Challenges and Transformations

Francis A. Lackner, Jr.

Read before the Chicago Literary Club
January 21, 2002

All contents 2002 in all media by Francis A. Lackner, Jr.


The paper that follows was written in the month of August, 2001. It has not been revised, except for grammatical purposes, in light of the events of September 11. The conclusions drawn are only amplified in the light of those events.

Defining Moment:
Challenges and Transformations

Victor Harding was a young man a few years out of college in the summer of 1938, when a friend invited him to the coast of Maine to help sail his boat down to Boston after the summer season. Being at loose ends, he willingly agreed. Over that summer, he had casually become acquainted with Judy Burley in parties around Winnetka, and found her a companionable person. August came, he set off for Maine as promised; he and the friend sailed for Boston as planned. What they did not know, as no one else on the East Coast did, was that they were sailing straight into the teeth of the infamous Hurricane of 38.

Victor Harding survived that gale, but it was a close call. He vowed, then and there, that he was going to get married and settle down, and that the person he was going to marry was Judy Burley. He did just that, and they stayed happily married for upwards of fifty years.

Prospero, the wizard of Shakespeare's Tempest, was the rightful Duke of Milan, but was turned out and cast adrift to die on the ocean by his wicked brother. He found landfall on an enchanted island instead, where he established himself as ruler of a half-wit and assorted fairies. When his brother, some years later, happens to sail by, the action of the play begins, and the brother and his court are made to appear as fools before being confronted by Prospero.

Prospero, rather than punishing his brother outright as might be expected, would seem to have gained wisdom by his enforced retreat on the island, and settles for restoration of his crown. The play ends happily, with a sense of justice and completion.

Larry Ellison, the domineering CEO of Oracle Corporation, is a devoted sailor, among other avocations. He is not accustomed to losing, whether a product, a client, or a sailing race. It was as captain of his racing yacht Sayonara that he came to Australia in December 1998 for the Hobart Challenge Cup. Given his financial resources, he had assembled the best crew money could buy, not to mention the best racing yacht. He fully expected to win, a belief shared by much of the rest of the field. What no one had expected, however, was the weather. Gale and hurricane force winds blew across the course of the fleet, scattering boats and ultimately costing six lives. Ellison's boat started to delaminate during the storm as it was thrown around the waves, and even Larry Ellison finally conceded that the lives of his crew were more important than winning the race; he came about and sailed downwind until the storm blew over. He did, finally, win the race, but a much-humbled Ellison accepted the trophy in the name of those who perished.

Tom Hanks, in a bravo performance in the movie Cast Away, portrays a FedEx manager who is driven by the clock and the package sort. Flying with one of the company planes to a distant meeting, he is the sole survivor of a crash in the remote Pacific as the result of a typhoon. He is marooned on an uninhabited Pacific atoll with coconut palms, all the fish he can spear, and a volleyball for companionship. After four years, he finally escapes the island, to be picked up by a passing freighter and returned to the expected hero's welcome in Memphis. He returns to the girl he loves, to find that she has given him up for dead, has married and has a suburban life; we see at the end that he is set free to make new choices about the future of his life.

These stories all concern trials at sea, but I could have equally chosen stories from Arctic exploration, Western exploration, mountaineering, or a variety of other ventures. What these tales have in common, whether real-life or fictional, is a trial of character in which death is a very real possibility, and the sense that the character of the principal is substantially changed in the catharsis of the event. Before the event, he is focused on the events and concerns of this world, whether a social life, a commercial competition, or ruling a kingdom. The event that tests him transforms him even as he returns to the world, and his manner and attitude to the world are forever transformed as well.

Human culture has understood the necessity of a transformation to create adults from youth from its earliest days, and most primitive cultures have a ceremony marking the initiation of pubescent boys (and separately, girls) into fully adult members of the society. The ceremony takes the place of the actual trial mentioned above, since most societies cannot afford the risks to their young that such trials entail. The ceremony is non-the-less serious for the participants for the lack of mortal danger, and the participants fully understand the transformation that is expected.

