Thursday, November 23, 2023

Youth Problems Part 1: Double Jeopardy

“I wouldn’t want to be a teenager today!”

I hear that a lot. And I suppose there’s something to it. It’s not easy going through those vulnerable transitional years today.

But then it’s never been.

It’s a really unnatural stage of life. Today, we may take it for granted; but we are losing touch with just how irregular, how unhealthy and how bizarre it really is. That’s because most of us were raised through a socialization process — including urban economic life, mass schooling, post-secondary training, late induction into adulthood, and so on — that took it for granted. We are out of touch with just how developmentally weird it really is.

A Recent Innovation

According to Western University sociologists James Côté and Anton Allahar, the “teenage” stage of life is an invention of the modern period. Before that, children were generally raised by their parents and introduced to the trades of their fathers or the domesticity of their mothers in a gradual way, taking on household, trade or agrarian responsibilities as they grew, and becoming full adults by every important social measure (education, marriage, home, career, children) by the late teenage years or early twenties.

As Wendell Cultice has written:

“In a sense, there were no teenagers in early America. That is, there was no easily identifiable group of young people of certain ages who acted, dressed and spoke in ways that were markedly different from those of other age groups. It was not uncommon for boys and girls to be married at age 16 or younger, and as young married people, they were expected to act as adults.”

The whole concept of “teenagerdom” or “adolescence” is really a fiction, a construct produced by extending the period of childhood dependency to extraordinary lengths, and by putting off the time of adult responsibility longer and longer. Nowadays, a young person can expect to be treated as a sort of long-term adolescent, minimally-responsible, unmarried, financially limited, in-training and socially adrift until she is about 28 and he is nearly 30.

I don’t know why we’re surprised when young people don’t do very well at that, or surprised that when they come to the end of their long “on-hold” period, many decline to adopt the social commitments and moral responsibilities of adulthood. We’ve trained them out of it, and they’ve learned their lessons well.

The Double Dilemma of the Young Christian

If I can speak only for myself for a moment, I think it’s fair to say that my pre-adult years were largely marked by a profound sense of moral failure.

Now, I’m not saying I was the most evil among my peers — I couldn’t possibly suppose that. I don’t think the issues with which I struggled were any greater than those faced by most Christian young people of my day — and perhaps they were easier than those of today’s teenagers. After all, in my day most families stayed together, careers were fairly available and predictable, and things like consumerism, pornography and media distractions were nowhere near the levels they are today. Nor did I fall into some of the extreme sins of my peers. By the grace of God, I skipped a lot of that.

But I remember being a failure a lot. Or thinking about how I was.

Making Heads or Tails of It

Failure struck me on two levels. In church, I was never “the good boy” (nor really tried to be most of the time, I confess). I had an enthusiastic inclination to undermine any authority I saw as arbitrary or hypocritical, no tact, little restraint, and very little fear of punishment. And my love of practical jokes and pushing the line kept me in trouble even when the rest of these things did not. I was not wise, not moderate, and sometimes not particularly kind. Not really a sterling Christian character, I’m sure you’ll agree.

But I had my reasons too. There was little to attract me at the church our family attended. The ethos there was controlled by the much-older, who seemed to me preoccupied with lofty, “spiritual” delights I found difficult to feel at all. I was bored by most services, uninterested in their values. They seemed to love things that just looked arid and tiresome to me — old hymns, long preaching, damp handshakes and gliding about in business suits. I could never be them … and couldn’t learn to want to.

So as a Christian I knew I was a failure. The oldsters who ran that show would not want people like me around. Of that I felt quite certain.

Besides, there was nothing for me to do.

The Flip Side

My experience of the other six days of my week, living among the unsaved, was in some ways the opposite.

I was far too restrained and different from my secular peers, especially when it came to their sizable appetite for conformity, foulness or experimentation. I did not run riot with them into drugs or sex, and did not conform to their values. They quickly sensed my distance and interpreted it as disapproval — which they hotly resented. Consequently, in the beginning, my friendships were short and few: relationships, even shorter and fewer. I fought a lot, lost many and won some. Either way, it wasn’t fun.

Later I got better at dissembling. I learned how to keep my spiritual compass in a back pocket. By choosing my words, friends and situations carefully, I could often avoid running into the areas where I would be brought to difficult moral decisions. I could distract or fade back at the key moment, and get out if I needed to. So I made more friends then. After all, I was nervy enough to entertain them, loud and strong enough to impress them, and somehow also not a competitor to them for the “resources” they sought.

Meanwhile, I watched my secular peers run into the various “joys” of young people growing up, not so much envious of them (I had been conditioned to know they were really damaging themselves, a conviction quickly confirmed by experience) as overwhelmed with a sense of emptiness … there was something for them — it wasn’t much, but it was something. But there was nothing for me. I could not participate in their growing-up rituals.

This much I remember: as a secular child, I was a failure.

In short, I was a failure in both worlds … not by choice, of course, but because being a Christian spoiled me for this world, while being a human being caused me to lack those things I was told were “the joys of the next”.

I wasn’t an eager believer. I wasn’t a gleeful sinner. I wasn’t a servant of the Lord’s people. I wasn’t a wastrel. I wasn’t a worshiper. I also wasn’t a worldling. I was no good at either thing, really.

Double Toil and Trouble

I thought of all this when I was reading A Better Story, by Christian psychologist Glynn Harrison. He speaks of “a double jeopardy of shame”. Our teenagers, he says, struggle with feelings of shame on two fronts: in the church, they are told that they are suspect beings possessed of base, carnal urges — not necessarily just sexual ones (though those are foremost in the telling of that tale, of course), but also longings to explore the world, longings for a group of friends, longings for a life-partner, longings for a sense of personal direction in life, longings for material things, longings for answers … and so on. All such longings are (according to the theology taught or modeled to them) to be mistrusted, suppressed or redirected in the interest of “spiritual” values, which seem to the young person to be — if not arid and distant, at least so abstract and high-level as to be difficult for him or her to feel.

But still, the teen or young adult is told he or she is to be passionate about these “spiritual” things, and to be stoical about refusing all the urges that actually put fire in his or her bones every day.

Meanwhile, all the things they are supposed to value are very, very hard for them to sustain. (Indeed, in terms of brain-development, there are many young people who are not even at the physiological stage where they have the mental hardware to conceptualize such high-level abstractions properly.)

They would find it much easier to get excited about their spirituality if there were far more they could do: more challenges, more action, more risks, more fire, more daring, more that offered them leadership of their own spiritual lives and of those of their friends.

But there’s not, really. Church attendance is, for the most part, low-key, passive, cerebral, ceremonial and … boring. And pretty much, that’s the core of the “Christian” life, so far as they can see. How does one get enthused by that? There are Young People’s groups, of course; and some do work. But you have to be lucky to get one of those. You can’t expect to see the all the alpha males or the full range of desirable females there, even those from your congregation.

Life will remain larger outside. And you will be stuck inside.

So shame comes very naturally. Our young people are instructed to regard all the vibrant stuff as really unredeemable, and to suppress their attraction to it. But total suppression is very, very hard.

What to Do?

Now, given that our topic is “double jeopardy,” I hope you’ll forgive me if I “double” the post, and continue this subject next week. I’m not crazy about two-parters either: but this is a big topic, and one about which we haven’t done a lot of thinking lately.

Besides, next time I’m not only going to try to talk sensibly about what we can do about all this; I’m actually going to talk about that three-letter word …

Yes, that one.

We need to think about what this means on a more intimate level.

I hope that doesn’t leave you in suspended animation.

Oh, and the topic next Thursday is Life in Suspended Animation.

Y’all come on back now.

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