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Young men finding words and worth

Thursday 9 August 2018

Andrew Hamilton, Eureka Street
 
At the recent launch of the #WorthASecondChance campaign I had the privilege of listening to young men who, in their own estimation, had turned their lives around from fragmented childhoods, troubled early adolescence and behaviour that could have brought them into conflict with the law.
 
Now they are clearly hopeful, self-confident and are making plans for the future. They attributed the change to programs in which people stood by them and helped them reflect on their lives.

I was particularly struck by the language they used to describe their lives. They spoke in very general terms and in a limited and flat vocabulary of the time before they became engaged in the program where they found support. They were inarticulate.

But when describing the change that had taken place in their lives they spoke fluently in the language of psychology and therapy: of wellbeing, growth in self-esteem, inclusion and connection. They had found an analytical vocabulary to describe themselves and how they now wanted to interact with the world. Finally, when they spoke personally of themselves, especially through song or poetry, their language was simple, direct, warm and distinctive.

Their evident joy at growing in confidence and self-awareness confirmed the importance of language for finding meaning, for developing personal relationships, for connecting with the world and for a firm sense of self. The things for which we have no words or symbols have only a shadowy and barely understood existence.

The path to adulthood is in large measure a process of learning words, coming to use them discriminatingly and discovering their resonance in relationships and in work. Ideally the early stages of this path run through a stable and warm network of relationships within family and community in which words are linked to a tradition expressed in stories and symbols.

Where young people grow up in a world without stable relationships or words to negotiate the world, their education is likely to be an experience of alienation and rejection. They will then find it difficult to find the right words for exploring respectful relationships, for understanding the world and their place in it and for finding employment. They risk becoming inarticulate and alienated even from themselves.

‘The alternative is their alienation and the making of a society in which adult gaols multiply across the land as a monument to its failure to care for its children.’

Even though their growth is interrupted in this way, however, they can find a path if they meet companions whom they trust, who respect and listen to them and provide words that help them to understand themselves and to explore building good relationships with other people and with their world. They are eventually able to own as their own a vocabulary that gives them power over lives that had previously been driven aimlessly. They come to life as they discover good words for a new world of possibility.

Another part of young people’s growth is to recover old words, or more precisely to discover new possibilities in old words. When the young men to whom I listened spoke more deeply of themselves they used simple words, exploring their emotional as well as their rational possibilities. In this way they explored the depths of their experience and came to own it. Those who accompanied them through the program had clearly encouraged them in this through song and art, but they had themselves been able to build a personal vocabulary of their own.

One might hope that they will be encouraged to explore further the literary tradition with its capacity for fine discrimination. That in turn might help them to find words apt for describing their traumatic early experiences and to integrate the different strands of their vocabulary.

Listening to these young men brought home the importance and the delicacy of the task of helping vulnerable young people find words. The alternative is their alienation and the making of a society in which adult gaols multiply across the land as a monument to its failure to care for its children.

The healing of young men through language also prompts reflection on the language of public life and of politics. Many prominent politicians, shock jocks and partisan reporters display all the alienation and aggression associated with lost youth. Their words display neither self-understanding nor elegance nor capacity for deep relationships. Their behaviour is gang-like, characterised by temporary alliances between rivals, concerted assaults on hostile gangs and tormenting of people who are different.

Is there a way in which adult members of society might respond compassionately to these people, helping them to find good words that lead to self-reflection and respectful relationships with one another and with society? Finding and pursuing such a way would demand a laborious commitment, certainly. But failing that, do we not then face a choice between abandoning the city to the gangs, or awaiting an electoral opportunity to take to one of the rival gangs with baseball bats? In both cases we would be leaving the inarticulate and alienated to rule the earth.

This article was originally published here.
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