Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Time of Waiting

For those of us that live our lives at least somewhat by the liturgical calendar, we are in the second week of the New Year, the second week of Advent. In the Christian tradition, Advent is the time that immediately precedes the celebration of the birth of Christ—Christmas. Thus, it is a season of waiting – waiting for the baby to be born. It should be a time for us to slow down and contemplate all that there is to learn from enduring a period of great anticipation. But, waiting is not something we do well in this day and age. Immediate gratification seems to be considered by many as an inalienable right.

I heard on the radio today that people under twenty one, i.e. those who have grown up in an era in which the Internet has been a part of their everyday life since birth, consider more than ten seconds as too long to wait for a web page to load whereas those of us who are a little older (or a lot older) are perfectly happy waiting as much as two or three minutes. Some people say that our youth are simply impatient and others say that this impatience is a result of children these days being overindulged. They are given cell phones from the time they can string two syllables together. They are banging away on computer keyboards as soon as they can sit up. Their strollers are equipped with iPod speakers. Everything from food to cosmetics, from designer clothing to kid-sized motorized Hummers is available to them. It would appear that they don’t have to wait until adulthood for anything. As children, they can have it all. This may all be true, but with any scenario, there is another side of the story.

Children do have many of the gadgets and material things that in past generations were deemed only for “grown-ups”; but sadly, they also are now facing many of the stresses of life that at one time also were reserved only for adults.

Illness and death were not something that I had much experience with as a child. Sure, I knew of kids who lost their grandparents. That was not a surprise to me as a child because they were “old” and old people die. The most serious encounter that I had with illness was when a classmate had their tonsils out. And as far as I knew, a tonsillectomy was not life threatening. Children didn’t face life-threatening illnesses and only old people died. Looking back, I know that life was not this rosy, but as a child, even a teenager, I never had to face the emotional stresses of such things. This too has changed for children today.

Erin will be seventeen years old in two weeks. Based on the current statistical life expectancy, she is still very young. In those seventeen years, she has experienced firsthand more heartache and pain as the result of illness and death than I had by the time I was forty. When she was seven, Erin and an entire classroom of second and third graders attended the funeral of a beloved teacher. She had cancer and was not old. She was the mother of a little girl who also attended the same school. When I was little, teachers and mothers did not die.

As she was finishing middle school, Erin’s math teacher and the mother of a child a year older than Erin was diagnosed with colon cancer. She is no longer teaching because battling cancer is taking all of her energy. When I was little, teachers and mothers did not get cancer.

Back in the spring, another of her teachers collapsed and died of a heart attack while out jogging on a Saturday morning. Again the funeral service with packed with children, two of whom were his own. He was my age. When I was little, teachers and fathers did not die from heart attacks.

Two weeks ago a friend of Erin’s, a girl with whom she attended school, played volleyball, performed in plays, and had many slumber parties from kindergarten through eighth grade was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer that affects primarily adolescents. A part of Erin’s daily routine now is to check the website that her friend’s family has created to keep friends and family updated on her progress. When I was little, my friends did not get cancer.

It may be true that our children have more things than they need. They most certainly also have more stresses than they need or deserve. When I step back and look at the bigger picture of childhood today, it becomes clear to me why young people need immediate gratification. They are keenly aware that tomorrow is not a guarantee.

What are they waiting for?