Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A modest proposal, without irony

A modest proposal
Jeff Gill

My concern for young men, and what it means to grow up as a young man in America today, is why outdoor activity, particularly through Scouting, is my biggest personal commitment after my family and my faith (and to be fair, the latter is also my job, a package deal for me as a pastor). What I have long worried about for young men in general is what the recent series of mass shooting events say to me, even more clearly than anything about gun policy or mental health access -- the biggest problem for & with boys today is that their lives are simply too unreal.

Video games, pornography, big screen sports, electronic fantasies with no closer contact to actuality than the rumble function within the hand controller. Over and over I end up talking to young men in trouble whose future plans are literally "uh, game designer, or Navy SEAL." Never mind that they have never tried coding in HTML, nor have they ever run more than a hundred yards in their life, or walked even a mile.

What they need are sunrises. They need to lose a boot in the mud walking through the swamp in a short cut that didn't work out. They need the taste of burnt food that, after long miles and only water to drink has a taste in your mouth which satisfies body & soul. They need to be part of a team, a patrol, a group of friends who build something, start something, finish something that they can step back from and say "We did that" and smile. They need to feel rain in their face and a rope taut in their hand, watching the wind on the shore for hints of a change in direction. They need a rush of concentration as the rock bumps past on one hand and the eddy swirls on your other, as your partner in the bow fends off a submerged boulder hiding behind that bend. And yes, in these contexts, they would benefit from a gentle trigger pull and a mark leaping into view within the black circle.

Shooting sports, exercised in the absence of further realities, can become just a slightly more heavily equipped video game, spraying ammo widely into a hillside or hosing down a propane tank until the requisite "boom." Firearms, understood as precision power tools that can bite if misused -- that is what they are, first and foremost -- need their own setting of reality to make them healthy and safe.

But the degree of alienation and a-socialization I see in more and more young men (and yes, occasionally young women, but I'll leave that question to others) is something that I think is not caused by video games or pornography, but those are the pre-eminent signs and indications and addictions that result from a severe lack of reality and connection to the actual world, alongside of actual people. We can try to trace it out to the beginning of suburbs and the end of sidewalks, to the rise of personal automobiles and telephones replacing handwritten letters, to the hungry void of television, to the cult of safety keeping parents from letting their kids play in the creek or wander through fields, and all our guesses and assumptions would be open to challenge.

The answer, though, I think is unchallengeable. More reality, more sunrises and sunsets and starry nights and campfire cooking and looking at the geese flying overhead as you stamp your feet to keep them warm, more connections and conversations with peers who are experiencing the same realities through their own eyes, and learning how they see it not quite the same as you: these are the cures for more ills than we can name. I'm not certain what laws or policies we need to build a better country, but I know what youth need, and it isn't more of what they're getting right now.

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