Recently, I read a good book called Do Hard Things, by brothers Alex and Brett Harris. (It also has a foreward by Chuck Norris. I know better than to cross Chuck Norris.) It’s about rebelling against society’s low expectations of what teenagers will accomplish, about what your teenage years can and should be about. I’m not quite the target demographic, but I found it a good read — and gained something from it. But today, I’m thinking about one point made in the book. They point out that the word “teenager” isn’t even one hundred years old. The idea of a period of life between childhood and adulthood is a modern invention, a recently-introduced hestitation before diving into adult life.
According to Merriam-Webster.com, the first recorded use of the word “teenager” was 1921. They’re right on that mark, though related words, like “adolescent”, have been around much longer. In any case, the point the brothers make isn’t semantic but moral. It’s less about the terms we use and more about the process we go through — or don’t go through. It’s about a question we should ask ourselves and ask about our children: are the teenage years an extended childhood or the beginning of adulthood? Are they a delay of something or a start of something?
Perhaps “adolescence” carries a different connotation, a feeling of progress, of maturing, that isn’t always implied by referring to “the teenage years”. That word has been around a few hundred years longer, and it suggests a passage from one thing (childhood) to another (adulthood). Yet the Harrises suggest that the word “teenager” has come to imply a continued childhood, a delayed adulthood, when we’re physically, mentally, and spiritually capable of great work but waste it away. (Further, we keep adding classifications, dividing life up into smaller chunks; now we have “‘tweens” before we have teenagers, before we have young adults, before we have, hopefully full adults.)
Whatever we call it, and however we split it up, there is a movement — or should be a movement — from childhood to adulthood. What does that mean? What does it mean to “grow up”?
Alex and Brett point out, rightly, that many of us are forced to confront our immaturity by a crisis — an illness, a death, a marital problem, etc. Dr. Peter Kreeft would agree, I think. In my favorite of his talks, “10 Uncommon Insights into Evil from the Lord of the Rings”, he compares us to hobbits living sheltered lives in the Shire — sheltered and no longer realizing that they are, in fact, sheltered. It is some crisis, like the war in Middle Earth, that wakes we hobbits up to the broader reality.
Is this how its supposed to work? Must we meander from childhood to adulthood through some purgatorial period of years, paying them to waste as the price to grow up? Must we remain children until the circumstances of life force us to mature — if they ever do? St. Paul tells us, at the end of a well-known passage, that “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” He was a child, and then he was an adult. He grew up — perhaps not all at once, all in a moment, but he grew up from one state (child) to another (adult). He does not say that he was a child, and then talked sort of like a child, and then went and found himself for a time, took a few years off,
Further, he tells us what it means to be an adult. He put aside childish things. He put aside talking like a child, thinking like a child, and reasoning like a child. The is a fine list to work from, to define what must change in our children for them to achieve adulthood. It is a fine list, as well, to judge ourselves, we alleged adults. Have we made that transition? Have we truly “grown up”? We have to ask ourselves these questions, as well as ask them of our children: Do I talk like a child or an adult? Do I think like a child or an adult? Do I reason like a child or an adult?
Talk like an adult
Earlier in 1 Cor 13, St. Paul says that those who speak without love are noisy gongs. If we are rude, we do not speak with love. Since God is love, and our ultimate goal is Heaven and union with God, then our goal must be love. Does that mean my speech must be saccharine and “nice”? Must it be dry and lifeless? No, not at all. Look at the examples of the saints, at the varied gifts of speaking and writing saints like Augustine, Chrysostom, and Newman. Look to the Church’s great poets, like John of the Cross and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Look to J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton. They all talked, and wrote, like adults — in the variety of what that means.
Think like an adult
St. Paul tells us that those who love also hope. Those who love are not jealous, pompous, or brooding. Those, then, are marks of adult thinking. As we become more adult, we become more in control of our thoughts and more able to direct them to the good. Must I be serious and stoic and quiet, then? Must I have no fun? Certainly not. Look at the joy and humor of those saints like Therese of Lisieux, John Bosco, and John Paul the Great. Look, also, to Venerable Fulton Sheen and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. They all thought like adults, thought deeply, but they also loved and laughed and communicated well.
Reason like an adult
St. Paul tells us that those who love are patient and not quick-tempered. They rejoice in the truth, even if they can only know partially. As we become more adult, we develop our reason and apply it — to our faith, to our families, to our work, and to our hobbies. We can patiently consider the important questions of this world and the next. Does that mean we must do nothing but study? Must we repress our emotions entirely and become computers? Not at all. Many saints were not only students of their faith but physically fit and active: Ignatius of Loyola, Joan of Arc, John Paul the Great, and Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. Must we choose between secular study and religious faith? Certainly not! Consider great religious-scientists like Gregor Mendel, Nicholas Steno, Blaise Pascal, and George Lamaitre. Faith and reason go hand-in-hand, as do the body and the mind.
When St. Paul grew up, he tells us, he put aside childish things — talking, thinking, and reasoning like a child. if we have not done the same then we are still, in some way, children, waiting to grow up and grow closer to God. We’re called by our Father to be his adult children, to use the full faculties he gave us and follow in the great examples of the saints that have done so before us. We’re called to guide our own children on that same path, help them achieve the purpose God has for them, and be with their Heavenly Father for eternity.
Copyright 2016, Joe Wetterling