The real problem with today's teenagers (and why
most parents just don't get it!)
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
©2011, Rev. David B.
* * *
Never contend with a man who has nothing to
lose. - Baltasar Gracian
David B. Smith is a Parish priest, community
worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author of
the Ring & the Eucharist: Reflections on
life, ministry & fighting in the
inner-city and a
father of three. Get a free preview copy of Father
Dave, the 'Fighting Father's book when you sign up
for his free newsletter at www.fatherdave.org
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