With Christmas and New Year’s now past us, that opportunity to reflect upon the last year, reconnect with the rapid passing of time and make resolutions and then break them has all gone by.  But take heart, Chinese New Year is upon us.  In my family given that my wife is Chinese, celebrations like these are always problematic.  Christmas is not entirely satisfactory for me, and Chinese New Year is at least equally unsatisfactory for my wife.  Both feel that the importance and magnitude of the occasion are underestimated and insufficiently acknowledged by the other.  Our two children, now fully adults, have grown up in the crossfire.  They have, however, benefitted from the two occasions by receiving Christmas presents and red packets throughout their lives.  I have little doubt that the two halves have amounted to at least one whole.

All cultures seemed fixated on the importance of celebrating the passing of one year and the coming of another as if to acknowledge some kind of universal birthday.  In Western countries the passing of years seems to be accompanied by a kind of depression as we all see passing years as some kind of countdown to the grave i.e. we now have one less year to live.  My wife on the other hand assures me that within Chinese culture aging is seen rather more as an accomplishment than a count down.  It is seen as a kind of thank God and the heavens that I was able to make it through another year.  This gratitude increases with age and reaching 80 is considered a major accomplishment.  If ever there was an example of the rice bowl half empty or half full this, is it.

But uniformly with the passing of one year and the entry into another, the symbolism allows for a kind of death and rebirth analogy that sees with it new chances, opportunities and challenges that come with a new year.  In this this kind of reboot, we once again have the opportunity to make changes and move forward in a positive direction.  In this regard, I have never met a human being who did not want changes either to themselves or their circumstances or both.  New Year resolutions are a perfect example of our inner struggle to do things or not do things that we know we should act upon but have been unable so far to achieve.  It is the very nature of human beings to be dissatisfied and part of that restless spirit that separates us from the animal kingdom.  But equally, that inner struggle represents the difference between our rational or intellectual aspects and our emotional or passionate ones.  Walt Disney had Jiminy Cricket and Sigmund Freud had the Super Ego as representatives of those voices of conscience permanently located with us or in us.  

It is good to given pause to think about the implications of the fact that we all live with this sense that we could be better if we had more self-control or self-discipline as we all live with the consequences of making concessions between the demands of urges and those of restraint.  We are of course always ready to rationalize situations.  We are either too old to change or do not need to make changes until later or continue to hope that circumstances will change even if we do not.   Either we have too much time to create a sense of urgency or too little to make it worthwhile to carry through with the effort.  Such is our inner struggle to make difficult changes.

Three sources of conflict are identified in English Literature that are equally applicable elsewhere.  These are:  Man versus Nature, Man versus Man and Man versus Himself.  The latter of these conflicts receives much less attention than the previous two for the probable reason that we always like to externalize problems rather than take ownership of them.  But whereas all of us struggle with life in one way or another, the majority through one means or another are able to keep their heads above water and cope to a lesser or greater degree.  Having said that, there remain those who are gasping for air and those who sometimes disappear out of sight beneath the water never to be seen again.

Ironically, despite the many comforts of modern life, increasing numbers of people are now succumbing to its pressures and increasing numbers are subject to dysfunctions reflected in mental health issues.  This is true not only of adults but also of children and young adults.  Whatever is happening and why, all can at least agree on the fact that something is happening and that problems are getting worse rather than better.  Issues of anxiety, depression and a lack of purpose and fulfilment are now rampant.  So also is the sense in many that their situation cannot be changed and that they are only able to react to their circumstances as victims rather than create their future through action.  The rise in mental health issues has correspondingly given rise to a massive growth in professional therapists as people have given up on their own ability to deal with life and request the help and guidance of others.

Most therapeutic models place considerable emphasis upon having clients feel better about themselves.  This can often take the form of supporting the client’s own narrative as to their reality.  Often, I feel this is a mistake.  It is often that client’s narrative that is the source of their problems.  It is sometimes good to be disappointed in ourselves and through that resolve to do and be better.  At their core, all therapeutic models identify three courses of action that are not mutually exclusive i.e. changing ourselves, changing our environment or accepting the fact that certain things cannot be changed but must be accepted through various coping methods.  Instinctively, most of us who have survived puberty apply these approaches with varying degrees of success

Whereas much attention is given to issues of adult mental health, I feel that far too little is given to that of the young and especially teenagers.  Whereas most adults are attempting to cope with reality, the young are also attempting to establish what is reality.  Adults have been forced to confront reality through bitter experience.   Many adult problems exist because behaviours and attitudes persist despite the fact that they prove to not benefit us.  As such, much current Cognitive Behavioural Therapy takes the form of adjusting behaviour to outcomes.   For the inexperienced youth however, the messaging of mass media, the internet and the support of their peers, combine to produce a confused sense of the world as an inevitable result.  This presents a far greater challenge than ever before.  Clearly,  if you cannot get a grip on reality, how on earth can you get a grip on yourself?

I have argued here and elsewhere that in my opinion, the existing prevalent educational theories and practices as well as the school systems operating under them are not only not addressing these concerning issues but rather contributing to and exacerbating them.  Rather than being part of the solution, they are indeed part of the problem.  By removing consequences, open competition and the introduction of a socialization of excellence through the advocacy of mediocracy, schools are actively encouraging attitudes, beliefs and behaviours predestined and predetermined to create frustration and mental illness in adulthood.  

Schools should have as part of their primary mission, the preparation of children for adulthood and this preparation should should not be for an imaginary society envisaged through the socialization policies of governments or other groups but rather the hard reality of life as it is rather than life as it should or could be.  We can only build a better world and life after having come to grips with the reality of things as they are.  The creation of resiliency of character through the confrontation of challenging and discomforting situations combined with the experience of success and failure are required.   Necessary also is the creation of the authentic self-confidence and self-direction that allow young adults to become the captain of their own ship and not merely a passenger.

Much is said about leadership these days.  However, to be a true leader one must also lead oneself.  That is to say, that self-confidence is no substitute for competence and competence can only exist where there is a firm grasp of situations as they are and not through some coloured lens of self-aggrandizement.  I was told of a study conducted in the USA that indicated that that the results of the current focus upon self-esteem had not led to improved accomplishments but rather to feeling better about accomplishing less.  An enhanced sense of self-confidence based upon little if anything to support it, is a shallow victory doomed to failure.  Leadership involves not only knowing where you are going and how to get there but also having command over oneself before it is extended to others.  These should be the objectives for all high school graduates as they enter adulthood.  We may all have a dream of a promised land, but it is a long walk with many obstacles to get there.  Let us also at least get out the road map before we start walking.

And so in closing Gong Xi Fa Chai and best wishes for the year of the rabbit.  Let us all hope that the coming year of the hare will be less hair raising than the last.  May you direct change rather than succumb to it and encourage your children to become the kind of adults that will benefit themselves and all of those they encounter.  This will not come by giving them what they want but rather through providing them with what they need. Giving birth, though painful, is a finite process. Parenting on the other hand proves to be an agonizing, though ultimately rewarding, prolonged journey requiring stamina and resolve. It requires leadership and direction, self-discipline and resolve and in the end taking on the role of the grown-up in the room.