30 January 2009

The Trouble with Youth

Aristotle said of the young that they have exalted notions, because they have not yet been humbled by life or learnt its necessary limitations.

St. Augustine lamented his own youth in the same regard.

And the Preacher warned the young, "Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth."

Unfortunately we all must go through youth, assuming we don't die in the meantime, and thus it is practically inevitable that we learn the lessons of humility the hard way.

I know I did.

I was musing the other night on how differently I view my life and my world today than I viewed it in my youth. Then, I always had a goal, an aspiration, a plan, a hope. These things kept me going. And when high hopes were dashed, I found myself feeling rather crushed. Still I plodded on, holding on to my dreams, thinking that some day God would bestow on me the glory I secretly coveted. And at the next disappointment the blow was more crushing than at the first. Though I didn't dare think it in these terms, what I meant to wonder in my misery was, When would God let me have my glory?

If He had, I would doubtless still be dancing around that calf today. It's hard enough to deal with pride on an ordinary day; the imp would have become a behemoth if my hopes had been realized back then. High hopes in youth are common, and come in varying strains. What is dangerous, and could be deadly, is when those hopes are realized too soon, or, in some cases, at all.

These days I look back on those perils, and I sometimes wonder, what in the world was I thinking?

There's still a lot to learn in this regard for a middling man; the last thing I want to become in my geriatric years is someone who thinks he's wise in his own conceits, who has nothing left to learn, and whom no one can teach.

And so it is my prayer, and I recommend the same prayer to the young, that I may learn to seek above all other things the kingdom of heaven rather than any earthly kingdoms. Those visions of earthly glory, whatever they are, are illusions, every one. They're mirages. Or worse, they're the devil's disguises. They aren't worth it.

So if you can't decide on a confirmation verse for a particular junior catechumen, here's one that will always be appropriate: Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them.


wmc said...

Good post. Aristotle was right, as of course, was the wise Preacher.

I like to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom, though perhaps not precisely in the biblical manner. Youth are knowledgeable; their minds are flexible and facile with the facts, though they lack the experience to see context and meaning. Wisdom comes with age as the facts of knowledge are woven into a tapestry of wisdom by experience.

For this reason, I believe, we do not see prodigies in theology, and why one had to be at least 30 years old to be a rabbi. As Walther said, the proper distinction of the Law and the Gospel is taught by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience. Lacking experience, we can only be wise in our own conceits.

The chief danger of the young is being a sophomore, a seemingly wise fool. The danger of the old is cynicism, what Cicero called "the last refuge of the idealist."

May the Lord preserve us from both the folly of youth and the cynicism of age.

TruthQuestioner said...

Thanks much.

Rather then setting sights on goals, aspirations, dreams, what would you counsel youth to strive toward?

It so often seem that without an earthly goal we youth lack any motivation whatsoever. I'm wondering how a young person like me can rearrange how we look at the world so that we neither set our hopes on this earth nor settle back into a half-hearted grind. What wisdom can you give me in this regard?

wmc said...

I think youth need to be encouraged to pursue meaningful goals and aspirations that are reasonable and rational. "For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him." (Rom 12:3)

One great difficulty I see is that youth are not future- oriented in terms of vocational aspirations. "Reach for the stars" and "follow your dreams" is hardly good advice. Most vocations take years in which to establish oneself, and the planning needs to take place early.

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

Truth Questioner,

As Pr Eckardt said, the youth should be encouraged to seek the kingdom of God rather than earthly glory, and Pr Cwirla notes that encouragement toward a meaningful vocation helps to give proper vision and grounding.

Put together, this means that young people should work at developing their skills, knowledge, and wisdom in vocations fit for their aptitude and natural talents. What are these? You know, to some extent, based on your own likes and dislikes, in what areas you excel, and the guidance of your parents, pastors, and other authorities. Yet these vocations should be pursues always with the purpose of serving the neighbor, not for fame or recognition. The Christian ought to work to excel in whatever he or she is tasked with; not driven by self-satisfaction or self-fulfillment, but for the joy and fulfillment this work brings to others, and the praise and thanksgiving it offers to Our Lord. In these we also experience the joy that is shared in the Body of Christ, and we do not deny that goals, drive, and success are some of the blessings of this life.

