If you are looking for a book that is painfully honest about the environment of adolescents in contemporary America, then Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers by Dr. Chap Clark (Fuller Theological Seminary) is the perfect book for you. It is grueling, disheartening, encouraging, heartbreaking, fascinating, and necessary to read. Hurt 2.0, published just last year, is a second edition of Hurt, which Dr. Clark published in 2004. If the proximity of these releases doesn’t itself indicate the increasingly rapid rate of cultural changes that face our young people, consider this fact: in 2004, Facebook didn’t exist. Now, it’s almost impossible to walk into a local business that doesn’t have a sign that says, “Follow us on Twitter. Like us on Facebook.” Dr. Clark’s work is important as it addresses the contemporary life of midadolescents (roughly ages 15-18) with brutal frankness that might shock, offend, or (worst of all) elude adult readers. Hurt 2.0 offers an invaluable look into the lives of midadolescents, and if you read no further in this post, please note this: I highly recommend the book to anyone who has been, works with, or knows a teenager.
In what follows, I will attempt to relate some of the key concepts and insights that Dr. Clark has to offer. By no means will I convey the breadth of his research and writing, but I hope to offer enough of his work to whet your appetite to pick up this book and see for yourself just what Dr. Clark has to say. Moreover, he includes many quotations that come directly from interviews and notes that he received in his work with teens. The quotations are astoundingly beautiful and remarkably sad. I understand that “sad” is a fairly weak word, but no other word would suffice. Teens are hurting, and it is just sad.
What Faces Our Young People
Clark’s work is organized around a couple themes that he masterfully weaves throughout its entirety. Early in the book, he suggests that today’s teenagers are the inheritors of a culture and society that has largely and systemically abandoned them (more on this later). He suggests that this language of abandonment is the “defining issue” for young people, stating “systemic abandonment of adolescents as a people group seems to capture the widest range of descriptors used by careful observers of adolescents and adolescents themselves” (p. 28 ). In response to this abandonment, adolescents are then forced to “create their own world – separate, semisecret, and vastly different from the world around them” (ibid.). Clark calls this phenomenon the “world beneath. The world beneath is a broader concept than the notion of a youth culture or a generation gap” (p. 44). These two themes of the book are the most pervasive, and the “world beneath” ends up being a framework through which Clark presents precisely what our teenagers experience in their everyday life.
The hardest fact that any adult reader must face in picking up this book is that we the adults are largely responsible for what is happening in the lives of adolescents. As Dr. Clark suggests, after all, the “world beneath” reality is primarily a response to the abandonment that teens experience. He considers abandonment throughout the entire work, but it receives the most attention in chapter two. Again, while I will attempt to relate some of his ideas, this post is simply no subsitute for reading Hurt 2.0.
Clark first looks at abandonment of teens as it has been perpetuated by “external systems,” such as “youth sports, music, dance, drama, and even religious youth programs” (p. 29). While the inception of these activities, Clark writes, was motivated by good intentions, “these structures eventually distanced adults from the specific needs of adolescents” (ibid.). He considers several examples of how these programs intended for the good of young people (children and adolescents) have come to be filled with the agenda of the adults who run them and the parents who run kids around to them. Consider just these two scenarios:
* An eight-year-old who loves to dance is no longer allowed to attend a class she loved for its fun, free, raucous, hour-and-a-half adventure in tights. Her dancing now consists of up to six (or more) hours of training, repetition, and practice per week, culminating in something called a “dance competition,” a phrase that was formerly an artistic oxymoron.
* Parental fistfights erupt during a seven-year-olds’ tee ball game in what I was later told is “an intense competitive atmosphere” because it is, “after all, competitive tee ball!” (p. 30)
It really isn’t too hard to imagine these things happening, is it? If the image of an eight-year-old being robbed of her love for dance isn’t enough to break your heart in half, I don’t know what it will take. With adults insisting that kids practice, practice, practice at these things “for the good of the team,” teens lose the joy of participation, and instead, they get thrown into the fury of competition. High school coaches bent on getting another championship trophy encourage young athletes to win at all costs (an ethic that stands starkly contrasted with the Christian life, by the way). In this, the championship is not for the pride of the team or for the upbuilding of the community, but it is rather to make the coach look good and allow the team to have more funding in the next school year. After all, there is no reason to support a losing team.
Other examples of adult-driven and agenda-filled “youth programs” abound, and it is (unfortunately) not too difficult to think of other examples. Pressure put on public educators to raise students’ test scores in order to ensure government fiscal support; youth pastors encouraged to focus on increasing attendance at “ministry” events; drama teachers being encouraged to spend more time developing the talents of those who are “naturals” all point to the systemic abandonment of young people, and young people are wise to it. They understand that the majority of their life is run by people whose agendas take precedence over the individual needs of teens.
