Youth is a wellspring of energy. Education should give this energy a direction without repressing it. The Tai Ji Men dizi prove that this is possible.
by Karolina Maria Kotkowska*
*A paper presented at the webinar “Who Stole Their Youth? Protests, Freedom, and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on August 8, 2023, in preparation of the United Nations International Youth Day, August 12.
In the introduction to today’s webinar, Professor Massimo Introvigne invoked the motif of the Fountain of Youth. The concept of a fountain holds not only the meaning of something from which one draws, seemingly endlessly, but also the idea of a wellspring, from where water or another substance emerges on its own. It is something active, life-giving, a source from which the elements essential for life can be drawn. This Fountain of Youth is a source of inexhaustible energy—or so at least it would seem. If youth is associated with energy in the form of a fountain, then early youth and childhood are its true volcanoes. Inner children within adults are untamed sources that years of socialization have molded according to various societal and cultural norms and frameworks, often leading to individuals being burdened with unwanted limitations on their freedom, especially when they live in less fortunate circumstances.
As a mother of two young children, I have constant contact with children’s literature. Beyond the everyday life of a parent, sometimes reading new books for children serves as an excellent lesson, reminding us of what is like to be a child, a teenager, or a younger individual with a different generational experience.
One of my favorite characters in children’s literature, who is also a remarkable philosopher in his own way, is Sand Wolf. He is a character from a series of children’s novels written by Swedish author Åsa Lind. The book narrates the adventures of a young girl named Zackarina, who befriends a semi-mythical and magical humanized golden wolf inhabiting a nearby beach. The wolf explains to her the grand mysteries of the Universe, as well as the smaller matters of daily life. He clarifies that bruises on one’s legs are medals for bravery, and also that sometimes adults do not have ill intentions, but have simply completely forgotten what it’s like to be a child.
One time, Sand Wolf asked the girl what happened to her—it looked like she had turned into a fossil. “No, but according to Mom and Dad, I fidget and kick too much—Zackarina said. —Especially at the table. —Of course! Too much!—Sand Wolf snorted. —It’s easy for them to say! They’re grown-ups and they’ve already forgotten! —Forgotten what? —Zackarina asked. —That when you’re growing up, something fidgets and kicks wildly throughout your whole body. Like po-po-po-popcorn! —Sand Wolf said. —You know it, I know it, and every tiny little tadpole knows it. But the grown-ups, they’ve stopped growing, and they’ve forgotten what it feels like! Sand Wolf gave a hop, started jumping like on a trampoline, and sang at the top of his lungs: A little human won’t sit still, like a grown-up turned to stone.”
A person who devoted a significant portion of her reflections to this inner youthful energy was Maria Montessori, one of the most renowned and distinguished educators in the world (and a prominent member of the Theosophical Society). Although she formulated her educational system almost a century ago, it remains one of the most relevant and popular alternative pedagogical systems globally, continually gaining new admirers. Montessori advocated for following the children, being attentive to their sensitive periods, and teaching subjects to which the child is most receptive and engaged in the state of flow at a given moment. Montessori recognized the natural inclination for engaging in a particular activity, the desire for independent repetition in a continuous cycle with maximum concentration. She employed these observations to develop tools that support this state.
However, what is most intriguing from the perspective of this unrestrained, yet purposeful child energy is Montessori’s concept of “horme.” In her book “The Absorbent Mind,” published in 1949 by the Theosophical Publishing House in Adyar, she wrote: “The conquest of independence begins from the first commencement of life. As the being develops, it perfects itself and overcomes every obstacle that it finds in its way. A vital force is active in the individual and leads it towards its own evolution. This force has been called horme.” The hidden essence of childhood lies within every child, containing an innate urge. Termed as “horme,” this instinctive vital energy compels the child towards self-development (self-education). This is the foundation upon which the child’s intellect is constructed. To stimulate development, it is essential for children to actively immerse themselves in their surroundings and be free to explore and interact. Development and freedom are inseparable from the very beginning of human life. [My research on Montessori’s ideas is carried out within the project “Theosophical Pedagogy: Relations of the 19th-century Project of Spirituality and the Theory of Education,” which was funded in whole by National Science Centre, Poland, grant no. 2022/45/B/HS1/02387].
