Living on a Perilous Precipice
Understanding the Terrors of the Young (Vol. 3; Issue 17)
Homo Sapiens emerged as a separate species around 200,000 years ago, and it faced few serious risks of extinction since then. Tony Ord’s book, The Precipice, predicts that, starting with our development of the atomic bomb in 1945, the probability for total destruction stands at around 20 percent. He thinks the 1962 Cuban missile crisis marks the closest we came to such existential peril, at least so far.
In addition to the ever-present risk of nuclear war—even if accidentally started—hazards of such intensity include climate change, engineered pathogens, artificial intelligence, and colliding with an asteroid. Extinction would unlikely occur immediately, but the collapse of civilization as we know it might make survivors envious of those vanishing earlier.
These possibilities, already roiling around the minds of even minimally educated people, certainly contribute to the angst felt by young people in the developed world. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier this year released its annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey. It reveals a disturbing decline in the health and well-being of adolescents in the last decade. Just in the past year, 60 percent considered committing suicide, 42 percent experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and 20 percent were victims of sexual violence.
Even when corrected for the effects of the Covid pandemic, these results are beyond alarming. Complex, interactive factors contribute to such unprecedented angst, but social troubles run across nearly all the variables measured. For example, drug and alcohol usage, obesity, sexual activity, peer pressure, and social media—all specifically cited by respondents—obviously involve interpersonal relationships. Consistent with the theme of unconscious journeys, I explore a few explanations based on psychoanalytic ideas.
One overarching trend, namely a reduction in real-time, interpersonal interactions, organizes each of the separate realms I soon delineate. Arguably the most scientific of psychoanalysis’ endeavors, attachment theory emerged as a distinct area of study in the mid-20th century. Research since then flourishes. John Bowlby (1980abc) launched the field, and he was among the first to carefully observe caregiver-infant interactions. Contemporary psychoanalysts generally agree that such early interpersonal interactions, say during the first five years of life, feature prominently in the development of attachment styles. These fall into two general categories, namely secure or insecure attachment.
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