I came across this ineffably (my old favorite word) exciting term while flipping through a book on the founder of Outward Bound, called Kurt Hahn’s Schools and Legacy, which is written by Martin Flavin. On the very first page of the book, even before the Table of Contents, Title Page, publication information and so on, Flavin highlights “The Seven Laws of Salem,” which served as educational mantras for Hahn’s first (boarding) school, and went on to influence the rest of his many educational endeavors.
Rule #7 (saving the best for last) reads: “Free the sons of the wealthy and powerful from the enervating sense of privilege.”
Which brings up the immediate question: what is this thing, this sense, from which powerful wealthy kids need saving from? What is enervating?
The Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online) defines enervate as a verb meaning: 1. To reduce the mental or moral vigor of, [and] 2. To lessen the vitality or strength of.
TheFreeDictionary.com provides this definition of enervate: 1. To weaken or destroy the strength or vitality of.
Then they (somewhat randomly, but muchly appreciated nonetheless) provide a use of the term in a quote attributed to Henry David Thoreau: “the luxury which enervates and destroys nations.”
The idea of enervation speaks to the threat of one’s mental or moral vigor being destroyed by luxury.
Well, okay. Destroyed may be a strong word. Let’s just say the sons (and daughters – Salem was coeducational) of the wealthy risk not fulfilling their full human potential.
Rarely is attention paid to this most implicit, underlying burden of those living an affluent lifestyle. Unfulfilled potential.
But in an odd way, this problem of enervation makes sense. To be empowered, you must overcome struggle. “Your disability is your opportunity,” as Kurt Hahn put it. And while financial security is no guarantee that our complex human journeys will be worry-free, the children of the affluent are rarely called upon to overcome struggle. And additionally, are born with some level of societal power. If you already have power, and you’re not taught or expected to overcome struggle, you’re not likely to become empowered.
This lack of empowerment, this lack of fulfilled potential, only feeds back on the sense of enervation that contributed to it in the first place. Ideas, talent, passions never fully explored or engaged. Societal contributions never fully made. And “the saddest thing in life,” noted Robert De Niro’s character Lorenzo Anello in A Bronx Tale, “is wasted talent.”
A movement, be it regarding social change, economic justice or whatever, requires action, activity, activism. And enervation, by its very nature, is the opposite of activism.