This blog will not pretend to have the answers to these questions. However, the questions must be raised, because we do not seem to have adequate answers to them currently. Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.
The term adolescence is quite recent within our vocabulary. It was coined by the American psychologist, G Stanley Hall, in his 1904 book Adolescence. Hall recognised that the period of adolescence in the human species was far longer than for any other primate. He theorised that there must be a reason for this, and that if we properly understood the purpose and nature of adolescence then the human race could develop its evolutionary potential.
Where Hall, however, was steeped in his (European) culture of the time, later psychologists have come to explore further the basis of adolescence. In particular, eco-psychologists have recognised that adolescence is largely wasted on the human race. We are not utilising the great gift that this period of life is pregnant with.
Instead, adolescent boys and girls are trussed up in a school environment most of each day, for five days a week. The learning offered there is primarily geared towards producing “good” adults – adults that will consume and obey. Adults who have suppressed their imaginative qualities, and are not longer able to co-create a world in which will live harmoniously as part of nature.
In such a rigidly controlled adolescence it is little wonder that the only two, major, possibilities are: conform or rebel.
Sadly, adults (raised in similar systems) will listen (if any listening is done at all) to those adolescents who conform. Those who rebel are labelled as non-conformists (at best) or “angry young people who need to grow up.”
Eco-psychologist Bill Plotkin, however, paints an entirely different picture of adolescence. Far from adolescence being a training ground for adulthood, Plotkin says that:
“With the onset of adolescence, the individual becomes the social explorer who must learn the art of making his or her way in the world without the shield of their immediate family… It is time to push the limits, try out new social powers, see where and how one fits.” 1
Plotkin calls this the time of the Thespian. Today, we think of a thespian as being a Shakespearian actor. Whilst partially true, the first Thespian, Thespis, was a Greek dramatist from the 6th century BC who performed all the parts within his dramas by himself. To do so, he had to become adept at changing roles, swapping masks, and donning different costumes.
Plotkin has chosen an excellent archetype for the adolescent in that of the Thespian. It is a time for acting out different roles, trying on different masks, and donning different costumes (perhaps the only one of these three aspects that is reluctantly accepted by adults.)
What sort of adults would emerge from this form of adolescence were such a Thespian drama be allowed to flow, and furthermore, actively encouraged by adults and elders alike?
In today’s world we still hear young people venting their anger at the world of those of so-called adulthood. (Witness the current expressions of anger and frustration by young people at COP26 in Glasgow.)
Telling young people to stop, to go back to school, to grow up, is not going to help. Adults and elders need to listen to the fire of youth.
Socially, we also need to ask deep questions about what is adolescence, what is it for?
Perhaps, before adults and elders are able to stop and listen, before we (I place myself in that older age group) can even ask the questions, we need to go back and experience a true adolescence for ourselves.
As I indicated at the beginning of this blogpiece, there are no answers here. Just questions. They are questions that we must ask. I suspect the answers will not come easily, and they will not be without pain and surprise.
Let’s all become Thespians for once in our lives – no matter what age we are.
1. Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul, New World Library, Novato, California, 2008, p174