«Let me give my talk a slightly more precise title: Meeting Boys’ Deepest Needs. Ten Changes We Need to Make as We Try to Help Boys Grow ...»
Meeting Boys’ Deepest Needs:
Ten Changes We Need to Make as
We Try to Help Boys Grow Spiritually
International Boys’ School Conference
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, July 7, 2009
Address by F. Washington Jarvis
Let me give my talk a slightly more precise title: Meeting Boys’ Deepest Needs. Ten Changes
We Need to Make as We Try to Help Boys Grow Spiritually.
Two caveats at the outset. First, I am an American, and I unconsciously share the well-known insularity and limitations of being an American. Second – and obviously – I speak as a Christian, even though my deepest spiritual conversations during the past 15 years have been with a Hindu graduate of my school. Though I speak as an American and as a Christian, I hope you will find it possible to translate what I have to say into your own national and spiritual context.
Those of you who have seen the film City Slickers and will remember how Mitch Robbins addresses his children: Value this time in your life, kids, because this is the time in your life when you still have choices, and it goes by so quickly. When you’re a teenager, you think you can do anything, and you do. Your twenties are a blur. Your thirties, you raise your family, and you make a little money, and you think to yourself, “What happened to my twenties?” Your forties, you grow a little pot belly, you grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud and one of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Your fifties, you have a minor surgery. You’ll call it a procedure, but it’s a surgery. Your sixties, you have a major surgery, the music is still too loud but it doesn’t matter because you can’t hear it any[more].
Seventies, you and your wife retire to Fort Lauderdale, you start eating [breakfast the night before, lunch around ten, and supper at two]. And you spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the ultimate in soft yogurt and muttering, “How come the kids don’t call?” By your eighties, you’ve had a major stroke, and you end up babbling to some Jamaican nurse who your wife can’t stand but who you call mama. Any questions?
The first of what I propose as 10 necessary changes is this: If we want to help boys meet their deepest needs, their spiritual needs, we must stop denying and start embracing life’s realities.
We expend an enormous amount of energy denying aging and death. When I was a boy in small- town Ohio, grandparents lived in our homes. We kids saw people get old and we saw people die.
Today, we are terrified of our own aging, and we banish old people to elder-care facilities; we want to see as little as possible of old age. And you will all be excited to hear that in the U.S.
people no longer die; they “pass away.” I arrived at Eton College in England for my second round as one of the chaplains on August 31,
2007. I had not been in my new flat for an hour when the phone rang. It was a housemaster:
“You are our house chaplain,” he announced. “Our house man has just died and I am hopeful COPYRIGHT F. WASHINGTON JARVIS 2009 that you can conduct his funeral.” A few minutes later I walked over to visit the man’s widow.
Three days later I did the funeral at the Slough Crematorium. The housemaster brought along to the funeral three of his senior boys – all strapping rugby players, each elegantly attired in a Savile Row suit. As I was giving the eulogy, I noticed that all three boys were crying. I assumed they had been close to Albie, and at the gathering afterwards, I said to one of them, “You must have known Albie well.” “No,” he said, in clipped Etonian English, “Hardly at all.” When I was doing my rounds at this boy’s house a week or so later, he said to me, “Sir, I hope you didn’t think I was rude, but the fact is none of us knew Albie more than to speak to. This probably seems odd to you, but we were upset because it suddenly hit us all for the first time that people actually die. It’s not like television or video games. Albie actually died. He’s dead.” One night, when I was doing the rounds at another Eton house, I encountered a senior boy who had an Oxford application in his hand. “I see you’re applying to Oxford,” I said with my usual brilliance. He responded, “It’s funny that you’re here tonight, because I need a chaplain. I am having an existential crisis. I have just realized that life is meaningless. I worked really hard at my prep school so I could get into Eton. I’ve worked really hard here at Eton so I could get into Oxford. And I suddenly realize that, if I get into Oxford, I will work really hard there, so I can get a good job, in which I’ll work really hard so I can get a better job, in which I’ll work really hard so I can get an even better job, so I can be rich and die.” The first change we must make, if we intend to meet boys’ deepest needs, is to stop denying the only certain truth of human existence: the reality of death. A life shaped without embracing that reality is hollow.
Necessary change #2. We need to move away from the lie that getting things is what brings happiness, that getting things is what brings fulfillment in life.
Though the economic slump made this year an exception, in any normal year about 250 of Yale’s top graduates go to New York City to work in investment banks and consulting firms – to “work in money,” as they say. Over the past few decades, the brightest and best graduates of our nation’s most prestigious universities have found it impossible to resist the Big Apple’s seductive financial bribes – the vast salaries and bonuses offered by Wall Street.
Over the past 35 years, I’ve had many a conversation with these super-successful young people – particularly young men -- who after a few years in these lucrative jobs, begin to ask, “What’s so great about this life?”, “Why did I want this so much?” When I was a newly ordained 24-year-old priest, I was assigned to one of the richest parishes in the country, and I said to the rector, “These people don’t need God. They have swimming pools, tennis courts, multiple cars.” The rector, a wise man, said, “These people you think have everything may well be, in all important ways, the poorest people you will ever work with,” and I discovered in my seven years there that their financial riches did not bring them happiness. For the past 34 years, living in Boston, I have been helping out in a so-called slum parish, and I would have to say that the people of that parish are, on the whole, happier than the affluent suburbanites I worked with in Cleveland.