Developing these skills, knowledge, and wisdom can sometimes occur through adventurous experiences that might seem frivolous or vainglorious. Yet life experience, as long as it is pursued in love for the neighbor and interpreted through the cross, is always educational (among other things), contributing to wisdom and driving out folly.

wmc said...

Beautifully written, Pr. Grobein! I saw a fine example of this at the Erin Bode Group concert in Sheboygan last week at a Higher Things retreat. Here is a lovely young woman with a beautiful voice who uses her talents as a musician to extol what is good, right, and beautiful, help those in need (particularly the Themba School of S. Africa), and glorify God through her music without necessarily singing "sacred" music.

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

Here are two words of advice to the young, in regard to goal-setting.

First, seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness. That means seeking to become inebriated with the fatness of His house. Go and learn what the Psalmist means, who says of the word of God that it is "sweeter than honey to my taste." There is nothing grinding about that. It is a marvelous kind of drunkenness.

Second, in any short-term (i.e., earthly) goal setting, don't get too excited about it. Actually this is a roundabout way of returning to the first point.

As Jesus said, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

This is a great post, and it has many applications.

For example, I am very sad that the female variety of youth are overwhelmingly encouraged by our modern culture toward "exalted notions" of vocations, education, and activities that have little or nothing to do with the vocations virtually all women are first and foremost called to: those of wife and mother.

Aristotle is right that: "...they have exalted notions, because they have not yet been humbled by life or learnt its necessary limitations."

Some women never are able to shake these "exalted notions" because our culture does not tolerate any of the biblical "limitations" of what a woman should do.

I am blessed with daughters who understand and treasure what their primary biblical calling in life will most likely be, and who are spending the majority of their time training and preparing themselves for the vocations of wife and mother. But they are constantly attacked by our culture and encouraged toward goals that conflict with what they believe.

Don't misunderstand me. I believe a good liberal college education can be valuable for a woman. There are also certainly seasons in most women's lives when employment outside the home may be good, right, and salutary. In addition, not all women marry, and some may never be blessed with children.

However, and here is my point, I am sick and tired of the cultural attitude that demands all women must go to college and that all women must develop a career - even if only a potential career so they can have something to "fall back on."

What is wrong with a young woman being satisfied with a good high-school level education and seeking to spend whatever time remains prior to marriage training and preparing herself to be a wife and mother? Absolutely nothing, except for the fact that our culture makes such a woman feel inferior and stupid.

We, as individuals and as the Church, need to do much more to praise and exalt the holy vocations of wife and mother, offering an antidote to the cultural attitudes ("exalted notions") that bombard our wives and daughters.

wmc said...

Just as Proverbs 31 says.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

No, Pr. Cwirla, not as Proverbs 31 says, but rather as Titus 2:3-5 says.

The rather exceptional and ambitious woman described in Proverbs 31 finds no lack of praise in our modern culture.

My comment concerns the oikourous encouraged by Paul in Titus 2:3-5 "to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed."

Such a holy estate is horribly despised and mocked today as inferior and stupid.

wmc said...

Proverbs 31 spells out nicely what Titus 2:5 says in a word.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Pr. Cwirla,

I think you are misunderstanding what I have tried to express. I understood Fr. Eckardt's post to be about how high ambitions usually are met with learning lessons of humility the hard way.

The ambitious Proverbs 31 woman is a small subset of the virtuous women spoken of in Titus 2.

Of the exceptionally ambitious woman, the husband in Proverbs 31 says: “Many daughters have done well, but you excel them all.” Titus 2 speaks of the many who do well.

