Our Unhappy Youth

Many young people appear to have fallen into the most antihuman way of life that any civilization has ever settled into.

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Young people, we are told, and we have eyes to see it, are unhappy. Those in the pharmaceutical industry are aware of the vein of gold that depression has opened up, with ordinary and unhappy people plying the pickax. That shouldn’t surprise any sensible Christian, who ought to know where some measure of earthly happiness is to be found, even for those who do not know Christ.

For all we have to do is to tweak the question a little, to see what the young are confronting. Instead of asking why they are unhappy, we might ask why they aren’t happy, which might in turn lead us to ask what they have to be happy about. That might reveal to us in all its drabness what appears to be the most antihuman way of life that any civilization has ever settled into: becalmed without rest, somber without sobriety, abstracted without thought, licentious without even the animal vigor of license; ever shouting, but without good cheer.

When I was a lonely young fellow, the outdoors was a comfort to me, even in the coldest days of winter, when I would go into the woods with my dog and tramp along the old mine trails, thinking, and here and there seeing the traces of deer or rabbits on the frozen snow. In the summer, though, everyone was outdoors all the time, to play baseball or many another game; and it is impossible not to forget what you think your troubles are when you are on the mound with two outs and a one-run lead. The action is good for the body, and the play is good for the soul.

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But our young people are not outdoors doing those things. Pass by a playground and it will usually be empty. School has seen to that, as it has devoured more and more of the child’s day, and mass entertainment and antisocial media bid fair to shut the doors to the outer world and seal them tight.

I could and did play those games because there were plenty of other young people in our neighborhood to make them possible—and not only possible but almost impossible not to do. But fewer children in the home mean fewer in the neighborhood. We might say there is a critical un-mass, a sinking point, below which such an ordinary thing as a pickup ballgame becomes a thing of the past, like other social activities, such as weekly dances, regular concerts at the bandstand, town parades on the Fourth of July, and so on.

And why are those social events not everywhere we turn, so that you would have to go out of your way not to participate? What Jane Jacobs said about children and neighborhoods in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and what Jacob Riis long before noted about the youthful vigor of life in the very same New York slums he wished to clean up and reform, applies here also, because it touches upon the mainsprings of human sociality. Children bring people together who would otherwise keep apart. 

People’s interests can range all over the place, as also their education and their experiences, so that the stockbroker who reads Tolstoy—assuming that there still are such rare beasts—may have little to say to the road worker who has never heard of him; though in our time those attributes may well be reversed, since schools and colleges do their best to make reading War and Peace inconceivable. In any case, when children are about, no one ever lacks for something to say. 

We have all been children; we remember what we used to do; we can be brought into friendship, or at least an amiable acquaintance, by their being playfellows. But if that is not happening, then every house is like the Cyclops’ cave, whose inmates have somewhat better table manners than Polyphemus did, and the wisdom of John Donne is inverted, for every man is an island unto himself. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, for nobody gives a damn.

If children have their families at least, a mother and a father and maybe a sibling or two, that would be something, but consider how often it is not so. I am not only thinking of the wreckage that divorce causes to their already too fragile worlds, or even that so many of them grow up without a father in the home. This attenuation or evisceration of family life has its counterpart outside of the home; because for the first time in the history and the prehistory of man, children are likely to spend most of their waking hours in the company of people who do not love them and who, after a short time, may not even remember their names.  

Day care is, at best, an economically unavoidable piece of inhumanity, but what it does is plant in the child’s mind the expectation that most human interchanges are going to be straitly regulated and superficial. Then there are the long bus rides to school, having replaced the more human activity of walking, somewhat at leisure, with the opportunity of stopping here or there to pick up a drink at the grocery store, to play in the park, or to check in at the barber’s for a haircut—all of which are things I did when I was that same shy boy of few words. Day care is, at best, an economically unavoidable piece of inhumanity, but what it does is plant in the child’s mind the expectation that most human interchanges are going to be straitly regulated and superficial. Tweet This

And then—school itself. If you got a dozen child-haters together for the task, I doubt they could plan a (legal) form of instruction more dispiriting and more aloof to the nature and the needs of children than what is on offer at the over-large and necessarily anonymous American public school. In any institution of a thousand persons, most of the people you pass by will neither know nor care to know who you are. 

And when you enter the classroom, what are you taught? To despise your country, and to feel proud to despise it; if you are male, to despise your own sex, or to be thought hateful if you do not; to reject the past as benighted, and thereby to cut yourself off from your cultural heritage; to sneer at your parents’ religious faith, if they have any. There is no mirth and no innocent wonder in what you are given to read, but rather, political preachiness, crudity, vulgarity, and the weary sophistication of people who believe in nothing but believing in nothing, unless it is the latest political or sexual fad, twisted round with resentment, insecurity, and anger.

When you are not in school, what then? Mass entertainment? It is notable for its grimness, darkness, and noise. Well, can boys and girls at least fall in love? Not if they have learned their lessons. Girls are taught that boys are violent, dirty, and stupid; boys then find the girls to be suspicious, smug, and fickle. In any case, falling in love is presented as something at best unwise, at worst ridiculous: ambition comes first, and nothing should get in its way. But ambition, for what? A well-paying job? For what? Who has ever been made happy by ambition? Who has wept for joy at a paycheck, without anybody to spend the money for?

But though they may not fall in love, that doesn’t mean they have no sexual experiences. They do. Their souls are burnt with the impersonality of porn; or they engage in the “hookup,” staving off loneliness by what will bring more of the same, and worse; or they and their partners act as if they were married without being married, which produces, in the main, a series of emotional train wrecks, the worst conceivable way of preparing for marriage. And if a child is conceived, there is a good chance it will end up dead.

One source of ordinary human happiness after another has been spoiled for them. Then we come to the summit of life, the joy of the worship of God. Nothing in the school encourages it. Mass entertainment slanders it. If you attend a church service, you will see the same kind of sag in the ceremonies and the festivities that you see in social life, or rather, unsocial life: not many children, people dressed as if for the half-hearted, sermons that do not attempt to pierce through to the heart’s inner sanctum because, to be honest, who now has one of those?

God alone can satisfy the human heart. So, we have to shrink the heart and harden its shell, that it may appear that something else can satisfy it; something small, something dull.

Not much to sing about, and in fact almost nobody sings.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


tagged as: Art & Culture youth

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