Trapped in Neverland

Article by   November 2008
Growing up, I adored my grandfather.  He was probably the funniest man I ever knew, with a razor sharp wit, absurdism and satire running through his veins, and an imagination that seemed to know no bounds.  His letters to me were mini-masterpieces of surreal satire, and he knew how to have fun, how to puncture pomposity, and how to provoke people to think.  Yet he was, by today's standards, uneducated.  He had left school at thirteen to work in a factory; he was a union man; he lived through the General Strike and the Depression; he knew what it was like to tramp the streets, looking for work but knowing there was no work to be found; and, a psychological victim of the British class system, he never came to see my mum play sport for her school lest he cause her embarrassment.  I loved him dearly and when he died, it was as if my own world came to an end.  

I hated the system that had treated my grandfather like dirt and kept him tugging his forelock at those whose only virtue was to have been born to wealthier familes; I hated the system that had worked him so hard and broken his health so that he could never really enjoy his retirement; and I hated the system that had made him believe all this was part of his proper place in the world and had even persuaded him that it would be less embarrassing for all if he did not come to the touchline to watch his daughter play sport for her school. Indeed, one of the reasons I wanted so desperately to get in to Cambridge was to show him, and myself, and the chinless public school (in the British sense) wonders who epitomized the system, that the system could be beaten, that someone from my family could push their way in to the very heart of the establishment by sheer hard work and natural talent, rather than by money, `breeding,' and possession of no chin and an old school tie.  The day I was accepted, he told my mum that he could not believe that the family had risen from being nothing to being represented at Cambridge.  But in my eyes we hadn't risen at all, we had simply made a necessary point: we could do it too; we could get to where `they' were.  My grandfather was not nothing; he was -and still is -- one of the greatest men I have ever known.  What could that great mind have done, if only it had been given the privilege and leisure of study?

Now, there's quite a contrast between the world in which my grandfather grew up and the world of today.  By age fifteen, he had done two years of hard work; had he not done so, the result would have been simple - he would have starved.  By age twenty, he knew what responsibility was; by age thirty he had spent over half his life in the workplace.  Indeed, he did not become an adult when he married and had children; he had already been an adult since before he had really needed to shave.

Today is so different.  If the poverty and hard work of my grandfather's era left men middle-aged at thirty, the ease and trivia of today's society seems to leave us trapped in a permanent Neverland where we all, like so many Peter (and Patty) Pans, live lives of eternal youth.  Where my grandfather spent his day hard at work, trying - sometimes desperately - to make enough money to put bread on the table and shoes on his children's feet, today many have time to play X-Box and video games, or warble on and on incessantly in that narcissistic echo-chamber that is the blogosphere.  The world of my grandfather was evil because it made him grow up too fast; the world of today is evil because it prevents many from ever growing up at all.

In some ways, today's world is the very antithesis of earlier ages.  I always found sixteenth and seventeenth century paintings of children to be somewhat creepy: adult heads on tiny, immature bodies, as if the artists had no real concept of youth and childhood that allowed them to depict faces as such.   Strange, isn't it, that the airbrushing techniques so often used in today's glossy magazines seem designed to have precisely the opposite effect: to place young heads on bodies that we know are much older.  The concept of old age is perhaps slowly but surely being airbrushed out of representations in the popular media.

Numerous incidents over recent years have brought the sad effect of all this home to me.  As a professor at university and seminary, I have had too many run-ins with students who act like five year olds and, when held to account, express all the pouting resentment that one comes to expect from a generation that demands respect but refuses to put in the time and effort to earn it.  You see them on the blogs, screaming their abuse and demanding to be heard, carrying on their tirades long after the threshold of Godwin's Law and any semblance of decency or credibility has been passed for the umpteenth time.  They have achieved nothing - but they demand that you respect them!  