Like Fr. Eckardt, I am not saying there is anything wrong with excelling. I am saying there is something wrong with denying praise, honor, and encouragement to those who don't necessarily have such high ambitions. There is also something wrong with saying all women must excel like the Proverbs 31 woman. Most who aspire to such will be "humbled by life and its necessary limitations."

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

Isn't the Proverbs 31 woman the Church? She spends a lot of time spinning and sewing and feeding, etc. Yet "strength and honour are her clothing." So this is a parable: what she's sewing is a baptismal garment of righteousness; what she's feeding is the Feast of Salvation.

As for women in particular, I quote another part of Proverbs 31: "Give not thy strength unto women, nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings."

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Interesting point, Fr. Eckardt.

BTW, another "proverb" that comes to mind:

"The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones... The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious: If it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answered it... Ambition should be made of sterner stuff."

Thus, I join you in your prayer:

"...that I may learn to seek above all other things the kingdom of heaven rather than any earthly kingdoms. Those visions of earthly glory, whatever they are, are illusions, every one. They're mirages. Or worse, they're the devil's disguises. They aren't worth it."

wmc said...

So this is a parable...

That's not a parable, that's an allegory.

Susan said...

Uh-oh, I'm feeling pretty dumb. What's the difference between a parable and an allegory?? If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the allegory was definitely based in historical facts and the parable may have been "just" a story, but otherwise they'd be the same. Anybody want to help me out here?

Sandra Ostapowich said...

It seems to me that the problem, at least from the perspective of the youth in question, is not so much “How should my priorities be arranged for the rest of my life?” but “What is the right thing for me to do for the rest of my life?”

A lot of this worry comes, in my opinion, from the strange idea that there are legitimate vocations that are “right” or “wrong” for Christians to practice. Granted, some vocations are limited by one’s sex. Despite what TLC may show next week, a man may not become a mother. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a man being a tailor or a woman being a pilot.

And should a young lady primarily seek to be a wife and mother, there are as many ways to prepare for being a wife and mother as there are wives and mothers. Some ways may include formal education, some may not. Suggesting that a young woman who pursues a college education (or beyond!) is somehow less-than-faithful than one who does not stems from this misunderstanding of vocation and/or perpetuates it - and thus the anxiety-ridden question of youth, “What is the right thing for me to do for the rest of my life?”

We believe that all legitimate vocations are blessed and serve the Lord and His church, whether a woman is a wife, mother, milkmaid or astronaut...or all of the above. We are all part of the body of Christ and ought not think that one piece is more or less important than another. We all have different skills, experiences, and vocations to bring to bear in service to one another.

While some here are fed up with the attitude that demands all women must go to college and all women must develop a career, there are others out there who are just as fed up with the attitude that strongly suggest that a woman who does go to college and develops a career does so because of a failure to resist “exalted notions” that tempt them to disobey “biblical limitations” on her activities and interests.

Some of us have actually had “exalted notions” of what being a wife and mother should entail only to have life experiences humble us in ways we never expected. Such experiences are part of the learning process in this sinful world, lessons which are often (and best) learned through suffering. That is the portion of wisdom that the young have yet to learn and cannot really be learned any other way.

But all along, regardless of what humbling experiences a young person is enduring and growing through, the one vocation that is eternal is that of Baptized Child of God. Let us, who have hopefully learned a little wisdom along the way, live out our vocations serving them by constantly reminding them of that fact.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

As I wrote in my initial comment here:

"Don't misunderstand me. I believe a good liberal college education can be valuable for a woman. There are also certainly seasons in most women's lives when employment outside the home may be good, right, and salutary. In addition, not all women marry, and some may never be blessed with children."

I do no disagree with the majority of your comment, Sandra. But, I haven't run into anyone (here or elsewhere) "suggesting that a young woman who pursues a college education (or beyond!) is somehow less-than-faithful than one who does not."

