Youth is a country. I used to live there. The inhabitants are determined to emigrate, exiles long to return. But the borders are sealed…
—Allan Sealy, The Brainfever Bird
When I first read this, I was struck hard by its wisdom. I’m young enough to clearly remember my youth mostly untainted by overoptimistic nostalgia, but still old enough to understand why youth is something so many remember so fondly. But after a little thought I realized that it’s completely brainless.
At first glance it’s understandable that we all pine after our youth. In youth, we had no concerns. My father went to work, and I never thought anything of it; that’s what fathers do. Keeping the house? The house just was; it was a law of nature. The notion that my father went to work so that we could keep our house was simply beyond me. Put food on the table? But Mom does that! She takes it right out of the refrigerator, cooks it if necessary, and puts in on the table. Done! What’s the problem?
My upbringing was not one of opulent abundance. I can remember many times wanting something and being told there wasn’t enough money for it. (Indeed, once my brother tried to steal some candy when our mother told him she couldn’t afford to buy it; in true, old-school, good-old-days fashion, she sent him back into the store by himself to return the item and apologize to the clerk, which cured him of his incipient kleptomania for some time.) But that was fine, too, because there were hundreds of ways for my brother and I to fill our time once our disappointment abated.
In those halcyon days, of course, before the rampant (and justified) fears of abduction and other harm to children, young children never wanted for diversion. We’d wake up and eat our breakfasts, then run outside and start playing. We had to tell our mother that we were going outside, of course, but “outside” was a sufficiently specific destination to satisfy her maternal instincts. We played outside, gathering together with whatever other children we happened to find running outside that day, until we got hungry, when our games split up and we all filed into our houses for lunch. We ate our lunches, took naps if we were young enough, then ran back outside and played until our father got home, when we ran to greet him, got thrown around and tickled a bit, then sat down for our dinner and an evening with our family.
Money was something that we knew existed and that we knew was necessary, but not something that we ever worried about. Once, my mother gave my brother and I a quarter, each. The young (truly young; as in, even younger than my young self) may not remember, but at one time people carried around something called cash, which included both paper bills (which were worth one hundred or more cents) and coins (which were worth one hundred or less). This was near the Canadian border, so we were also familiar with Canadian money; they carried around one-dollar coins called “loonies” (because there’s a loon on them), and later two-dollar coins called “toonies” (by analogy with “loonies), plus paper money that looked like it came from a Monopoly set. (Again, for the young, Monopoly used to be played on a board, with actual paper bills and pewter game pieces, not on a screen on the Nintendo Wii.) A quarter is worth, unsurprisingly, one quarter of a dollar. These quarters made us ecstatic. My father (RIP) came home, and we ran to him in paroxysms of joy: “Daddy! Daddy! I’ve got a quarter!” I’ll never forget the look on his face: “Wow! You’re rich!”
And we were rich. Even then, a quarter wouldn’t buy much—though it would, unlike now, buy something—but we weren’t rich because of the quarters. We were rich because of our youth.
Now, of course, we are grown. I am married and have four children of my own. My children can’t run around the neighborhood playing with whatever other children they happen to run into; times are just too dangerous now. They need to be in the backyard, behind a fence, with children that I know and can trust. I could give my children a quarter now and then to teach them about money, but it wouldn’t do any good, since trying to buy something with a quarter will just elicit laughter from any shopkeeper. (We bought a candy bar with ours, which we split, as I recall; while I’m too young to remember penny candy, I do remember two-penny bubble gum and nickle candy quite clearly.) Youth today are not as carefree as they once were; but regardless, we are no longer youth. We’ve grown older, and we can never grow young again.
But is that really a bad thing? Do we really want to be young again? And if we do, should we? Remember the words of the Apostle:
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.
I Cor. 13:11. Pining after youth is pining after eternal insufficiency; it’s desiring a permanent defect. Youth is the process by which we are trained to be adults: that is, morally self-sufficient individuals capable of making our own rational judgments. Clearly, this is a skill that is growing vanishingly scarce in these sad times.
We worship and adore youth in our society. The young are exactly what we would all like to be: delighted by things that are not rationally delightful, completely without care, without the ability or desire for rational discourse or judgment, and most especially without a clear set of moral principles to guide our actions. We don’t want restraint; we want the freedom of adulthood without any of the consequences of its exercise.
I have good news for those who wish themselves back into such a state: they’re already in it. Arrested adolescence may be a pop-psych trope, but it’s still a real thing, and such people are suffering from it. Unfortunately, they don’t have their parents around anymore to whoop their butts and send them to their rooms until they’ve learned their lessons; as a result, society has to deal with them, which causes it no end of grief.
Yet, despite this grief, people go on wanting youth and living as though they still have it. But the bottom line is this: I’m not a child anymore; I’m a man. I’m responsible for myself and I need to live like it. I need to choose courses of action based upon a coherent set of moral guidelines, and even within those guidelines based on a rational and prudent analysis of the consequences of those actions. Children don’t do that; that’s why they’re children. The process of raising children is that of teaching them to do this. So why should we desire to be a child?
Youth is not a country. Its inhabitants are determined to emigrate because it’s not a fit place for men. Its exiles might indeed long to return, but that’s because they never really left. Unfortunately, our real country is overrun with such exiles, desperately trying to hang on to a youth that is, and should be, long gone. And so we’re equally overrun with substance abuse, unwed parenthood, irresponsible work ethics, and sexual perversions. These eternal adolescents have no principles; they either never got any, or long ago abandoned them. They behave as though there is no morality and there are no consequences for what they do.
Grow up, people; seriously. The adults of the world have more than enough to do teaching the real children, and have neither the time nor the inclination to deal with permanent teenagers, as well.
Praise be to Christ the King!