Sunday, May 8, 2011

What do I want to be when I grow up?

We are told that it is the natural order of things that teenagers are brooding, rebellious, confused, or unhappy. It's a "natural stage" of life. There is not a scrap of evidence supporting this idea. It would be more accurate to say that it is not uncommon for an adolescent to be brooding, rebellious, confused, or unhappy in our society

Think about what being a teenager means today. First off, you've hit puberty and have a huge of amount of hormones coursing through your body. We're told that that is essentially what is making kids act badly, but isn't it more sensible to recognize that the combination of having a new-found sex drive and not being able to have sex freely is a crazy-making and frustrating situation? We're not allowed to have real conversations with adolescents about this fact. We can say, "Abstinence is good" or we can disagree with that, and have the "make sure you love the person you're having sex with and don't forget to use protection" discussion that most open-minded mothers have with their daughters. There's nothing inherently wrong with either position, but neither involves a true, honest discussion of what it means to be a sexual being. I suppose having that discussion would be impossible, for most people haven't a clue. We are such a confused society. For the sake of public health, ex-surgeon general Jocelyn Elders suggested teenagers masturbate. For that good suggestion, she was fired. 

We also believe that these are facts, and that "facing the facts" is one thing that makes  growing up so painful:
We will lose our idealism, if we have any.
Our dreams will likely be shattered.
Our innocence will be lost.
There will be no more play time.

I'm not saying that adolescence isn't a time of transition. It is. Indigenous cultures have always had rites of passage for those going through or entering this period of life. What are our rites of passage? Hmmm. Losing one's virginity (in secret). Going to the prom. Taking an SAT test. Getting drunk for the first time (see "losing one's virginity"). Learning to drive. Throwing one's graduating hat into the air! 

Phew. These things are all invested with a lot of meaning. 

Here's some questions that adolescents might be asking themselves or others:*

Does life have meaning?
What is my purpose in life?
Can I ever feel loved or be able to love?
Do I want children?
Will I be ever be able to fit in (or why do I fit in but other seem unable to)?
Can I pursue my dreams, or do I have to give them up?
Is giving up my dreams a prerequisite for becoming an adult?
Is it mandatory to give up my youthful optimism?
If I don't have youthful optimism, am I depressed? 
Why am I  afraid? 
Is there a God?

I could go on. That's my quick list. Oops. I forgot both"What do I want to be?" and "What do I want to do for a living?"**

What if we honored these kinds of questions instead of dismissing them as the stuff of adolescence? When we dismiss them, we are saying that asking the essential questions of life is silly. These are the imperative questions of being a human being. What if instead of sending kids who ask these questions off to a college where they are continued to be told to stop asking these questions (unless they're philosophy majors), we allowed kids to go on a healthy retreat, spirit quest, or just spend a couple of years thinking, and being, and trying stuff out.***

No, we only say this: It is good that you stop asking meaningful questions. You must become like a machine. Machines don't question their function. 

Anyone who says the above risks sounding paranoid. No, I don't think there's some conspiracy to turn us into machines. It's a metaphor. 

We are indeed being forced to live in a mechanized fashion. If we break down, we must and can be fixed. Everything we use and live with is a standard size, no matter what size we are. Our educations are standardized, as if we were all machines who can be programmed in the same manner. A friend recently said her "operating system was different than the standard." Oh, that was apt! It would be considered just plain stupid to try programming a Mac with the same code as for Windows, but we think that all children can be taught in the same way. If not, they have something wrong with them. Isn't it odd that we take a less nuanced view of programming children than we do of computers?

*These are crucial questions, and, by definition, asking them constitutes a crisis. Yet, we minimize this, for instance, when in middle-age, often people who are transitioning once again have a "mid-life crisis." A mid-life crisis is the stuff of comedy. Any crisis worth the name, such as a "crisis of faith," is one we move through, and hopefully come out on the other side a little bit wiser.

**What do I want to do for a living? The fact that I hadn't even put that on this list until I spell checked this is telling. I'd venture to guess that these are the two questions most people have, but the questions that are usually posed are "What can I do?" and, sadly, "What can I tolerate?"

***Those of previous generations when life wasn't so expensive got the opportunity to do this, if they wanted. So have the children of those with wealth. This makes me want to segue into my next blog entry, which is imagining a utopian future, but I'll hold off. . .

Afterward: My last entry was about minimizing, and I see that this one, too, is essentially about the same thing. We minimize the transitions in life. I paused for a moment and thought, "Well, there's weddings, and. . .", but no, even weddings have been minimized. If we took these as seriously as what marriage is meant to be - the vows we make, "I take you to be my husband, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, until death do us part. . ." How many people really believe this, and understand what taking a vow means? We give more thought to what gown we'll wear, what food will be served to the guests, and where we'll honeymoon. Of course we do. We are not encouraged to seriously think about anything. All our rituals have become rather like a trip to Disneyland. It's not a real place. It's a fantasy facsimile of a place. Why aren't kids jumping up and down at the idea of going to Paris or seeing the pyramids?

Well, it's safer to go to Disneyland. There, one can see fake pyramids, which are just as good as the real thing, and not have to figure out how to negotiate being in a Foreign Place, where people speak a Foreign Language, and maybe eat Real Foreign Food, not an Americanized version thereof. Oh, I forget - you can meet a cartoon character! Who on earth would want to travel to a place to meet real people?

Oh, yes, I'm having a good rant!

What on earth was I talking about?


I suppose that traveling to sanitized versions of real places is part of minimizing. We minimize all of life's possible experiences. 

Well, I've run out of steam. This is the kind of post I usually stick in the drafts folder and forget about. Instead, I'm posting it. If there's at least one sentence here that resonates with you, then it's fine. I'm never going to be a coherent writer, and yet I'm still going to keep writing. If I was a great writer, and a great thinker, I'd have an editor. Since I'm just whatever I am (a verbose ranter, I suppose), this is what you get. 

After the afterward: I once went to a writing workshop where the topic turned out to be "How to Turn Off Your Internal Editor." We were encouraged to write as quickly as possible. I realized that I had no internal editor. I remember writing, "Help! Please, somebody, get me an internal editor!" I wrote pages and pages of nonsense. One thought leads to another, down the garden path, out the door, into another neighborhood, around a corner, around the bend, and to the great beyond. . .