COPYRIGHT F. WASHINGTON JARVIS 2009 2 American boys – like the Eton boy I just mentioned -- are indoctrinated from childhood that happiness is assured if you get into one of the great prestigious universities. But there is mounting evidence that those who win the glittering prize of admission to Harvard and Stanford do not experience nirvana, do not become instantly or permanently happy. Three years ago, Harvard’s former president Derek Bok returned for a year as acting president. A reporter asked him, “If you had to use a single word to characterize today’s college students, what word would you choose?” He responded: “To me what characterizes students today is emptiness.” Emptiness.
So we have to ask ourselves: Will getting stuff – getting money, getting success, getting pleasure – fill that emptiness, make us happy? Michael Jackson got all three – money, success, and pleasure. No one had more money, success, and pleasure. And yet he was, of all men, the most wretched.
Is it possible that a certain ancient teacher was right: That it is more blessed to give than to receive? That happiness comes from giving?
I used to be skeptical about the service trips our students made and continue to make to far-off places, building sewers in El Salvador, for example. Are these trips worth the money? But I am always astonished, when our students return, to hear how hard they labored, often in grueling conditions. Even they themselves are surprised at how hard they work – and their parents are incredulous. No fun-and-game activities are scheduled into these trips, yet somehow these kids return aglow about the experience. They not only have bonded with one another; they have experienced the greatest joy in life – the joy of giving – and, mirabile dictu, they have also had fun. They have discovered, in short, that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Necessary Change #3. We need to move from a one-dimensional worldview to an awareness that there is Something Beyond. We need to acknowledge the universal human longing for Something More. The American writer John Updike observed that if we live imprisoned in a claustrophobic one-dimensional universe, where the only things that exist are what we can see, we confine ourselves to “a closed-in hell…” People are breaking out of that one-dimensional universe. British atheist A.N. Wilson’s book, “God’s Funeral,” was a best seller in 1999. He has recently announced that he has become a Christian. He recently remarked that atheists are like “people who have no ear for music or who have never been in love.” [Timothy Larsen in The Wall Street Journal, May 29] On June 14, New York Times columnist Michael Winerip wrote about an unchurched 13-year-old boy named Ryan Sweeney who – out of the blue – asked his irreligious parents to take him to church. The stunned parents reluctantly agreed. “As the weekend approached, the father hoped that the son might lose momentum. But that Sunday, Mr. Sweeney saw a vision almost as miraculous as a statue of the Virgin Mother weeping real tears: [his] 13-year-old boy who got up on his own at 8 a.m., put on a shirt with a collar, brushed his hair and was ready for church.” Now months later, Mr. Sweeney says, “’I’ve come to look forward to Sunday mornings…. I just feel a little reluctant to become a parishioner,’ he said. But every week that [reluctance] softens.” COPYRIGHT F. WASHINGTON JARVIS 2009 3 Ryan Sweeney is not an anomaly. The latest U.S. National Survey of Youth and Religion, published by Oxford University Press, shows that only 1.4% of U.S. teenagers are atheists and only 1.4% agnostics. 84% are sure of their belief in God, 12% are “unsure in their belief about God,” and, as I said, less than 3% are atheists or agnostics. [Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, Soul Searching, 41, 86] There is, in American youth, a deep longing for Something Beyond. Many of you will remember Harvard’s renowned chaplain, Peter Gomes, who spoke at our New York conference. Peter says that never in his 35 years at Harvard has there been anything like as much interest in religion as there is right now.
Writing in the May 2 New York Times, Charles Blow discussed the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. This study reveals the astonishing fact that the majority of children raised (like Ryan Sweeney) without any religious affiliation are choosing to join a religious group. “So what is the reason for this flight of the unchurched to churches?” he asks. One reason, of course, is that children rebel against their non-religious parents by becoming religious. But the overwhelming reason given by the young people in the study is that “their spiritual needs were not being met.” What does Blow deduce from all this: “We [humans] are more than cells, synapses, and sex drives. We are amazing, mysterious creatures forever in search of something
greater than ourselves.” He quotes Dale McGowen, co-author of the new book on parenting:
These converts “are not looking for a dogma or a doctrine, but for transcendence from the everyday.” They are trying to break out of a one-dimensional universe – they long for Transcendence, for Someone Beyond.
Without being consciously aware of it, boys experience this inner emptiness, this longing for Something More, even more than girls experience it. It is this inner emptiness, indeed, which makes boys five times as likely as girls to commit suicide.
The only thing that can ultimately satisfy this deep longing for Something Beyond is a relationship with God. That’s why Pascal said, “There is a God-shaped hole in our lives – and only God can fill it.” The other day at lunch, a Yale professor said to me with great authority, “God only exists if I think he exists. I don’t think God exists; therefore He doesn’t exist.” I replied, “No. God exists, whether or not you or I experience God.” I was reminded of the story of the young American tourist visiting Florence. He spent a full 45 minutes at the Uffizi looking at the Donatellos and the Botticellis and the Raphaels. And when he came out after his full 45 minutes, he said, “I don’t see what’s so great about all that stuff.” A hundred years from now, long after this American tourist is in his grave, millions will still crowd the Uffizi to gaze at these enduring masterpieces. It is not the masterpieces that are on trial; it is the American tourist who is on trial.
The masterpieces will continue to exist whether the American tourist perceives them or not.
When I was taken as a boy to hear the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, I said to my mother, “I hate this music. This is your music. To me it’s just noise.” I knew what I liked – I liked Elvis Presley. But Beethoven is Beethoven, and Beethoven is not in the least affected by whether Tony Jarvis can “hear” him or whether Tony Jarvis likes him! Long after I am in my grave, millions will flock to hear orchestras play Beethoven. And the long-forgotten COPYRIGHT F. WASHINGTON JARVIS 2009 4 Tony Jarvis will burn in hell. Do you ever wonder, like I do, why your mother didn’t strangle you?