The Wonder Years? Teenagers?
By Fr. Paul Robinson, SSPX
Doubtful. Introverted. Irritable. Moody. Uncertain. Rebellious. Reclusive. Insecure. When one utters the word teenager, the mind cannot fail to travel beyond the bare notion of a chronological period in one’s life to a stereotyped and psychologically defined world. And that world is not a pretty one. Getting children over the hump into full-fledged adult life is one of the most difficult challenges parents face.
The concept of the teenager with its pejorative connotation is a gift to us from the modern world. In the Latin language, for instance, we find words for the childhood years (puer) or the time of youth in general (juventus and adulescens), but no homo [adult man—Ed.] teenager. Dr. David Allen White identifies Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the first teenager as teenager to appear in a literary work. The play was penned around 1600. So the question naturally arises: Where did this creature, this cultural phenomenon, come from? And what defines him? A precise answering of these questions will be an effective step in helping parents help their teenagers “find themselves” and get going in life.
Uncertainty: the defining characteristic
Rudolf Allers, a pre-Vatican II Catholic psychologist and author, delves into the teenage psyche in his book Forming Character in Adolescents. He points out that the adolescent is keenly aware that he is neither child nor adult, but rather a curious mixture of both. Unlike the child, he is painfully self-conscious, suddenly deeply confronted with his own individuality and facing the grand questions of life that such a realization brings. Children are blissfully dependent and secure in that dependence. They live outside of themselves, unconcerned with identifying or individuating themselves. The teenager, on the other hand, has awakened to the immense spectrum that life proposes–social, political, eternal–and realizes that he as an individual human being needs to have a sure-fire game plan in order to situate and safely position himself in this world.
On the other hand, the teenager is by no means an adult. The child does not care about the problem of life; the adult has (hopefully) answered it. The teenager is between the two. And the immensity of the problem is as terrifying as it is uncertain.
We all know what it is like to face a necessary task with little or no idea of how we are going to get the job done. The more all-embracing this goal is, the more it weighs upon us. If the goal is immense and we see many obstacles and difficulties in the way, strifes and struggles, suffering, sacrifice, blood, sweat, and tears, we easily become paralyzed. Should I advance with the left or the right foot? But what if this happens or that happens? There is no way that I am going to succeed! This is going to hurt! But I have no choice; I have to find a way!
Having a plan and confidence in the success of that plan is one half of the road to getting the job done. Without a plan, we remain frozen. If there is no map, there is no journey. With a map, even if the road leads over mountains, chasms, and cliffs, there is no uncertainty.
Even with a strategy, however, there is one more ingredient necessary for success, and that is courage. It is like a man standing on the high dive for the first time. The goal is clear and the means is well-defined: jump! But how many get to the top, look down, stand there for five minutes, and then descend. The goal was difficult and daunting, but the route was completely laid out. What was lacking? The courage to take the plunge.
Now the teenager is facing the biggest problem imaginable: the problem of his existence. It is a new problem, awakened by his physical maturation, which is taking place at an alarming rate, and the realization of this problem is expanding, not contracting. Its complexity and immensity become more evident as the days pass.
The Redemptorist Fr. Henry Sattler highlights the colossal forces churning within the teenager in his book Parents, Children, and the Facts of Life:
Growing up to be a mature adult is the chief problem of adolescence, for adolescence is a time of in-between. The individual feels he is no longer a child, and yet he is not grown up. He wants to take his place among adults and yet feels inadequate to the task. He is attempting to push away all parental props, to take his first steps alone and unaided; and at the same time he feels the need of his parents more than ever. He is beginning to look around and see the world and its problems for the first time. Getting along in a social world has taken on new importance, and many a youngster wonders whether he is secure in the esteem of his friends or even of his parents.…
Adjustment to the fresh, bewildering, turbulent, changing reality of the world is made even more difficult by the fact that the adolescent himself is changing rapidly. Not only does the world about him seem to change every day, but his point of view is changing as fast. His body alters and grows rapidly. He hasn’t the muscular coordination he had a short time before. He is suddenly clumsy. His emotional capacity is growing along with his ability to grasp and penetrate the meaning of things. He hardly wakes on two consecutive days feeling the same individual. Picture someone trying to keep his balance in a room when the walls and floors are moving, while his legs have lost their responsiveness to his brain. This gives a fair image of the plight of the adolescent, who cannot feel confident of either the world around him or himself."
In short, the major problem of adolescence is its uncertainty: life is huge, I have to live it, but the number of unanswered or insufficiently answered questions is legion. Without the guidance to find the answers, the humility to accept them, and the courage to implement them, the teenager has recourse to the inadequate and destructive solutions with which we are so familiar: running away from the problem by rebellion, seclusion, self-gratification, and the like. Instead of getting on his way through self-development, often the teenager undergoes spiritual atrophy and, in the worst case scenario, all too common today, remains a child for the rest of his life.
