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December 06, 2004



Wonderful post, Hugo. I have older friends who are very willing to steer me from experiences they themselves had to go through in their youth that they wouldn't want to see repeated in my life. On one hand, I'm very grateful to have friends like that; on the other hand, that still doesn't reign in my curiousity about such things, so some hard lessons might be in store for me, anyway. The question is whether or not I'll heed their advice.


That's interesting, because conservative Christian circles tend to make the opposite error, i.e. that every good change in a person's life must be the Holy Spirit at work. In some cases, I think it's just growing up.

But basically, I agree with you. I think some folks try to get around the evilness of sin by putting it in a narrative of 'personal growth.' Aside from the fact that, as you say, it leads to decline more often than growth, it's also pretty cold toward the people you hurt on your supposed path to enlightenment.


This is insightful. If only more youth workers realized this. The best thing you can do, regardless of which paths you took up to the present, is present an authentic image of a competent, caring adult who knows how to take care of business. They don't have to know your life story. They need to see positive behaviors in action.

Russell Arben Fox

Great post Hugo. Over the years, I've had more than a few conversations with friends about how we've "learned" from our mistakes. Of course we learn from our past; the past is present in our thinking, and the more past we have, the more resources we can bring to bear on the moment. But such "learning" is an empty psychological fact; it doesn't tell us anything moral. I believe that Christ can make our pasts, no matter what they consisted in, a real moral resource for us (beauty for ashes and all that); but there is no promise that such a transformation will be painless, or even successful (we may refuse, through our own perverse pride in how bad or foolish we once were, to learn the lesson we ought to learn, and instead prefer whichever badass, "school-of-hard-knocks" ones we cook up on our own). In the long run, better choices will not leave any of us left out of the "learning or experience" sweepstakes; if anything, better choices will make more of our past uncomplicatedly available to those around us, thus enabling us to serve with our whole (including past) selves without reservation.


Russell, if I could have said it half as well... beautifully put. Thank you.


Wasn't it Benjamin Franklin who said that experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn at no other?

Or, as I occasionally tell my kids, I make the dumb mistakes so you won't have to.



I agree that self-destructive behavior is just that, destructive. I also believe that we can't turn our lives around on our own. We need God's help. The question I have for you though (and it is a personal one, so feel free to decline to answer),is if recognizing your self-destructive behavior led you to seek God? I am not a teacher, so I don't know how to explain it to younger people, but I think what someone who has been there can offer is, that if you can avoid self-destructive choices you should do so because they just create a lot of pain and negativity, but if you find yourself caught up in the negativity you can still turn it around. God can turn any situation into a positive "learning experience" for us, but the key is that we need to recognize that we need God's help.
I was raised in Christian family and I think I have managed to make fairly healthy choices in regards to alcohol, drugs, and sex (with some exceptions of course). I could be wrong, but my guess is that I might be able to share with younger people how to prevent some problems, but I would loose some credibility and effectiveness when it comes to helping them turn away from these problems. You're past could allow you to empathize instead of sympathize and I believe you might be effective with some people where I couldn't be. Obviously, you only need to share what you are comfortable with, but sharing your past is not the same as condoning it.


Absolutely, Stacey, that's a valid point. Hitting bottom helps one hit one's knees, at it were...


Though I'm sure there are plenty of atheists and agnostics who have turned themselves around without God.



We probably have different ideas of what "turned around" means. I do know that many treatment programs including AA refer to a higher power. But that is what I believe. If others believe they have done it on ther own then they are entitled to that belief. We can agree to disagree. :)

Lawrence Krubner

I don't want to agree with you and I'm not sure that I can agree with you and I believe there might be good reasons for disagreeing with you. The hard part about getting your message across to kids today is that our country has become more bohemian over the last few decades, and artists, and the life of an artist, has become increasingly envied and imitated. Everyone wants to be Jack Kerouac, everyone wants to be Ken Kesey. The new trend is to live like an artist. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say, in some quarters envy of artists is quite old, but what is new is the sheer mass scale of the numbers of people wanting to lead that kind of life. And as I love art, and my only real religion is art, I have trouble finding fault with those who wish to imitate the lives of artists. Those who in the past would have been the most likely to model their lives on those of the saints are nowadays the people most likely to model their lives on the lives of artists. People are looking for those who can give evidence that they have truly been touched with inspiration from a high source. You could argue that some people do it shallowly, or some out of ignorance, and most without the spiritual or intellectual depth that would justify it, yet the impulse at core seems like a good one to me.

The change, it seems to me, seems related to the shift in religion that we've seen in America since the 1960s. The two big trends that I can see is the rising influence of fundamentalism and then also, quite different, the rising influence of mysticism. Christian teaching has long gone back and forth over how much religion one can gain from study and how much must come from direct experience of the divine. The Catholic Church emphasized study, Protestant churches have tended to emphasize direct experience. The more radical Protestant churches have usually been the most extreme in their embrace of mysticism. Since the 1960s the interest in direct experience of the divine has grown, and many people no longer look for it within a Christian context. They look elsewhere. They want exstacy, divine delirium, magic. They are looking for it in music, art, sex, drugs, risk, intense living.

Though you'd now like to rewrite your history, I'm with the kids on this one, because I've seen your story a thousand times - live wild in youth and end up comfortable and satisfied and safe before the age of 40. Your story strikes me as the most common experience of middle-class Americans today, the road most traveled.


Lawrence, I think you've misunderstood me. I have no desire to rewrite my history! Rather, I am wondering how much of my story I ought to share with minors! I'm also wondering about the necessity of certain experiences.

I don't know who your friends are, Lawrence (though I think you are from Cville, where lots of my family reside); not a lot of folks around here are thrice divorced by 35. Add in the adventures with law enforcement, psychiatry, promiscuity, piercing, substance abuse and so forth and, while not entirely an unheard of story, it's not exactly the road most traveled.

La Lubu

Lawrence, what a fabuluously good point!

I also wonder, about "kids like scars"...do you think this relates to our not having a coming-of-age ritual in modern U.S. society? I mean, how sheltered are these kids? I've often believed (perhaps wrongly, but still...) that humans need a certain amount of stress and strife in life...enough to grow, but not enough to break (and that in itself is problematic, 'cuz we have different tolerance levels). And that if someone hasn't been given enough of life's little challenges by young adulthood, that they will seek their own. Sometimes, in a self-destructive way.

Then again, maybe these kids just want reassurance that it is possible to screw up in life, and still come out ok. Perfectionism is drilled into a lot of kids these days, and their lives are highly organized from a young age. Maybe these kids just want to know there's room to breathe.

As we say on the jobsite, "If you've never f'd up, it's 'cuz you've never done anything." (the person who is no longer there, due to layoff or job transfer, is always the one to be blamed for everything forgotten or wrong. the corollary statement is "hell! hire him/her back....that's the only person that did anything!")


This is a wonderfully insightful post. My father did for me some of what you did for your students. He told me and my sister about the fact that he had tried many drugs and been with many women in his younger days in order that we might learn from his experiences and not have to repeat the pain of going through them.

We certainly had to do a little experimenting on our own, but I think both of us learned much more easily than him the importance of meaningful, spiritually fulfilling sex, and the dangers of addiction, and for that I will always be grateful.

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