Scarlet Tanagers

July 09, 2011

This morning I sat at my normal Saturday coffee shop next to a table with a mother and her teenage daughter. Though it has become a common sight, the difference between them was startling. The daughter was about what you expect from a teenage girl, relaxed and athletic, she paid attention to her hair, her clothes, and her phone, and she looked bored. Actually, she looked desperate to get out of there, to go feel the sun on her face and enjoy the day. The mother was also about what you expect. Short bad hair, fat, colored nails holding onto bad fashion along with an ugly flowery shirt and purse. She didn’t look bored, she looked boring. Middle-age had sucked the life right out of her. The dichotomy was tremendous.

These two were clearly having an important conversation. Happily, I didn’t hear any of it, but it wasn’t going well. The mother was at least saying what she had to say, but it wasn’t having much effect, other than angering the daughter for being forced to hear her “words of wisdom”. The experience was a success for me though, because I realized exactly why the mother wasn’t having any success.

She had no credibility.

And why should she? This sounds very sad, but in her daughter’s eyes what did the mother have to offer? She was the antithesis of what her daughter aspires to be. She’s let herself go, she has no fashion, she’s behind on technology, she probably has few friends (who are also boring), and she probably doesn’t like her dead-end job that she forces herself to get up for everyday due to her “responsibilities”. If this seems critical, perhaps we should rethink our criticisms. We tend to be unforgiving where it suits us, but ignore problems of gradualness or suburbanites with a slight aire of respectability. Either way, I bet you can picture this woman in your head. The life she lives is not credible, it is a machine-like caricature of humanity.

I’m extremely fortunate that neither my wife or I have parents with problems of credibility. Nor do many of my friends. But what kids see in adults is getting worse, and it extends beyond just parents. I think the effectiveness of teachers can be directly tied to their credibility. I had many teachers that I paid no attention to, and I realize now that they weren’t interesting. The teachers that got me interested still loved life and were fascinated by the world. My Dad’s first job out of school was a 5th or 6th grade teacher. I remember hearing stories about how he cleared the entire classroom and brought in a huge pile of clay or something, and had his class build a medieval castle. Perhaps not surprisingly, his students still remember him, forty years later.

At about twenty, I attended a Catholic retreat for young people. Among others, there was a group of Franciscans. If you’ve never met a Franciscan, they are a sight. The focus of their lives is in full view at all times. They have shaved heads, long beards, and rough long robes tied with a Rosary. They wear either old sandals or go barefoot. This clothing - and their Rosary - is all they own. They beg for or live off of donation for everything, including food and shelter.

This sort of life sounds completely crazy, especially to most twenty year olds. I had one brief conversation with one of the Franciscan Friars there. He was a bear of a man, 6’6” barefoot and 300 lbs and a foot long black beard. But he glowed with life. It absolutely radiated out from him.

That one conversation completely changed my perspective not only on Franciscans, but on the credibility of priests and the Church. This guy had nothing, literally, and still loved life. He lived the Church and showed just how real that kind of life can be. I will always remember meeting him.

Perhaps the best indicator for success in this world is what you look like in the eyes of children and young people. More than having a successful job, money, or having a big TV. More than fame, friends, or status. More than intelligence, strength, or athleticism. If kids and young adults look at you and think you’re a success, if they see the way you live as credible, if they want to be more like you.. that is the most profound compliment you can receive.

The only way to be credible is to care about and be interested in the world. To love it desperately, to be overwhelmed by it, to be filled with a sense of wonder. This is, in fact, what we as humans are most bound to do. It’s natural, as kids show us. It’s what we are born for.

Just like the Scarlet Tanager: Thy duty, winged flame of spring, is but to love and fly and sing. —James Lowell

Youth is wasted on the young, as they say, and as it’s the happiest thing they ever do, I’m not sure how wasteful it is. Children are the Scarlet Tanagers all of us should be.

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