Counting the Cost…or Not

If you happen to be the hero of a folk song and your mother gives you a warning, you had better listen to your mother, or you will soon be dead. Don’t take your guns to town, son—and Johnny, tae the green woods dinnae gang, for crying out loud.

I’ve written before about how the part of the brain responsible for good judgment is the last to mature in a young adult. There’s nothing very startling in this; it’s pretty much self-evident. But some months back I heard something else on the subject that really gave me pause.

Generally speaking, older people think in terms of risk, and younger people think in terms of reward.

On the surface, there’s nothing very startling here either. Of course older people think in terms of risk; we’ve lived long enough to experience the repercussions of ill-advised behaviors. Pain and regret are good teachers. When you’ve seen firsthand how things can go horribly wrong, you tread more lightly next time around. They don’t call it the School of Hard Knocks for nothing.

But here’s the thing that really caught my attention. For a younger person, it’s not so much that he underestimates risk; his assessment of the risk of a given course of action is actually pretty accurate. He just values the reward more.

Youth doesn’t count the cost. It ventures all, spends the wad, stays up all night. It beats its fool head against any of a number of obstacles until at last, bloody and bruised but unbeaten, it reaches the prize—or not. It is lavish, extravagant, and far better grounded in clear-eyed realism than is commonly supposed. Whether we call it passionate or merely foolhardy depends largely on whether or not it succeeds.

Obviously we can’t all live that way all the time, or like Jock o’ Braidislee and Billy Joe, we’d all soon be dead. There is much to be said for circling the wagons and protecting what you have. But middle age is sometimes a little too quick to undervalue and upbraid youth’s impetuosity. The best course isn’t always the one that looks the most prudent, and what we call wisdom may be fear or indolence in disguise. Inaction or calcification can kill you just as dead as a gunfighter’s bullet or a forester’s arrow.

For all that, I don’t think youth and middle age have to be at odds. Maybe the truth is that we need each other more than we admit.

Waiting To Be Asked

It happens more and more the older I get. Someone—usually someone young—is muddling his way through some difficulty or other. He hasn’t confided in me, but I have a rough idea of what’s going on. And he’s floundering. Not because he’s lazy or bad, but because he lacks experience and wisdom. He jumps to conclusions based on insufficient information, creating rifts that might not heal. I watch, and wait, and wish. I’m not exactly Solomon, but I have managed to pick up enough wisdom to navigate these waters. I know I could help—if only I were asked.

Sometimes it’s right to step up and intervene without being asked. Usually it’s not. Forcing a confidence is like helping a baby bird out of its shell: you can’t succeed without destroying something. The advice loses its value when presented unasked-for; the frame of mind isn’t right, and the words fall on stony ground.

So I stand and watch, mute and effectively powerless, hands tied by my own resolution not to barge in where I’m not wanted, wishing I could communicate without words that I’m not the enemy. It’s not merely that I can help; I want to help, I’d be thrilled to help. It would delight my soul to know that this person thought well enough of me to ask, that he trusted me, that he gave me a chance to make a difference for good.

Isn’t this the heart of God towards his children? Blind and bewildered, we stumble for lack of direction, and all the time he’s waiting eagerly to give it—if we would but ask. We often think of wisdom as something remote and inaccessible to ordinary mortals, but God offers it freely. Proverbs 8 pictures wisdom as a woman standing in a public place, crying out to any and all to listen and learn. God is compassionate toward our weakness; he doesn’t reproach us for not having all the answers already, and he encourages our feeblest sincere efforts. I love Isaiah 42:3: A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.

Seems like everything that makes me sorrowful teaches me something about God…

Of Passion, Patience, and Strawberries

So it turns out that the part of the human brain responsible for good judgment is the last to mature in a young adult. This is both reassuring and terrifying. Reassuring because it explains so much; terrifying because teenagers are so…well-equipped. Watching them make decisions is like watching Curious George fly a Learjet.

Things were simpler when my kids were small. There was so much about their environment that I could and did control, though always with a view to readying them for future independence. We’ve raised them to believe God’s Word, honor his statutes, trust his providence, and guard their physical and emotional purity. So far, so good; I’ve seen promising results. But ultimately they will decide for themselves, and already the period of transition is here. They spout their own opinions, make big purchases, go places without us. In a short time, they won’t even live under our roof. They could do anything.