On the contrary! What I hear constantly criticized is the opposite situation. My girls are constantly asked: "So what college do you plan to attend?" No one - and I mean NO ONE - has ever asked IF they want to go to college. If my girls have dared to say "I don't necessarily plan to go to college", you should hear the horribly critical comments they get about how defective they will be - not just as a mother, but as a human being - if they do not seek post-secondary education and a career.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...


I also agree with you that the hopes a young woman may have of being a wife and mother can sometimes lead to being humbled by actual experience. However, I would hardly call the simple hopes of marriage and motherhood "exalted notions." These are the divine institutions women are strongly encouraged toward by Scripture.

Most young women are not encouraged by our culture toward these holy vocations of wife and mother. Even if they are they are encouraged, they are told to delay marriage until their education is completed, and to delay having children until career "success" is achieved.

Issues Etc. had a very thought-provoking show last year on the question of whether we are doing our children any favors by insisting they delay marriage until after college. Pr. Wilken made the crucial distinction that "marriage is a divine institution while college is not."

wmc said...

On the whole, I do agree that our girls need to be apprenticed as wife and mother and that these holy callings need to be extolled in view of society's degradation of these God-given vocations. Perhaps this might be a positive place for Mother's Day in the church.

We also need to be apprenticing our young men to be husbands who are willing to lay down their lives for their wives and fathers who bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The boys need to be taught to view the girls as potential wives and mothers, not as sex objects. The word from the field is that the pickings are pretty slim in this department.

It would also help if our family structures weren't so "nucleated," and our young married couples would continue to live with the support of parents until the husband could establish his career. It takes at least 8 years post-high school to make a pastor, at least that long to make a doctor; I don't know how long to make a dentist.

Speaking of dentists, aren't most dental assistants and hygienists women? I've only encountered one male dental hygienist in my experience.

wmc said...

What's the difference between a parable and an allegory??

A parable is a story form where a particular point or series of points is made by analogy. "The kingdom of heaven is like..."

An allegory is method of interpretation where everything in the text stands for something else.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Dental school is a four-year post-graduate doctoral program as well, so it usually takes at least eight years after high school to be a dentist.

Yes, hygienists are almost always women. My wife has a B.S. dental hygiene degree fro the University of Michigan. However, she hasn't worked much since our first child was born. She fills in at my office on rare occasions when I can't find anyone else. Her hands are pretty full at home with seven homeschooled children.

My oldest daughter just applied to the dental hygiene program at our local community college. However, she's torn between doing that and staying home, continuing her education as she as a homeschooler, and perhaps auditing a couple classes at Hillsdale College.

My second oldest daughter also graduates this year, and she has applied to the nursing program at the local community college. She has also applied for full-time enrollment at Hillsdale College. But, she is also considering continuing her education at home and perhaps taking a couple classes at Hillsdale College.

The option of combining a modest continuation of their education with staying home offers the unique advantage of seriously apprenticing them with regard to the awesome duties of oikourous. As you said, Pr. Cwirla: "our girls need to be apprenticed as wife and mother."

wmc said...

Just for the record: Oikourgos and oikouros are adjectives not nouns, as are the other words listed in Titus 2:5. They mean "domestic," pertaining to the duties of the household (BDAG).

It's not a vocation as such, but a description of character of the godly wife and mother; "sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, subordinate to their husbands...."

wmc said...

I think the key word here is "expectations."

One of the great vocational maladies I see today is the expectation that one can "do it all" - have a career, raise a family, change the world, stop global warming. The reality, to which the OP testifies, is it doesn't wind up working out that way. It was for good reason that the apostle Paul extolled singled life over married (1 Cor 7:32-34).

We would do our youth and young adults a great service, and save them considerable time and money in therapy, if we would help have reasonable expectations for their lives.

I'm reminded of baseball pitcher Jarrod Washburn, who said of growing up in rural Wisconsin: "You got married, you bought a house, you raised a family, you took care of things."

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Amen, Pr. Cwirla. Well said.

TruthQuestioner said...

I'm sorry to butt in again, but I need to back Sandra on something.

