Friday, July 15, 2011

Spirituality and the Numbest Generation

The launch of the last space shuttle last week, during my visit to Orlando for a conference, brought back memories of the Challenger launch and explosion back in January of 1986. I was 13 years old and in Orlando with my family on winter vacation. [Weird that there were shuttle launches both times I was in Orlando; now that the shuttle program is over, can I ever go back?]

Of course, given that the Challenger launched from Orlando and exploded in the air overhead, televisions everywhere showed footage of the explosion, photographs, interviews, commemorations and so on. The radios had nothing but this. And, of course, when we returned to school afterward all of the talk was about the explosion and death and what it meant for space exploration.

I feel like this should have been a seminal moment for me. I was an early teen, at an impressionable stage and standing at Ground Zero. And yet, it wasn't. Certainly, I remember a lot of the coverage, names of some of the astronauts and their stories… but there was nothing about it that changed me in any discernible way. I didn't become enamored of space travel, or afraid of it. I wasn't drawn to stories about the tragedy. I didn't really react, so far as I can tell.

This is not just about me being insensitive to the lives of others; I saw the same phenomenon in kids of that age in New York ten years ago, for September 11th. And I've seen it elsewhere, including in studies of internet use and reaction to on-line stories of tragedy. There is a certain numbness and distance about my generation, and later. Perhaps it also precedes my time; I wouldn't know, but I haven’t heard about it. What's it about, though?

To borrow from something I've been reading about lately, this numbness seems to run counter to Affective Events Theory (granted that my knowledge of the subject is still rudimentary). This field of study looks at the way people respond emotionally to specific events, as opposed to their responses to static environment or to their judgments and decisions. To sum up the relevant point from the first article here, AET proponents argue that "The basic literature on emotions consensually accepts the idea that events drive changes in emotional states. There may be differences of opinion as to how events are interpreted, the relative impact of positive and negative events, the filtering process of personality, etc., but events are instigators of changes in emotional states." So why aren't events changing us?

In part, I suspect it's a defense mechanism which is relatively modern in its manifestation: World population has so increased, and our access to information about that population is so great, that we cannot absorb the information we receive from around the globe and integrate it into our lives. If Dunbar's Number predicts that our strongest networks are limited to 150 connections, then how could we hear about the deaths of 7 astronauts or starvation of Ethiopians or devastation in Japan or suicides of 9/11 victims or 100 people on a Mi sheBeirach list, however strong the images and compelling the stories, and integrate them into our brains and existences? Unless there was some immediate link to our lives or the lives of a member of that tight network, we would exclude them simply because there was no room for them.

One of the problems that results from this defense mechanism is a difficulty in spiritual growth. The greater our numbess, the more difficult it is for us to relate to others' experiences and be moved by their lives and their stories. Singing or davening in a group loses its resonance. Feeling connected to a chevra is more challenging. And it's not just a social problem - being awake to the beauty of our world, when we are so flooded with images of such beauty, is that much more difficult as well.

So that's the problem, as I see it. What's the solution?


  1. Interesting & provoking read for someone who was 11 years old when John Kennedy was shot. This was possibly the first time something so shockingly violent came into our living rooms. We lived with it for 4 days. Children of my generation then watched a parade of violence come through our living rooms -- civil rights, anti-war, the assassinations of MLK and Bobby Kennedy. We were angry, disenchanted and feeling hopeless. We chased numbness through drugs and sex to avoid despair. It took that generation 30 years to grow up and break through to a place where we felt safe to feel and dream and connect. I hope your generation and the 9-11 generation break free more quickly than we did.

  2. (shavua‘ tov from israel!)

    I don't remember it myself, but according to my parents, when the Challenger exploded i stopped wanting to be an astronaut when i grew up.