Aron Lee Ralston cut his own hand off with a dull pocketknife after it became trapped by a boulder in a canyoneering accident in 2003. The story spawned the acclaimed movie “127 hours.”
Pi was always taught to take care of and be respectful to all animals but when he was stranded on a boat in the middle of the Pacific he ate algae, dead animals, drank ocean water and even killed and ate the meat and blood of a sea turtle. (Life of Pi, 2012)
Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) names and carries on conversations with a volley ball and performs oral surgery with a rock and an ice skate in the struggle to survive alone on a deserted island. (Cast Away, 2000)
Recently Jennifer and I have been watching the television sitcom, “The Walking Dead.” It is gruesome and gory, violent and vile. More than once either Jennifer or I have looked at the other in the middle of an episode and asked “Why are we watching this?” Two things keep me coming back beyond the riveting character portrayals.
First, the fascination with zombies is intriguing. I wonder if it is because it hits a little too close to home. We are fascinated because we identify the with animation of life mixed with the stench of death. An insatiable appetite that devours others. Frantic activity that ultimately seems empty and purposeless and devoid of the real substance of life. It would seem that zombies are a fanciful but horrifically accurate depiction of what we fear to be the reality of everyday existence.
Secondly, beyond the general zombie craze, “The Walking Dead” offers a glimpse into the survivalist mentality. Aron Lee Ralston, Pi, and Chuck Noland represent other examples. We seem absolutely captivated by the question, “What would you be willing to do in order to survive?”
As the plot of “The Walking Dead” series has continued to play out, the characters have increasingly found themselves wrestling with the juxtaposition of morality and survival. In a recent episode a character is shown gazing out of a window at a sea of frenzied zombie faces. In a clever and artistic use of camera angle and lighting the person’s reflection appears among the zombie faces as if to suggest (or at least raise the question) that the distance that separates this living person from the unfeeling and amoral actions of the zombies is as thin as glass. In an effort to survive, the characters find themselves continually having to decide whether they will concede another part of who they are and what they believe to be right and wrong, good and evil, human and inhumane in order to “live” another day. It raises the question, “what really makes life…life? What separates the living from the zombies? At what point do you die even while you still are physically alive? At what point do you give up so much of who you are and who you wanted to be that you cease to really exist even though all of the signs of carnal life remain?
I believe in many ways this unsettlingly describes so many of our adolescents. For a variety of reasons they find themselves in survival mode. Many have astutely suggested that morality and ethics are seemingly “up for grabs” when it comes to young people (and perhaps our world and particularly western culture in general). Should we be surprised by this? This is what people in survival mode do. They wrestle with ethical (and previously settled upon) codes of conduct out of what is perceived as the greater and more fundamental concern for basic survival.
Why are our young people in survival mode? That is a lengthier discussion perhaps for another day. I would recommend asking a teenager, if you haven’t already. Even then they may not be able to rationally put it all into words, though they likely recognize and feel on some level the effects of the condition. But for the sake of a quick glimpse consider these….
Adolescents feel harried and stressed. The temporal and success-driven pressures that we have put on our children are harrowing. There is a reason why so many of our teens answer, “How are you?” with “Tired.” They aren’t just lazy. They are exhausted.
Adolescents don’t know who they can trust. Can you blame them? Everyone is trying to sell them something. Many, even with seemingly pure motivations, are ultimately trying to exploit them. Even, and perhaps especially, those whom they ought to most naturally trust.
Their peers can be fickle and even threatening. Their teachers are often motivated by incentives attached to higher test scores. Their youth ministers are often motivated to build a bigger and flashier youth ministry in order to receive the acclaim and pats on the back. Their parents are often motivated to see them succeed in order to find personal validation among their own peers. It is not difficult to understand why an adolescent might feel used and mistrusting.
Families are often unstable. Friendships can be brutal. Social media and the way it makes public what was often privatized or makes numerical what was once only suggested. How many friends do I have? How many likes will I get? How many people saw and agree with the negative comment that person just posted?
Our young people are in survival mode. And as such they are doing what they perceive that it takes to survive, even if that means sacrificing some of their previously settled upon moral and ethical standards. They cheat to succeed. They medicate to numb or to feel at least temporarily alive. They give far too much of their purity and their bodies away in order to feel, even if just for a moment, loved and appreciated. And they lie, out of both guilt and what they perceive to be necessity.
With each decision, each concession, they feel more and more like zombies.
This has to STOP.
In some ways it is just that simple, though admittedly application is often far more complex than the ideals that motivate. It has to STOP with us who have been charged with caring for and protecting and mentoring adolescents, which ultimately includes every person beyond adolescence. But it must also STOP with them. And the halt BEGINS with a decision to STOP, to not give away anymore of who they are, to not compromise another conviction, to not let fear leave them with one more regret.
No they cannot be perfect anymore than we can. But they, like us CAN stand in the way of the “new thing” that God intends to do in their life.
Ephesians 4 (NCV) says it like this…
“Do not continue living like those who do not believe…” (4:17)
“…what you learned in Christ was not like this.” (4:20)
“..STOP living the evil way you lived before.” (4:22)
“…you must STOP telling lies.” (4:25)
“When you are angry do not sin, and be sure to STOP being angry before the end of the day.” (4:26)
“…STOP stealing…” (4:28)
“,,,do not say harmful things….” (4:29)
“…do not make the Holy Spirit sad.” (4:30)
It continues in chapter 5.
This is hard. When you are in survival mode you find yourself doing things you never thought you would, or could, do. Sometimes they are necessary. Sometimes you have to cut your arm off with a dull pocketknife. Sometimes you have to knock your infected tooth out with an ice skate.
Other times we give away too much. Our compromises leave us wondering if we are really living at all even though we are seemingly surviving.
Our job as mentors, as protectors, as lovers of young people is to show them that there is another way. It is possible not only to survive but to thrive. They don’t just have the puny potential of perpetuating existence. They CAN and SHOULD actually be living. They have more power available to them than they might have imagined. They are NOT powerless.
“I pray also…you will know that God’s power is very great for us who believe. That power is the same as the great strength God used to raise Christ from the dead…” (Eph 1:19-20)
God is in the business of raising people from the dead. And he doesn’t just clear out tombs or empty graves. He breathes life into zombies.
Part of the process lies in our decision to STOP slowly giving our life away.