by Emily VR
When your kids worry about the meaning of life, what do you do?
We all ask ourselves existential questions at some point. When those questions come from my kids, sometimes I’m prepared. Sometimes I’m not.
“But how do we know for sure that the universe and heaven go on forever? Everything has an end.”
I try to give reassurance. We talk about science and faith. Unfortunately, sometimes, religion and science aren’t enough. Sometimes, the unknowns can cause sadness: real, palpable, sleepless worry. A hug and kiss don’t always make things better.
“Why did kids have to die in the earthquake?”
Some questions don’t have answers.
Thinking back on these conversations, I can see the faces of my sons, vulnerable, waiting. Their eyes are windows. At some point, between now and the end of adolescence, I know those windows will develop protective shutters – at least temporarily. Right now, their private thoughts still come out at bedtime, and those windows are wide open.
“I don’t understand why we are alive. I mean, what is the point of the world, and of people existing?”
As a parent, how do you reassure your child, while he or she still looks to you for answers? Can we help our kids build resilience?
A new book offers support, and it’s become one of my favorites: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, by James Webb. Dr. Webb is a psychologist and expert on gifted children, and co-founded the nonprofit SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) following the suicide of a gifted youth. Psychologists find that bright youths ask difficult questions early in their lives, and often struggle with perfectionism and disillusionment. Searching for Meaning isn’t specifically for parents, but it gives reassurance to anyone who can identify with these worries.
The book begins with the roots of idealism – both nature and nurture – and discusses challenges faced by idealists, internal and external. Webb provides an overview of gifted characteristics, since those individuals are often at higher risk, and he then delves into difficulties faced by idealists. Depression is discussed in a frank, compassionate manner. Throughout the book, Webb provides statistics and definitions in addition to the feelings of experiencing these challenges.
Webb also explores existential concerns through multiple lenses. Existential theories, religious beliefs, and psychological theories are covered, and references are given for research, allowing curious readers to explore further. In particular, the Theory of Positive Disintegration, by Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski, gives readers encouragement: according to Dabrowski, grappling with disillusionment is the first step toward heightened development, though questions may continue throughout the life span.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms are covered with compassion and honesty, and Webb provides healthier alternatives. Readers can discover methods to find happiness and hope: cultivating positive relationships, evaluating goals and values, becoming involved with causes, spirituality, humor, life scripting, and bibliotherapy, among others. I found the solutions respectful, and flexible enough to incorporate spiritual beliefs, though no religion is promoted. The book embraces the unique needs of each reader: Webb states, “The examples I’ve presented… are only suggestions; each individual must find what works best for him- or herself.”
The overall text seems best suited for adults and older adolescents, but in my family, I found the chapter on “Healthier Coping Styles” perfect for reading with my older son. In an attempt to answer one of my 9-year-old’s questions, I pulled down this book. It became a nightly ritual.
“Mom, can we read more of that book together? The one about ways to deal with my stress?”
Webb uses the acronym HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) to describe triggers for negativity and stress, and it’s been helpful in our house. We’ve increased “hug time” (feeling connected), we make conscious efforts to think positively and plan for the future, and we talk about how it’s okay to think and feel the way we do. We’ve read and re-read passages, and we discuss how we can use them in our lives.
For my part, I realized that one of Webb’s coping strategies is how I best handle stress: I work with causes to find solutions. In this, I see myself in my sons: at ages 4 and 9, in their own ways, I see them driven to right wrongs, to speak up for truth, and to help those who suffer. Earlier this year, our church devoted several weeks to a similar theme, titled “Follow Your Heartbreak.” Our pastor explained that to find your passion, you can think about what breaks your heart about the world. This seems to be how our family was meant to live our lives.
Webb’s book gives idealists both encouragement and motivation, and I believe it can help us lead happier lives. I can’t protect my sons against all doubt and pain, but I’m glad for a resource in letting them know that it’s okay to question. I want to show them that there is nothing wrong in asking for help, when they suffer. That they can find peace, especially in pursuing their drive to never, ever stop trying to make the world better. That as long as I’m alive, I will be here for them, doing the same.
Just like my children, I’ll be searching for meaning, and for hope.
Dr. Webb’s book can be found through Great Potential Press or online booksellers: