over the side. “He seemed to hear in his own true heart the measureless sobbing that stole out of the centre of the serenity around. Careful not to touch him, or be noticed by him, he yet drew near to him, and stood there.”

Staring over the railing of the bridge at this pond, I see “that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without…”

There is a storm brewing to the south that may move this way over the Labor Day weekend. I don’t want to be knocking people’s hats off. I fear the pistol and ball and falling on my sword. Maybe rain will wash away some of the dust, and the leaves and grass will green again and slip into a better September of the soul.

Impressionistic field

Impressionistic field, Princeton, NJ via Flickr-Ronk

The term “Attention-Deficit Disorder” (ADD, ADHD) has only been around since 1980 when it was introduced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Of course, people have had the symptoms for a whole lot longer. A condition that appears to be similar to ADHD was described by Hippocrates around 400 BC.

But the term Nature-Deficit Disorder is not only newer than ADHD but a lot less familiar to people. As with ADHD in its early years, some people will question if it’s a “real” disorder. I was teaching middle school in the 1980s and students diagnosed as being ADHD became the topic on many days and discussions among teachers, counselors, parents and doctors often got pretty heated.

Nature deficit disorder refers to a hypothesis by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. His argument is that because people, especially children, are spending less time outdoors, it is resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems.

As a disorder, it is not recognized in any of the medical manuals for mental disorders, such as the ICD or the DSM. Louv is not a doctor. He is a writer and child advocate.  But I agree with his general premise that people, and especially the younger generations, are more out of touch with the natural world than earlier generations. Of course, that may have been true for every generation since the industrial age began, but it seems to have accelerated as we entered the information age.

Louv claims that one cause for this phenomenon is parental fears about letting kids explore the natural world (especially on their own, as I certainly did as a kid) which has given them restricted access to natural areas. Unsupervised play has decreased over the years and parentally-sanctioned and supervised play is more the norm.

Add to this the lure of the screens – TV, film, and video on phones, tablets, computers and the less-viewed big screen of the family room.

In Last Child in the Woods, he expresses his fears that our children are increasingly disconnected from the natural world.

I agree, though I don’t go as far as the author who then links children’s disconnect from nature directly to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, stress, depression and anxiety disorders and childhood obesity.  Still, I can see with my own sons that exposing kids to nature can be a kind of therapy for a busy world.

We tried as parents to get our kids hiking, swimming, camping and wandering both local woods and national and state parks. I encouraged unstructured creative play. The boys were a bit out of it because we severely limited their exposure to video games and discouraged mindless television viewing from one channel to another.

Both of us were public school teachers then and we chose not to work summers so that we could have 10 weeks with the kids. No summer teen tours or sleepaway camps. We did the town pool and summer sports and Cub and Boy Scouts and a 4-H equestrian club which were all more structured, but there were lots of days spent playing at the parks and in the woods and building things in the backyard and basement.

We lived in suburbia, but I tried to connect the boys to nature by teaching them animal tracking and catch-and-release fishing, planting flowers and vegetables, learning about the stars and constellations, the Moon and planets, and knowing the names of plants and trees. They learned about other cultures and nature, like American Indian beliefs and Buddhism.

The Tracker had a big impact on how I viewed nature and what I wanted to teach my children about it.

I read books on kids and nature and books by people like Jon Young and Tom Brown not only to help me teach the boys, but to help me reconnect with the natural world that I loved so much as a kid.

I spent a good part of my childhood playing Huck Finn as best I could in a suburban town, but I can’t say that the generations that came of age in the 50s or 60s were steeped in the natural world. Kids of the 1950s were more in touch than kids of 2000, as kids of the 1900s were more in touch than those of the 1950s and so on.

Most of my sons’ friends were not doing these things with their families. They went away to camp, visited Disneyworld and took vacations to far off places. There came a time when my boys realized it wasn’t adding anything to their cool quotient to talk about our summer activities.

The book is already a decade old and Louv cites a study that reported that eight-year-olds could identify Pokémon characters far more easily than they could name “otter, beetle, and oak tree.” I’m sure if you update the references, the results would be the same today.

Did it work for my sons? One of my sons was diagnosed as being ADD and, though he compensated well on his own, it stressed him out. While one of them today (in their late twenties) is into camping, fishing, hiking, boating and hunting, the other is a city person who prefers a nice beach resort. I wouldn’t say that the exposure to the natural world is any guarantee of an unstressed, focused, healthy child, teen and adult. Still, nature can teach kids science in a fun way and those activities nurture their creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. I also was very much in favor of my kids seeing themselves as future stewards of the environment.

I know that there are some good reasons for the lack of unstructured outdoor play that some of us grew up doing not being the norm these days. There are plenty of fears (both founded & unfounded) of predators in nature and even more so of the human kind.

We have more limited access to public lands (because of development or fear of lawsuits, insurance costs and to prevent vandalism) than when I was growing up.

As a parent, I didn’t have to deal with smartphones and broadband. My boys grew up with an Apple IIe computer with no hard drive and big floppy disks and a 1200 baud telephone line modem. The number of attractive indoor activities has increased many times.

It saddens me to go to the local park that I visited with my sons and see that there are no longer things like the monkey bars in the designer playground. It is safer but less interesting. Even the dirt is gone, replaced by a rubberized something. There’s a wooded area and small creek just at the edge of the park, but even if kids are drawn to it, most parents pull them back.

Last Child in the Woods is worth a read for parents and teachers if you are looking for an action plan for personal change. The book’s subtitle is “Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” but I think a good number of my fellow adults need saving too. Most of don’t need to be given a listing of the problems in the world, but it would be good to take from the book some ways to, if not cure, then ameliorate them.

FURTHER READING

The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age

Sharing Nature with Children

Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature

The Tracker

Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children

The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder

Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence

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