Teens face real life -- yet flourish
Last Saturday night, I dropped our 14-year-old off at a youth fireside and dance. The event was a half-hour away from home, and with my wife off in California for the weekend visiting our older daughter, there was no point in my driving home, doing nothing for an hour and a half, and then driving back.
So after grabbing a bite to eat, I came back to the dance and stayed. I meant only to read a book till it was over, but instead I went to watch what was going on.
It surprised me how many of the kids I knew. It shouldn't have.
About half of them had been in stake and ward plays I've directed. I've taught some of them in priests quorum and knew many others because they're friends of my daughter or students in my wife's seminary class, or because we're friends with their parents.
The dance and fireside were at an outdoor pavilion, with picnic tables on the periphery, so nobody was awkwardly sitting against a wall. Some kids were carrying on conversations, not even looking at the dance floor; others were watching.
Some were running around acting like, well, kids, which at their age is not only permissible but desirable. Some hovered around the DJ's table.
Sometimes the dance floor was packed; sometimes nearly empty. Sometimes everybody on the floor was dancing. Sometimes they were broken up into conversational groups, with only a few dancing.
I saw one brother and sister that I knew well from a different context -- they were "band kids," playing instruments, and also church athletes, valuable to many a basketball team. What I had never known was that they were very good dancers, and had obviously practiced together.
I watched a young man that I knew had a deep crush on one of the Young Women -- but he was dancing with many different girls through the night, fulfilling our bishop's admonition that the Young Men make sure that the Young Women all have a good time and enjoy coming to dances.
I watched kids that I knew were painfully shy reach out and socialize, despite their fears. I watched kids who were popular not using their social power to hurt anyone -- instead, they were actively including everyone.
These are good people, I thought. Every single one of them that I know, I love -- and more than that, I have good reason to admire them all.
I watched the adults who hovered around the edges, setting out food, cleaning things up, making sure that the kids stayed where it was safe, where they could be seen. I knew most of them, too, and felt confident that when my daughter was with them, she was well looked after.
And yet ...
I knew the terrible temptations these young people are faced with. The ugly lies the world tells them, the false promises of illicit pleasures, the ridicule they are exposed to because of their faith. That pavilion seemed to me to be an island of light in the darkness.
And I thought back on the stories my parents have told me about their own teenage years.
They grew up during the Depression, then faced the looming shadow of war inEurope and the Pacific. Eventually most of the young men went off to war, and many never came home. The young women watched them go, and many of them lost their sweethearts.
That was a generation that had learned, in the depths of the Depression, that the moment you could get a job and earn money, you had to do it so your family could pay rent, eat, buy clothes.
When there was no money, you learned to eat whatever meal was offered you, and without complaint. You wore the same clothes year after year, and accepted hand-me-downs or pass-alongs when you could no longer fit in the old clothes.
When you worked, you worked hard. You showed up on time, you never missed a day if you could help it, because there were twenty or fifty other people who wanted that job.
Your family might lose the big house and have to move into something smaller -- but you were glad to have a roof at all.
When you went to high school, you studied hard. If you were among the lucky few who could go to college at all, you did all you could to earn a scholarship, and you expected to support yourself through school by your own labor.
I had always thought my parents had it hard -- and they did.
But they also had it easy.
Most dates were chaperoned, at least at first, and even when they weren't, nobody could afford to drive cars, so anywhere you went you were on public view. And the society around you made it clear that they had contempt for people who couldn't control their sexual desires. Almost everybody was working together to help you stay chaste; there was no social penalty for doing so.
Drugs? Most kids never heard of them. Clothing? It was all modest. Pop music? It wasn't all "Three Little Fishies" or "Mairzy Doats" -- but even the naughtiest pop songs were squeaky clean by today's standards.
The kids in the 1930s and 1940s were living real lives. They weren't "on hold" -- the choices they made, the work they did, it all counted.
And I found myself thinking about how the world today could so easily change. Right now, we might be seeing the beginning of a plunge into a new worldwide Depression. I hope not -- but what if it happens?
We're already fighting one war -- but there are larger, more terrible wars that we might have to fight, regardless of who is elected President.
A nuclear Iran. An insane North Korean leader. This newly aggressive Russia under a KGB-trained dictator. A Chinese government with a deeply imbalanced population which, if there were a depression, could only be controlled by sending the surplus male population off to war. We don't know but what this generation of young people might face wars even more desperate and terrible than my parents' generation did.
I would not wish for any of these things for these young people. Yet I knew, looking at them in this island of happiness, that if they had to face such things, they would handle them well.
And, when it came to living the gospel, being good people, valuing things that actually have lasting value and not the ephemera of fashion and transient desire -- wasn't it possible that hard times might come to them as a blessing, helping them to find their way to a more godly life?
Right now, our society postpones adulthood later and later.
In American culture today, most of our children don't commit to marriage until after their first three children should have already been born.
Having fun is regarded as the most important occupation of youth -- because we have shaped our society so as to keep our children away from work that matters. Real life can't begin until they finish college. Or graduate school.
I thought of the cycle of behavior in the Book of Mormon. When the people prospered, they became proud and persecuted the poor. They wasted their substance on frippery. They ridiculed those who chose to live righteously. Like American society as a whole right now.
But when their enemies came upon them, when they lost their lands and possessions -- my, how it focused their attention back to things that mattered.
Wickedness is a luxury, a parasite; it thrives on excess and breathes the air of idleness.
I looked again at these kids that I knew so well and loved so much, and I realized: The hard times my parents lived through actually helped them.
I have awe for that "Greatest Generation" and would never wish their trials on anyone.
But the young people at that dance had somehow managed to keep their hearts clean, and their lives focused despite the fact that almost everything in the surrounding culture fought against righteous choices.
You take the world you're given, and make the best of it. You overcome whatever obstacles you must face.
The struggle is always heroic. And the life you lead is always real.
Copyright © 2008 by Orson Scott Card
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