The real problem with today's teenagers
(and why most parents just don't get it!)

An address given by Rev. David B. Smith (aka. 'Fighting' Father Dave) at the Sydney Town Hall, February 21st 2003. Dave was addressing students, parents & teachers at the Fort Street High School speech day.

"The inspiration of a noble cause involving human interests wide and far, enables men to do things they did not dream themselves capable of before, and which they were not capable of alone. The consciousness of belonging, vitally, to something beyond individuality; of being part of a personality that reaches we know not where, in space and time, greatens the heart to the limit of the soul's ideal, and builds out the supreme of character."

(Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, October 3, 1889)

Who was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain I might ask. No, not the one-time British Prime Minister. That was a different Chamberlain. J.L. Chamberlain was a general in the American Civil War, who fought for the North. Why mention him today? It will remain a secret at this stage.

My name is Dave. I generally function under the persona of 'Father Dave'. That's because I am a priest -an Anglican priest. Apart from being a priest I am also a boxer and all-round martial arts master. I am also a 'youth worker' of sorts.

In some places in the world I would be granted an enormous amount of respect because I am a priest. In this community, I find I receive more respect that I deserve on account of my reputation for hitting people. I personally believe that the only role in that list that really demands respect is the one of 'Youth Worker'

Working with young people is hard. I used to be a young person. I was a hard young person to work with. I was a difficult student at school. I went on to be an argumentative University student and then a troublesome seminary student. I've left behind me a whole string of academic institutions that have been somewhat glad to see the back of me.

Now I've been working with hard and difficult young people in Dulwich Hill for the last twelve years (which may be God's way of paying me back). Some of the young people I've worked with have really got their lives together and gone on to bigger and better things. Quite a number of them have died - mainly from overdoses but also from car accidents (often in stolen cars) and from suicide. Others I'm still working with. They're just not quite as young as they used to be.

People ask me all the time 'Dave, what do you think is the biggest problem facing young people today'. Most people think I am going to answer 'drugs'.

I do not consider drugs to be the biggest problem young people are facing today. That's not because I don't think drugs are a big problem. I've worked with a lot of drug-addicted young people over the years. I have been robbed and manipulated by them, and I have watched many of them. Even so, I do not consider drugs to be the biggest problem plaguing our young people.

Some people think 'violence' is the biggest problem facing young people, and I am conscious of the fact that for young guys (in particular) problems of violence can still be a major issue. Violence is not nearly so big a problem in my area as it was five years ago, but we still managed to finish up one of our most recent blue-light discos with an all-in brawl in the streets. Problems of violence are alive and well in Dulwich Hill. Even so, I do not consider violence to the biggest problem facing young people.

Some people think in terms of lack of employment opportunities as the major issue. Others would speak in terms of family breakdown or problems of prejudice - all real issues. Personally though, I believe that the biggest problem facing our young people today is something a little less tangible. Personally I think the biggest problem I see with our young people is that most of them don't feel themselves to be a part of anything that is bigger than themselves.

Most young people I meet have tragically small horizons, very little ambition, and hence live in very tiny worlds. When I ask teenagers about what they would really like to do with their lives if they could do anything at all, most others speak in terms of getting something, whether that something be a horse or a car or a girl or just 'a lot of money'.

No one I speak to says 'If I could do anything I wanted I'd find a cure for cancer' or 'I'd negotiate a peace deal in the Middle East'. And this reflects, I believe, the fact that most young people I know have very narrow horizons. Indeed, most young persons I know seem to live in worlds that are not much bigger than themselves.

Go back a couple of generations and most European Australians were ready to lay down their lives for King and country. You wouldn't find many young people today willing to sacrifice themselves for Queen and country. You won't find many young people who have any real sense of loyalty to the Queen or to the country. Indeed, if you ask most young people what it means to be Australian, you won't generally get a reply that contains any ideals.

There are positives as well as negatives in this equation of course. Strong patriotism often goes hand in hand with strong prejudice against people of other nationalities. And our Australian cynicism towards our governing bodies at least means that we're not easily fooled by political propaganda. Even so, the downside of our 'loss of national identity' means that we've been thrust back upon ourselves and upon our peers to find some sense of personal identity.

Now if you're following me here at all you may well be thinking 'Yeah, Dave thinks that because he's working with a group of no good loser drug addicts. Hell, I don't know what happened to him since he left Fort Street, but that guy has been on a one-way downwardly mobile trip. Over here we've really got it all together.' Yeah? I don't know.

One of the most depressing groups of young people I've encountered in the past few years has been at my oldest daughter's school. She attends a different government run selective high school. I won't say which one. NOT THIS ONE! When she fist started school there they asked her whole class 'what did they want to be when they finished school?', and almost every other person there, apart from her, said 'a lawyer'.

Now people, maybe I've been prejudiced over the years by the enormous amount of time I've spent in juvenile courts and in the prison system, but it seems to me that if we're really on about building a better Australia, the last thing we need is more lawyers!

Now I know I shouldn't be black and white about this, but my daughter went around and asked her peers 'why do you want to be a lawyer?' Some of them answered 'because my dad is a lawyer' or something like that, but MOST of them said that it was because being a lawyer was a 'good job', by which they mean what ….? A job that can help a lot of people? NO! When people say a 'good job' they mean a job that makes a lot of money.

There was a time when we used to speak of the 'idealism of youth'. What's happened to that? When did youthful idealism get replaced by this 'I want to make a lot of money' mentality? Why do people who should know better want to make a 'lot of money'? Is it because you think you need a lot of money in order to survive? You don't! Is it because you think 'if I have a lot of money I will be really important and people will look up to me?' GET A LIFE!

