From the Blue Whale Challenge to the Blue Whole Challenge
In the last few weeks, the online game called the Blue Whale challenge has triggered consternation and alarm as it has prompted several teenagers in India and the world over to commit suicide. In this online game, some unknown, often untraceable, moderators challenge kids to do various unpleasant and self-injurious tasks such as marking their bodies with knives. And in the last such challenge, they ask the kids to commit suicide. Shockingly, several students have seen ending their lives as a worthy challenge – and have killed themselves.
Our need for validation
Most sane people will wonder, ‘Why would anyone accept such a foolhardy challenge?’ Unfortunately, the foolhardy doesn’t seem foolhardy to us during our vulnerable adolescent years, when we are desperately seeking some sense of identity that helps us feel good about ourselves. As we are social creatures, we need validation and affirmation from others. In spiritually evolved cultures, this need is channeled constructively by encouraging people to do good things for getting validated. For example, children who want their parents’ validation are encouraged to avoid bad habits and develop goods ones. As they grow into adulthood and get married, then they are encouraged to seek validation by taking care of their family responsibly. Overall, all sustainable cultures have systems for constructively channeling the basic human need for validation by encouraging people to act responsibly.
Among our life’s various stages, the stage of adolescence makes us especially vulnerable because during these years our source of validation changes significantly. Indeed, our sense of our very identity changes. Children are defined as the son of so and so or the daughter of so and so. But as they grow to adolescence, their identity enters into a zone of transition and uncertainty. They are not yet adults with their own degrees, jobs and social positions – all of which would comprise their defining identity. And yet they are too grown up to be satisfied by identifying themselves solely as their parents’ children. Because they yearn to have their own identity, they become achingly vulnerable to the influence of their social circles. Whether they seek validation through studies, through other constructive co-curricular or extracurricular activities, or through self-destructive indulgences – this is determined by the social circle they identify with.
Validation in the Internet world
Nowadays, our social circles have become largely digitalized, at least for those living in urban environments, and especially for the younger generation. In today’s hi-tech world, people feel validated if they have large number of Facebook friends or if their Instagram photos get a large number of likes. In an Internet-centered world, the areas from which people can seek validation have expanded drastically. This change is not always bad – the need for validation can be channeled either constructively or destructively.
As examples of constructive channeling, many people seek validation by contributing on various online forums. Some people write and edit Wikipedia articles; some answer questions on Quora; some offer technical advice on Apple Discussion forums. Most such forums have a whole system of hierarchy, whereby those contributing more get a higher rank. And that rank becomes a significant part of the contributors’ sense of identity and self-worth, thereby providing them their needed validation. Thus, even in the hi-tech world, the human need for validation can be channeled constructively when people share their knowledge and help.
However, during teenage years when we don’t have much substantial knowledge to share, the need for validation can make us vulnerable to destructive influences – such as the Blue Whale Challenge.
Social media’s promise of both space and connection
What further misdirects the need for validation is the subtle and not-so-beneficial effect that social media can have on our psyche. Social media, its name notwithstanding, can make us quite asocial, disconnecting us from those around us.
We human beings have two relational needs: the need for connection and the need for space. The need for connection impels us to relate and reciprocate with others. The need for space impels us to retreat into solitude, as when we tell others: “Just leave me alone.” In most people, the need for connection is far stronger than the need for space. However, if connection has led them repeatedly to frustration, they may become like relational touch-me-nots, who see distance from others as vital for their emotional safety.
Social media allures by promising us both space and connection. When we are clicking away on our devices, we are not involved with the people around us, thus making us feel that we have our space. But simultaneously, because we are communicating with people through social media, we feel connected. Actually however, we may be getting neither space nor connection. The notion of having space is often an illusion because everything we do online is tracked and traceable – what we have is not privacy, but the illusion of privacy. And the connections we develop online may be very superficial – how many of our Facebook friends will be our friends in need is questionable.
Amidst such a social media culture that fosters physical isolation while promising digital connection, people feel increasingly lonely. They seek to connect with and get validated by anyone, even strangers who challenge them to do difficult things. Validation from people unknown to us becomes especially appealing when we don’t feel validated from people known to us. Nowadays, people are increasingly afflicted by loneliness. Hundreds and thousands of people may be crowded together in metropolitan cities, but they are alone because they are all busy clicking away on their devices, connecting with someone somewhere else and seeking validation through that connection.
Amidst such an isolating techno-centric culture, the loneliness that characterizes urban societies becomes aggravated, all the more so for kids. Their parents are often not readily accessible, being busy with their careers. Even when parents make time, kids feel that their parents’ generation’s way of thinking differs drastically from their generation’s – so, their interactions with their parents often remain formal and superficial. Do kids feel a sense of belonging among their own generation? Not really. Though they try fervently to belong to their generation by conforming according to peer pressure, they still feel insecure among their peers. After all, they are often engaged in intense competition with their peers for marks, looks and partners.
Seeking validation through dangerous actions
While seeking validation, some people feel, “If I can do something difficult, something dangerous, then that will prove I am someone worthwhile.” Many traditions have provided channels for people seeking validation through dangerous actions – channels such as death-defying sports. In the Greco-Roman Empire, there were matadors who would fight bulls and would risk getting gored, trampled or even killed. If despite such danger, they could fell the bull, they would be feted as heroes.
