November in many religious traditions is a time for remembering those who have gone before us and those who have intersected our lives and made them better. Each November, I think of the thousands of people I have had the privilege of sharing life with. There have been so many people of all ages that have blessed my life and made me feel a little richer for having had the connection.
My life course has allowed me the opportunity to meet thousands of young people from every walk of life. These countless teenagers have taught me much about respect, tolerance, acceptance and discrimination.
Every day I witness their courage, their openness and their creativity. In spite of some of the adult world's narrow-mindedness and downright bigotry, they continue to navigate a course that is refreshing and life giving.
To walk in a young person's shoes these days is not easy. Many young people walk to the beat of a different drummer. They have grown up in a world that talks the language of love, but lives a reality of violence, discrimination and human exploitation.
From their earliest age, today's young people are pulled in a dozen different directions. They continually hear mixed messages. The rules are constantly changing. If you don't come from a strong, grounded family, how do you learn right from wrong? The partnership that once existed between family, school, community and religion is dead. The reinforcement that once existed has been lost. In fact, it is not uncommon that two families can live in the same neighborhood and attend the same church or temple, but look at the world in radically different ways.
Consistently, one of the issues that emerges as I talk to young people is the on-going discrimination they experience from many adults based on very superficial, shallow issues.
Self-expression is very important to many young adults. Clothing, hairstyles, body piercings and tattoos are just a few of the variables that shape their exterior. How many adults judge the content of a person based on those variables? To take it a step further, how many of us judge the content and character of another based on color, religion, social status, level of education, sexual orientation, career path and whether or not one has ever struggled with addictions or the criminal justice system?
For better or for worse, so much of what our children become is shaped by what they see in us. Prejudice and discrimination are not inborn, they are learned behaviors. Some aspects of these behaviors are very subtle, but nonetheless infectious and destructive. Other aspects are more blatant, but equally as destructive and hurtful.
In this age of technological sophistication, where one wants to believe people are so much more insightful and open, where does such reprehensible behavior and thinking come from? It comes from that dark place within each of us that is called fear and ignorance.
Most of us fear change and difference. Change threatens our comfort zone. Difference causes us to stretch our thinking and awareness. Oftentimes we panic when we are forced to stretch in ways that we are unaccustomed to. That forced stretching also involves not knowing and possibly not understanding.
In the last twenty-five years, much has changed within our culture. We have been exposed to so much that we never thought was possible. Our thinking patterns are continually being challenged to expand and broaden, probably to a pace too quick for many of us.
Who would ever think in a relatively affluent community blessed with much, that a growing number of teenagers might or even should leave their homes because of terrible dysfunction within their homes?
What kind of dysfunction would drive a teenager to want to leave his or her home with all the perks that come with living on the "Gold Coast?" Therein lies the insight. Violence, hate, drug use and emotional abandonment to name a few issues, are running wild in too many families. Too many teenagers are not equipped to manage in this volatile circumstance.
Some respond by shutting down and becoming depressed. Others medicate themselves with drugs and alcohol. Still others become very rebellious and extremely non-compliant.
The common denominator is that life at home is unbearable. On the outside, they appear to be the all American family, with everything in place. If the truth be told, they are really a family on the edge waiting for the time bomb to go off.
The denial is overwhelming. Parents are not receptive to an intervention, counseling or any kind of support. The thought of outside assistance is perceived as meddling and intruding into the private dynamics of their family. This resistance makes this family almost impossible to reach.
Thus, the burdened teenager feels that he or she has no other option but to leave, and he or she does. The family does not miss a heartbeat. In their mind, he or she is the identified problem. They believe life will be better without this teenager. They feel he or she will beg to come home when they see the light.
The light never comes, nor does their seventeen year old beg to come home. They attempt reconciliation, but refuse any kind of counseling or professional intervention. Thus, this seventeen year old must go it alone.
BK is now a college student. He is studying to become an elementary school teacher. He felt emotionally forced from an abusive environment at the age of sixteen. His birth parents are divorced. At this point in his journey, he makes vigorous efforts to have an adult relationship with them. However, it is not without emotional pain.
As a college senior, he looks back on his life and verbalizes that the best thing he did was leave the lethal environment of his youth. His struggle has been the inappropriate comments people have made about external things like his dress and piercings. More importantly, because he grew up in a community residence, he feels like he has been labeled and at times judged.
BK is probably among the most moral living young adults I know. He is honest, sensitive, respectful, responsible and loving. He will make an outstanding teacher. He is brilliant and creative, but more importantly, he has a tender heart.
He has been wounded by the world's harsh prejudicial judgments and stereotypes. However, he is determined to teach his students to walk a different way, to follow a path that is grounded in justice and respect for all people without judgment or discrimination. He does not want his students to be burdened like he was!