It’s tough to be young. In a recent column, Rory Appleton asks us to ease up on criticizing youths. He’s right. Rents are rising and job prospects are limited. Political dysfunction, terrorism and ecological disaster haunt the world that our youths will inherit. Meanwhile, we elders gripe and grumble about their music, technology, fashion and work ethic.
The older generation can’t – or won’t – understand the culture and attitudes of the young. Nor can we seem to get out of their way. Or keep our mouths shut.
Old folks have always lamented the moral failings of the young. Plato criticized Athenian youths. Seneca complained that Roman youths failed to restrain their impulses.
Each generation also regrets its own adolescent indiscretions. The 25th Psalm begs, “do not remember the sins of my youth.” Augustine rued the restless turbulence of his own unbridled youth. We project our regrets onto our children, hoping they will not make the same mistakes we have made.
I have been thinking about this while reading David Brooks’ new book, “The Road to Character.” Brooks is a New York Times columnist and PBS regular. He will speak at Fresno State on May 10. His book outlines a path to moral maturity while providing critical insight into American culture.
Brooks is nostalgic for a time when people were more interested in their souls than their résumés. He thinks that fawning parents have spoiled today’s children by incessantly telling their kids how “special” they are. He laments a narcissistic culture in which shallow self-esteem floats free of depth of character. And he dwells upon the idea that virtue must be built with great effort from the crooked timber of the human spirit.
I don’t agree with everything he suggests. But Brooks does offer perennial wisdom about a meaningful life. Work hard. Don’t crumble with adversity. Find a calling. Devote yourself to others. Be modest and disciplined. Find redemptive assistance from outside yourself. Accept the gifts of grace with gratitude and humility.
Maturity is the final step on the road to character. Brooks explains, “a mature person possesses a settled unity of purpose. The mature person has moved from fragmentation to centeredness, has achieved a state in which the restlessness is over, the confusion about the meaning and purpose of life is calmed.”
I’ve been discussing the book with students. Some feel Brooks unfairly picks on their generation. And like Rory Appleton, they generally worry that moralistic old codgers don’t understand their plight.
It’s never easy to be young. Nor is it easy for old people to stop pontificating. Old folks feel that we know something about life and its meaning. But we forget that life is an adventure to be lived.
We want to save our children from regret. But young life is impetuous, audacious and experimental. Dynamic young people run and leap down the road. Sometimes they stumble. But failure is part of the process.
Young people need to make their own mistakes. Regrets and failures provide the soil for success. Maturity is a great gift. But it only grows out of the school of hard knocks.
Of course, youths won’t heed our sage advice. Hindsight only develops after the voracious eyes of youth grow dim. And wise words from graybeards don’t resonate in young ears. To age with grace is to allow the young their day in the sun.
The fruits of each season are unique. An unbridled elder is an embarrassment. But a prematurely sober child is tragic.
The glory of youth is carefree enthusiasm and reckless abandon. The exuberant joy of innocent adolescents is something to savor. Too soon, life’s cruel necessities require sober maturity.
Mellow moderation grows from the scars and callouses of life. Eventually life demands discipline, humility and acceptance. But there is no need to rush on the road to maturity.
To youths, I offer this apology: We preach because we love you. We know the challenges you will face in the world we created. If we could spare you tears and regrets, we would. Take our advice when you are ready. And when we finally get out of your way, I hope you make us proud.