Friends, I do not think that there is any greater tragedy in this community than a highly trained intelligent young person who has all the gifts and abilities necessary to really make a difference in this society, but who has no idea where to direct those gifts and abilities. It's like having a powerful loaded weapon and not caring where it's aiming when it goes off.

This is the tragedy: that most of our young people, I fear, drug-addicted and not drug-addicted, well educated as well as less well educated, winners as well as losers, live a life wherein 'my life is basically about me'. That's a tragedy.

One of my good friends is a guy called Mordechai Vanunu, who is still in prison in Israel for telling the world about all the nuclear bombs that his country has stockpiled. Morde has been in prison there now for 17 years. The worst thing about his prison term though was that he spent the first 11 and a half years in solitary confinement, which is one of the most torturous forms of human punishment - living in a world inhabited by one!

I see a similar tragedy taking place in the lives of so many of our young people who really have no hopes, dreams or ambitions in this life that go beyond themselves. What a small life to live! It's like trying to beautify the wallpaper in your own solitary cell!

It's this loss of idealism that I see as the greatest scourge afflicting our young people today, and my response to this situation is to teach these young people to fight, which might not seem like the most obvious solution to the dilemma to everybody.

The relevance of fighting to an individual's value system might not be immediately obvious to everyone, but I do seriously believe that pugilism and idealism are intricately linked. The bottom line is that I know that it all works.

I know that I've had an almost 100% success rate when it comes to taking in guys who have serious drug problems or violence problems, that by the time I get them to the side of the ring for a serious fight, they are no longer having problems with drugs or violence or any of those things, but have actually developed a real sense of who they are and what they are on about.

I know it works. I'm not sure I fully understand why it works, but I would note that if you go back to Plato's Republic, to the wisdom of the Ancient Greeks, you'll find that Socrates assigned a very high place to the value of 'themos', which we translate as 'aggression' or 'fighting spirit'.

According to Socrates, no individual and no society is complete without properly developed 'themos'. Individuals and societies need to know how to fight if they are going to know real harmony and real justice.

The other authority I would appeal to today is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain:

" The consciousness of belonging, vitally, to something beyond individuality … greatens the heart to the limit of the soul's ideal, and builds out the supreme of character."

Chamberlain writes this out of his experience in the American Civil War - one of the most terrible wars in history.

Chamberlain was, ironically, a contemporary and a colleague of William Tecumseh Sherman who coined the phrase 'war is hell' and I don't think Chamberlain would have necessarily disagreed with Sherman. But Chamberlain also found that, for all its horror, war had one very positive side effect - it gave people a sense of belonging to something that was greater than themselves and so it could bring out the best in people.

Of course Chamberlain isn't the only person whose seen this. My old dears at the church used to say it all the time. "What these young people need is a good war" they used to say. Now they weren't stupid, and they knew as well as anyone else that the last thing we really need is a 'good war', but their point was that they felt young people needed some experience like they'd had in their youth, where they were forced to work together with a broad range of people across the community and to make sacrifices together as they committed themselves to a cause which was something far bigger than any of them as individuals.

Fighting has worked for me (and it's less costly all round than starting a war). Maybe it will work for you too. Find out! Come down and touch gloves with me. Do a few rounds. See how the experience affects you. (just don't all come at once)

Perhaps fighting is not your thing. That's OK. Find another way to get in touch with your ideals and values. Spend more time in church. Head up on a mountain by yourself for a couple of months and just think and pray about it. That works for some people. Just don't be content with a life that has no greater horizon than your own wealth and self-importance.

We live in an extraordinary society in an extraordinary period in human history. Think about it. At how many other points in history, and in how many other places in the world, have any group of people ever had the degree of choice about the future that we have today.

Think about it. The rest of your life lies before you and you can really choose to do with it just about anything you want to! Your options are really only limited by your imagination and your genetic potential. At how many times and places in human history has that been true?

If you were born a few generations back in a village you wouldn't have had these sorts of choices. Your dad was the village Smithy, so that's what you were going to be. If you were born on a farm you were probably going to stay on that farm until you died. If you were a teenage girl you probably already had a couple of kids by now and your path was fully set.

We're at the opposite end of the spectrum now. If you decide to spend the rest of your life entirely devoted to playing your guitar you can do it. You may become a great rock star, but even if you don't you won't starve. The government safety net will still support you in the end so that you can keep doing nothing but guitar playing if that's what you really want.

If you decide to devote the rest of your life to scientific research you can do that. If that's your vision and you're determined, nobody is going to stop you from giving your life to that.

If you want to devote your life to feeding the hungry and healing the sick you can do that, or if you just want to sit around on your bum all day too, you can do that too! The choice is yours.

But this is our dilemma. Never before in human history have we had such a wonderful variety of choices before us, and never before, I fear, have we had so little idea of what we should choose.

One final illustration from a Peace March: I trust that plenty of you guys made it to the recent Peace March, and good on you. Let me mention to you one placard that I heard about at a march. I didn't see it but was told about it. It said "nothing is worth dying for". I thought that this was very clever at first, but then it occurred to me if nothing is worth dying for, is anything worth living for?

Friends, I believe that there are things worth living and dying for. Find out what they are and live them! Live your life to the full. Fight the good fight. Keep the faith. And the blessing of God Almighty - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit - be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen!

Author's Bio: 

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, author, father of three