One of the priests I most admire grew up on a farm on the Canadian plains. The virtues of farm life transfer well to the parish: discipline, hard work, showing up, getting things done on time, maintaining relationships, helping people work together. And, not least, a kind of straightforward openness that speaks plainly, honestly, modestly. Such qualities allow for a steady, comprehensive, and humane meshing of individual, family, and community. Tie this to faith and the gospel, and you have channels through which God’s grace moves with extraordinary fruitfulness.
Sociologists have studied young people who grow up on farms. They have examined the internalization of discipline, the effects of useful physical exertion in the midst of otherwise confusing and unformed biological instincts, a sense of contribution to a wider purpose, positive and strong feelings regarding parents and families, the stable framework of meaning for growth and aging. This way of life shapes public actions and social relations across generations.
Those who grow up on farms often experience drastic troubles, limitations, and natural burdens. Yet amid all this, their world is coherent. They can trace, on a kind of existential map, their own movement from childhood to adulthood, to old age and death, marked by signposts, pathways, landmarks, and endings. Along this pilgrimage walk many others: the people who worked for you, with whom you work, and for whom, finally, you expend yourself, with shared struggles and joys. All together.
This stands in stark contrast to the way in which most adolescents are raised in our society. A lot of teenagers in North America are still wearing masks, long after Covid mandates were dropped, even as older folks and kids around them go about their business without face coverings. Explanations vary: Young people are more attuned to “science,” more medically sensitive, more affected by peer pressures that urge virtue-signaling. One theory both progressive and conservative commentators share, however, is that adolescents are more generally overwhelmed by “anxiety”—body image, identity, purpose, acceptance. In the face, literally, of such worries, there is comfort in donning a mask.
Teenagers turning to the mask is about more than the difficulties of growing up. It is facilitated by a culture that is, by and large, sympathetic to the attractions of isolation. Youth, at least since the era of Romanticist nostalgia, has been valorized in its experience of lonely confusion and longing. As a teenager, I fell in love with Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, a brilliant symphonic poem centered on a solo viola whose “melancholy dreaming” (Berlioz’s phrase) was meant to express the inarticulate and unreachable yearnings of youth. Berlioz had in mind “Childe Harold” of Byron’s famous poem.
There is a pulsating beauty in this musical and literary vision. But when embraced as a good, the frayed passions of Harold extend themselves into adulthood. The generations after Byron often splintered our lifespan into a series of discrete self-involvements. Antinomian (as Byron himself was called), unmoored, worn out by aimless pleasures, running from the world, uncertain yet filled with desire, the Romantic youth of the nineteenth century morphed into something less expansive, and yet more segregated. In our time, the Childe Harolds have ended up drifting through the dark hallways of the internet, huddling in corners away from those whose pain is not their own, singing private songs, plotting the world’s transfiguration and despairing of its immovable boundaries—and sometimes taking frustrations out on their own bodies in sweeping self-mutilations. People in our society make a lot of money encouraging this diminished, isolated, and inwardly turned form of life. The mask furthers the secret spaces of private dissatisfaction, guards its boundaries, and validates its demand for social recognition and assistance.
So much is amiss here that one hardly knows where to start. Rightly viewed within the arc of life, adolescence is literally a “stage,” a role assumed within the life of a community that observes and watches. The word “stage” has a range of meanings in English: a “place of standing,” a platform; but also a “season,” a time. Adolescence—like childhood and old age—is thus a public season of life, bound to those in other “stages,” integrated with them, even while moving, temporally, from one to another. De-publicizing, de-integrating, de-defining youth—taking it off the stage—dissolves character and inhibits growth. Young people are left to figure themselves out, at a time when there are few internal tools with which to do so. The upshot is aimlessness, lostness, anger, and, finally, anxiety.
The scriptural picture of adolescence is shaped by a world that existed before modernity’s recent doubling of the average lifespan. The shorter compass of most lives could mean tremendous power for some teenagers. Uzziah, like many dynastic rulers in the era of rampant disease and violence, was sixteen when he became king of Judah. In general, though, Scripture connects youth not to government but to passions and desires that learn how to be governed. Even Ecclesiastes 11:9, which encourages the enjoyment of vigorous feelings, reminds us of their brevity, their relation to pain and evil, and the need to judge them in proportion to the reality of divine purpose and human transience.
Proportion and relation are of central importance: Youth finds its meaning only within a larger scaffolding of human design. Bound by creaturely finitude and dependence, the “years of one’s youth” must be gauged by and oriented to aging and death, as well as to their origin from parents and links to family. Young people have a set of responsibilities and generative gifts that open out onto the future. But like the aged, the young on the cusp of adulthood embody weakness and incapacity in a special way, and they remain dependent on others for survival.
Finding one’s rightful place in the sequence of life and generation is thus a deeply religious and ethical matter. Duty and obedience to God are as central to the young as to any other age group, although even more so as a kind of “training” (lamad, as in Ps. 71:17, or paideia, as in Heb. 12:5, 7). Such training, we hear over and over again in Proverbs and elsewhere, is integrated with the dutiful lives of adults, families, and their larger communities. Youth is the season of self-fashioning into an artifact of divine beauty—a struggle, a labor, a delight for all to see. Segmenting adolescence into an independent category of life—a decoupling that took root in cultures that abandoned apprenticeship and other attachments to adults in favor of cohort-centered education—has been disastrously inevitable in our societies today. One sees in homeschooling the suggestion of an alternative future.
The isolated precincts of youth are today’s commercial bullseye, subject to intense marketing efforts. In this sphere, mostly aimless peers provide the only structure and feedback. An untethered search for a human life integrated with other limited human lives misfires. It simply drifts or combusts. Anxiety is the natural reaction to such a situation in which one is given no bearings, and it is hardly blameworthy in itself. Its rise among the young signals their genuine urge to fashion desire and self as part of a whole—a whole family, a whole community, a whole generation. Masking the self undercuts this urge, but it serves as a negative sign, an indication that the young hope to guard what they have attained and protect themselves against still further disintegration in a society of clueless adults who have abandoned adolescents to a world of unformed passions.
Very few people are now raised on farms. We don’t even have paper routes these days. Nobody can turn the clock back on our segmented societies, fractured along lines of generation, labor, assumed identities, and commercial niches—the cauldron of anxiety. Still, people of faith can and should reorient their approaches to family, education, and work in order to enable the virtue-fashioning energies of adolescence to find a foothold. We need to build stages on which the young can take hold of their public selves.
Augustine describes youth as a figure of the “children of the resurrection,” of Christ’s offspring, vigorous in righteousness, steady in virtue, abundant in grace. All the stages of our lives are, in fact, embodied figures (on the “left hand,” Augustine says) of marvelous promises and gifts of Christian truth in the Church’s life (on the “right hand”). What we live in the flesh images what we live in the spirit. Living on the “left hand” does not degrade the flesh, but rather underlines its importance and its priority as we press for “God, eternity, the years of God which fail not.”
The flesh is not “mere flesh.” It is by definition public. Our embodied lives are shared, ordered from, in, and toward others, in family, labor, and Church. When properly shaped, the flesh manifests—unmasks—the spirit and its truth for the sake of the people of God. Unmasking the self, up on the stage, as it were, describes how priests, ministers, teachers, workers, mothers, fathers, children, are opened up to the leading of the Spirit through time. Young people require and deserve such an open place in our midst more than anyone.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?