Young Hope

Bombarded by the market, apparently omnipotent to satisfy every whim, our youth are swept away by a whirlwind of feelings, but are basically lonely and insecure about today, as well as tomorrow. A roundtable discussion among some Italian teachers and a psychology professor about this subject


Davide Rondoni. I have three cues for discussion. The first comes from an observation by an intellectual, Marcello Veneziani, that went something like this: “Looking at young people, nothing comes to my mind.” To this, Fr Giussani responded, “For me, everything comes to mind.” I mean that in talking about young people, just as with everybody, whether viewed individually or as a category, there is a difference in our way of looking that starts, before any other consideration, from the other’s humanity, from whether it is seen as empty or as full.

The second thing is a line from a poet, Saint-Exupéry, that says more or less: “They cut off our arms and legs and then left us free to walk.” I mean that we have the impression of having the complete possibility of walking—in other words, of attempting what we want to do so that life may smile on us, so that we may be happy–but we are amputated, as it were, of the instruments for really walking or seeking.

The third thing is the observation of a French thinker, Alain Finkielkraut, who called our epoch the “epoch of feeling,” i.e., the epoch in which thought is finished and we proceed “by feeling,” and everything is played out in the immediate epidermal reaction. A very gloomy consequence of this dominion of feeling is the enormous “mercantile” insistence on young people. Youth is truly one of the targets most bombarded by the market, a target merchants aim at in order to take their money, at the price of selling them anything, even the nothingness and repetition of fads and fashion, “the sister of death,” as Leopardi said. Now, over to you.

Eugenia Scabini (Head of the Faculty of Psychology at the Università Cattolica in Milan):
First of all, I do not believe we can think of the condition of young people as homogenous, but there are experiences that can make groups different from each other–much more so than a few decades ago, when there was a guarantee given by moral norms or styles of life that followed more closely the various stages of growing up: you could do some things at age 14, others not until 18, and there was more homogeneity.

However, there are some conditions to which all young people are subjected, and I would say these are precisely the ones tied to the consumer society. That is, the young person lives in a society of consumption. The pressure exerted by the social group is very strong, and from this point of view, the family has seen the erosion of at least a good portion of its influence. The aspect of need prevails over the aspect of desire, meaning by desire the demand for excess, for an absolute, proposed above and beyond immediate satisfaction. The element of the saturation of need becomes prevalent, and the objects that satisfy these needs change constantly: there is this object, then there is another one, then yet another, which is better than the first... This consumer dynamic really does infect all young people. They want it all, now, which, as psychologists tell us, is the pleasure principle and is, as such, infantile. In this way, conversely, we extinguish desire, which is a demand in a more general sense that requires a condition of openness, even a bit of “poverty.”

The saturation of these needs comes about in a context of the absence of ties, in a context in which the human bond is weak, so that reassurance comes from having, from possessing, rather than from trusting in a bond. And this makes kids more uncertain, on the whole. Think of their choice of an object of their affections, with the possibility that this tie can be subject to crisis... In a certain sense, past generations were more protected from this. Today, young people have degrees of freedom and opportunity that earlier generations did not have. Thus, there are more opportunities, certainly (for women, for example), but in a context of uncertainty in terms of bonds...

Laura Cioni: I am a teacher, so I see the kids in their school aspect, during class.
Speaking of “consumption,” in my opinion, this reverberates in school in the aspect of evaluation. I mean to say, evaluation, grades, are the purpose for which the person studies or does not study, the purpose for which he goes to school, and it is the aspect, also, that reassures him regarding his sense of self; it gives or takes away his self-esteem.

So, making him understand that yes, one studies, and it is right that he receive recognition and a grade, but that this is something that creates the tie between him and his teacher, between him and his subject, is very hard, precisely because the means are mistaken for the ends. This aspect of evaluation has been central in the training of teachers in recent years: no longer central are the various disciplines and the great coordinates, but this way of measuring the student.

I teach literature, thus I work with words. What I realized this year, doing poetry, reading poetry, is that my first understanding of a poem comes always through words, other words that others have used, but behind the words that we read in class, they have images.

For example, Caproni, in a very short poem, says to his wife, “Without you, a tree would no longer be a tree, nothing, without you, would be what it is.” I think this is magnificent. A student of mine argued with this, saying that for her this poem was like an advertising slogan, something you would read on a box of chocolates.

Rondoni: Not to strike a blow at my dear great Caproni, but we have to keep in mind that advertising today often wears the mask of poetry.

Cioni: Then, teaching the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and obviously going on to talk about Dante, one of my best students suggested I see the film Al di la dei sogni [Beyond Dreams], because he said, “This reminded me of a movie I had seen and so I watched it again. Have you seen it?” I said, “No,” and he brought it in to me. I watched it, and in effect, there are many Dantesque images.

Scabini: However, the great thing is that he told you this and you went to see the movie. How can this generational difference be overcome? It is through a bond, a relationship, a belonging that you overcome the difference...

