Existentialism for the 12 Year-Old

by Christine Adams Beckett

My 12 year-old son has a sign posted on his suburban bedroom door that reads, “Area 51. Restricted Area. No Trespassing Beyond this Point. Photography is Prohibited. Use of Deadly Force Is Authorized.” It’s not exactly a welcome mat, and hopefully no indication of what the approaching teen years will look like. I am certain that the unwelcome sign is more corporeal proof of his fascination of the United States Government allegedly maintaining a facility for the sole purpose of researching extra-terrestrial life, but more: that ET may actually exist. He has seen the movie Contact several times, and screening sessions have always spurred interesting discussion on the nature of life, what role intelligence plays in any organism and what it would mean to us as individuals to encounter a whole new world out there.Area 51 sign

Two years ago, he was riveted by Stephen Hawking’s book, George’s Secret Key to the Universe which fed his hunger for more information about the physical universe, but also left him with an unwavering admiration for Hawking, who in 1963 contracted a neuro-motor disease and given two years to live. He instead “went on to Cambridge to become a brilliant researcher and Professorial Fellow at Goville and Caius College. Since 1979 he has held the post of Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, the chair held by Isaac Newton in 1663. Professor Hawking has over a dozen honorary degrees and was awarded the CBE in 1982. He is a fellow of the Royal Society and a Member of the US National Academy of Science. Stephen Hawking is regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein” according to his website. So much for that death sentence.

Recently, I have found my boy hunched over one of one of Stephen Hawking’s TED Talks posted on You Tube, answering big questions about the universe, including its origins, the existence of other intelligent life forms, and the future of our own human race. The most striking words of the broadcast lecture, for me, were the ones he spoke through his highly sophisticated speech synthesizer about himself: “I have been very lucky that my disability has not been a serious handicap. Indeed it has probably given me more time than most people to pursue the quest for knowledge.” For a man who cannot walk, who cannot speak or write without the use of expensive computer equipment, he has summarized perfectly the real existentialism: that with the Mind and a purpose, no handicap is too great to survive and live our lives with meaning, regardless of inevitable suffering.

I jumped on the teachable moment and introduced my son to the late Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and neurologist who based his practice on logotherapy, or Meaning of Life theory. He has more than twelve million copies of his book Man’s Search for Meaning in print, outlining his anti-hedonist vision of the world, and how he survived four (four!) concentration camps by focusing on his life’s purpose and the love of his wife. Suffering in life is unavoidable; the attitude we take to combat the feelings that follow that suffering is entirely our own decision. Hawking beautifully exemplifies Frankl’s view, and who better to be a role model for our children?

What a beautiful gift technology has been to all of us, so that we may know of his ponderings and benefit from them ourselves. Hawking responded to a question from the audience regarding life on earth and wether or not he thought it possible that another civilization exists in our Milky Way. He said that he thought it unlikely that one does, within a few hundred light years of our own planet, as radio frequencies likely would have reached us by now. There is the possibility that one might have existed in the past and destroyed itself however. Hawking reminds us all that taking a purposeful stance in our own existence for the purposes of survival can be a whole lot more all-encompassing. He very clearly tells us that we are using up renewable resources and will have to look for ways to expand ourselves, by reaching out into space for one.

I expected my son to be disappointed that a brilliant mind discounted the theory that proverbial green men from another unknown planet are likely not to coexist with us. Instead, a hero took an entirely new form in his adolescent mind, and he sits in a wheelchair, has a robotic voice, and the blessed perspective of seeing life for what it truly is: a gift. His Area 51 sign is still posted to his door, and I expect it to stay. I also expect he’ll continue to ponder other life forms in our universe and contemplate what ever happened at the US Air Force installation in in Nevada. Still: Superman most certainly doesn’t wear a cape and a leotard anymore; but he does have some amazingly sophisticated computer equipment.