An unexpected result of writing these columns during the past few years is that young men — in their teens or early 20s — occasionally contact me asking to have a conversation. Typically, we just talk about life over a cup of coffee.
These young people are not looking for advice regarding any specific issue or challenge. They are seeking something more, something difficult to define precisely. They want to live a meaningful life, but they are not sure where to look for answers. In short, they seem to be seeking wisdom.
At least, that is what I have come to call it. A more contemporary way to put it might be “meaning” or “authenticity.” In every age, people have struggled not just with living, but with knowing how to live well. Today the task seems harder than ever.
Even though young people today have greater access to information than previous generations — not just books and articles, but news sites, podcasts, blogs, and videos — they have, if anything, too much information, too many places to look, and too many opportunities for distraction along the way.
Their education has taught them how to access, retain and manipulate information quickly and efficiently. However, when it comes to knowing what to do with that information — knowing, that is, how to live a life worthy of the aspirations they set for themselves — young people must figure it out on their own.
Adults in our society generally agree that education should equip young people with the skills they need for a successful life, but we cannot agree on what a successful life looks like.
We offer bromides about “accepting differences” and “living with integrity” on the one hand while making profits from popular movies about murderous sociopaths like John Wick on the other.
Even worse, leading corporations exploit the idea of noble aspiration in misleading and ubiquitous marketing campaigns.
Consider two television ads airing frequently during the 2018 Winter Olympics, one from Microsoft, the other from Toyota. Neither makes any mention of the products the companies sell.
In the first, a charismatic man steps onto a brightly lit stage and proclaims to the viewer, “Today you have more power at your fingertips than entire generations that came before you.”
In the second, a determined figure runs across snow-covered hills, then breaks through a wall and morphs into a man learning to use artificial legs. A voiceover intones, “It’s not how far I’ve come; it’s how far I’ll go.” The tagline: “When we’re free to move, anything is possible.”
“Choose whatever you want to be,” we tell our children, “we will remove the obstacles.”
The unspoken implication is that in a world where everything is possible, where everybody can be anything they want to be, somebody must be to blame for my dissatisfaction.
It is all nonsense.
The only way my life can be ennobled is if I devote it to some purpose greater than the satisfaction of my own desires.
A little more than 60 years ago, Alfred North Whitehead observed that “no period of history has ever been great or ever can be that does not act on some sort of high, idealistic motives, and idealism in our time has been shoved aside, and we are paying the penalty for it.”
Every successful, long-standing civilization has taken its chief responsibility to be the development of virtues in its children. Virtues are strengths. They are traits of character that advance those ends a society determines to be worthy of pursuit.
As far as I can tell, we are the first civilization in history to cast aside its obligation to teach a shared set of virtues to its children and instead to offer its children a smorgasbord of “values.”
Is it any wonder rates of suicide and depression are so high, especially among teens?
Our society needs to rediscover the importance of soulcraft—the incremental, lifelong process of character formation for a noble purpose. Soulcraft is the responsibility of parents, teachers, clergy and legislators, but the responsibility is not theirs alone. That responsibility is shared by all adults in a society, working together to ensure children hear inspiring stories of courage and honor, learn temperance through the practice of moderation, and learn wisdom from those who model humility and good judgment. Finally, children need repeated opportunities for practicing the roles they will take on as adults in environments characterized by kindness, mutual respect, and commitment to the common good.
At the conclusion of the Microsoft ad, the man on stage repeats his opening line about this generation’s unlimited power and freedom. Then he challenges the viewer: “So what will you do with it?”
Well, that is the big question, isn’t it?
Shame on us for not providing our children with the means to answer that question.