If we take the useful notion that we are all here for a purpose and that our duty is to find and cultivate that purpose, then we can begin to examine the nature of burn out at school in its symptoms and meanings for what we can do about it.
Before we go into semantics inquiring into the metaphysics of purpose and the meaning of life, let's just keep it simple that possessing a purpose is much more useful or reflective of our nature than not having a purpose.
Purposefulness of purposelessness - what sounds better to you?
When we have found a passion, we have found purpose.
And passion and hence purpose comes from dreaming about what could be. As Einstein noted, imagination is so much more important than knowledge. Why? Because imagination can change things - from the little things in life to the well being of millions.
Our culture - our schooling and media - tend to kill passion. Oh celebrity may be adulated - but that's so superficial compared to the great passions that stir men and women to great feats or to insights and performances that in turn inspire.
A passion may be a primary overriding purpose that consumes our waking moments and our entire social and commercial activity. Or our passion may be a primus inter pares, a first amongst equals, that sits equally with several activities that bring great joy and happiness to life. Either way, passion creates purpose or purposes.
But many people don't have a passion for anything.
Their dreams have been slowly squashed or never been allowed to flourish in the first place. They assume who am I to want things? Well, if that's how they think, the universe (the millions of interactions they have with the world and people around them) will provide for their lack of purpose - they will be used up accordingly whether in relationships or in work. I have clients who say I don't know what I want. Again, the universe will provide an unknown path, a life of floating on other people's actions and dreams... (I wrote about this in my first novel, Wither This Land, which follows the actions of a young student caught between two opposing political forces.)
Let's review how a normal person can be devoid of purpose and passion - or how many of us are in the quieter moments of life. When does it begin and what can we do about it?
Now, I can be critical of schools - as I don't see any great evidence supporting the casting of children into an institution as being terribly helpful to psychological and creative development: much of a person's personality has to be squashed by institutional learning. It's practically inevitable, as the young have to meld their behaviour and mentality to something not of their making. But the blame cannot be laid at the feet of the school system: we get out of school what we put in. So let's go back further.
When a baby is born, it has so much potential. But that potential is dependent on a healthy upbringing, one that recognises the child's individuality but most importantly one in which its needs are met with love and kindness. The role of the mother (and surrogates - aunts, friends, grandmothers) is vital. Unfortunately we often witness, or have ourselves experienced, alienated mothering in which the child's emotional needs are ignored by mothers who have culturally learned to separate baby from themselves postpartum. (I'm still reading this next book - it created a rather large emotional upheaval!!)
Our culture cultivates separation, but we're a social species needing a lot of emotional attachment and love in the early years until we are weaned as it were from mother's care (if we ever truly are - seeing my father say good bye to his mother at her funeral was an image that will never leave me).
The newborn gets "his own" cot, "his own" room even, and is then subjected to the current abusive fashion of conditional crying - letting the child bawl until he learns not to. Babies cannot dial child helpline - but their screaming should be read that they are trying.
When the baby becomes silent it has given up on its mother as a source of love.
Just like statins, one day the mass media will wake up and say, oh, the separation of infants from their mothers has caused a lot of damage. (Ever wonder why so many teens have, for the past few decades, been into highly destructive behaviour ranging from "Gothic" culture of isolated melancholy to drugs). What do we hear? Oh, she just wants to be picked up... by a mother who refuses to pick the child up. The effect is telling in the teenage years and the mother wonders why she doesn't have a great bond with her daughter and takes comfort in the crass media that explore this as somehow normal.
Paraded around shops and malls in a forward facing pushchair with no sense as to why it turns left or right with a dummy in its mouth rather than a nipple, fed industrially produced formula and jabbed with a range of chemicals (vaccines) no doctor has yet to offer to drink, the child becomes increasingly alienated and disaffected. Marxists should have a field day here analysing the subtext of modern parenting, but alas they they are far more interested in notions of wage slavery and the need for woman to become independent of natural chores and the rights to abortion rather than an insightful anaysis of the newborn and the importance of loving and nurturing. Our culture encourages us to cast our bairns into an isolated universe, removed from his natural connection to mother and others.
Things are slowly turning but for the past few decades we have created the Brave New World of separating babies from their mothers.
Coming home, the young child may be put in front of the tv or be given a basic electronic game to play, thereby stultifying its imagination from the first few months of existence. The ubiquitous plug in drugs of modern life diminish a child's imagination and abilities compared to naturally and freely frolicking with simple objects and construction bricks. The flat screen life certainly flattens his imagination. If you've not read it yet - please get a hold of this book: mandatory reading for anyone keen to help our youth grow up properly -
Then off to nursery or reception class administered by other controllers of the baby's life.
