This week has a dark significance: it is the time of year, statistically, when the most suicides take place; and the majority of those suicides are related to depression.
Depression is on a sharp rise in the West, increasingly afflicting our young people -- and young men in particular. Several conversations with friends this last week have centered on what we -- as writers, as artists, as members of geographic and artistic communities -- can do to support younger generations to grow into lives that are mentally healthy, balanced, grounded in values beyond the marketplace, and connected to the physical, natural world, to the numinous, and to each other.
Art plays a role in this, of course, for the imagery we put out into the world helps to shape it, for good or for ill..and each of us is responsible for our small part in the collective creation.
"Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for compentence, for joy," writes Ursula K. Le Guin. "This need continues as long as the mind is alive.
"When children are taught to learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.
"Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts," Le Guin continues. "We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.
"Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people -- Hmong, !Kung, Hopi, Quechua, French, Californian....We are those who arrived at the Fourth World.... We are Joan's nation.... We are sons of the Sun.... We came from the sea.... We are people who live at the center of the world.
"A people that doesn't live at the center of the world, as defined and described by its poets and storytellers, is in a bad way. The center of the world is where you live fully, where you know how things are done rightly, done well.
"A child who does not know where the center is -- where home is, what home is -- that child is in a very bad way.
"Home isn't Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn't where they have to let you in. It's not a place at all. Home is imaginary.
"Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can't get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it -- whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.
"All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people....What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow us freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.
"Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.
"Reading is an act of listening."
The passage above comes from Le Guin's 2002 essay "The Operating Instructions," which I recommend reading in full. You'll find it in her excellent new collection Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books, 2000-2016 (Small Beer Press, 2016).
* Danuta Kean's recent article "Library cuts harm young people's mental health services" (The Guardian, January 13, 2017)
* Jane Yolen on the value of fantasy in "Children, reading and Tough Magic" (Myth & Moor, August 26, 2016)
* My own thoughts about early storybooks in "The stories we need" (Myth & Moor, February 25, 2016)
* Jay Griffiths on children and nature: "In the forest, the child. In the child, the forest" (Myth & Moor, June 11, 2015).
The text above is from "The Operating Instructions," a talk given at a meeting of Oregon Literary Arts in 2002, and reprinted in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). All rights reserved by the author.