The inept Islamic suicide bombers in Britain are just the most extreme, pestiferous example of this immaturity: incompetent, spotty juveniles who make portentous suicide videos and then fail to blow anything up because they forgot their car keys, or bought the wrong ingredients for bomb making from the local store, or were amazed that putting in an order in for two-hundred bottles of peroxide aroused suspicion at the local hair salon who contacted the local police: `I see, madame, and can I assume that Mr Mohammed is not actually a natural blond.....?'. These thugs demand respect in the most extreme ways; but their behaviour inspires less horror than it does simple derision and mockery.

But it gets more disturbing than simply finding people in their twenties and thirties acting like spoiled children.  Parents are becoming increasingly involved as well. With two sons in travel football (that's soccer to any American readers), I have stood on too many touchlines where parents act like frustrated two years olds as the game does not develop as they would like; and, again, as a professor, I have had unpleasant experiences with parents too.  Being told by a parent that their child is `young and immature' works for my wife - she teaches at a church nursery, dealing with three year olds - but it wears a bit thin when the problem child is eighteen, nineteen, twenty....thirty....  And that this kind of stuff seems more common in the church than in the secular world is disturbing.  It does not inspire much confidence about the future and, if anything, provides anecdotal confirmation to those who see religion in general and Christianity in particular, as a refuge for the emotionally retarded.

So what are we to do?  I am tempted to say: return to the world of my grandfather! but that would be foolish.  I hated that world for what it did to him.  Yes, he grew up fast and took responsibility for himself and his family, but at what cost?  Indeed, I hate that world as much as I despise the glib talk of `the dignity of manual labour' that drips from the lips of the chardonnay-sipping chatterati for whom manual labour is not scrubbing floors to make ends meet, as it was for my grandmother, but pruning the roses and putting out the recycle bin once a week -- no doubt full of empty bottles of Bolly and Krug.

The answer, then, is not a naïve, nostalgic hankering for a return to an era of poverty and cruel hardship.  Rather it is surely obvious: we need to put aside childish things and start acting like adults.  Pascal put his finger on the problem of human life when he saw how entertainment had come to occupy a place, not as the necessary and momentary relief from a life of work, but as an end in itself.  When entertainment becomes more than a pleasant and occasional distraction, when time and income become devoted to entertainment and to pleasure, when sports teams become more important to us than people - even the people to whom we are close - then something has gone badly wrong.   The frothy entertainment culture in which we live is a narcotic: not only is it addictive, so that we always want more; it also eats away at us, skewing our priorities, rotting our values as surely as too much sugar rots our teeth.  My grandfather was lucky in this one thing: he did not have time to be immature because he did not have the surplus income that would have granted him that luxury.  That is not to exalt the virtue of poverty - poverty is an evil - but it is to underscore the dangers that come with wealth in abundance.

Second, we need to stop idolizing our children.  At twenty seven, I had a wife, a child, a Ph.D. and a monograph from Oxford University Press. I looked for all the world like an adult.  Then I got myself into a bit of financial difficulty, to the tune of about two-hundred pounds, a small sum but not when you are at the bottom of the British academic payscale and a one-income family to boot.  I phoned my father for help.  He read me the riot act about financial irresponsibility, helped me get out of the immediate fix, and told me that he never, ever wanted me to call and tell him I was in such a fix again.  He loved me but he did not idolize me; he knew it was time for me to stand on my own two feet. I loved my dad, but he scared the daylights out of me with that talk.  Yet, looking back, that was one of the moments which was the making of me: look, son, you're big boy now; look after yourself and don't come crying to me every time you screw up.  A sobering, critical moment in the relationship between father and son; but, in my dealings with others, it finds increasingly few parallels.  Touch the child, even the one with the beard, the wisdom teeth, and the warm fuzzy memories of the time when New Kids On The Block were all the rage in High School, and you touch the sacred idol; you can expect the parents to come a-calling.

You are, of course, what you worship, as Psalm 115 reminds us, and thus, as long as we idolize our children and the culture of youth, we can expect to - well, be just like them: pouting, irresponsible, hormonal, unpleasant and, frankly, as creepy as those sixteenth century portraits of little children with adult faces.  Trapped in Neverland with no hope of escape.

Carl Trueman is a professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

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