The Willful Years
The immediate inspiration for this book was a dream I had, in which a group of aggressive teenage boys surrounded me arrogantly. I wasn’t apprehensive, but I do recall experiencing a deep concern for them.
As we walked up a street, talking together — they, hunching along in the self-conscious manner of many teenagers — I remarked, “Doesn’t it seem that life ought to offer us something really worth living for? Surely kindness and friendship are worth more than being considered important? And isn’t happiness something worth striving for, rather than something to reject as impossible?”
“That’s right!” they exclaimed a little sadly. “It’s what we all want.”
And I felt their own deep intrinsic worth, their sense of innocence betrayed by an upbringing that had stripped them of everything in which they might have had faith.
The problems of modern education are evident during all the four stages, but they become glaringly so during the teenage years — the third stage.
It is, as I’ve already stated, during this six-year stage that the child feels a special need to test his will power. It isn’t that he won’t test it sooner, any more than a child during its first six years, though focused on developing bodily awareness, doesn’t express its emotions. (As I remarked earlier, it is probable during those first years that he’ll seem to be expressing little else!)
A child with a naturally strong will may show willfulness in the very cradle. Yogananda used to say that it is a mistake, though one that is often committed for the parents’ convenience, to discourage willfulness. However, just as the best time for learning to control the emotions is during the second six-year stage, so also the best time for consciously developing the will power and directing it wisely is during the third stage, up to the age of eighteen.
Idealism, for example, develops naturally with only a little encouragement during the six years preceding a child’s twelfth birthday. But it tends to be an idealism more sentimental than practical. With the adolescent’s dawning instinct for expressing his will power, there comes the inclination to put idealism into practice. Such, at least, is the opportunity of adolescence. Alas, it proves all too often an opportunity either overlooked or unrecognized.
For with the onset of puberty there comes a growing preoccupation with oneself as a self — as an ego separate and distinct from other egos. The child’s developing sexual awareness forces upon him a major redefinition of his priorities — of how he sees himself, how he relates to others, and what he expects from life.
Sexual awareness tends to pull the adolescent’s energy and consciousness downward, toward spiritual “heaviness.” This directional flow, coupled with his natural self-preoccupation, is contractive in effect, resulting in deep psychological pain for the child. If, moreover, his natural mental inclination is upward, this unaccustomed downward flow brings him also into a period of spiritual confusion.
With sexual awareness also, on the other hand, there comes a sense of potential inner power, of creativity, which, if not directed into right channels, may easily be diverted into destructive ones.
Should the mind, during this third stage, be brought to repudiate the idealism it held as a younger child, it may reject ideals altogether and employ all of its creative power cynically, in acts that are deliberately negative.
How can an adolescent be encouraged to keep his early idealism? Advantage may actually be taken of the changes occurring in his body and psyche with the advent of puberty.
His awakening sense of inner power can be directed toward making his ideals practical, instead of rejecting them negatively as the figment of dreams. Early dreams must now be translated into dynamic action — refined in their definition, perhaps, but not abandoned cynically.
Adolescence needs a cause — or, better still, an abundance of causes. It needs something to do. It is like dynamite: if exploded above the ground it may only destroy; but if placed carefully underground and exploded there, it may help in the building of roads over which cars will pass later.
Adolescence, when approached and understood rightly, is a wonderful time, rich with some of life’s greatest opportunities for self-development. The important thing to understand is the youth’s need for action, and not for mere theories.
Physical discipline is important. So also is any call to good deeds without the expectation of personal reward — the greater the self-sacrifice entailed, the better, provided, of course, that the child’s welfare isn’t endangered.
Self-reliance needs to be stressed in numerous ways, including camping out in the wilderness, boy scout activities, tests of personal endurance and the like.
Other tests can be given the teenager for developing his will power. If he feels a cold coming on, for example, he might try casting it out of his body by sheer will power. (This can be done quite effectively, provided the cold is caught at an early enough stage.)
