By Rabbi Mordechai Burg
I was recently sitting with a group of high school seniors attending Yeshivat Mevaseret (where I teach) this coming Elul, and to get to know them, I asked them about their high school experience. One young man responded, “I can’t stand my grade. So many NPCs.” The other guys nodded along knowingly. Another from a different high school responded, “Yeah we have some NPCs, but you guys have a ton.”
It is important for Rabbeim to be relevant. As one very successful Mesivta Rebbi advised me at the beginning of my career, “The day you can’t relate to your talmidim is the day you retire.” To inspire the next generation, it is mission critical that we understand the world of our talmidim, the challenges they’re facing, and speak with them in their language. I did not know what an NPC was. Chazal say if we are embarrassed to ask questions we will not learn, so I asked them “What’s an NPC?” The chevra laughed but they patiently answered. “In a video game there are characters that you can engage with but cannot control. These characters are controlled by the computer rather than by a player. They are known as NPCs, or non-playable characters. An NPC often advances the game’s plot by citing scripted lines or assisting the playable characters. Covid was rough on some guys. They went into their room for 19 months and barely came out. They smoked, drank, binge-watched, and had little interaction with real people. When classes started back up in person, they returned to school but they had no desire to be a part of things. In between classes they just sit on their phones. They don’t really talk to anyone. They don’t want to hang out after school. They are kind of just there. They’re NPCs.”
In the 1880s, anthropologist Franz Boas traveled through the icy wasteland of Baffin Island in northern Canada. Boas wanted to study the life of the local Inuit people, joining their sleigh rides, trading caribou skins, and learning their folklore. Mentioning his observations in the introduction to his 1911 book “Handbook of American Indian Languages,” Boas claimed that Eskimos have dozens, or even hundreds, of words for snow. Language evolves to suit the ideas and needs that are most crucial to the lives of its speakers. To an Eskimo, snow can be life or death. Can I walk on this ice or will we fall through it? Developing different words for different types of ice literally saved lives. Matthew Sturm, a geophysicist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska put it this way, “All languages find a way to say what they need to say… These are real words that mean real things.”
Listening to these young men talk about NPCs, I realized that our teens had something that needed to be said and they developed a language to express it. Perhaps, like the Eskimos who differentiated between different types of ice, to them it is a matter of life and death. Teenagers create labels for separate groups of kids. The athletes. The cool kids. The nerds. The gamers. Now a new term, the NPCs- the people who are just there but contribute nothing. I couldn’t imagine the pain that these people must be experiencing. To go to school and just to exist. Not knowing how to engage with others. Not knowing how to connect and belong to a group.
I addressed it this summer in shiur in NCSY Kollel. As soon as I said the word NPC every kid started laughing. They all knew what it meant. Some kids said their grades weren’t like that. Others said they had a bunch. It led to an important conversation about the value of friendship and the role technology plays in our lives. We spoke about coping mechanisms and the courage that it takes to let difficult feelings hit you like a truck, and the danger of numbing those feelings with binge-watching and substance use. They asked “how do we know that we will be okay if we allow ourselves to feel these painful feelings? How do we know we won’t become depressed?” We spoke about what it means to have a soul- a part of Hashem that lives within us, granting us an accessible internal place that is always okay, and always enough. How it gives us an abundance mentality that allows us to courageously lean into the discomfort of painful emotions and find joy on the other side.
After the shiur one of the boys requested to speak in private. He opened up to me and told me that he is an NPC (his word, not mine). He shared his frustration of not knowing how to join with the rest of the guys. He spoke about feeling trapped in his room and having nowhere to go, and how he has numbed his pain. I listened to him carefully. We can’t solve people’s problems, but we can create a safe space for them to be their truest selves. I felt honored that he felt safe to share his challenges with me, and I told him so. It turns out that it was his first time talking to anyone about this. He has no real friends, and he doesn’t feel comfortable sharing his issues with his parents. He needs help and hopefully, he will get it.
We do not yet know the long-term impact of the Covid pandemic. I am not insensitive to the challenges that we faced. My dear grandmother passed away from Covid. It was and remains to me an indescribable loss. I do not mean to play Monday morning quarterback and criticize mistakes that were made, but we now have an opportunity to look at some of the impacts. Let’s listen carefully to our children as they share with us their experiences. Some of them are still suffering. Some of them have developed growth-hindering habits. We have an obligation and an opportunity to help them find their way. This can be a yerida l’tzorech aliyah, a descent for the sake of an ascent. Those that are suffering and receive the proper help may end up with a higher level of self-awareness and better coping strategies than those who made it out fine. Perhaps one day these teens will look back at this period and say ‘gam zu l’tova’; in the meantime, we are not yet there. Let’s at least start the conversation and listen carefully to what our children tell us. We have a lot to learn.
Internationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Rav Mordechai Burg is the Menahel of Mevaseret, Mashpia of NCSY Summer, Mashpia of Nitzotzos, author of Nitzotzos on Chumash and a senior Rebbe at Tomer Devorah and Bnot Torah Institute. His shiurim can be found on Nitzotzos.com