There *IS* a real pressure in some quarters for girls to feel as if their only acceptable end is to be a wife and mother. Most definitely it is not as prevalent in "the world," but for young women who care more about their cultural subgroup than "the world", the strong reaction to the diminishing status of motherhood in the world's eyes CAN swing the balance to the other extreme. In such cases (few though they be) a girl seems to be encouraged and expected to find a husband as soon as she can so she can get on with her married life, homemaking and childrearing. While this is indeed a good and right - even longed for - station, "the pickings" can be, as Pr. Cwirla has pointed out, slim. In addition, a young woman can be accutely conscious that she is not the one responsible for finding and initiating a courtship. Isn't it much more the young man's place to find for himself a bride?

While the station of wife and mother may not be "exalted notions" in the strict sense, is not any station in which we glory and consider as our fulfillment "exalted" beyond it's inherent beauty and purpose? Perhaps matrons and men do not exalt marriage so highly, but I could introduce quite a few maidens who DO anticipate motherhood with something of a reverent awe.

We are faced with so many differing expectations that it is enough at times to make one dizzy. Uncertainty plays no minimal part in the mess. Christ never promised a girl a husband. As she can only see her future in speculation, ought she not to prepare to render valuable service both to a potential husband and children and to her unrelated neighbors in the world? What sort of longterm expectations can a young woman really form other than a prayerful resolve to remain faithful to her Lord?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Great initial post, and great discussion following. Thanks to everyone for their comments. I'm sorry that I've been otherwise engaged with obligations and unable to chime in; though maybe that has been for the best.

When conversations along these lines move into the differences between boys and girls, men and women, it seems that special care has to be taken. Lots of baggage and lots of assumptions color the discussion, and emotions are usually not far from the surface.

I agree that expectations can be taken to inappropriate extremes on either side of attitudes toward the vocations of women. I think that Pastor Eckardt's post speaks precisely to those dangers; not only for women, but for men, too. Vocations, by definition, come to us from outside of ourselvse; yet, aspiring to a vocation or station in life is not wrong. It is wrong to covet or seize, or attempt to take, that which is not given to us. Faith receives, and then lives in love, in whatever place God has put us (exalted or not).

There are limitations, to be sure, of various kinds, but I prefer to approach the vocations of women and men from the standpoint of what is uniquely given. Being a wife and mother is neither a requirement nor a consolation prize; it is a high and holy calling. It should not be laid upon anyone as a mandate, but neither should it be despised as it so tends to be. In any case, the vocations of wife and mother point beyond themselves to the Church; which is helpful, not only for the sake of honoring those vocations most highly, but also for the sake of qualifying their significance. Not every woman is given in marriage; not every wife is given to have children. The virgin and the widow are not less than the wife and mother in the Kingdom of God. By that one vocation which is forever, namely, the calling of the baptized, we are all members of the Bride of Christ, the Church. That, for me at least, puts everything into perspective.

I'll just say, briefly, that I'm not a big fan of "courtship" language, because of the origins of that whole terminology. But as to the way that men and women meet, get to know each other, fall in love, pledge themselves to each other and get married, I'm not sure it's entirely up to the man to initiate and pursue such things. I agree to some extent; Christ comes from heaven to seek His Bride. But it is the Father who brings Eve to Adam; the man doesn't sniff her out like a dog. And it is the Father who sends the Son to seek and to save the Church from all the nations of the earth. My main point is that fathers (and mothers) have a larger role to play in the whole "courtship" (sic) scenario than they exercise in many cases. And beyond that particular case, the young are guided into their vocations especially by their parents, whom God has placed next after Himself in authority over them. That means, not only that children, even young adults, should be listening to their parents and honoring them, but also that fathers and mothers have a serious responsibility for their children. There's no statute of limitations on the Fourth Commandment, even if the nature of the parent-child relationship changes with time and circumstance.

