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In La vita e Bella, released in 1997, Roberto Benigni tells the story of a man who tries to make his son, who is locked up with him in a concentration camp, believe that everything they are going through is just a game and that they should laugh about it. In the end, the child survives.
Under the same french title (It’s a wonderful life in english) Franck Capra told in 1946 why a man on the verge of bankruptcy, played by James Stewart, would be wrong to commit suicide since, if he disappeared, the fate of his family and the people he loved would be appalling; whereas if he resists despair, he has all the means in hand, thanks to the people he has helped, to avoid bankruptcy and make his community happy.
These two movies have more in common than just their French title (“Life is beautiful”); they also share the same dramatic spring: doing everything possible to prepare the best possible future for one’s children. In one, by hiding the worst from them. In the other, by visualising the worst-case scenario enough to revolt, and to base an effective response to adversity on altruism.
Today, like every previous generation, we are faced with the same problem: what do we tell children, and teenagers, about the world that awaits them? Should we tell them that the worst is likely to happen, that the climate will irreversibly deteriorate, that biodiversity will disappear, that billions of people will migrate, that terrible weapons will appear, that communities will turn against each other, with nothing we can do to prevent it, as James Stewart believes? Or, on the contrary, are we going to hide all the risks from them, to make them believe that everything is fine, that the signs of disaster that children have access to through the media are only unimportant incidents, as Roberto Benigni would have his son believe?
All generations in the past have been confronted with this dilemma. And those who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, explained to their children that the coming century was going to be entirely magnificent (which was likely) led, by their inaction, to the worst century in human history, because they had failed to foresee its pitfalls.
And even today, blissful optimism and resigned pessimism are unacceptable. But there is a third way, more realistic, more educational and more useful.
To explain it to children, we must start by explaining that we are not facing a tsunami that nothing can stop. We are facing an enormous challenge that is still within our reach. And to do this, we must start by using the example of football or another team sport to explain to them that we are not like spectators at a match, who can be content to be pessimistic or optimistic about the team they are supporting. But that we are players in the game of life. And that an optimistic player, like a pessimistic player, is certain to lose, because he thinks that the fate of the match does not depend on him. To have a chance of winning, you have to understand that the match is not a foregone conclusion, study the strengths and weaknesses of your team and the opposing team. Then play as well as possible.
In the same way, in the real world, you must be neither pessimistic nor optimistic. You have to know what the reality is, and decide what to do to make it better. Therefore, we must not hide anything from adolescents about the evolution of the climate, nature, injustices, violence, and the capacity of human beings to do evil. But without making them despair by letting them believe that the game is already lost, that the disasters are irreversible. By showing them at each stage what needs to be done, so that the adults of today, and later themselves, can change the course of history. And this is indeed the case today: the trends are disastrous, but not yet irreversible. Many things are still possible. Many things still need to be imagined, invented and brought together to reverse the course of history. And to adapt to it as best we can.
Faced with this diagnosis, some of these young people will deduce that they need to become engineers, to look for technological solutions; others will think that they need to become politicians, to redirect the course of decisions that they find insufficient; others will conclude that they need to become activists in associations, more or less radical, to raise awareness. All these attitudes are admissible. The only one that is not is that of the spectator, blissful in front of the beauty of the world, or paralysed by the storms of history.
As in Benigni’s movie, one will fare better if one believes that a happy ending is still possible. As in Capra’s movie, we will succeed if we create the conditions for collective action.