What happens to a society when it fails to provide such a ceremony for its youth? It holds its members in a perpetual state of super-pubescence. The lack of transformation does not allow the natural growth into adulthood that keeps minor aggressions in check and insipid behavior under control. It prevents responsible leaders and citizens from emerging.

What happens to the individual when the desire for independence and the acceptance of the responsibilities of mature adulthood are thwarted? A variety of socially destructive activities wells up. Youth manufacture their own challenges: witness the rapid growth in recent years of bungee-jumping, challenge races over ever-more-difficult terrain, exotic sports in which serious injury or death are courted, and the explosive growth of survival television shows. In some cases, the result is more destructive: drag-races and other challenge events are good examples. For many, the present is avoided by the abuse of drugs and alcohol. For others, their frustration explodes in incidents of rage: road-rage, air-rage, senseless shootings in schools and post offices, all are in part the product of a lack of maturity owing to the failure to successfully overcome a life challenge. Gangs, too, are partly a failure to transform youth to adults at the time when they are most vulnerable.

History can be influenced by this lack of maturity. I would argue that the First Great Unpleasantness, 1914-18, was partially the result of government policies and leaders that lacked maturity of the nature given by personal trial or a serious transformation ceremony. Conversely, I would argue that WWII and the Great Depression did provide exactly that maturity for a generation of Americans, who then proceeded to take to college en masse and produced the Baby Boom as they settled down after the war, thereby producing the greatest economic expansion seen to that time.

I would further argue that the generation of the Baby Boom was largely robbed of its focusing transformation by the war in Viet-Nam and our culture's reactions to it. The young coming of age since then have been treated to the parade of free-love and drug Hippies, war protests, Nixon and Watergate, the ineffectiveness of Carter, the greed of the 80's, and both the greed of the 90's combined with the ethical promiscuity of Clinton. Nowhere in their experience has a transforming trial or ceremony been introduced.

This lack of maturity is like a cancer, in that it spreads slowly at first, and later metastasises to the whole body politic. It affects our economy, our politics, its lack shows in our ethics, our lack of respect for the principles behind the law and the law itself, the aforementioned extreme and exotic sports, even the national addictions to drugs and pleasure- seeking generally.

It has been remarked by many students of the human creature that we are born dependent and incomplete, relying on our parents both for nurture and nature. Our parents transmit the details and attitudes of our family experience, our social nature, the wisdom of our culture no matter whether we are Chinese, African, or American. They offer advice on the philosophy of living life, distilled from their experience and that of their forebears, such as conformity to our peers, the value of education, and practical advice on how to react to burns, stubbed toes, and the community and world around us. This process of absorption goes on roughly until puberty.

As the body matures into adulthood, the mental makeup of the human creature looks to become independent and free-standing as well. The formative years are called that for good reason: the experiences of those years will be remembered and will guide the individual through much of their adult life. If the experiences cause the individual to mature and grow, they will be known as a wise and respected member of society. If the experiences are less successful, so too will be the resulting adult.

Most cultures have had transformational experiences, rites of passage, to mark the movement to adulthood. They frequently involve specialized training, capped by a special ceremony to mark the transformation. This transformation is nothing less than the movement from dependent child to independent adult, from one requiring the assistance of others to function to one capable of functioning on their own without the necessity of parental care. It is the opening of a chrysalis.

The Industrial Age has been marked by the necessity for increasing amounts of education, and a corresponding reduction in ritual, that blurs or obscures the need of the mark of maturity. In our society, what marks the adult? At what point do we consider our children to be adults? When is their education finished? When do they start their careers? What wisdom or distinction marks them? Where is the transition?