He can be encouraged to test the power of positive thinking, and to see how it affects his own life, the lives of others, and objective circumstances. A positive, strong will power has been shown to be capable of influencing objective events, and above all one’s own consciousness, for the better.
The teenager, so often pampered by worried adults, actually needs just the opposite from them: challenges! Dare him to do better than he imagines possible. But draw him forward, don’t yank him or push him. His responses must arise out of himself; they must not be imposed upon him unnaturally by ambitious grown-ups.
What is to be done about teenagers who are already going in wrong directions? It is all very well to approach adolescence as a wonderful time of life, provided we can begin working on the adolescent right from the age of twelve. But what about the great numbers of older adolescents who have already developed strongly negative behavioral patterns? Is there any hope for them?
Indeed there is, though admittedly, in this case, the task will be more difficult. All of the above guidelines will apply. Negativity must be recognized and dealt with honestly. Faith in the child’s potential, however, must be the underlying attitude; never accept his negative self-image.
The important thing is to realize that most children do want true values. Their negativity is symptomatic, usually, of disillusionment, because they’ve been deprived of faith.
Two courses of direction have the potential to transform the currently destructive atmosphere surrounding youth in society. One would be a spiritual renascence of some deep, experiential kind. This, obviously, is not something that can be produced to order. The other would be the opposite of pampering: firm, but kind, discipline.
Disciplining children without love never really works. I don’t recommend a boot camp type of training, which would only undermine the good work done during the ages of six to twelve, the feeling years. But it might help for people at least to understand the value of stern discipline, lest love be equated with feeble smiles and futile remonstrances.
In the Swiss army many years ago there was a regiment that consisted of the lowest and roughest elements of society, men who categorically refused every form of discipline. They rose in the morning whenever they felt like it; showed up for drill or not, as it pleased them; talked back to their officers, and made it abundantly clear that they had nothing but contempt for a law that made it mandatory for every adult male in Switzerland to serve his time in the army. The officers were afraid of them, and didn’t dare to enforce discipline on them.
Then a new colonel was placed over them. This man was not the type to put up with such nonsense. Impatient with their slovenly behavior, he decided that what they needed was severe discipline, not laxity. His fellow officers waited with bated breath for the inevitable-seeming shot in the back.
But this regiment somehow accepted the colonel’s no-nonsense approach. Within a few months, they became the best-disciplined group in the entire army, and the unit with the highest esprit de corps.
I don’t recommend such Spartan measures with teenagers, but as long as parents and teachers are afraid to be firm, even in much milder ways, poor discipline will be endemic in the schools, along with the many negative attitudes that result from it.
Too many adults, unfortunately, are more concerned with being loved than with loving. If they really loved, they would give the children what they really need. During adolescence, the child’s will power needs to be tested and strengthened, not merely shrugged off as a test for the grown-ups.
“What If I Fail?”
One of the most sensitive areas of adolescence is the ever-present possibility of failure. This threat is, to be sure, never far absent even from the minds of many adults. But for the adolescent, the slightest gaffe, the most trivial manifestation of gaucherie on his part, assumes nightmare dimensions, and is magnified to unforgettably ludicrous proportions in the minds of his companions.
Failure must be addressed, therefore, and not shunned as too embarrassing a topic for open discussion.
In fact, failure is actually intrinsic to the ultimate achievement of success. Anyone who never fails never, by the same token, really succeeds. For success is much more a question of achievement than of accomplishment. What is the difference? If Superman can outrun an express train, that is an accomplishment, certainly, but it isn’t an achievement, for there was nothing he needed to overcome by running so fast. We all know that if the occasion demanded it he could run twice, or even ten times, as fast. Accomplishment, without the possibility of failure, is very different from achievement in the face of great obstacles. Failure, then, is an instrument of learning. Every failure accepted, understood, then placed resolutely behind one can be an important stepping stone to higher achievement.
