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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood
The Importance of Being an Unhappy Teenager
Being unhappy is never wholly to be recommended, but if there is any period of life in which the mood may be justified and in certain ways important, then it is roughly between the ages of 13 and 20.
It is hard to imagine going on to have a successful or even somewhat contented next six decades if one has not been the beneficiary of a good deal of agonising introspection and intense dislocation in this span.
At the root of adolescent sorrow and rage is the recognition that life is hugely harder, more absurd and less fulfilling than one could ever hitherto have suspected – or had been led to suppose by kindly representatives of the adult world. The sentimental protection of childhood falls away – and a range of searingly malevolent but profoundly important realisations strike.
For a start, one recognises that no one understands.
That isn’t quite true, but of course, the more complicated any human being is, the less likely they are to be easily and immediately understood. Therefore, as a child develops into an adult, the chances of those around them exactly sympathising with and swiftly grasping their inner condition necessarily decreases sharply.
The first response of the teenager is to think themselves uniquely cursed. But the better eventual insight is that true connection with another person is possible yet astonishingly rare. This leads one to a number of important moves. Firstly, to a heightened and more appropriate gratitude towards anyone who does understand. Secondly, to greater efforts to make oneself understood. The sullen grunts of early adolescence can give way to the enormous eloquence of the poetry, diaries and songs of later teenagehood. The most beautiful pieces of communication humanity has ever produced have largely been the work of people who couldn’t find anyone in the vicinity they could talk to.
And lastly, the sense that one is different from other people, though it may be searingly problematic at the time, represents a critical moment when a new generation starts to probe at and selectively improve upon the existing order. To be 16 and find everything perfect as it is would be a terrifyingly sterile conclusion. A refusal to accept the folly, error and evil of the world is a precondition of later achievement. There really seems no alternative but to be miserable in mid-adolescence if one is to stand any chance of making a go of the rest of one’s life.
Another key realisation of adolescence is that one hates one’s parents.
Yet it is truly an enormous tribute to the love and care of parents if their teenage children turn around and tell them at the top of their voice that they loathe them.
It isn’t a sign that something has gone wrong, it’s evidence that the child knows they are loved. The really worrying teenagers aren’t those who misbehave around their parents and take out their random misery upon them, it’s those who are so worried about not being loved, they can’t afford to put a foot wrong.
To develop proper trust in other human beings, it can be deeply important to be able to test a few examples, to tell them the very worst things one can think of, and then watch them stick around and forgive one. You have to have few gos at breaking love to believe it can be solid.
And, of course, one’s parents really are rather annoying in many ways. But that too is an important realisation. We would never leave home and become parents ourselves if we weren’t at some level compensating for the problems, mistakes and vices we had first identified in our own parents at fourteen and a half.
Another source of teenage sorrow is how many big questions suddenly fill one’s mind, not least: what is the point of it all? This questioning too is vital. The sort of questions that adolescents raise tend to get a bad name, but that is more to do with how they answer them than with the questions themselves. What is the meaning of life? Why is there suffering? Why does capitalism not reward people more fairly? Adolescents are natural philosophers. The true end-point of adolescence is not, as it’s sometimes suggested, that one stops asking huge questions and gets on with the day to day. It’s that one acquires the resources and intelligence to build an entire life around the sort of big questions that first obsessed one at seventeen.
Lastly, and most poignantly, teenagers tend to hate themselves. They hate the way they look, how they speak, the way they come across. It feels like the opposite of being loved, but in fact, these isolated, self-hating moments are the start of love. These feelings are what will, one day, be at the bedrock of the ecstasy we’ll feel in the presence of that rare partner who can accept and desire us back. Tenderness will mean nothing to us unless we first spent many nights alone crying ourselves to sleep.
Nature appears to have so arranged things that we really can’t get to certain insights without suffering. The real distinction is between suffering with a purpose and suffering in vain. For all the horrors of adolescence, one of its glories is that the suffering it inflicts is largely securely rooted in some of the most crucial developments and realisations of adulthood. These fascinatingly miserable few years should be celebrated for offering us suffering at its best.