In modern times, that spirit of seeking validation by courting danger is seen in living-on-the-edge sports. People climb atop huge mountains or jump from helicopters. And in a world of digital socialization, that tendency to seek validation through dangerous actions can impel vulnerable teenagers to accept challenges to do something difficult, even if those challenges are offered by some stranger.
Teenagers are desperately in search of an identity that makes them feel good about themselves – so, challenges to do difficult things can easily turn them on. When that challenge asks them to hurt themselves, they get a perverse sense of specialness in the thrill of doing something difficult. Driven by the desire for that thrill, they do self-hurting things that they would otherwise never have done. Gradually, they end up trapped, subjecting themselves to bad feelings at a physical level to get good feelings about themselves at the social media level. Eventually, this distorted idea of feeling bad to feel good can propel them to a nadir. At such a psychological low-point, they become desperate to demonstrate that they can win the Blue Whale Challenge, even if winning it requires them to kill themselves.
Healthy channels for self-validation
For kids, parents can be natural channels of healthy self-validation. But with the world changing so fast in the last few decades, kids often tend to see their parents as hopelessly outdated, as utterly disconnected from the world they live in. While such a generation gap divides every parent-kid relationship, the division for today’s generation is not just psychological but also technological.
Undoubtedly, parents need to bridge this generational gap and strive to act as their children’s’ friends and guides. They can aspire to become authentic and authoritative parents who explain things to their children, not dogmatically, but experientially, drawing from their own life-experiences. Still, they can’t control their kids totally. After all, those kids have their own free will, and they will use it in the way that makes the most sense to them, even if that way is nonsense.
With today’s hi-tech world offering everyone so many avenues for using and misusing free will, the best service that parents can do for their children is to provide them healthy sources of self-validation. The healthiest such source is connection with the indwelling guide of all living beings, God. Gita wisdom explains that we are at our core spiritual beings, eternal parts of God. And it reveals God to be an all-attractive, all-loving, all-merciful, all-powerful, all-wise person, Krishna, who cares deeply for us. No matter what bad things happens to us or even what bad things we do, he never abandons us. Understanding Krishna’s unfailing, unflinching love for us gives us a stable sense of inner validation. If the Gita’s basic teachings are presented accessibly and appealingly to kids, they can have in their connection with the divine a powerful negativity-dispeller and perspective-restorer.
Undoubtedly, this connection with the divine can’t be just intellectual – it needs to be facilitated at social and practical levels. As kids are significantly shaped by their social circles, spiritually responsible cultures strive to provide their kids a circle of spiritually inclined peers. In such a social circle, they get validation by deepening their philosophical conviction, by strengthening their spiritual connection with Krishna and by finding satisfaction in the growth of their devotion to him. When they seek validation thus, they practice bhakti-yoga diligently, thereby getting better realization that they, as souls, are parts of the Whole who always loves them, who always cares for them, and who never abandons them. With such realization, and within a spiritual culture that provides such realizations, they feel positively validated and can reject destructive forms of self-validation.
At a practical level, we need to help our children relish bhakti activities customized according to their level – as in devotional art, music, dramas, picnics and projects. If they can thus relish the sweetness of bhakti and understand this sweetness to be a glimpse of Krishna’s love for them, they will be better equipped to resist whatever negative channels for validation that the world might allure them with.
The Blue Whole Challenge
In the bhakti literatures, God, Krishna, is revealed to be a bluish-black cowherd boy. He is the whole, and we are His parts. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna offers his philosophical-yet-pragmatic message for living and working – and concludes with a challenge (18.63): Deliberate deeply on the Gita and then do as you desire. Through this call, he invites us to rise to spiritual wholeness by harmonizing with the whole, as he emphatically declares a few verses later in his call for surrender (18.66). And the Gita climaxes with an assurance of ultimate victory for those who muster the courage to surrender (18.78).
We could say that bhakti wisdom offers us a Blue Whole challenge. Therein, the blue whole, Krishna, challenges us to bring out our best. He exhorts us to live in harmony with our spiritual essence and break free from the inner negativities that block our movement towards such harmony, thereby doing justice to our potentials. To discover and develop our talents in a mood of devotion and then to express those talents in a mood of contribution – that is the most uplifting way to get validation; and that is the essence of the Blue Whole Challenge. In this challenge, our need for validation is channeled constructively and fulfilled deeply through our internal connection with our source and through the external contribution we make in a mood of service.
The Gita (15.07) cautions that if we don’t learn to live in harmony with Krishna, we end up allured by anything that our mind and senses may present – allurements that often make us struggle and suffer. The Blue Whale challenge exemplifies an extremely destructive direction in which our mind may drag us in our pursuit of validation. Most of us will not succumb for such a patently self-destructive challenge. But as long as we seek validation in anything separate from God, we embark on a course of life that hurts our spiritual potential, a milder Blue Whale Challenge of sorts. We may seek validation through alcoholism or workaholism or wealth accumulation. Even if some of these ways of validation are not so destructive, even if they are socially respectable, still they keep us alienated from Krishna, who alone can provide us enduring fulfilment.
Instead of seeking mundane validation, if we turn towards Krishna by understanding our spiritual identity and practicing bhakti-yoga diligently, then we can find meaningful and enduring validation. And so can others, being inspired and guided by our example. Thus, by accepting the Blue Whole challenge to live in harmony with the Whole, we can protect ourselves and our loved ones from various forms of Blue Whale challenges, be they lethally malignant or mildly malignant.
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