My teenage son and I had one of those heart-to-heart conversations recently that you cannot plan; it just happened. He is coming of age, and with those steps toward adulthood he has begun to see the world for what it is, both marvelous and dangerous. Or in the words of Frederick Buechner, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.” His eyes have been opened to the “terrible” things.
It’s right on time. I’ve said before that the emotional transition from childhood to adolescence is when a person realizes that world does not revolve around him or her (a revelation some never get). A person moves from adolescence to adulthood when he or she realizes, “Not only does the world not revolve around me, I think it’s out to get me!”
So we talked about economics, globalization, racism, ISIS, the volatility of currency, the environment, the fleeting supplies of petroleum products, the stock market, and pandemics. I told him that the challenges he and his peers will face seem insurmountable; just as they did for me when I was his age; as they did for my parents, and their parents before them.
My point to him was that every generation faces a world that is hard, harsh, and unwelcoming. Every generation experiences the “beautiful and terrible things.” The trick is to fulfill the last part of Buechner’s quote: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” A story from a previous generation might help my son – all of us – find some courage.
Malcolm Gladwell and J.T. MacCurdy wrote about the German bombardment of London during WW2 and how the British government predicted disaster. There would be mass panic, hundreds of thousands killed, a million wounded, and the British people would be incapacitated.
On September 7, 1940 the Germans began their relentlessly bombing of London, “The Blitz,” it was called. It was everything the British government officials had feared – except that their predictions about how the people would react turned out to be wrong. The Brits responded not with panicked fear, but defiance.
The Blitz had the opposite effect the Germans intended: It emboldened rather than paralyzed. Certainly, Londoners knew that bombs were falling and that people were dying or being injured. But at the end of each day, most people had survived, and the longer they survived the more courageous they became.
MacCurdy concluded, “People aren’t just prone to fear. We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid. But when fear is conquered, it produces exhilaration.” And Gladwell adds, “Courage is not something you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn after you’ve been through tough times.”
Few of us are born brave, but if we daily work our courage – and each beautiful and terrible day will surely give us that opportunity – we will build up the muscle to face the future, just as those before us have done.