Surviving Time: Aboriginality, suicidality, and the persistence of identity in the face of radical developmental and cultural change

НазваниеSurviving Time: Aboriginality, suicidality, and the persistence of identity in the face of radical developmental and cultural change
Дата конвертации01.11.2012
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Surviving Time: Aboriginality, suicidality, and the persistence of identity in the face of radical developmental and cultural change.

Michael J. Chandler, University of British Columbia

Christopher E. Lalonde, University of Victoria

Bryan W. Sokol, Simon Fraser University

Darcy Hallett, University of British Columbia

Running head: Surviving Time


The cross-cultural program of research presented here is all about matters of temporal persistence—personal persistence, cultural persistence, and even our own persistence over the past decade at tracking the different developmental routes that culturally mainstream and Aboriginal youth take toward understanding their own changing identities. The crux of our argument is that, on threat of otherwise ceasing to be recognized as a self, all of us must satisfy at least two conditions. The first of these is that selves are obliged to keep moving or die, and so, must continually change. The second is that selves must also somehow remain the same, lest all notions of moral responsibility and any commitment to an as yet unrealized future become nonsensical. Chapter I is devoted to unraveling this evident paradox of “sameness-in-change” and summarizes the various theoretical positions that others have taken on this well-worn philosophical chestnut. Chapters II-V, by contrast, turn to the empirical nitty-gritty of laying out our own research efforts—both old and new—at understanding how ordinary adolescents deal with this heady problem. Specifically, Chapter II describes a method for parsing what young people have to say on this topic into two distinct forms of reasoning—Narrative and Essentialist—each with its own set of increasingly complex strategies for warranting personal persistence. In Chapter III, we demonstrate that developmental failures in self-continuity are strongly associated with increased suicide risk. Chapter IV measures this same relation between continuity and suicide, this time at the macro-level of whole cultures, and shows that efforts by Aboriginal communities to preserve their culture are associated with dramatic reductions in rates of suicide. Finally, in Chapter V, we present evidence that Euro-American and Aboriginal cultures promote different approaches to the problem of personal persistence, with essentialist strategies favored by non-Native youth, and more narrative means by Native adolescents.

DRAFT VERSION: Please do not quote or distribute without perrmission


Time passes. Listen. Time passes. (Dylan Thomas, 1954).

This monograph is all about identity development and the paradox of personal and cultural persistence1 in the face of inevitable change. It is also all, or almost all, about “First Nations people”2 (or what some, assuming innocence, still call “Indians”), and what causes the young among them to so often take their own lives. But more than anything, it is about “continuities” (continuities of the self, of others, and even of whole communities), and how it is that young people—both Aboriginal and not—regularly work to understand themselves as surviving time in ways that guarantee a past and a future they can live with and count as their own. All of these enigmatic and often heart-stopping matters (about personal persistence and youth suicide and cultural continuities) are large-scale—too large to easily fit in this, or even in several monographs. Faced with this room shortage, we mean to hold ourselves to an account of just three such puzzles, only two of which are about killing one’s self.

The first of these problems, the odd one out, turns on the classic paradox of sameness and change. Here it is. We are doubtlessly all works in progress, forced by the temporally vectored nature of our public and private existence to change, often a mile a minute. We, as Cratylus suggests, are the rivers that can never be stepped in twice—maybe not even once (Kahn, 1979). Still, and just as certainly, we must, if we are to qualify as recognizable instances of what selves are ordinarily taken to be (Cassirer, 1923), find ways to interpretively over-ride at least some of these changes by finding ways to make each of the distinctive time slices that together form the archipelago of our life somehow count as belonging timelessly to one and the same person.