In the introduction to the book, her son Mario wrote that her purpose was to unveil the distinct cognitive abilities inherent in young children. They allow them to autonomously build and firmly establish all the facets that define their human personality, within just a few years, even without the presence of educators or conventional educational tools, or in circumstances where they might feel neglected or hindered. This phenomenon stands as one of the most profound enigmas of life.
In the context of the International Youth Day, we may ask—what happens to this drive and all this energy a few years after? While the mind’s abilities are already developed and shaped, what kind of environment nurtures further development, what allows a person to grow up as a person? What challenges are faced by today’s youth? For the first question, it is easier to answer what kind of environment does “not” work well. It is implicitly mentioned in this year’s theme for the International Youth Day: “Green Skills for Youth: Towards a Sustainable World.” It is perfectly understandable why the focus is on sustainability and the natural environment. But let me also look into social environments, which of course are very different from each other.
From a report of a company devoted to online research in Poland—the Group IQS —called “The World of Young 6”—we learn that currently in Poland 75% of young people are worried about the situation in the country, 25% do not want to have a child in Poland, and 20% have emotional problems.
In 2018 in their book “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt discussed the dangers of the overprotection as a significant characteristic of today’s society. The authors looked for the sources of the situation and described the so-called Great Untruths. Amidst the multitude of erroneous theories, in order to be designated as a Great Untruth, a particular notion needs to satisfy three conditions. It must run counter to ancient wisdom (concepts found in the writings of various ancient civilizations), it must oppose the conclusions drawn from modern psychological studies focused on mental health, and it must have a detrimental impact on individuals and communities that adopt it. The mentions Three Great Untruths that have spread and dominated humanity in recent years: (1) The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. (2) The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings. (3) The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between “good” people and “bad” people.
In the Tai Ji Men case, it is evident from the outset that the social context dizi (disciples) encountered during their formative years stood in stark contrast to overprotection, as their fundamental human rights were disregarded. The current webinar’s focus aligns with the title of the book “Who Stole Their Youth?” which was first published in Chinese in 2020 and later translated into English. From this perspective, the book sheds light on the dizi’s protests against unlawfully imposed tax bills, and documents the challenges faced by Tai Ji Men members as they confront the authority of the state and unscrupulous bureaucrats in Taiwan.
However, it is worth noting that even a cursory examination of the teachings and practices, as well as the entire history of the Tai Ji Men case, show that young dizi did not become victims of the Great Untruths. It is evident that the difficulties they encountered did not lead to a stance of resignation, quite the opposite, in fact. Dozens of individuals have dedicated years of their lives to studying law and other subjects related to legal and tax reform, aiming to contribute to the resolution of the situation and to develop themselves as individuals in alignment with Tai Ji Men’s ideals, despite the immensely challenging circumstances.
Tai Ji Men teaches to listen to one’s conscience, rather than blindly relying on every arising emotion. And last but not least—although the situation of violence and baseless accusations may seem morally clear, Tai Ji Men does not construct a dichotomy between “us” and “them,” between “good” and “bad” people. Instead, it employs all available means to fight for its rights, while simultaneously engaging in continuous efforts for the betterment of humanity and world peace.
Lastly, I would invoke Sand Wolf once again, who stated that a young one would not sit still, like a grown-up turned to stone. It is to be wished that being an adult does not necessarily entail the immobility of stones, but rather the pursuit of that early source, or even a volcano, of energy. Or at the very least, that the transformation into stone when we grow older does not carry a moral aspect and is not associated with coldness and emotional detachment. Unfortunately, this inhumane coldness seems to characterize the bureaucratic apparatus of Taiwan when it deals with Tai Ji Men.