Cioni: The other thing I wanted to say is this: does more opportunity really mean more freedom? Opportunity in what sense? Today, everybody goes to school, and as Quirino Principe says, “School has become the school of cowardice” (because it is no longer a merit, a conquest, to be able to study; it is something one has to do and so does; we pasture them here for five years and then send them on to the university). We have a primary duty, in this situation of cowardice, which is to help them face life courageously, i.e., knowing that life requires risk, the expenditure of energy, and hard work–I don’t know how to say it–in order to conquer, to go on a quest for something, whatever it is. Thus, opportunity, in reality, must be also reconquered in some way, because if one is cowardly, he doesn’t even use his opportunities.

Cristina Rossi: I teach in a vocational school. It seems to me that young people, on the contrary, tend to vest even ordinary everyday things with an all-embracing demand. To give an example: a grammar lesson on the use of the subjunctive. Young people refuse to use the subjunctive, and in a school like mine, it is obviously even more an “optional.” I spent a lesson on this, with exercises, observations, etc., and then concluded by saying, “Do you see, kids, what opportunities this gives us, what extra possibilities we have for expressing our ‘I’?” As soon as I had said this word, “I,” a boy jumped up in this chair and said, “Mrs Rossi, I, I, I; you are always using this word. Just what is this ‘I’? What does this ‘I’ mean?” Episodes like this happen all the time. Even the most banal needs they are pursuing are–at least for an instant–vested with an overwhelming quest for meaning. And this can even create in certain moments an expectation that goes far beyond what reality seems to offer in that moment, and they ask you–the adult–things that sometimes can throw you off-balance and daunt you. In that moment you do not have in mind that the “I” of grammar can be the “I” of this boy who feels, in a burning, existential way. And yet it is as though it were bottled up; the minute you touch on certain things, it is like a cork popping.

Rondoni: It is as though they carried their soul too close to the surface ... I agree. You see it a lot, also in many movies and books that deal with the stories of young people.

Rossi: If anything–and this is the last thing I’ll say–the other thing that is evident is that things are fragmented for them. It is as though one instant were not linked with the instant before it. You don’t know what is in the middle.

Scabini: The “I,” to be exact...

Gianni Mereghetti: I wanted to make an observation by starting from a couple of episodes. In my school, we had the famous case of meningitis in which a boy died. I was deeply struck by the emotional reaction of the kids (those who knew him and those who didn’t), and despite the reassurances of the principal, the local health authorities, and the pediatrician, in some classes they went so far as to proclaim this TV-like slogan: “We have the right to manage our own emotions.” Their emotional reaction set off panic, in effect.

The second episode: the cousin of one of my students was killed in an accident. My student is a militant anti-globalization protester. Since then, she has stayed home; she cannot bring herself to come to school. This morning, I got to school and saw that she was outside, and I stopped to talk with her before going into class. Here too I saw the same sort of reaction, that is, strong emotion, but something like an inability to grasp anything that can bring you back into relation with reality. There is a profound loneliness that cannot be overcome, because it is as though reason had yielded totally to the emotions, and thus emotion is not the path to reason...

All this, on one hand, shows the weakness of those who go around saying that the problem is managing emotions. (In my school, the psychologist does this. He is in the school with this job description, but in front of radical situations, he runs away, because he is incapable of facing them.) On the other hand, the force of a question comes forth, albeit unexpressed and not wholly conscious. As she spoke of the death, this girl needed someone to look at her, to stay with her and enable her to face this matter.

Scabini: You were accusing the slogan, “manage the emotions.” The problem does not lie in the word “emotions,” but in the word “manage,” because it is like saying that by yourself you take charge of your emotions. Instead, it is a question of “expressing emotions in a bond.” It is clear that we are struck a blow by death, and today kids are more vulnerable in front of death, because it is censured. We can also understand that there are emotions that are stronger because they are shared very little socially, as instead they used to be in the past. These are days when you have to suggest to parents, if you are a good psychologist, that if a grandparent dies, their children can go to the funeral, because it does not traumatize them. Seeing adults who are not able to bear the idea of death–this is the children’s trauma.

Emotion is a path to a bond, which then gives substance to the “I,” and thus you also get reason back.

Elena Ugolini: ... It has to be, in any case, a meaningful bond.

Scabini: Well, Gianni, what did you do? After all, you waited for her, you talked to her and offered her a bond that could be trusted. It is this trustworthy tie to which, then, they can entrust their emotions...

Ugolini: Today, the kids live “very strong” ties, even among little groups, even with their mother, with certain people. The problem is that these are ties that are absolutely–how can we say it?–weak, in the sense that they are “strong” because the kids invest a lot in them, and thus they are very intense, but they are weak because they do not lead to what one needs to live.