Understanding ourselves and others as in some way continuous is not, as we will work to demonstrate, some elective “feature” of selves that can be taken up or left alone, but needs to be seen instead as a “constitutive condition” of their actually coming into being (Habermas, 1991). What is constantly changing, yet necessarily the same? All this sounds far too much like one of those riddles you must solve before being allowed to open door number three. Nevertheless, more or less everybody does solve it, often again and again. The open question is: how do we all do it? How, fickle as we all are, do each of us ordinarily succeed in counting ourselves only once? The answer, as our research aims to show, is: in more and sundry ways than you likely ever imagined possible. Even if we only manage to be clear about this—our major challenge—by successfully lining out how young people (of different ages, and different cultures) successfully negotiate and negotiate the problem of their own “numerical identity,”3 that would be something. That would be a lot. As it is, however, stopping just here is not an option. It is simply not possible to take the proper measure of young people’s various successes in solving the problem of sameness within change without also considering the likely nature and costs of their possible failures.

Problems two and three are both about these costs (the personal and the collective price) of failing to get question number one right, and about death incarnate. In particular, question number two—puzzle number two—turns on the well known fact that adolescents and young adults, who are never the same two times running, are especially at risk of dropping the thread of their own continuous existence. One particularly heart breaking consequence of such failures is, as we will argue, the alarming frequency with which teenagers and young adults both attempt to, and succeed at taking their own lives in numbers that are out of all proportion—by various counts, at rates anywhere from 3 to 300 times those characteristic of other age groups (Meehan, Lamb, & Saltzman, 1992). The numbers we can compute. What we don’t understand—what boggles the mind—is how they could actually bring themselves to do it. How, with the promise of all of life’s potential sweetness full upon their lips, could they, our children, throw away their lives and all of our futures, often over seeming trifles that (should they somehow succeed in surviving to tell the tale) will later be judged to scarcely matter? Suicides, especially youth suicides, almost never seem to make sense. We collectively mutter and shake our heads, heartbroken and unable to understand. The promissory note that we mean to hold out here, in the face of all of this confusion, is that, if we just manage to get clear enough about young people’s changing conceptions of personal persistence, then we will also have gone some important distance toward better understanding why they so often kill themselves and we don’t.

What ties the notion of personal persistence to the problem of youth suicide, as we mean to demonstrate, is that, without some means of counting oneself as continuous in time, there simply would be no reason to show appropriate care and concern for one’s own future well-being. When we, as adults, contemplate our own demise, the dead person that we ordinarily imagine on the floor is us—wonderful us. Young people, it too often happens, are not like that. Rather, handicapped by an inherently transitory sense of their own personal persistence, once cut free from a sense of kinship with the person they are en route to becoming they often lose the thread that tethers together their past, present and future, and, like high altitude bombardiers, kill themselves anonymously and without appropriate self-interest. At least this is the thrust of some of the research to be reported here, which explores the relation between individual and collective efforts to achieve a workable sense of self-continuity or durable identity, on the one hand, and suicidal behaviors in both culturally mainstream and aboriginal youth, on the other.

Our third and final puzzle is much like the second, and differs mainly in that it concerns the special catastrophe of suicide among the world’s Aboriginal youth. In Canada, where our own research has been conducted, First Nations and other Aboriginal youth reportedly take their own lives at rates that are said to be higher than that of any culturally identifiable group in the world (Kirmayer, 1994)—rates closely matched by their Aboriginal counterparts throughout the Americas (Resnik & Dizmang, 1971) and beyond (Carstens, 2000). But where, you might well ask, is the surprise, let alone a puzzle, in that? Who now belatedly fails to understand that it is really we, who savaged them? In the wake of centuries worth of genocidal practices and publicly endorsed programs of ethnic cleansing, few are likely to be especially caught off guard on learning that many Canadian and American aboriginal youth simply judge life no longer worth living. No, the real surprise and the real questions arise in response to the mind-numbing size of the actual body count—the sheer amount of blood on the floor. How, we want to know, did things get this far out of hand? How did it come to pass that, for so many, death is the preferred alternative? How, despite what are meant to pass as contemporary good intentions, did we collectively manage to shoulder our way past places such as Bangladesh or Rwanda, or even Afghanistan (places that, as we imagine them, seem even more beyond hope or decent human prospects), to capture the number-one spot in this dark competition? Again, our plan will be to make the case that problems in negotiating a sense of continuity (not just personal but also collective or cultural continuity) lie at the heart of this third enigma. At least, as our research is meant to show, whole Aboriginal communities that have succeeded, against mounting odds, in rehabilitating their badly savaged cultures, not only apparently salvage their past and harness their future, but, along the way, manage to successfully insulate their youth from the risk of suicide as well.

