I was recently asked to address a group of young people in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, who had just completed a nine-day leadership training programme. It was impressively organised by the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, and involved participants getting up at 6am and pursuing activities that included yoga, pranayama, games and workshops to develop self-confidence and leadership skills. A number of participants asked if I could post a copy of the talk:
When adults are asked to think about what young people need they often say: “We need to give them roots and wings!” In other words, we need to offer young people a sense of heritage, of connection to their culture and their past but we also need to encourage them to take flight: to be hopeful and ambitious.
It’s a great idea but it offers a ridiculous image! Giving somebody roots and wings sounds like a recipe for disaster! It’s like a kind of Frankenstein cloning experiment in which the genes of an eagle are combined with the genes of an oak tree. Where does this lead? To precisely where I suspect you stand today. Forgive me for being presumptuous in guessing how you are feeling, but if you are feeling anything like the way I was at your age, it could be summed up in one word: frustration. I bet you are feeling just like that cloning experiment. On the one hand you want to respect your family, your culture and your religious values, on the other hand you want to take off into the wide world where anything is possible and everything is up for grabs, and you can just be yourself without all the trappings of cultural identity.
When you are young you want to question everything, challenge everything, taste everything. But what is the right thing to do? What is the correct and honourable thing to do?
I’d like to suggest to you that the feeling of frustration that these two contradictory impulses provokes is not only a natural feeling, but that it is valuable, and that historically you are in a fantastic position to use your frustration to help not only yourself but the wider world too.
Let’s examine this idea in some more detail. What is this frustration? You love your family but they drive you nuts. You love your friends, your culture, your religious beliefs and customs, but some aspects of them drive you crazy. You want to break free, but you feel bad about that too.
Essentially what is happening is that you are being torn between two impulses: towards modernity in one direction, towards tradition in the other. Some people take the easy way out. They can’t bear the tension and so they either become out-and-out traditionalists, or they rebel and reject all the old values and customs and become modernists. But the really creative way to deal with this problem is to recognise that both tendencies have their value and that life is made up of a dance between apparent opposites: between sound and silence, between movement and stillness, between the ‘what is’ and the ‘what might be’. Within each of us there is a desire for change, for improvement, for progress, innovation, growth, new horizons. But there is also a desire for stability, for the familiar sights and sounds of home and family, of tradition and culture.
Somehow the task of maturity, of growing up, of leadership, involves steering a course that satisfies both the need for change and the need for permanence. So the question is “How can I respect my elders, my culture, and at the same time welcome the new, and the unexpected into my life?”
Here’s my suggestion: Until recently you could allow yourself the luxury of rebellion. You could dress outrageously, go crazy for a little while, and then slip into a suit and work for a bank in the city. It would all be part of growing up. I’m exaggerating for effect of course, but you know what I mean, which is that young people will often go through a phase of rebellion and will then ‘settle down’, have kids and a mortgage and become respected members of society. But I think the times are calling for a new approach. I think they are saying “Don’t rebel and don’t settle down!’
Why not? Because we are living through a time in history which is unlike any other. We have come to a critical moment in the story of humanity when five runaway trains are converging on our planet: climate change, overpopulation, resource depletion, pollution and species extinction are all threatening the very future of humankind on earth. So the old ways of living aren’t going to work any more. I’m telling you: you can’t afford to rebel in that self-indulgent but perfectly understandable way any more. And you can’t afford to settle down any more. How can you settle down when they’ve told you the Ganges might dry up by 2030?
So here is the challenge. You find yourself in a unique position. You live in a country and at a time when there is enough openness and liberalism to give you the freedom to question old beliefs and superstitions, but you also have enough support from those around you to value tradition and the gifts that one of the oldest cultures and religions brings to the world. Don’t fall into the trap of becoming stuck in either rejecting traditional values or hiding from the changes you will have to make to adapt to the future. Don’t make the same stupid mistakes of greed and consumerism that have lead us to such an impasse. Don’t be fooled by predictions that even if the Western economies continue in their downturn, the economies of India or China will continue to grow to dizzying heights, and that you will be able to capitalise on them to fulfil your every wish.
Dreams of constant economic growth are delusional and have become nightmares that are dragging millions into poverty and are irreparably damaging the natural world. What the world needs now are not more products, more shiny plastic things to distract us, but bright minds and open hearts who can help to change the way we live on this planet so that humanity and all the community of earth has a truly sustainable future.
It’s your choice. In reality you can have roots and wings. They just don’t have to be stuck together. Your soul can be rooted in a love of the earth, of family, of culture, and your spirit can aspire to the heights and the wide open sky. May your future be bright and blessed in every way!