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Thoughts on Christopher Bollas’s, “Generational Consciousness”*

Version 2

My grandmother left Canada with hope. The potato famine and poverty of Canadian farming pushed them south at the end of the 19th century. Her generation came here with opportunities to cultivate, and with full knowledge that she was leaving the previous generation behind, a loss taken to ensure survival. There must have been great strength garnered from the courage it took to migrate, leaving family, home, and all that is familiar behind for better prospects.

They arrived in America at a time of great innovation and rapid advances. There were no airplanes, no cars, electricity was a new technology when they got here in the late 1800’s by their new millennium

My parents, on the other hand, arrived to their 20’s and, saw the failure of that generation to be able to sustain the progress. They arrived to their generational subculture at a world of a Great Depression, soup lines, stock market crash and a most devastating world war, culminating by the dropping of two atomic bombs.

My folks inherited the failed dreams of their immediate past. I was born in a time of prosperity. Though my family was poor, the world felt promising. We were the generation that could have its cake and eat it too. We inherited the hope of peace, but just as your generation arrived in the world, our radical peace movement and hippie communes failed to sustain itself, and the cycle started over again where like my mother you were born into a generational failed dream. Generations are defining,  we shape the generation and the generation shapes us.  We bring individual goals and ambitions to the world but in addition to our individual view of our times, the times that we live in have a kind of sociological perspective that become a part of our psychic experience.

Bollas points out that it is not until young people are in their 20’s that they begin to identify with the cultural norms of their generation. At about this age, children begin to see themselves as belonging to the future generation. They are accomplishing a transition between where they came from and where they are going in the outside world and in the subjective world of the self.
Christopher Bollas says this:  “The sense of isolation can be severe, but solace may be found through recognizing that he or she is part of a mass sub-culture, a new adolescent subculture forming out of the abyss between generations.” When you are exit-ing your family of origin; and at the same time emerging into an adult, the process is almost entirely an unconscious one.  The experience is as much about loss as it is about forward movement.

The norms of the New Generation must be incorporated or the child becoming an adult fails the transition process and begins to doubt their ability to become capable participants in the New World order.  When the anxiety to separate from one generation is difficult to tolerate, the individuation of the child suffers. This process then settles itself into the consciousness as a lack of confidence and low self-esteem.

The massive difference between generations is not perceived except in retrospect. In hindsight we radically recognize the difference between the 1950s and the 1960s; yet, 1958 at the time did not look all that different from 1962.  Likewise, if you were born in the 60’s you have a memory of your parents generation and a sense of belonging and remembering first- hand the 70’s and the 80’s. The future decades all seem about the same save for a few technological advances that may stand out.

Christopher Bollas seems to be saying that there is a collective consciousness that assigns us to the generation that we belong too.  If a child assigns himself to the wrong (previous) generation because of fear of separation, success in the new generation becomes more difficult.

To this very difficult but natural set of complexes, we can add, in some cases; the generation that you came from makes it difficult for the transition to run smoothly. A consciousness of differences between generational norms allows a parent to assist rather than hamper the transitional process.  On the other hand, jealousy of youth, or fear of separating in the parent can retard the child’s development. The child may fear reprisal and abandonment from the parent’s generation and then attempts to remain the child of the previous generation rather than an adult in his or her own generation.

The consequences of not moving forward, of not letting go, obscure the possibilities of the future, and security and a false sense of safety are sought to mitigate the affects of fear and loneliness.

Christopher Bollas has written a bold new sociological take on the psychoanalytic process of separation and individuation.  His essay goes on to describe, in beautifully written language, the multitude of facts, fictions and symbols that enter the consciousness of a human during this delicate, but at time violent attempt to become a self….

From readings in, On Being a Character, 1992, “Generational Consciousness”.

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