Lest we think that the external systems have the corner on abandoning teens, however, Clark also points to the reality that young people are also being abandoned by “internal systems.” He quite directly asserts that “the postmodern family is often so concerned about the needs, struggles, and issues of parents that the emotional and developmental needs of the children go largely unmet” (p. 34). Anyone who disagrees with this need only look at the preposterous rate of divorce in America; if that is not evidence of deluded adults (who are also largely products of abandonment) insisting on their own needs being met, then I struggle to imagine what it else it would take to substantiate his claim. This, along with a plethora of other cultural conditions such as the lack of opportunity for adults and young people to develop healthy, intimate friendships and relationships, paves the way for creating a world where teens have been left to themselves to figure out how to survive in the adult world and where “loneliness is a central experience” (p. 35). We have abandoned our young people, and it is due to this that they retreat to the world beneath.
The World Beneath
At this point, I must, once again, insist that you read Chap Clark’s work yourself. I am doing it a great disservice with this post, but I hope that it is reaching out to the part of you that wishes to work against the abandonment that we have unwittingly condoned.
The “world beneath,” as Clark calls it, is the most fascinating and insightful contribution of his work. While the whole book is precious and necessary (dare I say prophetic?), the world beneath framework offers the readers and people concerned with youth a new way of considering the contemporary adolescent experience. At the beginning of his chapter on the world beneath, Clark immediately asserts that the world of today’s teens is, in truth, “very different” from the world of their parents. I would even take it further and say that the world for teenagers today is different than it was even 7 years ago (when I was a teen). I remember when Facebook started (2005). I remember getting America Online (1996). My parents remember when the printing press was invented (c. 1440 (okay. Not really, but it does seem that the world’s technological and cultural landscape might be changing just that quickly)).
The world beneath, Clark states, that today’s midadolescents have largely created their own society as a result of their systemic abandonment “has its own rules of relating, moral code, and defensive strategies that are well known to midadolescents and are tightly held secrets of their community” (p. 45). Such a response to the adult community only makes sense. As any one with some human experience or a little education in psychology would tell you, humans have a basic need for belonging, that is to say, they need to know where and to whom they belong. Some might simply call this community. So if the normative experience of teenagers is one that is marked by abandonment, then it makes sense that they would create their own “underground society” to find a place and a community where they belong (p. 44).
Burdened by the ever increasing demands of adult-agenda-driven programs (which largely fulfill the neurotic needs of said adults), teens have learned to “speak the language” of adult culture while hiding from it and finding other avenues for safety. With teens quickly learning that their value is wrapped largely into what they do and how they perform according to the agenda of adults, they understand that if they are going to survive in the world of adults, then they at least need to appear to adhere to the policies of the “majority rule,” but like many other oppressed people groups throughout human history, they have “created private subcultures in response to marginalization at the hands of those in power” (p. 46). Having been abandoned by adults and left without intimate, nurturing relationships, they “burrow” below the boundaries of adult community and establish their intimate relationships in secret. If you ever wonder what is going on with your teenager who can’t put down her cell phone, chances are that she is simply reaching out for connection; she may not be as addicted to technology or Facebook as much as she may simply be lonely and looking for.
In this post, I have failed to do justice both to Dr. Clark’s work and to his brilliance. Hurt 2.0 is a book worth reading, and I sincerely hope you will pick it up right away. While I have only explored two chapters in this post, there is so much more that I could have written about. Clark’s book explores systemic abandonment and the world beneath over nine chapters, examining the world of teens as they are faced with various issues. These issues, which are also the titles of the chapters in which he explores them, are: peers, school, family, sports, sex, busyness and stress, ethics and morality (particularly lying and cheating), partying, gaming, networking, and “kids at the margins.” Each chapter is more compelling than the one before it. He ends the work with some preliminary suggestions as to how we as adults might begin to work together in order to undo some of the isolation that we have forced upon our young people. His suggestions, I must admit, are somewhat unsatsifying, but they are a good start to ending the systemic abandonment of the young.
As the adult-agenda-driven world becomes ever larger and more populated by adults who are “acting in the best interest of the kids,” the reality is that the world beneath becomes more distant and secret from the adult-commanded world of youth programs. As “youth culture” emerged in the 60s and 70s, its face was obvious. In 2012, youth culture may not be as obviously a “culture,” but it still exists. While sex, drugs, and rock & roll may not be proclaimed as obviously (or at least as shockingly) as during the initial uprising of the Sexual Revolution, the cultural milieu that this established has burrowed itself into the world beneath, too. The preposterous thing is that most adults seem to believe that simply creating more youth programs or getting kids involved in church or signing them up for dance lessons or sending them to military school or anything like this could possibly be the answer to such an grim state. As we have seen, it is precisely this kind of thinking that furthers the systemic abandonment that has been leveled against our youth. The answer is not giving kids more stuff to do; the answer is learning what it means to come together as one community. In the case of Orthodox Christians, this means actually being the Church again, and this means re-enlivening and reembracing adult/teen relationships and mentorships.
If you sincerely want to begin to make a difference in the life of a young person, first read this book. Then I highly suggest you take that young person out to coffee and really try to get to know him for the sake of getting to know him. Then do it again. And again. And again. It will change your life and probably his, too.
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