Just now I seem to be surrounded by teenagers—my own three, plus hosts of others in whose futures I take a friendly interest. I find I’m a lot more sympathetic to young love than I once was. I don’t know whether I’ve become mellow or merely soft, but whatever it is, it probably has something to do with all that romance writing.

I feel a metaphor coming on…

Last spring we grew strawberries. It’s backbreaking work and I don’t know if we’ll do it again, but we got a decent crop and learned a lot. Did you know that most commercial strawberries are picked when drastically underripe so they can be shipped without spoiling? Few of us have tasted a strawberry as it should be. I was in my twenties before I learned that strawberries are supposed to be red all the way through. The only ones I’d ever seen were faintly reddish on the outside and white on the inside. Letting the fruit ripen on the plant gives it a rich, jewel-like color and a wonderfully developed flavor.

When you grow your own, you can let them get as ripe as you please. But it’s hard to wait. You see the berry on its delicate little stem; it’s the right size and shape, and it’s red. But to know whether it’s truly ready, check the flesh right around the stem cap, under the sepals. If that flesh is still white, so is the inside of the berry.

I confess: sometimes I picked them anyway—not because I was greedy and wanted to eat them all that very day, but because there’s a downside to waiting. A lot can happen in twenty-four hours. That beautiful, nearly-ripe fruit could be ravaged by a pill bug or a bird. It could turn brown with fruit rot. I might go out to the garden tomorrow and find a promising berry ripe but damaged, or lost altogether.

But when you do pick an underripe berry, it will never be what it should have been. It’s compromised from the get-go, and no amount of regret or hindsight will enable you to fit it back to the stem.

Teenagers are a lot like nearly-ripe strawberries. They’re the right size and shape and often appear ready on the outside. But a superficial scan is not enough. You must look closer. There are signs of immaturity for those with eyes to see. The course of wisdom is to wait—but with youth as with strawberries, waiting is hard.

As mortals, we have good reason to be impatient. We simply don’t have time for all we want to do. And while we’re waiting, things can happen. Feelings change. Circumstances knock you upside the head. People die. Some opportunities, once lost, are lost forever. There’s a temptation to grab what you can and hold on tight. At forty-one I feel mortality looming, and impatience is a sort of desperation at times. The pressure is worse for the young, just coming into full strength and beauty and power, taking the first sip from passion’s cup, all sweetness and torment. Impetuosity is the very nature of youth. It’s the key to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. There are so many points in that play where death and heartbreak might be averted, if only the hero or heroine would stop and think, accept wise counsel, or simply await further developments.

For a Christian, there’s another dimension of patience, that of trusting God’s providence. But here, too, there’s a caveat. As C.S. Lewis says, “We’re not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” So behind the question of whether you trust his providence is the question of whether you trust his character.

I’m not trying to spoil anyone’s good time. On the contrary! It’s just that I don’t want my children—or any of the young people whose lives at all overlap with my sphere of influence—to short-change themselves with green fruit. I want them to have the richest romantic experience God made possible, the sweetest, most vivid of berries. It’s worth the wait, so very, very worth it.

Teenagers: Do They Exist?

There’s an idea afoot that this whole “teenager” thing is a modern invention and therefore suspect. The argument begins with an explanation of how the word “teenager” wasn’t coined until the late 1930’s, around the time American society’s expectations of persons of this age underwent a profound shift and the automobile got invented and so forth. My dictionary agrees about the dating of the word. “Teenage” is a little older, going back to 1920 or so. Interestingly, an older synonym, “teener,” showed up around 1890 before evidently being replaced by “teenager” three decades later.

But just because a word is new doesn’t mean the concept it represents is new also. The word “youth” has been around since before 900. “Adolescence” dates to the early 1400’s.

The argument against the existence of the teenager is popular among conservative Christians, of whom I am one. I first heard it as a young parent and was deeply impressed. The idea in its simplest form is that prior to the twentieth century, people were considered either children or adults, with no in-between. But an honest reading of old literature, including the Bible, doesn’t bear this out. Heck, common sense doesn’t bear it out. Maturity happens incrementally. You don’t just flip a switch when they turn twenty-one. There is a distinct transitional period, and the transition is not always smooth. Growth happens in uneven spurts. Witness the half-fledged bird, the juvenile lion with his mane growing in patches, the young dog all gangle and outsized feet, and the thirteen-year-old boy. They’re funny-looking—although a little later, as they approach the end of the transition, they gain their own particular glory.

