Our Wandering Youth as Society’s Heroes

23 May

For the past year I have been considering our society’s movement toward more gap years, summers abroad, wilderness explorations, and adventure education programs. Of course I had thought about these programs a lot in the past because I worked as an experiential educator for ten years. But after five years in the field of psychology, I began looking at them from a different, more sociological angle. Ultimately, the arrows all pointed back to my own experience.

For years I wandered. First to France when I was sixteen to live with my great uncle, then to Thailand for a year as an exchange student. And then on to Laos, China, India, Tibet, and many other lands in between. I did this wandering for fifteen years. Often I held a job that either took me to these places or helped me stay in them. And sometimes I just walked from town to town through forests or mountains, exploring people and their lands.

And I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Journals stacked into storage, electronic files went onto hard drives, and random notes scratched onto looseleaf ended up in boxes. I wanted to tell my story, but who was my audience? My parents for the most part. In 1998, in a dingy old classroom in south-central Thailand, I typed dozens of letters on an old typewriter and posted them from the town post office. And my parents read those letters, sometimes responding with their own thoughts on my observations. And now I realize just how important their thoughts were to me. Someone was listening and helping me integrate my experience, even if they had no idea what things were really like.

But for a moment, I want to back up and give some more rationale for what I want to share with you. It begins with the fact that humans are migratory creatures, evolved to wander in search of new spaces and lands in hopes of improving our lot, gaining security, and finding resources. It is an essential trait of our existence – exploration – that has led to our indulgence in wealth, stockpiling, hoarding, monopolizing. But the tempered side of this trait is our ability to nest, make use of our innate frugal nature, build small but quality homes, and share thoughtfully with each other.

Throughout our lifetime, we all need to wander and explore. It is a rite, a movement to ultimate self-identity and to understand our place in the world. This is why, in the twenty-first century, adventure programs and other facilitated experiences are becoming not for the rare, self-motivated outliers, but a requisite experience for the middle and upper classes of our society (and hence the need for more scholarships and nonprofit outfits that open this opportunity for those who cannot afford them). There is no clearer sign in our modern world that our youth are needing a greater global context to their existence.

And this brings me to what I think is direly important for us to consider as a society: The more we embrace this movement for our youth to explore the world, the more we need to help them integrate those experiences into their lives, and our own lives. They are like journalists for us, equipped with not just journals and a keen sense of observation, but also an exploratory energy that many of us have long lost. We need to learn from them and ask both simple and deep questions of them. They are heroes embarking on the journeys that we have yet to endeavor ourselves. The question, “How was it?” is not sufficient – not for our own learning, nor for their processing. Nor is it sufficient for us to tell them what they will find (even if we have explored the world ourselves, we do not know what beautiful discoveries they will make with their mind as the pilot).

To ask our youth questions about their experiences, we need to get detailed and we need to be authentically curious. Many times, a traveler will give clues to her experience through emails or phone calls. Listen for the key words – the places they name, the people they meet, the things they see – and then ask. Ask them about the specifics. Let them tell their story in all its darkness and light. Travel and exploring involves encountering our own inner difficulties and sorrows, as well as our own ability to live fully. For a youthful wandering to become a truly integrated benefit to all of us, we need to embrace its intricate fabric.

As we continue this modern movement of walkabouts, we need to find ways to integrate them into our social fabric. We need to hold them as sacred and give our youth the tools to move through them safely and with integrity. And to give them tools, we need tools. We need these experiences ourselves or we need to learn deeply about how they affect our (and our youth’s) psyche. So if you have not wandered, wander. Even if it is only for a week or a day, find the space and time to explore with as little structure as possible. And then understand that this is a part of what our youth need to do in order to break into adulthood.

My journeys as a young adult brought me many revelations, most of which were small but helpful. The big “aha” moments are few and far between, but the cumulative experiences often leads to a “changed” view of the world, hopefully a wider and more compassionate view. For me, the support of my family helped me integrate my experiences into my life’s work; I wish the same support for the travelers who are now setting out into the world.

– Max Woodfin

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