This fall, as in years past, the Senior Women’s Club of my daughter’s high school took delivery of 90 T-shirts they had created. These shirts are a feisty, humorous, raunchy statement of independence. They give notice to the senior class men that theirs is not the only act in town. They declare emerging strength and power. Best of all, they are high spirited.
When 90 young women wore them to school the shirts were banned, the wearers threatened with suspension if not compliant. Those calling the shots seem to have lost contact with their own juicy adolescence. In so doing, an exuberant, harmless act of self-expression was silenced. Imagine what might have happened at that school if there had been a quiet nod of recognition, a simple act of acceptance, perhaps even a celebratory chuckle that conveyed: we see you and applaud your magnificence. What a lost opportunity.
I think we are horribly confused about these important years we have come to call adolescence. There is crucial work to be done here if we as a society are going to thrive. This stage of growth is perhaps the most delicate and complicated we humans face. It is a time when passion is born – when wild enthusiasm and zany acts of creativity bloom. It is a time when we begin to test for courage and take risks, explore our appetites and boundaries, define our capacities and capabilities. It is the time when we begin to separate from family and find ourselves. It is when we begin to engage with our own power.
It is also a time of confusion, resistance, and defiance. Can you remember all this in your own growing up? Do you remember being moody, insecure, self-absorbed, brazen, withdrawn, irresponsible, impulsive? Can you remember the intensity and volatility of the feelings? Did anyone help you to be on friendly terms with this craziness?
I have a 17-year-old daughter – one of those Senior Women. She is a true-blue teenager and I find her to be complex and deliciously alive. She is helping me discover parts of myself long buried. As I watch her grow through these years I am remembering those years of mine. They were painful, excruciatingly awkward years with no help in making sense of it. Instead there was suppression and judgment. I took those abusive voices inside, added mine to theirs, and in the process abandoned important parts of myself. This is a pattern which has been handed down for too long, and it comes with a price.
Suicide, drugs, murder, gangs, alcohol – the statistics are off the charts and the price is much too dear. No wonder we can’t remember the real essence of adolescence. What is the meaning of this rage and depression? What are these large numbers of young people trying to tell us in their violence against themselves and others?
To find answers I look at the essence of youth. In my mind’s eye it is an aliveness, an energy – that emerges and gathers tremendous force during adolescence. It is essential, natural fuel needed to support this demanding stage of growth. When denied its rightful expression it doesn’t disappear. It is stored in the unconscious individually and collectively. With time this builds into a reservoir of combustible tension which leaks and pollutes. The trademark of youth goes underground and turns ugly.
The violent acts of our teenagers are expressions of rage and grief that come from being denied the journey of adolescence – the exploration of their potential. Their rightful work is to see how large they can be. We try to keep them small. They have a passion for life. We try to dilute it. These power struggles are fierce.
The young have been carrying this burden for many generations. We carried it in our time. It is the projection of a society in denial of its own arrested adolescence. The violence and despair of the young is their signal that the burden has become intolerable.
The journey through adolescence is difficult. It is a time of enormous change, of death and birth. It must be approached with respect, understanding and celebration. It demands much of us who are accompanying our children into this new world. For a long time we have not been up to the challenge. The insidious Western obsession with the material, technological world of speed and with the rational mind have blocked our contact with the world of instinct, feelings, and heart. We have grown lopsided – separated from our vitality, courage, and vision.
We no longer know the guidance of intuition or how to use conflict. We’ve forgotten how to wait patiently for the right time and how to be comfortable with the mysteries in life. No one is teaching the need for solitude or for the truth found in Nature. We’ve lost the strength that comes with discipline and vulnerability. We’ve had no true heroes to inspire us to value the larger good or to keep alive a love of the adventure of life.
We have gotten very good at going fast and working hard, but we’ve forgotten how to play and laugh at our mistakes. We’ve forgotten how to harness power without diminishing it. We have become a nation of adults who never completed the work of adolescence. So we find ourselves uncomfortable and sometimes afraid of our adolescent children. We don’t know how to be with them or guide them because we haven’t been there yet.
It is time to take responsibility for a state we did not create, but have perpetuated. We can no longer turn a blind eye to our complicity. Our human family has been splintered. We have made important members of our society feel unwelcome. It is our personal responsibility to make a place for them. We must let them teach us what we failed to learn. It is time to grow ourselves up so they can be free to do their unique developmental work.
Today we face painful problems defined as juvenile crime. But these are merely symptoms. We must go deeper to the source – to the gaping hole in our development as human beings. Crime bills and government money cannot buy healing for a wound this deep. Acts of desperation and fury will not go away by throwing money at them. These problems will not recede until we look inward at our own battered, silenced adolescent.
When we heal our relationship with these difficult and vibrant parts of ourselves, we will be able to applaud and make welcome our kids. We will ease the burden they have been carrying and will celebrate with them their awesome rite of passage. We will know how to offer our wisdom because we will have made the journey ourselves. And then maybe, my daughter, the apple of my eye, can wear her Senior Women’s Club T-shirt to school and know she is being seen and heard.
Kim McMillen is a mother, a consultant to business in human development, and one of the authors of When the Canary Stops Singing: Women’s Perspectives on Transforming Business. She also co-facilitates a program called "Mothers and Daughters: Revisiting Adolescence." You may reach her at 303/440-8613.
by Charlie Murphy
- Spend some time embracing the worlds where young people spend time. Watch MTV, see what comes up for you. Look at the styles, sounds, messages. Don’t segregate yourself from youth culture.
- Examine your agenda. Why is this work important to you?
- Examine your own youth. How was it for you being a young person? Are you still smarting from hurts you got in high school? Will you be bringing those insecurities with you into your work? Who was there for you when you were young? What difference did it make in your life?
- Young people want to be known, but they are sometimes skittish about getting too close to adults. Practice holding who they are in subtle ways. For example, look at each one calmly without avoiding eye contact as a group is gathering. Think about who they are; who they might become.
- Respect the young people you work with. Make space inside yourself for their reality to flood in.
Charlie Murphy is culture coordinator for Seattle YMCA’s Earth Service Corps.