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

Not every woman is given in marriage; not every wife is given to have children. The virgin and the widow are not less than the wife and mother in the Kingdom of God.

Yes. And I think we ought to say this more often and as directly. I also think the distinct duties and blessings of the single adult can be taught and explained with better clarity.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Again, Amen.

wmc said...

First comment was deleted due to sloppy grammar.


The more I think about this post, the more I think it's all about expectation. We lay expectations on each other, on our children, and on ourselves. Nasty business. We expect people to get married, even if they aren't inclined or fit for it; and if they're single and celibate, we assume they're gay or at least weird. We expect all married couples to have children, and if they don't, we assume they're selfish and killing unborn babies on a monthly basis.

Perhaps we might drop dead to our expectations and live out the callings that God gives us with a sense of wonder, awe and adventure. We'd be a lot happier for it in the long run.

I started out a scientist and wound up a preacher, swapping one vocation for another. I never wanted to live in southern California, but the Lord has made it our little chunk of paradise for 16 years. The adventures never cease.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Pastor Cwirla has identified and summarized very well some of the key challenges and temptations that confront all of us at every age. Expectations, and assumptions, are a dangerous and nasty way to live. "Live and let live" is largely a better approach, though not to the neglect of the neighbor. Of course, living in our vocations means that many of us, whether as pastors or parents, etc., are required to preach and teach, to catechize and discipline. And while it is not right to make assumptions, sinful people do sinful things from sinful hearts, and the law does address itself to that. Not every person is given to be married, and not every marriage is given children; but there are also those who selfishly avoid marriage and family, sometimes by sinful means.

More to the point at hand, I do want to reiterate Pastor Cwirla's point, that we should each and all live within our respective vocations and remain open to whatever the Lord would set before us. We should not place ourselves and others under the law with our expectations and assumptions, but simply live by faith and in love. Amen and amen.

The special challenge, however, in the case of the young -- especially the later teen years, and perhaps the early twenties -- is knowing where and what those vocations are in which to live, and how to go about it. In a sense, it is precisely part of a young person's vocation to make plans and decisions for the future; to aspire to prospective stations in life. That's not presumptuous. A teenage boy who doesn't do that may end up the twenty-something young man who still lives with his parents, spending his days on the couch eating potato chips and playing video games.

Young people are not intended to remain children at home; there is a transition into adulthood which brings with it questions like where to go to school, what to study, what sort of jobs to work or pursue, and how to contemplate and prepare for the possibility (if not the likelihood) of marriage and family. "Expectations" is probably not the best or right word, but aspirations, choices and decisions are appropriate undertakings of the young. Not as wanderlust or an avoidance of their vocations, but as an aspect of their vocation as a baptized child of God.

So the question is, how does a young person make those choices and decisions wisely, in a godly fashion, in the fredom of faith, but also in the service of love? This is where I think that Pastor Grobien's advice (in his comment early in this discussion) is very helpful and necessary. And it is also for this reason that I am constantly pointing young people to the Fourth Commandment and to the guidance and counsel of their parents. Within those contexts, I think it is also appropriate, at least in certain cases, to urge a young person to "reach for the stars" and "follow his or her dreams." The timid and uncertain sometimes need that kind of push and encouragment. Others need to be reigned in from their exalted notions and overzealous ambitions. Different people in different circumstances need different counsel and advice; which is why God doesn't put a one-size-fits-all instruction manual on the web, but rather provides parents and pastors (with the Third and Fourth Commandments) to speak in love, to catechize and discipline the young.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

And, again, Amen. These excellent pastoral comments put my comparatively clumsy comments in the proper perspective through which they were meant to be understood.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Your comments weren't clumsy or out of place, Erich. You've contributed helpfully to a good conversation. These vocational topics, especially as they touch upon the roles and relationships of men and women, are simply difficult to address. There's a lot of emotional baggage attached for everyone, as well as the challenge of presuppositions and varying perceptions. It is still worth the effort to discuss such things, and I'm grateful for the good give and take we have here.