"You are a chosen generation," we tell them. "God saved His best and brightest to send down to earth for these winding up scenes." In twenty years of teaching teenagers, I have delivered such lessons dozens of times. We sense, at times, the urgency of our days, the need for strong leaders and noble hearts. We know how much the world requires of our youth, and we attempt to inspire them, to motivate them upward to the great heights we hope they can reach.
And then, almost in the next breath, we take those visions of greatness and sweep them out of reach. We begin to make excuses for the youth, for ourselves. They are so tired. They face such great temptations. Consider the homes in which they live: the physically or emotionally absent fathers, the abuse, the difficult finances. They work so hard to meet the demands of schoolwork, that to expect more out of them would be unfair. You know the routine because you have made those same excuses for your own children and for others.
I do not have the answers. But I know that if we want these youth to reach the heights, we need to set them on the path, and we need to give them the tools to climb. We cannot climb for them and then feed them cookies while we show them photos from the top of the mountain. Nor can we sip our cocoa and shove them out the door to go climb the mountain on their own, only to grumble at their failure when they turn back before they reach the summit.
Yousef Karsh, the famous photographer, started life in Turkish Armenia. When just 14 years old, he fled the Armenian genocide and eventually landed in Canada. He lived with an uncle, who recognized and nurtured his talent. From humble beginnings, Yousef built a successful career photographing influential leaders and celebrities all over the world. His iconic portrait of Winston Churchill glared from the cover of Life Magazine in May 1945, earning him rare praise from the prime minister, who said, "You can make even a roaring lion stand still to be photographed."
biographer described the 20-something Yousef as "young, talented and hungry." That phrase caught my eye. Hunger, both physical and metaphorical, represented a key ingredient in Yousef's success. I thought of other hungry youth who used their challenges as a motivation to success: Stephen Hawking, Oprah Winfrey and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to name just a few.
Victor and Mildred Goertzel researched hundreds of the world's most influential people for their classic book Cradles of Eminence. Three quarters of their research subjects sprang from troubled childhoods. Over one quarter succeeded despite serious physical handicaps. The Goertzels concluded, among other things, that the drive to compensate for disadvantages actually propelled these individuals to their eventual success. In essence, hunger led to greatness.
How, then, do we recognize and nurture that hunger into a positive force? Even more difficult, how do we awaken motivating hunger in youth stifled by complacency? If our youth are to rise to great heights, they first have to dream. They need a reason to look upward. Clearly, the answer does not lie in manufacturing tragic circumstances for our children. Neither does it lie in shielding them from every difficulty or immediately fixing every problem for them.
We can give them space to design and build, fail and fly. We can cheer their successes and hug them through their failures. We can chase our own dreams and share them. Above all, we can expect much and love much.