Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Birthdays are funny things. Before my 21st, I was a lot more aware of my age and thinking forward to the benefits of that benchmark. Today, as I turn 22, I am thinking, as I have heard others say, what remains special about getting older beyond 21? I know the future holds other important milestones with new relationships and accomplishments, but there is something extremely awesome about turning 21. Not only are you entering an adult world, literally, of spaces only for adults, but also everyone knows how special it is and shares your excitement. Yet after turning 18 and then 21, we face a lull of ages, not being particularly special beyond our close contacts. Until you get up there to 50 and every 5 to 10 years after, people are mostly impressed you’ve lasted this long.
What to do about the in-between though? There is little acknowledgement of the attributes and power of young people. The only example I can think of is women and men who serve in the military. In the commercials and ads, young faces stare at us as models of courage and honor that all ages should revere. I have respect for people who make that choice, but there are a multitude of spaces where young people shake things up and act bravely. What about the resolute young people of faith entering the vocations to minister to future generations? What about young people today and through the decades that became Conscientious Objectors to war, risking forced labor and taunting? What about the young people who are doing the right thing without the watchful eye of adults? What about students who do the thankless work of most of the interesting programming on college campuses? Are they not of value? Are they not brave? Are they not worth public admiration?
On the flip side, young people are mostly chastised in popular discourse for their mistakes and failures. In many meetings and talks, I hear from adults how lazy, apathetic and careless young people are, shaking their heads decrying the future of leadership. To many, we are good for nothings, know-nothings and care-nothings. Young people who do defy this stereotype are “credits to their age” rather than celebrated as the fullest expression of a human person of courage and conscience.
The depictions of youth I like come in poetry. In his poem about “Chicago,” Carl Sandburg compares the city to a brave, struggling and laughing youth. Chicago “Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs … Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse and under his ribs the heart of the people.” Young people, like growing cities, have the capacity and space to become great and live under pressure constantly. Young people laugh and appear unserious to older folks because they see the long view but know the “heart” of the matter. Young people may not know everything, but they know something that is often the heart of an issue. They live between urgency and having more time to set things right. Young people see the problem, but still have the courage to ask questions and struggle through difficult answers.
Another portrayal of youth I enjoy comes form German poet Rainer Maria Rilke who writes that even as young people are beginners in life, they have more of an edge in being at the start. The questions, instead of answers, guide youth. Therefore they are open to more. By living the questions, young people may, “gradually without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Also, young people living the questions have more reverence for complexity that an experienced older person may forget.
To our detriment, the values of young people are overlooked by others and ourselves. Perhaps social evil continues because all the people in power are too old. Would we have a different world if led by young people? If young people had a voice in making decisions that rule their lives and the world they will inherit would we live in different societies, communities, or families?
Maybe 22 and beyond will be a lull to everyone else, but I hope we can treasure our youth and not wait till society credentials us, but take credit and power for ourselves to challenge the old fogies running us into a ditch. By acting now, we may save ourselves some work in the future. Even more for consideration, maybe behind the patronizing and head patting of youth is something more substantial – jealousy. A silent age war to keep the young from using their superpowers and to maintain the control of the old. Maybe, maybe not. Either way, we won’t know till we’re old.
Kamaria Porter is a senior Chicagoan who shares her birthday with the day of Al Capone’s death in 1947. Coincidence? She encourages you to apply for Viewpoint because she would never dream of writing this column as an alumna.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.