This physical transition has its nonmaterial counterpart. Of course it does. Mental and emotional growth are uneven as well, and hormones agitate everything. My own resident eighteen-year-old boy can be a blockhead in a number of ways but often surprises me with sporadic feats of insight and patience.

None of this should be surprising. Teenagers are in-between, no matter how vehemently some may deny it. They’re taking their first heady, intoxicating sips of power and freedom, and they want more, but they’re still economically dependent and don’t quite have all their faculties in order. Naturally this is frustrating, and sometimes they chafe at authority, make boneheaded choices, or go all dramatic on us.

That being said, I understand the thinking behind the whole anti-teenager argument, and I agree with it. What’s really being objected to is the modern idea of the teenage years as a time when rebellion, laziness, and irresponsibility are to be expected as a matter of course. As a disciple of Christ, earnestly desiring and praying for godly character in my own children, I absolutely reject this notion of youth. Indolence and disrespect should not be tolerated in children of any age. But I would caution the Christian community against these grand, sweeping pronouncements. They sound impressive but don’t hold up under close examination, and in making them, we can discredit ourselves. We must make every effort to be accurate in our speech and eschew sensationalism of all kinds.

That’s Not Logic, It’s Just Equivocation

If you’re well acquainted with me or my blog, you know I take words and their meanings very seriously. A new friend recently made my day by calling me a philologist; I suspect I’ve had less favorable epithets uttered behind my back. I’ve been guilty of nailing many an unsuspecting person’s hide to the wall for crimes of equivocation or sloppy usage, and no doubt my tendency to do this is not my most endearing personality trait. But darn it, truth and accuracy matter. Words are the vehicles of rational thought and communication. If someone misunderstands a word’s meaning—or, worse, subtly alters it and then tries to have it both ways—then discourse becomes a train wreck.

In his preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis addressed this subject more clearly than I ever could. The long passage is worth quoting in full.

The word gentleman originally meant something recognizable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said—so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully—“Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behavior? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A “nice” meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualized and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

People hurl these linguistic monstrosities at us every day. “Everyone’s a winner,” they say. Seriously? Then I guess “winner” is just a synonym for “human being.” Or, “Death doesn’t matter. As long as you keep his memory alive, he hasn’t really gone.” No kidding?! Then where the heck is he? I never forgot him, but I haven’t seen him around in years.

Then there’s this one: “That’s not love, it’s just infatuation.” Teenagers are the target group here. The idea is that you have to reach a certain maturity level before what you think is love is worthy of the name. A Christian might further muddy the water by bringing in the Greek word agape, insisting that the only true love is the disinterested self-sacrificial sort, and ignoring the other Greek and Hebrew words that are translated “love” in English Bibles. (And if that be the case, if love doesn’t count until it attains some uber-level of Christlikeness, then God help us all.) Interestingly, it’s only romantic love that’s dealt with this way. I’ve never heard anyone suggest a teenager is incapable of filial or fraternal love.

Why the equivocation? As Lewis says, these people mean well. Maybe they’re trying to guard against youthful rashness, or reacting against our culture’s oversexualization of the very young. But it’s no good avoiding one error by falling into another.

Do young people sometimes use the word “love” carelessly or erroneously? Sure. But that doesn’t mean they don’t love. Truth is, people love according to their stature: wisely or foolishly, sacrificially or selfishly, fleetingly or enduringly. But even an imperfect love is still there. It’s wrong to denigrate the emotions of a person of any age by calling them by another name. And age is not the only or best indicator of emotional maturity. Over my years of giving premarital counseling and of just quietly observing folks around me, I’ve seen some who are more ready for the demands of marriage at eighteen than others are at thirty-five. It depends entirely on the individual.

“But who cares?” an impatient reader may ask. “What possible difference could it make which word is used?” I say it makes a big difference. I dislike the protracted childhood that’s become the norm for young adults in our society; we suppress their natural drives, ply them with amusements, then wonder why they implode. I’m not suggesting anything odd, like allowing fourteen-year-olds to marry and buy property. Teenagers need guidance and protection, in some ways even more than young children. But let us at least pay them the compliment of taking them and their emotions seriously.