It is never wise, then, to say, “I’ve failed.” The courage that leads to achievement says, “I haven’t yet succeeded.” The repeated thought of failure acts as a negative affirmation; if it doesn’t actually attract failure, it creates the conditions for failure by slowly weakening the will power. But the repeated thought of success, even in the face of repeated failures, is an affirmation that must, eventually, produce the achievement one desires.
The adolescent must be helped to see that anyone who never fails has failed already, in a sense. A career unblemished by failures is a story of minimal courage, perhaps even of cowardice. It is a story of one who, having never dared, has never developed as a human being. Great success is the fruit of great daring. No matter how many times a person fails, victory is assured him if, after every defeat, he gets up and tries again. Indeed, if his courage never flags, he can squeeze victory of a sort even from crushing defeat.
As Paramhansa Yogananda used to say, of the spiritual search: “A saint is a sinner who never gave up!”
The adolescent should be taught the importance of disciplining himself, and not merely receiving discipline outwardly. He may find it helpful, for example, to fast occasionally, or to go for periods of time without some favorite food; to do things against which his desire for comfort rebels; to do things for others with the deliberate purpose of overcoming selfishness in himself.
Servicefulness is a wonderful quality, and one too little appreciated in this age of aggressive self-affirmation. There is joy in the expansive consciousness of forgetting oneself in the thought of a larger good.
Affirmations, too, some of which have been suggested already, can be an excellent tool of self-discipline and self-transformation.
A good book on behavior is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The title, in the present social atmosphere, may sound as if the book is about how to manipulate others, but it is in fact an invaluable guide for anyone wanting to learn how to behave sensitively toward other people. An excellent maxim of Carnegie’s is, “Act enthusiastic, and you’ll be enthusiastic!”
Lack of enthusiasm is, in fact, one of the pitfalls of adolescence. An excellent way of climbing out of this pit is to express enthusiasm vigorously in both word and action, even if one feels no enthusiasm in his heart. The greater the outward expression of will, the greater will be the flow of energy to succeed at anything one sets out to accomplish.
Young people of spiritually “light” specific gravity often find themselves at a disadvantage during their adolescent years owing to the aggressive emphasis placed on the ego by their peers. To many youngsters at that age, the ego seems all-important — a thing to be affirmed constantly, and thrust upon others as though challenging them to rival oneself in importance. Often — so it seems at that age — the greater the ego, the more powerful, magnetic, and successful the person. Hence the popularity of football heroes, and, all too frequently, the comparative obscurity of idealists.
Only later in life may the thought arise in the mind that all of us are part of a much greater reality, and that attunement with that reality is important for the accomplishment of all the really great things in life. Great scientists, for example, have never boasted to the universe, “You’ll do as I say!” They have said humbly, rather, “Help me to understand what it is you are trying to teach me.”
Friends of mine visited California some years ago. During their visit I took them to Disneyland, where, for one of the rides, we hired little boats big enough to accommodate two persons each.
Each boat had what looked like a steering wheel, but was in fact a dummy. Most of us soon discovered that no matter how we turned the wheels, the boat continued along its own course, which was determined by tracks under water.
At a certain point, my boat-partner and I saw a couple in their party pass near us by another channel. We hailed them, and the man’s wife tried to get him to call out a greeting.
“Don’t interrupt me,” he cried, tensely. “Can’t you see, if I’m not careful we’ll hit those rocks ahead of us!”
What a laugh his family all had later on, at his expense!
And how similar is the case of many people who imagine that, in all things, it is they themselves who are the doers. They fail to realize that countless things in life simply can’t be controlled, and had best be simply understood, accepted, and adjusted to.
The lesson of adolescence, ultimately, should be to strengthen not the ego, but the will, as a stepping stone towards true maturity. This stepping stone should be viewed with humility, as but one of many, by crossing all of which the adolescent will be able not only to understand, but to feel himself part of, the universal reality that surrounds him.