We do not have to read special scientific reports to know that children in our society are in trouble. If you sit in a cosy, well-appointed home with a stable family environment and well-adjusted children, you are fortunate, but you cannot afford to be complacent. Your children are growing up in schools and environments which are populated by an increasing number of maladjusted, socially disoriented young people. Your children are not immune to their influence, which in many cases is massive. The fact is, your family condition may no longer be a majority situation.
During the years when, as a young deacon, I was making long lecture trips through the United States, speaking at various parishes of ROCOR, I often had layovers between buses in terminals in large American cities. One thing that struck me and burned into my soul was the large number of children and young people who were wandering around these places late at night, often in the early hours of the morning. Many of them were prostitutes — mere children, girls and boys alike. Many were simply lonely, their home environments so dreadful that they just wanted to be anywhere except at home. How many were drug users one cannot guess, but many of them had blank, lifeless eyes. Some of them looked like they were the “living dead.” Somehow, I never recovered, even to this day, from that experience.
Today, in the early part of the 21st century, we are more likely to find young people, often called “mall rats,” who practically live in shopping malls. Occasionally, we hear of one of them being lured out of a mall and murdered.
What forces in our society today are casting so many young people into despair and sending them along a path of destruction? The answer is both simple and complex and there are many factors. Hopelessness is the “simple” answer. But what creates this hopelessness is complex. Not only are children fearful that they may never grow up, that they, and the world around them, may meet a horrible fate in an impending ecological crash, but little in the life and example of contemporary adults gives any hope or sense of security for the future.
It is a commonplace to say that we are living in a culture dedicated to self- fulfilment and self gratification — “me-ism”. The spiritual and emotional welfare of children is not the main priority in life for many parents, largely because the common good of a community and society are not high priorities. In a self-centred society, children can become a “nuisance” because they take time, and money has to be spent on them. Since self-gratification and self-fulfilment are major objects, it follows that something as expensive and time consuming as a child should either have some exploitative value or at least should not be too distracting from one’s own self. As I have learned during years as a prison chaplain, sexually abused girls are often victims of a father’s feeling that he has a right to some return on his investment.
Television is, of course, another major contributor. It exposes children to the “raw facts” of life in an uncontrolled manner and children are exposed to adult situations which they are not equipped emotionally or by experience to cope with. The world is portrayed as a violent, fearful place in which no one is able to cope except by being violent. Moreover, advertisements, which often use young people in a sensuous manner, exploit the boredom, fears and loneliness which our society produces in them. We often see billboards with such slogans as “If you Desire it, You Need it.” Material gratification is offered as the solution to problems and to unhappiness.
Parents also turn to material things as solutions to child rearing problems. The quest for peacefulness, mutual, unselfish love and contemplation are not only practically unheard of, but even scoffed at. Too often, children are pressured into adult situations, experiences and competitiveness long before their emotional and mental development are capable of handling them.
More than anything else, however, we are producing young people who will become socially crippled adults because we, as a society, do not provide them with a childhood of healthy spiritual and emotional development. We have replaced aspirations with ambitions, a lovingly developed and nurtured discipline with either a lack of self-control or an aggressive discipline of fear. Beauty, love of nature and non-competitive community fellowship are not high priorities in general. So many children feel purposeless, left alone and without clear concepts and goals that membership in gangs, with strict discipline and a sense of “belonging” become attractive to them. Material gratification cannot heal this.
Orthodox homes and communities are certainly not immune to these problems. We have had to work with many troubled and despairing Orthodox youths over the past several years and in many cases, the causes of their problems are all too obvious. What makes these situations more tragic when they occur in Orthodox families is that the Orthodox faith does have the solution to these problems, and these solutions are constantly taught in the Church. But our people no longer listen. The majority has departed from the Orthodox Christian gospel, world view and approach to life to such a degree that our children have no more purpose, direction and protection in life than do children of completely unbelieving or indifferent families. We have come to despise the very things God has given us which give purpose and eternal hope to life, which instil self control, self understanding and positive, compassionate ideals in our youth. We have chosen instead to try to “hold on to” our young people by putting considerable effort and expense into things which offer them entertainment and self gratification, but we offer very little which will provide them with deep spiritual values, self control and eternal hope. We have robbed our own youth of the weapons and tools which the Holy Spirit gave them to defend themselves from the corruption and decay of the world around them and work out their salvation.
Regular prayer, fasting, spiritual development, the liturgical communal life of the Church, all these things which are contrary to the “spirit of this world” are often scorned by people.
Orthodoxy should be the joyous resort of all those who wish to find these lost treasures again. Orthodox Christian people, stop and think. What are we doing for the world around us; we are called to be the custodians of that faith and order of life which is the hope and salvation of all mankind. In too many cases, we are not only failing to preserve and transmit it to the world, we are even neglecting to transmit it to our own children.
Everyone of us has an obligation as Orthodox Christians, to struggle against the forces which are inundating our society and our world. The struggle begins at home, first with ourselves, our families, and then within our parishes. We must also find ways to reach outside ourselves and our own local groups to serve for the improvement of the lives of others. For Orthodox Christians, the life, welfare and benefit of the Church community is of central importance, but this concern should extend to the whole of mankind. To attain to this sort of love and selflessness is really the goal of our fasting and prayer life, and it is ultimately a gift of grace. Those who are able and willing, let them return to this. Those who are not, at least encourage the others and don’t become a hindrance to those who are.
Once you have begun to struggle for a truly Orthodox Christian life in your own home and parish, find out what you can do in your community to help children in distress and help alleviate some of their problems and sufferings. If you have children, bring them into this process also and train them from their youth to help and serve others, especially by forgoing some of their own material excesses. The world can be changed and improved only by faith and action. Young people have a lot of idealism, sometimes hidden, but often deeply inspiring. It is amazing how many of our youth do turn out to be honest, moral citizens, who contribute much to society, inspite of all the temptations and obstacles that come into their paths. This fact tells us that there is much hope, much we can do to help our young people along their path, and that young people do respond to guidance, discipline and leadership from adults whom they trust. Let us pray that God will give us the grace and strength to make our parishes places where our young people feel they can trust and imitate spiritual lives and sincere faith of adults in those parishes. This requires our attention and sincere discussion, and above all our prayers and our own struggle, as the adults who are the examples for our young people, to follow a life in Christ, without hypocrisy or bigotry, and with love, kindness and understanding for the problems that our youth face in our era.