The recognition of this fundamental teenage characteristic is a first step toward helping him:
Nobody can ever hope to understand the adolescent mind, and even less to influence it somewhat, unless he is fully aware of the fact that uncertainty is the very basic feature of this age."
A gift of the modern world
But we know obviously that the transformation from childhood to adulthood, both physical and spiritual, has existed from the beginning of time. Why then have not ages past seen fit to isolate the teenage phenomenon? Why has the Anglo-Saxon mind seen it necessary to create this word and the connotation it evokes? Where were our pre-historic teenagers, our Biblical, Egyptian, Roman, and Greek teenagers, our Dark Age teenagers, our medieval teenagers?
Well, teenagers are defined by uncertainty. Certainty comes from conviction, and conviction comes from God, country, and family, the three great sources of authority and stability that are meant to plant a young man in the unshakable ground of reality and enable him to face it and live it. Most civilizations of the pre-modern world provided, in some way, a national religion with a system of beliefs and a strong national authority, whether embodied in one man, as an Egyptian pharaoh, or a body of men, as the Roman Senate. Most of them upheld, again, in some way, the traditional family structure and familial authority. The path for the youth of such civilizations was fairly clear cut, being delimited and directed by societal norms that were completely unquestioned.
The strength of medieval Christendom in this respect is striking. It portrayed authority at all levels as loving and caring by always associating it with fatherhood and motherhood. God, the Pope, the king, the parish priest, and the mayor were all set forth as fathers, while Our Lady, the Church, and the queen were portrayed as mothers. Beyond his immediate family, a child found security in these extended familial figures, and their authority and what they represented provided a healthy pressure to conform to a standard of morality and right living. In not conforming, you did not fit in with the entire societal structure. This made becoming a troubled, uncertain teenager an aberrational route to take.
In today’s modern countries, that route is hard to avoid, for this reason: the proximate and remote sources of all stability, authority and truth, are denied our youth. Firstly, authority. The authority of God has been cast off by separation of Church and State, the authority and identity of country by pop-culture and unbridled capitalism, and the authority and integrity of the family by divorce, abortion, same-sex “marriages,” promotion of “free love” and the like. Authority today is not seen as protecting, but is portrayed as tyrannical, suspicious, to be questioned. Modern television revels in making fools out of parents and teachers.5 Homer Simpson, the brainless parent, and his clever, hip son Bart, make a perfect example.
Children today are pushed into insecurity by being pushed into a pseudo-liberty that leaves them all alone and defenseless, with no answers but the ones they provide. It is like going out to fight on the battlefield of life naked and weaponless, untrained, unfit, and far too young, without any help. Children need and naturally want the security that comes from authoritative guidance and direction, but usually are not provided it either because they have no stable authority in their life or that authority does not believe in the exercise of authority. Meanwhile, society screams that this God-given source of security is not to be trusted.
The modern world is faring no better in providing teens certainty through truth. In education, today’s schools follow the model of Rousseau (1712-88), who taught that the ideal formation of Emile does not impose on him any social constructs or objective truths, but rather guides him to follow his inner self in all situations. Truth comes from the student and from nowhere else. Children taught on this model will not only be spoiled brats, but will also be slamming continually against the brick wall of objective reality, which contradicts their subjective “truth.” Such constant slamming makes for a very troubled life.
More fundamentally, the sane philosophical principles which give credence to our God-given mode of truth-knowing have been completely cast off. Man’s perception of reality itself is not certain. It all started with Descartes’s (1596-1650) assertion that we could not trust the data of our senses to know the reality around us. The objective outside is uncertain, while the subjective inside is not: “I think; therefore I am,” not “There is a tree; therefore it is.” Instead of turning outside of self to submit to God-established reality, we turn inside to self-established illusions, waverings, and uncertainties for our entire vision of the cosmos. Creating a universe of truth within one’s fallen self is so impossible a task that no man can fully undertake it without losing his mind.6
Philosophical thought succeeding Descartes went beyond the claim that reality is uncertain to say that reality does not exist! There are no such things as essences, stable natures which separate one class of corporeal beings from another, that enable man to know with certainty what is outside of him. It is interesting that Romano Amerio makes this tenet of modern philosophical thought the cornerstone of his analysis of the modern world in Iota Unum:
The crisis of the modern world consists in rejecting natures or essences, and in believing that man can give essences to things, as well as giving existence.
So modern man rejects God’s objective reality outside of him and embraces a subjective “reality” of his own making within him. This “reality” is ever-changing and has no more certainty than the pride and blindness the individual man can muster.
The end result for today’s teenager runs something like this:
Joe Teenager: Life is scary! There are so many things for me to figure out and resolve!
Parents: Don’t worry, son, we are not going to interfere with your freedom. Just get in touch with the way that you feel, your inner self, and use that to answer all of life’s problems. Meantime, we will keep feeding you and giving you everything you want.
