Contemplation, strictly speaking, entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator: an object worthy of contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject…All objects, rightly perceived, are already full.”
How are you supposed to be a person before you’ve become yourself?
When you’re 9, 10, 11 years old, handcuffed by the impending sea change of hormones and the inevitability of messing up, it’s hard to overemphasize the value in looking at everything that exists outside your boundaries and then making some hard choices about where to cross over. Do you hear what I’m saying? One becomes oneself by first loitering and failing, by drinking the strange potion of doing bad things and making what will eventually be seen as, in one context or many, mistakes. Bad because not allowed, mistakes because never again. You prank people, you send a neighbor’s trash can barreling down the street, you reveal words to friends told to you by other friends and find yourself, by the end of the week, lonely and speechless and bored. You judge people and turn away from opportunities. You hang out with peers you’re “not supposed to” and drink things you’re “not supposed to.” You do little at school, and then even less; you do bad in life on purpose. If the greatest thing about being 70, as May Sarton once told a stunned crowd, is that you are more of yourself than you’ve ever been before, then the shared truth of that fact is that you are hardly so when you’re young.
So what is the job of a parent? And how do we ensure that the duties are fulfilled when the nuclear unit, already so treacherous a shape, has exploded, leaving kids parentless, and single parents stretched beyond the thin membrane of their already tapering selves, and children vulnerable to the strange spectrum of homeless <—-> home after home after home, the displacement caused by hyper-placement, the unraveling of home from a house to a street, a street to a city, or one couch to another, night after night? Kids bounce, or they run, or they are placed elsewhere; or else they share space with numerous others and find themselves shuttled back and forth between visitations and conflicting schedules, their lives unfolding not in bedrooms and classrooms—the privilege of clearly defined, designated spaces—but filling up whatever empty cracks and corners they can sneak into. Bouncing and rebounding, running and shuttling: all those gerunds are the side-effect of unintentional splitting, whether it be sudden death or the earth opening up around a couple’s previous commitment, how we adults can sometimes change our minds, or leave our minds perfectly still for too long, only to find younger generations swallowed whole by the consequences. Abuse, neglect, or things simply catching up with us, which happens a lot, in my experience of being an adult: one day I’m doing the chasing, the next day I’m being chased. And while I never moved through foster care myself and, with a few minor exceptions, generally knew where I’d be sleeping each night, I was nevertheless a child of divorce, unwellness, and adults who refused agreement and compromise; of the shattering of normality, how we all pretended, according to our ages, that we could function through to the other side of whatever it was that consumed our household for all those years.
It wasn’t until I reached my 30s that I found Nora Ephron: “…infidelity itself is small potatoes compared to the low-level brain damage that results when a whole chunk of your life turns out to have been completely different from what you thought it was.” The brain damage was, is, mine, and the infidelity my father’s, who brought a whole slew of damaged and damaging women—in image, in real life flesh—into our household, exposing me, at the earliest age I can remember, to the abusive notion that my gender could achieve value only through becoming sexually desirable to a certain type of man. Achieving, becoming—in other words, gender troubles. The thing about gerunds is that they take all the action out of the verb, they function by relinquishing their motion for the stillness of a noun; they hold still when you might’ve expected them to go forward a little, and I can’t think of a better way to describe being young and feeling out of control than that.
So what is the job of a parent, a support person, a trusted adult? You can’t help a person become themselves any faster than nature and empowerment allow. But you can help a child understand that they have options, that they can make things exist that did not exist before their making them. That they can be curious, fail broadly, try again. There’s a lot of time for trying again when you’re young. But the best way to encourage the person a child will become is to model the doing, the making, the being; in other words, the personhood. Kids see how we act and what we see, they learn through the act of witnessing. The job of the guardian is to foster spaces wherein youth may witness life’s bigness, fortified by patience and humility and, above all else, a creativity that growls over perfection’s whisper.
The other day, killing time in a doctor’s waiting room, my partner recounted some of his teenaged hijinks to me, spoke of how he and his friends once rearranged all the lawn décor on a series of houses a few streets from their own. The doctor hadn’t called me back yet, so I reciprocated by mentioning the time I once shot a bb gun into a school window; or how I’d stayed the night in a den with a bunch of seniors when my mom thought I was already home, how I had a man call the school and claim to be my father, excusing me from the day. Some of it worked out—by the skin of my teeth, I avoided certain natural consequences—and some of it didn’t (my mom had already called the school 30 minutes before us, looking for me, worried sick). None of this stuff has any bearing on the person I am today, beyond the simple and extraordinary fact that she was once me, and that she survived.
Posturing, denial, repression. Our adult methods for making sense of a chaotic world grow sophisticated as we fall more into ourselves, as we army crawl into the lives we’ve chosen. As you get older, you learn how to do more than just casually tiptoe across the boundaries you encounter and begin to harness the full force of your unique volition, sometimes setting new, expanded boundaries. Survival depends, at least in part, on a relationship with your younger self: that you learn to let the word “forgiveness” sit lightly on your tongue, that you understand how utterance conjures the good ideas which, in turn, become actions. But survival also depends on the experience of being young, being her, and having at least one adult who will listen to your new feelings and less good ideas and transitional states of mind and, rather than dismiss them, will take them no less seriously than what’s found in the heart of every single adult who, alive and mortal, sometimes changes their mind, too. Nobody stops growing, and that’s the shared intimacy of life and death across all generations, two sides of the same fabric—the same seam, the same pattern.
To alienate a young person in their journey toward becoming themselves is a form of abuse. To pretend their struggles are not normal, to react with shock more than curiosity and understanding, to try and replace steadiness with speed or vice versa. It is to close them up into little clamshells, to pretend they aren’t the same creatures who will one day make pearls of themselves, their feelings real in the same real world of your own.
We punish kids for not being better, yet we’re full of shock when, over time, they change. “You never used to like [fill in object here],” goes the classic parental saying, or, “you used to be so __________,” always said with a touch of ridicule. As if we want to take our little loves and freeze them in place at our own shifting will. Dear reader, how many pieces of your own comprehensive heart do you show the world, and when are they static? How often is your thought process conflicted, or full of thin holes, or not anything like what you’d once expected of it?
We can support youth, in professional as much as personal capacities, by showing them what it looks like to be a model of misfit survival. It is nothing short of magic to watch the walls go down when a young person reveals a dark sliver of themselves and you, adult person with power, don’t flinch. You understand, you remember, you empathize. It’s hard to make hard choices in frail circumstances, you think to yourself. Sometimes, survival is the only eligibility requirement when seeking a coping mechanism from a dark place, and you recall this by reflecting on your own once-bad choices and the ways they kept you reaching into tomorrow. Validation is a big, fraught word, but at its base, all it requires is understanding, any version of it, between two people.
What youth need from us: witnessing, contemplation. And I do mean the Sontag kind, where you recognize the worthiness of a young person to the point of momentarily forgetting about yourself; this is the reward of working with youth: an “already full” heart, how the stewardship of children and teens requires paying such complete attention that you can’t help but fill up with a tenderness bigger than yourself. And when the obstacles are larger? More and more consideration. And when young people find themselves inhabitants on the spectrum of homelessness <—-> home after home after home? Place and environment are things every young human has the right to count on, but care and open communication are places, too. Nonjudgmental language is an environment. Who is that person you could turn to all those years ago, when you were young and scared and needed someone to trust, someone whose lineage wasn’t bound up with yours? Think of that someone who kept you afloat. Now imagine under whose lifejacket you might be the ocean beneath.