I wrote this article for The Be Zine whose November issue was dedicated to “At-Risk Youth”.
Under the light of the half moon, David Attenborough speaks to the camera on Christmas Island, surrounded by a moving mass of red crabs. Tens of thousands of crawling females, heavy-laden with hundreds of fertilized eggs, are approaching the high tide in order to release their burdens into the surf. The water turns reddish brown as a surge of life heads out to sea. Millions, no, billions of little babies are set adrift. Enormous whale sharks cruise the waters nearby, ready to feed. Sir David explains that the hatchlings will spend one month in the water before returning to land to move into the forests and begin their lives as adults.
That’s probably not the first picture you conjure when you hear the phrase “at-risk youth”, but it’s the one that came to my mind. It may not be popular to approach this topic from a biological standpoint, but there is a meaningful truth in this perspective. If the “risk” you are referring to is death, that is something that youths face as much as anyone. Death is certain for all of us, and no one is guaranteed adulthood. The human species, however, is far from the threat of extinction. Our population is dominating the globe, in fact. So, “at-risk youth” is not about the peril of the demise of our race. I believe it is much more about social and behavioral dangers than biological ones. This is where we can be optimistic. We can create and control our societies and our behaviors much more readily than we can our biological tendencies.
What does it mean to “survive” to adulthood in our society? How do we measure the success of childhood? Certainly benchmarks in health, education, safety, justice, self-reliance and freedom come to mind. We set standards and often cast about for whom to blame if they are not met. Aren’t our children entitled to these milestones? Are they goals to strive toward if not guaranteed rights? And what about the risk of “merely” surviving?
My youngest child is now an adult. She has survived the death of her father. She has survived self-destructive behavior due to depression. She has survived being institutionalized in the mental health care system. She has survived living in the third largest city in this nation, finding a job and supporting herself. She has survived coming out as queer and has proudly announced her engagement to another wonderful young woman. Her survival of everyday panic, anxiety and body-image crises is chronicled in her Facebook updates. While all of this is great success that I do not mean to diminish, I keep wondering, “Is the mere survival of the hazards of our society the best our young people can hope for?” My daughter is highly intelligent. She is a naturally talented singer and dancer. She is passionate about history and poetry and science. I fear there is a great risk that these traits may remain embryonic throughout her lifetime because she is so focused on navigating social pressures – in a culture that is probably the most economically and socially privileged one on the planet!
That our systems erect road-blocks to social survival and detour our young people from paths of true greatness is a profound risk, I believe. Read the poem “The Truly Great” by Stephen Spender. I get to this stanza, and I am openly weeping.
“What is precious is…
…Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.”
We can so easily provide food, shelter, and opportunity to our youth with the systems we have devised, but those systems have become mine fields where kids are sabotaged on the journey. We have become so enamored of control that we have hobbled love and freedom and self-worth, and our young people will always be the most vulnerable to that constriction. Their symptoms are obvious. They are fighting to survive amid an abundance that mocks spiritual destitution. The Dalai Lama commented on his first visit to America that the thing that surprised him the most about Westerners was that so many suffered from a sense of low self-esteem. He’d never heard the term up until then, but everyone he asked agreed that it effected them.
Our young people have the best advantage for living long biological lives. If they are to live good, happy lives as well, we all must take responsibility for creating caring social space within our psyches and our communities. We need to nurture and model the spirit of social justice from the ground up AND from the top down. We need to encourage and not criticize; we need to live as models, not as victims. One of my favorite examples of a person who dispels social danger with kind communication is Fred Rogers. He takes time; he is present; he sees truth and speaks love. Here is an excellent illustration of that. And a great example of modeling fairness and social progress from the top down can be found in this video about the new Prime Minister of Canada.
We will never be finished addressing the social risks facing our youth. They will be new every moment. If we take up the challenge to face each of those moments with awareness and a commitment to justice and kindness, though, we can be confident that we are living out the remedies even as problems continue to arise.