The typical child of well-off parents will mature and attend high-school, still under the nominal control of their parents; perhaps that control is more true today with the concerns of child molestation, drugs, smoking, and sexually transmitted diseases than ever before. The child is then sent off to college, where many are free for the first time to experiment with life and freedom, while being adjured to study for a vocation or profession. Following that, many trade bouts of returning to the nest with periods of independent study, work, and travel. In addition, many professions require several years of specific study, such as medicine, law, and business. At the same time, the biological urge to procreate leads many to marry and start a family, even though they may themselves not be finished with their own education and professional preparation. While the child in question may be professionally capable of acting as an adult, where has been the preparation for the attitudes and responsibilities of adulthood? What ceremony marks the passage? Is there any agreement about what constitutes a responsible adult?

When "the boys came home" at the end of World War II or the Korean War, they came home to ticker-tape parades, hometown ceremonies, and a grateful nation. No matter when or how they entered the war, they were in it until the end. They fought until it was finished, and the celebration marked for many the recognition of their adult status. They had, of course, been proving that status to themselves in their conduct during the war, but the celebrations proved it publicly.

By the time of the next unpleasantness, things had changed. Those who served during the Vietnam conflict served for a set period, at the end of which they were released from service individually, whether or not the conflict was resolved. Their celebration, if there was one, was individual, not societal, being greeted by family or friends at an airport gate or bus station, or simply getting in their car and driving away. At the same time, the extreme disagreement politically over the war, the lack of agreement over its origin, goals, and conduct, robbed it of the nobler rationale that attended World War II and Korea. In short, rather than sensing a personal transformation, Viet-Nam era veterans simply wanted out. With or without honor, they just wanted to resume the life they had prior to entering the military.

Those who did not serve in the military did not even have the chance of that transformation. Whether they were "conscientious objectors," hurriedly married or educated for the sake of a deferment, or just lucky in the draft lottery, the best example they could find was the turmoil of the late sixties, with the example of the assassinations, the opting-out of the Hippies, the moral example of Watergate, the economic impotence caused by the oil cartel, the humbling and bumbling of Carter in giving away the Panama Canal and the Iranian Revolution. The causes and results of any of those examples is not the topic at hand. What those examples provided was a lesson in the lack of responsible leadership, the lack of a firm hand at the tiller.

There was an idiomatic phrase current when I was coming of age, "no pain, no gain." While usually applied to athletics, the same can be said of the mental growth of the individual: there is risk inherent in any growth risk of failure, even risk of death. However, without the risk, the reward, the insight, the advancement, will not come.

Our age has a fixation on eliminating risk. Lawsuits threaten those who expose others to risk, frequently impaling even those who have acted from the best of motives or whose actions are long past. We teach our children to avoid strangers. The Internet has "Net Nannies". Insurance can be found for most of life's physical perils. Politicians no longer lead by example but instead sample public opinion and the media and "reach a consensus." We are even unwilling to accept casualties as part of war. I am not one to advocate needless risk, but is it possible that we have so contained risk for the individual that the growth and reward of overcoming those risks has equally been eliminated?

But I digress. The necessary point is that the educational process can provide the mental bricks to form strong adults, but that the mortar necessary to bind them together is lacking. Bricks without mortar rarely provide strong walls; bricks with mortar form walls that can last centuries.

What can be done about this? How might we mix the mortar that forms strong adults? The answer must be a challenge. It must be positive. It must provide the alternative to drugs, alcohol, gangs, and ever-more-extreme sports by proving the mettle of the individual as part of a group that they value. World War II vets went to their deaths fifty and more years later, still attending reunions with life-long buddies, attending to them when ill, and celebrating when well. We cannot expect that of all maturing experiences, but we can ask them to form enduring bonds and responsible behavior.

Are there examples of such experiences, of organizations capable of developing leaders? Yes, without question. Outward Bound, using the challenges of nature to prove the inner worth of the individual, is one. The "boot camps" used to cure drug recidivists may be another. Retreat programs focusing on service to others, such as church mission trips, are yet another. The Boy Scouts certainly provide that experience for those that reach its higher ranks. A service organization such as the Peace Corps may also serve. For some, the military may still be the answer. Does this mean that I advocate war as a cleansing means of introducing personal trials? Far from it; it is that danger for which ceremonies were invented. All of these organizations, however, are either selective or voluntary; they do not include the entire population in one shared experience, and a great many of our youth participate in none.