Society: Don’t trust anybody or anything in solving your problems, Joe, not even your own eyes! Any outside help is a restriction that will keep you from finding the “real you.” Do what thou wilt.
The first teenager
Perhaps a further illustration from Shakespeare’s Hamlet will help to make all of this clear. Our hero has been attending the university at Wittenberg, the town where Luther set into motion a rebellion against the objective authority of the Church to replace it with the subjective authority of one’s own person, notably in the interpretation of the Scriptures. Evidently, young Hamlet is being fed a healthy dose of philosophical doubt, as he seems no longer to trust anything that his senses tell him. The only thing left that he truly believes in is his love for his beloved Ophelia. Writing to her from Wittenberg, he says: "Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love."
Ophelia, who knows if the stars are shining (objective) or the sun moving (objective, at least from a perspective)? Heck, who knows if anything taught or learned is true? The only thing I am sure of is my (subjective) love of you.
Then, when Hamlet comes home upon his father’s death/murder, he finds that love itself is not set in stone either, as his own mother Gertrude has so quickly forgotten her love of his father, which Hamlet believed to be as real as his own love for Ophelia, as to contract an incestuous marriage with his uncle Claudius in less than a month. So Hamlet and Ophelia’s mutual love is dubious. Then Hamlet’s father appears and commissions Hamlet with avenging his murder at the hands of Claudius. But Hamlet cannot trust the ghost, so he has to test his message. Then Hamlet’s best friends Rosencrantz and Gildenstern betray him, and his uncle Claudius plots his death.
Bottom line: there is nothing certain in this life, nothing that can be trusted. Everything is in doubt! Something is rotten in the state of Hamlet’s mind, and he spends the rest of the play living the life of a tortured teen, wavering between action and inaction, despair and hope, atheism and belief.
Teenager = Natural Upheaval + Social Insanity (– Family Help)
Today’s youth have nothing to anchor them; they are set out to sea without oars or sails and told this is wonderful freedom. Without the moorings provided by a sane society, they swim in a dark sea of uncertainty with no plank to grab onto. In reaching adolescence, they undergo rapid physical and spiritual changes. They become aware of the huge challenges that life poses on the one hand, and, on the other, the fact that family and society are not going to “interfere” with their resolution of those challenges. It is in combining these natural changes that man has always undergone with the unreality in thought and praxis of modern society that we find ourselves in the presence of our modern stereotype, the teenager.
Fr. Paul Robinson was ordained in 2006 and is stationed at St. Mary’s Academy and College in St. Marys, Kansas. There he is a professor and chaplain to the St. Joseph Businessmen’s Association among other responsibilities in the parish.
1 Henry V. Sattler, Parents, Children, and the Facts of Life (New York: Image Books, 1956), pp.148-49.
2 Rudolf Allers, Forming Character in Adolescents (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, 1940), p.16.
3 In general, the Church surrounds one with family. If you’re a living member of the family Church Militant, Church Suffering, Church Triumphant, you’re in great shape, you’re secure. Pope Pius XI asserts in Quadregesimo Anno that to accomplish the common good, it is required that “the constituent parts of society...deeply feel themselves members of one great family and children of the same heavenly Father.” In general, Protestantism eliminates groups and reduces everything to the individual: find your own way in life, your own way to heaven, your own way to truth. Beyond your immediate family, no one cares about you in a familial way: angels, saints, guardian angels, poor souls, Church leaders, governors, employers. Today we have a Protestant world and family suffers terribly from it.
4 To just give one statistic: according to the Wall Street Journal of June 14 , out-of-wedlock births are at 38% for the nation, 28% for whites, 50% for Hispanics, and 71% for blacks.
5 Nickelodeon just recently went to 24-hour programming for children. The May 2008 Southwest Airlines magazine contained an article by a father who tried to watch 24 hours straight to see what they were showing. Analysis: these shows undermine my authority as a father. Contradictory conclusion: Only let my children watch 1 hour a day, instead of 4.5 hours like the rest of America!
Modern man does not recognize that his very subjective existence depends on objective truth. Adhering to this truth he receives essential nourishment; not adhering to it, he receives nothing, and dies.” Romano Amerio, Stat Veritas (Madrid: Editorial Criterio-Libros, 1998), p.82.
“We may also observe that if man were really and seriously to doubt the veracity of his organs of knowledge he simply could not live. Since every action or abstention from action is an act of trust in that veracity, action and inaction would alike become impossible. A man therefore who attempted to carry out in his life the thought truth is impossible for me would inevitably lose his reason. Nietzsche, who was a great poet but regarded belief in truth as the ultimate bondage from which the world should be delivered, made the experiment to his cost.” Jacques Maritain, An Introduction to Philosophy (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), p.80.
7 Romano Amerio, Iota Unum (Kansas City: Sarto House, 1996), p.421.
8 The analysis of Hamlet which follows is taken from the ideas of Dr. David White in a conference given to seminarians on the play in 1999.
9 Act II, Scene 2.