I have watched child minders and while no doubt they love children and enjoy spending time with them, they, perhaps of necessity, have to use controlling means to ensure the children obey their instructions rather than to be allowed free play. I've yet to be impressed by nursery schools. Brave New World lies therein. And what for? So mum and dad can earn an extra few grand a year. Now where that's necessary for economic survival, the importance of family time after nursery becomes so much more important. But when it's just a matter of having a few more doodads or keeping up with the annual purchase of a new car, it rather lacks moral weight - and for those who are wealthy enough to afford a nanny something is very awry.
Indeed, my good old friend, John Locke, wrote about such mischief in the 17th century. For him the family was the most important source of a child's education and upbringing. He would not have condoned sending young infants into the arms of strangers and into the perils of a life with other people's children. That was for the very poor who had no choice.
Also in the nursery, being thrown into the presence of other children, some of whom are so distraught over their mother's abandonment of them or mentally distracted because their vital formative years were spent sitting in front of screens, the atmosphere can be charged negatively, or be of such confusion as to render the world dark and dangerous from the young person's maturing mind. In such environments imagination and passion can swiftly die.
Is it surprising that in such environments, the young child learns that choice is not his or hers to make. She is the pawn in an adult game, the patterns of which may fall into a regularity and hence gain some sense of order, but in which nonetheless her choices and needs are secondary or peripheral.
Form nursery to school.
Drawn in by games and fun (controlled according to the administrators) the child is gradually subjected to the military equivalent of basic drill. She learns that her interests are secondary or even worthless. I recall one my students commenting that school lost it for him when the primary school dismissed his love of interests as it was not on the curriculum. I had another young girl, 9, who was put off art! Now that does take some incompetency on the part of the school. How do you put someone off art- that is where many of our pupils find refuge in self-expression. Well, she had to draw/colour as the teacher told her to.
Now, we can ask what is on the curriculum that does fire our passions? It may be maths, French, RE, or geography, or IT for some folk ... but then it may not be for the majority; some aspects of the courses may fire our interest for a moment but then it gets dropped as the curriculum moves on inexorably to an exam (which rarely enthuses us), or the pupil has to trot off to another class and lose track of where the subject was heading. (History's an interesting one here - often the GCSE syllabus is decided by the teacher rather than permitting pupils the choice over what is a wonderfully broad range of choices for an academic subject for young people.)
Finally, the student gets to choose a few subjects that he or she wants to do at A-level and degree level. At this stage, the use of a critical mind and the need for a passion and purpose are vital. Yet by then, much as been thwarted and repressed.
How do I know?
I work with teenagers and maturing people and getting some of them to make a decision is hard. For eleven or more formal years of schooling they have been told to do as they are told, follow the routine, change subject at time set by other people. At A-level we expect them to evaluate and judge arguments and theories - yet they have been conditioned to hold back their personal judgement.
Then they enter the work force and fall into a job. The rebellious and disaffected in school suddenly find that freedom means that they can create jobs and they often become business people; but most quietly move into the professional world, keep their head down, muddle along ... and get married and have kids and start the whole routine all over again - medicalised birth, separation of baby, push chairs and cots in separate rooms, off to nursery and school ... and so it goes.
For those who find it painful to make a decision, we start small with simple decisions over minor matters.
Then we try to cultivate aesthetic judgements and material goals (what kind of house would you love to design/live in; what kind of car do you really want...).
I watch my children focus on what they want and how the envisage the things they would like. They seek to alter the universe around them so they get them - not through pestering (they learn that doesn't work) but through working for funds (or saving gifts) to get what they want.
For adults, the journey back to that inherent love of purpose may require thinking like a child - seeing the world for its wonderful abundancy and vast opportunities. Harness the childish love of life to adult dreams and we can once again find our purpose(s).
So how can we help our children? School is a must for many people because of economic constraints. Fine.
But explore after school - learn together by watching your child and see what they're interested in.
If nothing is forthcoming because they are quiet after school (and you're really, authentically not in a position to pull them from a place that is slowly stripping them of vitality), pick up your own hobby - music, drawing, a sport, something that uses motor co-ordination and activity (rather than, oh, let's put on the dvds...)
Show them your passions and interests and they will soon pick some thing up for themselves. In the extracurricular many students do find their passions.
But above all, don't feel guilty for the culture that we have all been brought up in - we didn't choose how our parents were conditioned and how we too were conditioned in turn; it is hard to go against the peer group which expects us to tow the line. But we can make a difference from this moment on - we can learn about the forces that condition us to behave in the ways we do (from marketing to government policies and our parenting and schooling) and think about them. Talk about them. Discuss them with our kids.
Be yourself, no matter what they say, sang Sting. Quite right. But let's help foster that healthy self!