Beyond these fine organizations, I would like to suggest a National Service Corps. The primary goal of this Corps would be to develop the youth in its charge, as a mandatory alternative to the military for both men and women, by providing serious challenges and accomplishing the transformation of youths to adults that our society has neglected. Such a Corps would serve to unite our youth in common challenges and activities, forming a bond of fellowship across the artificial lines of ethnicity, economic class, geography, race, and gender.

A boot camp would serve to strengthen and physically condition the youth, while treating prior deficiencies of nutrition and medical care. A training program would serve to remedy prior educational deficiencies and provide vocational direction. A service component would assist in the redevelopment of cities and rural slums, protection and enhancement of our National Parks and other national landmarks, and provide muscle for disaster relief efforts. Military law would provide the option to convert this Corps to military muscle quickly in time of need, and would provide a simple means to stamp out drug abuse and other anti-social behavior where warranted. This Corps would be compulsory, for both men and women, for a two year period of their own election between their eighteenth and twenty- fifth birthdays, with a small professional cadre selected to continue as leaders.

The graduates of this Corps could hold up their heads as adults, having passed through physical challenge, proved their mental acuity, and demonstrating their prowess at a skill. They would experience the egalitarianism that is the province of every barracks, helping to eliminate racism and class distinction. Their graduation would also provide them with the recognition by society of their accomplishment.

Ceremonies were created to give our young a rite of passage to mature adulthood that would both challenge them yet keep them safe. We have as a culture forgotten how to do that, to our peril, for as we find petty conflicts around the globe, our lack of maturity heightens the chance that one of these petty conflicts will suddenly become a flash-point for a war which no one will be able to control. Our technological prowess has advanced since Verdun, our cultural values have not. Rather than killing hundreds of thousands senselessly over a course of months, we now have the ability to kill millions senselessly in a matter of moments, and thereby end civilization as we know it. We can also do it piecemeal, with guns and bombs, poison gas and biological weapons, country by country.

While that may be somewhat melodramatic posturing, the point itself is clear: we desperately need a means to transform the youth of the Industrial Revolution and the Information Age into adults who will be able to take responsible care of their families, communities, and nations, now and in the future.

* * * * *


The ideas contained in this paper were conceived long before September 11, 2001, and the body of it was written prior to the events of that day. Nonetheless, the ideas and proposals I have put forward must necessarily be seen in the light of those events. Indeed, part of the rationale of this entire paper is to so prepare our youth that such events do not recur, or, if they do, that we are better equipped to handle them.

The proposal for a National Service Corps would not have prevented the events of September 11. This proposal is about developing our youth. It is not about foreign policy.

A National Service Corps could have provided a force capable of quick mobilization, such as was provided by the Army Reserves in the month following the attack. It could not have provided the specialized military strike force that we sent to Afghanistan; that can only be accomplished by years of training by dedicated military personnel.

A National Service Corps could assist the civil authorities of a stricken city such as New York in providing ongoing disaster relief, in particular after the initial wave of adrenaline has passed. They could provide assistance in physical cleanup, sheltering temporarily homeless citizens, providing medical care, food, police, and other services. The same, however, would be true for victims of hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters, major fires, civil disruptions, or any other calamitous event beyond the easy resources of a state or municipality.

A National Service Corps could provide a force to occupy and pacify a nation such as Afghanistan while its own government is in the process of rebuilding the country, and could provide substantial aid in that reconstruction. Such service in aid of another nation could, like the Peace Corps, be formative to those youths participating in it, and thereby further the goals of the program as a whole.

Insofar as a National Service Corps fosters personal growth and an understanding between peoples of different backgrounds, whether that be varying religions, urban/rural, ethnicities, races, or genders, that growth may help to prevent the misunderstandings that cause attacks such as those of September 11.

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