With Christmas only days away, most of us have switched mode and embraced the festive spirit by doing whatever makes this time of year special to us. I was recently asked to give a talk in a secondary school to teenagers about faith. This was a new departure for me but was only too happy to accommodate the school.
I had to do a little preparatory work since I had never engaged teenagers in a debate about religion before. What I discovered and learned amazed me. It’s not for me to push religion down anyone’s throat especially young teenagers who are so lost and confused in respect of what life is about. I was a teenager too, believe it or not, but thankfully I lived in a different era when there was far less materialism and sophistication.
Young people face so many more challenges in these modern times than I did 40 years ago. There’s the pressure to look good. The media feeds our youth with images of the perfect person; not overweight or overthin. Being fashionable and brandishing labels are a ‘must’. If a teen doesn’t have the Nike runners that Jimmy has, then that teen feels out of place.
Parents, too, heap pressure on their children. Perhaps, it’s sport or a hobby that they enjoyed when they were that age. A family who owns a business can often presume that their son or daughter may also be business minded. There are teens within families who may not be academic but who are still expected to perform as their older sister or brother did. Young people cannot avoid the issue of sex. If they are in a relationship, the peer pressure to have sex is huge. Also, when teenagers are confused about their sexuality, society puts enormous pressure on them to conform. The fear of rejection by family and friends can cause great stress and anxiety.
The pressure to drink or maybe take drugs is another disturbing matter for concern in modern Ireland. I accept that many of the above-mentioned issues have always been there. They may have been but certainly not to the same extent as they are today.
Today’s teenagers are perpetually plugged into technology and pride themselves on being socially conscious. They are termed the iGeneration, Generation Z, Pluralists or post-Millenials. They are the least religious generation in Irish history. The philosophy of moral-relativism is their way of living. A moral-relativist basically believes that there are no rules governing ‘right or wrong’. So, for example, when certain sectors of African society permit polygamy, some thinkers say that practice is acceptable because it arises from that particular culture, making it moral in "relative" circumstances.
Teenagers do not want to say that someone else is wrong nor do they want anybody to say they’re wrong either. It is because they are living in a chaotic, pluralistic and fragmented world. Friedrich Nietzsche, the world-renowned atheist and author of ‘God is Dead’ wrote, “You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, it does not exist.”
There exists the idea today among adults as well as teens that we need to be good people who live good lives. “Good” is more orientated around ‘feeling good’ than good. When we adults adopt such a philosophy is it not reasonable to expect our children to act in the same way?
The iGeneration are indeed more socially conscious than its generational predecessors but their social activism isn’t all that active. They are more satisfied with being advocates on social media than getting physically getting stuck in. They believe that the ‘likes’ on Facebook or ‘retweets’ on Twitter is equivalent to participating in ‘meals on wheels’. Social media gives them a feeling of having advocated for change without working for change. It also gives them a sense of knowing more than they do. The internet gives them access to information which is a mile wide and an inch deep. Unfortunately, they don’t know that it’s an inch deep. They are very confident in the knowledge they have and just assume they can do another Google search if they need more. That confidence goes hand in hand with what many perceive as a sense of entitlement. They believe themselves deserving of things they don’t really deserve.
I believe that many parents contribute to this behaviour. They are increasingly interfering in their child’s school and sport, showering them with material gifts and shying away from assigning chores at home. Our youth is highly influenced by social media where they may have hundreds of Facebook friends but struggle to form meaningful connections in the real world. Parents again are putting ‘smart’ devices into the hands of their children at an early age and are neglecting to engage with these children at home. It’s not just meaningful relationships, however, that teens lack. Its meaning in general. For years, life has been presented to them as a ‘choose your own adventure story’.
In respect to my opening paragraph, it is difficult to teach teens the Faith when they think they know all there is to know. Teens are not taught that there’s a purpose to their existence, that there’s a reason why they’re alive. We are all pretty creative including our teenagers but none of us are creative enough to make up a meaning for our life that’s going to last. Our young people want something deeper and more real than society is giving them. They desire honesty from us. None of us can survive without intimacy. If everything is relative, how do they navigate the world? We need to establish real, authentic relationships with teens; identifying and naming their gifts and talents; and treating them with respect, but also gently leading them to question the culture; being honest and admitting struggles; and not pulling any punches when it comes to teaching the truth.
I believe that my Catholic faith has the answers to the hard questions. Perhaps, this is the reason why I was asked to talk at this particular school.
I would like to wish all of my readers a happy, holy and peaceful Christmas.
Keep the faith!