The Education Within

How do teens and parents balance the culture of expectation with self knowledge?

Posted Jul 09, 2019

Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. —Yeats

What does it mean to light a fire rather than fill a pail? To start, our culture, its educational tenets, and the messages of unbridled capitalism promote pail filling. The focus on products (homework, SAT scores, As) over processes and competition over finding one’s own particular skills constitute an “outward in” approach to education that leaves an epidemic number of teens paralyzed. Failure = death.

Expectations are for small minds. —Albert Einstein

When we can’t fail we can’t succeed and life becomes a dissociated experience in which we must choose only the best aspects of ourselves to present to the world. Chronic focus on the outside, on expectations, while ignoring the inside, emotions, instincts, one’s own soul’s map, leads to the development of what psychologists call “the false self.”  Many of my adult patients, the product of this culture and education, bemoan the fact that they feel they are running alongside their lives, rather than living in them. Anxiety, depression and even despair can follow from this sense of disconnection from our authentic selves.

Depression and anxiety are on the rise among young people ages 16-25.

In my practice, the number of teens I see, who lack the skills to navigate their own life as the pressures to be someone they don’t want to be, continues to mount.  Most traditional education and the culture around us peddle a path that comes from the outside leaving teens and young adults unmoored, without a sense of direction.

Most teens desire to carve a path for themselves but with no training in this fine art, only years of performing from an externally derived curriculum, this endeavor is daunting. Despite well-intentioned institutions like schools and devoted teachers, these teens have not been encouraged to try, fail and trust their own inner compass, so now, when life presents itself, and the skill they need is to trust themselves to make choices, feel if they are right for them, possibly fail and make new choices, they find themselves ill-equipped. It starts from the inside out. 

“I don’t want to be a business person,” one 20-year-old young man opined slumped in my office, taking a break between his junior and senior years of college to figure out who he was inside so he could find a job that didn’t “fill him with despair” as he put it. He was depressed because the pressure to succeed, without an authentic sense of self, proved too great. He knew what he didn’t want to do, but the process of identifying what he did want, which should start at an early age, was woefully underdeveloped. His self was indeed depressed in the most literal sense of the word: What was inside was not robust enough to support the new outward pressures to grow up and start taking responsibility for his own life.

Stock Image/Deposit Photos
Source: Stock Image/Deposit Photos

How Parents Can Help

It starts with trust. But how do we trust our teens and young adults when we don’t trust ourselves? Most teens have an underdeveloped capacity to navigate ambiguity which is an important skill in the trial-and-error young adult years. John Holt, author of How Children Learn (1967) invites us to break this long downward cycle of fear and distrust, and trust children, first, then our teens, as we ourselves were not trusted.

As parents, we should relay this message: “Your life does not have to look like anyone else’s life, so what’s the rush? It’s your life, and can be lived on your terms.” But how do we do this when this was never done for us?  What is this inner curriculum?

While there is no concrete or specific path for all teens, in general teens and young adults need a palette on which to experiment, an open yet structured environment with choices that have little consequence – no grades, no judgment. A place to try and fail because we know that failing is part of succeeding. They need a context and community of supportive peers that aren’t only digital but personal, emotionally meaningful and to which they are accountable.

Stock Image/Deposit Photos
Source: Stock Image/Deposit Photos

The Education of Inner Life
“When we bring forth what is within us what we bring forth will save us. When we do not bring forth what is within us, what we do not bring forth will destroy us.” —The Gnostic Gospels

For their soul’s work to be discovered and made manifest, the inner needs must be first be met. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Practices of emotional well being: Stress Management, meditation, finding a balance
  • Knowledge of self: Systems of self-understanding
  • Experimentation without expectation
  • A supportive tribe to catch them when they fall and cheer them when they succeed
  • An ability to be authentically oneself rather than follow what is “expected”
  • A mentor system for inspiration and concrete steps about various life choices and careers

Nature naturalis – everything is connected. —Einstein

These elements of inner education must be cultivated lest we see ever more dissociated teens and young adults. Coupled with the internet’s division of human society into networks, this fragmentation serves neither the individuals nor our society as a whole. With a focus on integrating the inner aspects of self with the outer, these young people may find satisfying engagement in the world to devise the contributions they wish, and we so sorely need them, to make.