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The Peter Pan Syndrome

William J. O'Malley, S.J.

Editor's Note:

"What's the matter with young people today?" is the cry echoing across the country from parents, educators, law enforcement and clergy. We inwardly shudder as we take note of the rising incidences of teen violence, suicide, drug use, and pregnancy. Worse still, and more pervasive, is the apathy and complacency that expresses itself in a lack of involvement in the community. This concerns us all, but few know fully what to do.

Father O'Malley, in his thought-provoking, four-part article, "Peter Pan Syndrome," explores these issues. Last month, in Part I, he examined how adolescence should be the time for preparing a child to take part in the adult world. In Part II, Father O'Malley focused on what is happening instead, what he describes as the Peter Pan Syndrome -- the "commitment to non-commitment." This month he probes the heart of the problem, our "mangled notion of what freedom really means." Finally, in Part IV, Father O'Malley offers suggestions for the future.

Part III.


The core problem seems to be a mangled notion of what freedom really means. Any limitation whatever leaves many of our young feeling trapped and "taken over." They want to keep an open mind, keep their options unencumbered, because something "better" might just come along. And so, like Hamlet and Holden, they continually postpone. "I guess I'm lazy; I procrastinate a lot." (Funny. Even the least verbal know that big word.) No, you're not lazy. You're just plain selfish and just plain scared. Howdya like them apples? The first step toward wisdom is to call a thing by its right name. They seem impregnable to the realization that freedom exists only when it ceases to be, that we can be free only at the moment we expend our freedom on something we want. Only when we deprive ourselves of the other options and commit ourselves to one option can we truly be free. And rather than being a constraint, commitment to one choice liberates us to be better selves.

But for all their sly shiftiness the young do genuinely want to "grow up," to answer the questions "Who am I?" and "Where do I fit in?" Unfortunately, too many are allowed to answer the second question first, and thus they form a pseudo-"self" rigorously limited by what is acceptable to parents and peers, not to mention the expectations of the media. Pseudo-rebellion against parents has nothing whatever to do with genuine freedom; it is nothing more than shifting unthinking conformity from the family to the gang or fad, changing one control disc for another.

At least for a time, youngsters will find a group--or a steady--to whom they can at last be true; they will wear the group's insignia with pride and conviction and defend the group's interests as their own personal interests. Harmless enough, and perhaps a necessary phase for all young people deprived of the omnipresent care and support of the family they always had up until adolescence--if they had it at all. It is wholesome to have a supportive group when one feels at loose ends. But the objects and personalities that focus the group may not be entirely wholesome at all: Heavy Metal gods and Madonna goddesses, dirt bikes and bubblegum idols, all of which contribute to the prolonged arrested state of moratorium. It is crucial then, that parents and teachers honestly, consistently, patiently discern with the young whether their loyalty has been placed on a object that is truly life-giving or merely pleasure-giving.

Physical puberty broadens the scope of a youngster's capacities incredibly: genital potency, increased motor skills, and the potential of rational intelligence. But the genital potency can be expended on a merely animal level; sex is a game of seductive conquest with no intention of psychological (i.e., human) commitment, a child playing with a grown-up toy. Enhanced motor skills can become merely tearing around, "on the go": sports, frenzied dancing, wanderlust, mall roaming, cruel pranks and at worst vandalism, rape, mugging, murder. Both cars and movies contribute to the moratorium: the intoxicating delusion of being intensely active without the slightest demand on thought or effort. Increased intellectual potency can devolve into cunning, beating the rap, and end-running the system's demands. But the house always wins. By the very nature of human life, there is a longing not only for variety but for durability.

As Erikson says, "diversity without a sense of fidelity: an empty relativism." Oz may be endlessly fascinating, but as Glinda told Dorothy, "There's no place like home." There has to be some sense of permanence, meaning, continuity. After all the adventures, Odysseus has to find Ithaca again. Fancy-free is fine, but so is belonging. And the price is commitment.

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