I’ll give three examples. I have happened in these past few years to see this question about the meaning of life emerge very violently in the face of untimely deaths. And I saw that everyone was deeply struck by the fact that I was not terrified. In this way, the bond between us was renewed, even within the school, because I opened a path, which is that “the last word on life is not death.”

Another example: I received a letter from a boy in a public high school who, in the past two years, has started spending his time with the CL GS kids. He told me, after two years, about the type of bond, the experience he had with his classmates in middle school. It was total violence, because between them (for example, in boy-girl relationships), human relationships were taken very lightly. Afterwards, he told me, “Only after I encountered this companionship did certain words like hope, friendship, happiness, and love begin to have meaning.” Normality is this superficiality in relationships that then becomes constant, daily violence, which adults probably do not see or pretend not to see.

The other question: at the beginning of this year, after yet another article in La Repubblica reporting the usual comments (youth, their problems, etc.), the kids said, “But we are not a problem... That is, when people talk about youth it always seems like they are talking about us as a problem.” They said, positively, “We have encountered adults who are teachers, i.e., people who are helping us to take a step forward in answering our questions.”

Cioni: I wanted to go back to the term “bond,” because it is tied to the term “tradition,” and this cannot help being a term dear to us as teachers. Teachers stop being intellectuals quite early, because they very often have to deal with simpler things. However, they have to have clearly in mind the fundamental points that we say and hand down, and this also gives us an overall idea of the school. This is why I believe that all of us, instinctively, are against uncontrolled experimenting and are much more for a school that is traditional, in other words that truly passes on from one generation to the next.

I would not like for the word “bond” to be only the tie that binds, and properly so, the kids to each other and to their teachers, but also to what came before us and what is around us (nature, for instance, or other things, so as not to speak only in terms of the humanities).

Fr Giorgio Pontiggia: I strongly agree with this observation, because one of the greatest misunderstandings today is precisely the bond. Young people no longer use the word “tie,” but “friendship”–the great myth of today is friendship. Even those on drugs have friendship as their starting point, not drugs. In my opinion, it is a way of “participating.” Thus your observation is correct. I would go even further: when is this tradition communicated (because tradition can also communicate abstractions)? When it is perceived by the other as hope–it is a hope for life, otherwise it is a traditionalistic tradition. As I see it, these kids do not have hope. I do not assign all the fault for this to adults–far be it from me!–because there is also the question of personal freedom. However, objectively speaking, what is a young person’s hope? It is an adult’s experience. The hope of a son is his father’s experience. To me, it seems that this is lacking today, and often even men of the Church fail in this, when they communicate a tradition in a traditionalistic way that doesn’t have anything to do with life.

Scabini: But in the term, “trustworthy tie,” in the sense of confidence, one that arouses confidence, precisely a hope comes into play. What is missing is the trustworthiness–in the friendship you were talking about, there is no trustworthiness...

Pontiggia: Well, right, I agree.

We have to be careful when we speak of friendship, of relationship... because these kids are friends, they sure are! They stay together all day long, that’s all they do; they plot to go beat up the others... they are great friends. The problem is that in the face of life, they are completely alone, aren’t they? It seems to me that the word that is missing today is precisely the word “hope,” which has been replaced by the word “dream.” Dreams are what they have in mind. Something Oriana Fallaci said comes to my mind: “Denying destiny is the greatest presumptuousness...” This is Oriana Fallaci, not St Joseph... Without destiny, man no longer has a term of comparison. The word “hope” contains this. What man desires, and thus also young people (because they are no different from other people) is something certain, that exists and gives unity to life. In fact, they act, also in terms of their studies, not because of an interest in studying, but they act because they glimpse–in perhaps a very tiny way, like a spark in a dark night–something of that nature, i.e., unifying, all-embracing, and present. It is true that this can happen in teaching in the schools, but it is not necessarily the case that an interest in studying is born of studying. It is born wherever it is born, and it is always born as an attraction to this certainty, because man was made for this. We know that school, from this point of view, is “instrumental,” while the conception that tends to dominate is that school is the locus of knowledge. Knowledge is much greater than school, and school is a tool. Knowledge is precisely this connection between an overall meaning and the particular. It is not that we must first speak of the overall meaning and then the particular, but we have to show the unifying meaning within the particular. When a young person, even the biggest wreck of them all, touches a presence like this and does not have a preconceived position, he feels immediately at home.

Rondoni: Two aspects have struck me, as a provisional conclusion to this dialogue that I hope will serve to spark others...

We are in a pagan and savage situation–in other words, barbarian and savage. The elements we were talking about trace the outline of a kind of wild man. The facts you reported are not the exception because they lie within this horizon that I call “barbarian and savage,” so to speak. There is in course–I don’t know how to put it–a process of growing wild.

The other aspect is that what Betocchi wrote is really true, that “what is needed is a man.” In other words, what is needed is a position that is not dialectical with respect to this situation, also because the margins for a dialectical position are not there. What is needed is a presence as a trustworthy tie, because it points to a hope.