Though getting to some conceptual place where even provisional answers to each of these deeply puzzling life and death questions might be found is part of where this account is meant to be going, early talk about youth suicide—whether at the individual or community level—is neither the right rhetorical place to begin, nor the place where the research we plan to detail either got its start, or means to end up. Out of desperation, professionals do, of course, sometimes blindly undertake to predict or, even prevent all without a workable differential theory of their genius. Actually making interpretative sense of youth suicide is, we suggest, an entirely different matter, one whose success is almost certainly dependent on situating such self-destructive acts in their proper developmental context.. That is, what needs to be understood first, we mean to argue, is how most young people ordinarily succeed in surviving the ravages of time with their identities still intact, and so wouldn’t attempt suicide if it killed them. If we understood this—if we get a better conceptualization on the changing procedural means by which developing persons ordinarily manage to own their past and commit to their own as yet unrealized future—then there would be grounds for some hope of making real sense out of those exceptions to the more general rule who find their own lives cheap and not worth living.

This, at least, is how our research began more than a decade ago. Then, like now, we wanted to know how young persons—first from this culture and later from that—gradually succeed in joining their elders by subscribing to and successfully defending the ordinary conviction that anyone who lacked a proper temporal horizon, and so failed to see his or her life as automatically stretching forward and backward in time, would fall into incoherence, and end up failing to show proper care and concern for their own past and future well being. In short, our research started, as this monograph will start, with “Puzzle One.” How we got from seemingly benign “here,” to a cross-cultural “there,” awash in a sea of youth suicides and the “deconstruction” of whole Aboriginal cultures (Nader, 1990), is most of what needs explaining.

We mean to go about all of this by working our way through a series of five “talking points” that are each taken up as separate chapters in the pages that follow. As a sort of preview, then, to these main themes of our research, here, in brief, are the matters that we mean to speak to in turn.

First, and as a way of beginning, we mean to say something synoptic about what is usually intended by talk about self-continuity or personal persistence, and to try and make clear why obeying what the philosopher Owen Flanagan (1996, p. 65) calls the “One Self to a Customer Rule” is an obligation that one reneges on only at her or his own peril.

Second, we will: a) lay out the methods and procedures that we eventually came to in an effort to measure young people’s assumptions about their own and others’ continuity or personal persistence; and b) present some generally straightforward developmental findings that spell out how rank-and-file young persons ordinarily grow in sophistication as they repeatedly try to solve the problem of their own personal continuity in time.

Third, and for reasons that we will be at pains to make clear, failing to negotiate some workable way of grasping one’s own personal persistence can cost those who do so any real sense of responsibility for their own past, and any real, heartfelt commitment to their own as yet unrealized future. Here we mean to illustrate these prospects by turning attention to the grizzly problem of youth suicide, and by demonstrating how unresolved problems in the ordinary process of warranting a sense of personal sameness can help in accounting for the otherwise poorly understood epidemic of suicidal behaviors known to occur during adolescence.

Fourth, because there are good reasons to presume that matters of persistence exist at both individual- and group-levels of analyses, we undertook a still building epidemiological study that examines, not personal continuity, but cultural continuity in British Columbia’s Aboriginal Communities. Here we mean to report out on a portion of these data that relates the variable success that different Aboriginal communities have had in trying to preserve or promote their own cultures, and the frequency of youth suicide in their communities.

Fifth, and finally, we will turn our attention to the comparative study of the developmental course of identity development in Aboriginal, as well as non-Aboriginal youth, and provide details of our ongoing efforts to characterize the distinctive self-continuity warranting practices, not only of young persons from Canada’s “cultural mainstream,” but also from two First Nations communities.

Chapter I: The “One Self To A Customer” Rule

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