A despairing outlook on the future seems to be the most universal sentiment of this era, regardless of party, creed, or ethnicity. It shows in our dystopian novels and apocalyptic films. To read the news is to be willing to go to bed depressed. This does more than discourage patriotic fervor and political participation: it characterizes all forms of optimism as naiveté. We await the inevitable crash; we will yawn while Rome burns. We think we will, anyway.
The Christian, especially, feels the spiritual decay. It seems all we hear about is another defeat, another scandal, another advanced inch by the icy wall of the world. The heavenly promise of an eternal kingdom which shan’t perish from the earth is daily challenged by engulfing gloom. Even if Christianity were to achieve tomorrow an unprecedented pinnacle of glory, I might still wonder if during our dark age we had not lost something forever which could not be replaced. Even if we were to achieve a perfect state, unless the process of becoming glorified involves forgetting our previous lives, we would still have the memories from our imperfect state. We would still remember what it was like to grieve, which is the same as grieving. We do not know what we lost in Eden, and what we lose with every subsequent sin, because despite all the goodness we receive from God’s grace and forgiveness, we will never taste what would have ours had we not chosen evil. I often puzzle over how that plays into the promise that there will no “mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.” How can we have no tears in paradise yet still recall our dark age of rebellion? Will our reward be greater for having sinned? To be revealed, I suppose.
Meanwhile, some institutions remain optimistic. Rotary International is a service organization which unites some of the most respected and successful businessmen and professional leaders around the world to promote humanitarian projects, high ethical standards in business, and peace. For this reason, I am surprised it is not more popular among conspiracy theorists.
Across the country, local Rotary Clubs nominate and pay for prominent high-school students to enroll in a summer camp called RYLA (Rotary Youth Leadership Award), where they build teamwork and leadership skills.
In 2007, I attended my first RYLA in Americus, Ga., at the tender age of sixteen. The experience was eye-opening for a homeschooler, to be sure. I shared a room with two Christian seventeen-year-olds who spoke long into the night about their sexual exploits. “You make everything I do sound evil!” one complained after I had preached for five minutes.
Strangely, I went back again the next year as a counselor. Perhaps it was fascination with the alien mind. I had known evildoers; but these evildoers had also known themselves. The fornicator who was unaware that he was a fornicator was a brand new animal in my experience. Last Saturday, I returned as a counselor for the second time.
RYLA, like Rotary, is not a Christian enterprise. However, it so happens there are numerous Christian leaders running the RYLA in Americus. Though the majority of students would also call themselves Christian, other creeds are intermingled throughout. Once I witnessed to a Satanist. This year I conversed with an “experimenting Buddhist.” There are always a handful of atheists. The “spiritual” but “non-religious” crowd grows annually. Counselors operated under a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The leadership gave latitude to those of us in the Church since, without directly encouraging us, they expected we would share our faith.
Of the 108 students in attendance, I oversaw 18 with three other counselors. All the teams were categorized by color: red, blue, yellow, orange, and purple. There used to be a black and a white, but they were discontinued to minimize racially-charged jokes. I was on team red; the color of romance and sacrifice. I thought of the martyrs.
It is a small miracle when this group of bored strangers begins to bond and behave as a unit; it would only take one or two stinkers to spoil the fun for everyone. For the next few days, my 18 teenagers were busy with intense team-building exercises, personality examinations, and discussion groups. They went from blundering individuals to a reckonable confederacy. Each member found a place to utilize particular strengths. By the end, they trusted each other unconditionally and could solve elaborate puzzles speedily and precisely. “We can do anything!” they cheered.
The beloved Mrs. Patty Robertson, a seasoned Christian counselor for drug-addicted teens and a volunteer for Rotary, led discussions. Topics were written anonymously by the students and pulled from a hat. Historically, the question “What do you want in a future spouse?” was the most popular, but that did not come up this year. Instead we discussed things such as obesity, favorite childhood memories, how to know if a guy is into you, pre-marital sex, and global warming, to name a few. “Does anyone have something intelligent to say?” asked Robertson about global warming. “Yes,” volunteered a student. “I don’t discuss religion!” These sessions were often light-hearted.
On the last session of camp, Robertson pulled from the hat “suicide/self-harm.” There was some uncomfortable fidgeting. Finally one student confessed to cutting. Then another. And another. Some showed their scars. “Why do we do it?” asked a student. “We don’t know. We are so numb, and it lets us feel something.” Others claimed to have attempted suicide; others had a friend or family member who succeeded. “I have never seen that many kids want to hurt themselves,” said a counselor afterward. “Over half of them!” One of the boys, handsome and athletic, was popular in his school and had a 4.1 GPA. He had spent forty-five minutes with a gun in his mouth trying to work up the nerve to pull the trigger.
Another, one of the quieter ones, never lived with her parents. A close friend was murdered on her sixteenth birthday. For a gift, her cousin gave her a pen. “If you ever feel alone or like hurting yourself, take the pen and just write.” She vows that advice has saved her life on numerous occasions. “It’s so hard to be happy, and it shouldn’t be hard!” she said in tears. “I pray to God every night that everyone going through something will experience peace someday. Why is that so hard?”
No one answered her.
As we left the session, every head was low. “It gets worse every year,” said a counselor who has volunteered at RYLA for four years.
All the successes and team-development suddenly looked small and trite compared to the histories of broken families, abuse, and emptiness written on so many forearms. “Somebody please tell a joke!” said another counselor, with a weak smile. I obliged. Soon we were all laughing, though it did not keep me from crying that night. “How long, O Lord?” I asked. “How long?”
And what was our solution? I thought. A team-building exercise? A group hug? An elevator pitch for the faith? What could possibly reach scars so deep?
The motivational speaker that evening declared we must punch through our fears to reach our dreams. It nauseated me. There was value to what he said, but is this the best we can do? Is there any real value to suffering? Can I be brought to the lowest and still say with Job, “Shall we receive good from God and shall not receive evil?” Is pain sufficiently meaningful that we can praise God in it without the condition that it will be followed by happiness? Am I willing to live a tragedy; to live unconditionally?
The students rode back to their homes on Wednesday. They heard less about God during the four days than they would have on the country radio station. In the car I think about salt and light, and of soil being turned up. What did I expect to accomplish in four days?
Back home on my bed, I ponder my own salvation and the sheer impossibility of it. I recall the atheism, the pornography, and the loathsome familiarity with the systematized recuperating process. “I hate myself for the medications – the prayers, meditations, favorite songs – that I’ve crafted for myself like a drunkard with a hangover,” I wrote in my journal. “Really, the only thing that works now is time…I can only wait until I recover from guilt, and then sin again.”
I remember the day I raised the knife over my arm and stopping halfway – like Abraham – when a voice said, “Why do you draw the punishment from your own flesh? It has already been drawn from Another’s.” I may well grieve over their depravity; but once I was just like them. I too was once an alien mind, unrecognizable to who I am in Christ.
“Who do you think you are?” would be an indulgent paraphrase of God’s answer to Job.
Who are we, indeed, to despair?
Blake Adams is a freelance journalist and children’s book illustrator from Powder Springs, GA. He studied journalism at Patrick Henry College. He collects glass bottles with funny shapes. And that’s the extent of his qualifications.Google+