Recalling the heady times of the French Revolution (1789 -1799), William Wordsworth, the English lake poet, wrote: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven”.
That’s it. To be young is ‘very heaven’. But don’t wait till you are as old as I am to realize this is indeed so!
To be young will not be ‘heaven’ in an automatic sense. To be young can also be very hellish. Not that that is a bad thing. What it does mean is that all of us are free – to choose between heaven and hell (of our own making).
Religions misrepresent both; for religious people don’t understand either heaven or hell. (All religions are the same in this respect). Heaven and hell are not in the world to come. They are here and now. Otherwise, why would, tens and thousands of young people commit suicide in this country every year?
Let us take note of a significant contradiction of our times. This is the century par excellence of the youth. Youth are at the centre of everything. They are the decisive resource. Yet, this age is also hostile and perilous to youth.
There is no doubt that youth of the present generation are a quantum leap over mine. We compare poorly, at the corresponding stage, with the young people of today. You inspire jealousy in us!
But, reading available evidence, it appears that young people, though excitingly promising and talented, are also weaker in their will, in comparison. There is a need today, in other words, to cultivate a great deal more of personal hardihood.
There are two reasons why we lose our strength.
First, strength results from struggle. Ask an athlete; a wrestler, how does he gain strength? By lazing around? Or, working hard at it each day, day after day? Part of this struggle lies in the glad and eager acceptance of discipline. If you are a gymnast, for example, you have to maintain a strict discipline about what you eat and what you don’t. If you want to be a sprinter you cannot smoke. If you want to participate in an athletic event, you cannot be on drugs.
There is strength in discipline. This is an area, however, of gross misunderstanding. There is a line of thinking that discipline compromises freedom! It is the other way round. The discipline I maintain daily is that of reading and writing. It enlarges my intellectual freedom, which is of supreme importance for me. If you are a tennis player, the discipline you maintain is that of regular, hard practice. It improves your on-court freedom. If you are in poor practice, you are, correspondingly, unfree.
The alternative to discipline is taking the line of least resistance. Or, to live led by one’s capricious whims and fancies, inclinations and dispositions. It is like being a car without brakes, steering, and so on. This is not freedom. It is a form of disability.
As a young person, I was passionately protective of my freedom. I still am. I am willing to pay any price for protecting and enlarging my freedom. But what is freedom? To me, freedom is a state in which I can attain my maximum development and, thereby, attain meaningful happiness. Such an understanding of freedom embraces discipline as its greatest ally.
Adopting the line of least resistance is the assured way of enfeebling oneself. Consider the example of resorting to unfair means at exams. It seems an easier path than studying hard year long in order to excel. But this imposes lifelong disabilities on the person concerned. Cheating the assessment process can only postpone, for a brief while, the day of reckoning. Life will put us to the test and one cannot cheat one’s way all through.
One aspect of the discipline that contributes to personal freedom is simplicity in lifestyle. (Think of Gandhi!) Today we live, virtually, in a mall. Thanks to the rising consumerist culture, our life and culture are getting homogenized. Our tastes, our interests, our personal traits are all homogenized. At the same time, every young person I know at close quarters wants to be seen and cherished as a unique human being.
Ask yourself, if you are just the same, in all respects, as the young man or young lady standing next to you why should another young man or lady prefer you and not the other person? Personal relationships need to be based on personhood. Personhood is necessarily distinctive, like your fingerprint. We used to call this individuality. Surely, this individuality is part of the power of being young.
All babies are alike. All old people, likewise. It is when we are young that personal distinctiveness matters so much. Yet, today, it is this distinctiveness that is being compromised in favour of the fleeting titillation that the market offers.
Most people do not realize that “depth” is the secret of the power of being. The alternative to being deep is being shallow. Depth radiates a sense of mystery. Mystery commands respect, even awe. Shallowness invites manipulation and exploitation. That is because the shallow is predictable. What is predictable can be easily controlled and will be manipulated. It will be taken for granted. This is a serious issue in inter-relationships. It is when depth is lacking that relationships disappoint and wither away.
Depth is wealth. But depth wakes up only through struggle and effort. Taking the line of least resistance slams the door against depth. It invites the curse of shallowness.
I feel amused when young people go to coaching camps to be drilled for interviews and personality tests! Interviews are really not a matter of some tricks or cosmetic gloss. Forget pretending, what is decisive is who you are. If you are shallow, it will show through. If you are deep, it will shine through. It is another matter that you may get away with shallowness if everyone in the group is shallow! But it will be foolish to count on this.
There is no substitute for being powerful in your being. You are young. You are, for me, very heaven. Be strong. Celebrate life!
Revd. Dr. Valson Thampu
Image source: Cabinet Office/Flickr