The Epiphanies of Youth

One of the most difficult facets of parenting is dealing with the epiphanies of youth, and particularly those following puberty. One one hand, epiphanies – moments of clarity, understanding and insight – are crucially important; they are the muscles and sinews of a passionate and productive life. On the other, this is a season of life especially prone to the over-extension and poor interpretation of epiphanies.

The parent, then, is called upon to do a more or less impossible job: To look inside their child, divine the crux of a revelation they can’t very well communicate, and then to either clarify or correct it for them, in a way that they can accept.

But since handling this well is so elusive, most parents fall into two almost binary choices:

  1. ​To stand with their personal or family dogmas (religious, political or whatever) and trying to push the child’s vision into it.
  2. To evade any reaction, saying, “That’s nice,” smiling, and changing the subject.

The first choice is counter-productive and the second is an evasion at a crucial juncture. And so, something better is required. But before we get to that, let’s back up and see why puberty complicates this.

The Surge of Instinct

There is no greater surge of hormones in a human life than that of puberty. Moreover, this surge occurs while our brains are only partly formed and our experiences are relatively limited. That’s a recipe for difficulties.

Hormones, of course, are deeply tied to instincts, and human instincts can be problematic, mirroring those of primates to a very significant extent. (The chemicals involved are all but identical.) For example, you’ve doubtless noticed teenagers trying to humiliate one another: that’s the expression of primate-level dominance instincts, wrapped in human-level expression… hybrid human-primate social interactions.

And so we have partly-formed beings, carrying around massive brains that they don’t very well know how to operate, being hit with a massive surge of non-rational impulses they can control only with difficulty.

This, obviously, is a difficult passage for young people. It may be necessary for the continuance of the species, but it makes lots of trouble too. And that means that parents are especially necessary here, as impossible as it may be to do the job correctly.

Walking The Line

And so the parent must walk a line between our two options above: doing nothing or trying to subdue and redirect epiphanies.

The best way to deal with all this, so far as I’ve been able to find, is to acknowledge that epiphanies are basically good, but to insert some element of reason and proportion.

Epiphanies are important; they not only provide expression to inborn and positively engaged instincts, but they can be essential components, upon which beautiful lives are built. We are diminished by a lack of contact with upward movements of the heart. The better parts of us wither, we never develop higher capacities and insights, and we slide more and more toward becoming what C.S. Lewis termed, “mere trousered apes.”

Epiphanies are furthermore crucial for grasping that the good and noble form in us and grow out of us. Without this belief, the young person becomes cold, legalistic, uncreative, and an easy mark for the manipulators and abusers of the world.

Moments of understandings, revelations, epiphanies, internal breakthroughs, moments so bright in our memories that we can remember where we were: these are the proper building blocks for a life; not certifications, degrees, and other externalities.

And so, the best method I know of, to help a young person in such times, is to say something like this:

I am very, very glad you’re getting moments of inspiration; they are crucial to becoming not just a living soul, but a great and large soul. Now, this experience of your is inside of you, and so I can’t completely grasp it… I suspect that you can’t either… I know I couldn’t when I was your age. And so I have two pieces of advice for you: One is to embrace the experience, and the second is to remember that you don’t completely understand it. I had such experiences when I was young, and I didn’t really understand them for many years: maybe it will be the same for you and maybe it won’t, but please stay open to that possibility.

Again, this is the best response I know. But whatever the risks involved – and they are legitimate risks – I think we must accept them. Things could go wrong, but things can always go wrong: parenting is not for the timid and squashing all risk squashes the best aspects of life along with it.

Our job as parents is not to evade criticism and disappointment, as much as we all want that as well. Our job is to create wonderful humans… great men and women. And the truth is that great men and women require upward movements of the heart. These are their fuel, the influences that coalesce their vision, their courage and their strength. They cannot become great without them.

There is a special beauty in the soul that experiences wonder, rapture, satisfaction, appreciation, thankfulness, respect, exhilaration, discovery, inspiration, pride, yearning, honor, reverence and dignity. And it’s a beauty that leaves the entire world a better place.

Good luck!


Paul Rosenberg