Feathered Spirits: The Dangers of Adolescence
It was an ordinary accident, ordinary except that it blocked the road and forced its ugly way into my life. Two boys, on their way to high school, sped over a hill and slammed their small pickup under a stopped truck. Their hundred-foot skid marks explained why it happened. Both boys were pinned in the wreckage. Legs pointed in odd directions. The driver was convulsing thick blood. They struggled weakly, and while the trucker watched for fire, I held them still.
Distant sirens eventually found us, and special equipment quickly freed the two. A helicopter landed and took one away. The other screamed off in an ambulance.
A woman was on the rescue team, and I was thankful, yet vaguely uncomfortable by her presence. The men could all remember when it was their time… the invincible feeling… the defiant pounding rush of pure danger. There was an unspoken acceptance as they carried off two of their own. The woman was an outsider somehow, an intrusion of sanity… like a nun at a prizefight. I wondered if she understood the ancient instructions these boys were following, when they raced along that narrow hilly road?
It was evening before I learned any more. Among the injuries were collapsed lungs, a fractured skull, and several broken legs, but both boys would live. Horror turned to relief, then sadness. Mother Nature played a particularly cruel trick on the male of our species. We are unable to understand danger at adolescence… and are irresistibly attracted to it. These invincible young warrior instincts came from our tribal past, and the combination creates this deadly rite of passage. Those of us who survived, boast of the things we did.
These two will now have their stories; but first they will be hauled out to the skid marks; for the lectures, and the hugs, and the inevitable loss of their keys – a measure that probably isn’t necessary. They were learning pretty good there, for the last hundred feet. Their knees will be a constant reminder, and the memory of a dry scream will remain annoyingly wedged in their throats, forever.
When the young heroes finally hobble to school, their teachers will point them out, while sternly dispensing the usual warnings. A demoralizing task, this, explaining danger to an audience, half of whom are invincible. The drone of rules and deadly statistics will quickly bore those at the rear – the arrogantly fidgeting nobility, whose feathered spirits are in war paint, leaping about ancient bonfires. Words of caution grow pale and silent in this part of the room, to snickering taunts hurled from the beginnings of time.
The concept of danger cannot be communicated to adolescent males, but the reason can. They were needed this way.*
We evolved in tribal or clan groups. As effective tools were developed, and fire was mastered, the problems of food and predators were overcome. With no viable restraints, our population expanded. In the scramble for limited resources during lean times, only the strongest groups survived. The caring and fairness necessary for tribal unity evolved, but those qualities extended only to “us”. We developed a we/they mentality. “We” were sacred. Everyone else was not.
Warriors became necessary; a duty that involved dodging spears. Speed, agility, and an eager willingness were required. Older members of the groups had families, and compelling reasons to help in the risky confrontations; but they were slow, and were valued for their knowledge and experience. Young females were necessary for reproduction. Young males were the obvious warrior candidates, but with no genetic investment in the tribe, getting them to stand their ground would be a problem.
Famous for her tricks, Nature found a way. She gave young males a love for thrills and glory, and the belief that they were invincible. Then, for good measure, she gave everyone a love for “heroes”.
It was a cruel trick, but it worked. Tribes armed with these willing weapons were more successful than those with cautious sensible young men. Over thousands of generations, we males have been bred to be thrillingly, gloriously, and expendably stupid at adolescence. Like temporary soldier ants, we weren’t designed to survive; we were designed so the rest would.
The traits remain, but our world has changed. The grisly result pours into emergency rooms daily, not all of it extracted from mangled vehicles. Warrior aftermath of a purer kind is collected in the frayed areas of American cities. Here, idle boys form teams and enjoy a rivalry that involves shooting at each other. Different game. Same thrills. Same glory. Same sirens. Same words angrily scrawled across the toe tags: “terminal stupidity.”
Man, the intelligent animal, the maker of tools and explorer of the universe, has been alone at the top of the food chain with no birth control, for longer than we can remember. The millenniums of push and shove have left us with a fearful we/they mentality, an inane interest in physical contests and their heroes, and sons that are dumber than dirt.
With no viable enemies, we had to become our own. There was no other way. The sacrificial duty fell primarily to our sons, and the motivating adaptations are tragically evident in them. Today, when not on the playing fields, their reckless cravings bring only hollow thrills, scorn, and grief. In the US, young men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-six die of injuries at a rate nearly four times that of the more sensible sex. * Twenty thousand are killed in this country each year… fifty a day… two every hour.*
For most of human history, warriors were revered. Young men knew their purpose, and strutted in praise and respect. In the placid civilized world, they loiter in useless and boring anticipation… battling imaginary forces and dreaming their glory dreams… or performing their athletic miracles to our frenzied cheers, none of us remembering why.
When they are left together, the waiting can get dangerous. It’s as if their feathered spirits start telling war stories and the competition spills over. A challenge is issued… courage is questioned… and young men eagerly toss rule and reason aside to heed the primal call. All too often, sirens are sent to find them; and if luck turns away, pleading eyes and disbelieving fingers will be gently pried loose, and sheets will be pulled over… and then they’re gone, and all the dreams that never were… will never be.
From the first rush of excitement, to the wide-eyed trembling end; young dreams have been violently separated from young bodies for uncounted eons. The path to our modern world is littered in glory. Those discarded dreams now glare from vacant sockets in powerless rage, as invincible young warriors are told the journey was not for them. Daring is no longer wanted… in truth, it is no longer allowed. Their watch is over.
Unneeded, un-thanked, and heralded only by sirens, anguished spirits turn around and head back down that merciless blood-soaked trail. We pull over and stare at the casual butchery in helpless horror, as Mother Nature undoes her little trick, and smartens up the male of her favorite species… and somewhere in the quiet, remains the murmuring knowledge, that a piece of the best in us is slipping away.*
It was a very ordinary accident, but it has been disturbingly difficult to forget the two boys at the end of those skid marks; spirited young thoroughbreds racing toward extinction; yesterdays heroes, slammed against the modern world. Disturbing because the last few generations of us have known about our origins, yet we have refused to accept our heredity, and explain its significance to our children.
Anthropologists try. They lead us to the excavations, and point excitedly to our ancestry. We glance at some primitive weapons and crude drawings; then we look back at our shiny things… and walk away. In cosmic irony or divine justice, we dismiss our parentage, while luck decides which of our sons will live.
The boys on that road needed to know what they were passing through. They all do. Fitted with instructions from a glorious past, fueled with excitement, and set loose in a modern arena; they are on that crimson field between a world that is no more, and a world they are not ready for… in the pitiless ambush of change. They should be told.
By understanding the tricks of their evolution, our sons may recognize the ancient voices, and appreciate the connection… and the honor. And when all the gathered ghosts of nature are screaming for stupidity – these expendable heroes may stand firm, and hold their ground in proud defiance.
It’s their call. Pitted against breeding, knowledge is sorrowfully inadequate; but instincts, like tricks, lose much of their terrible power, once revealed. Clear and understandable information is all we can give them, and it’s all a warrior asks.
*The figures are the latest (1998) US figures, taken from: Office of Statistics and Programming, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Injury Mortality Reports http://webapp.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/mortrate.html
Injury deaths, all intents, ages 15-25, Female – 5,341 Male – 20,183