In a commencement speech at Emory University a couple of years ago, Tom Brokaw spoke truly:
You have been hearing all of your life that this occasion is a big step into what is called the real world. "What," you may ask, "is that real world all about?" "What is this new life?" Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2005 at Emory, real life is not college; real life is not high school. Here is a secret that no one has told you: Real life is junior high.
The world that you're about to enter is filled with junior high adolescent pettiness, pubescent rivalries, the insecurities of 13-year-olds, and the false bravado of 14-year-olds.
This is true, and it's maddening.
It's particularly frustrating that it's true of that part of real life lived by the Church Militant. Grace -- and not just an over-the-counter kind of buck-you-uppo grace, but the very Presence of God Himself within our persons -- is supposed to transform us into images of Christ. Yet in practice, contact with others -- which is to say, being confronted with the fact that we can't have everything our way right this instant -- transforms us into 13-year-olds.
Surely Christ's grace is stronger than our own petulance. But do we give witness to this by how we live and how we talk to each other?
It's a commonplace to say that on-line Catholic discussion sites are a scandal to the Church. Bitter hatred expressed in the most vile terms is only a few links away from most every non-self-contained Catholic website.
Most days, though, it's not the hatred that gets to me, but the sheer childishness of it. Someone disagrees with you? Someone's so ignorant you can hardly stand to have him around. Someone is a little too pleased with himself? Someone must be taken down a notch. Someone tries to take you down a notch? Someone's just asking for it.
A person can rise to a challenge, or he can sink to it. Living in a junior high world means most of us are predisposed to sink, and once a conversation begins to sink it's almost impossible to turn it around.
It's also decidedly unsatisfying to rise above adolescent baiting. What if no one notices how mature you're being? What if they think you're not responding, not because you've put away childish things, but because you just got served? We can't have these... these adolescents think they're getting away with something merely by being juvenile.
But worrying about what adolescents are getting away with is the job of their parents and teachers. If you're not someone's parent or teacher, then there may well be times when your being a grown up means they'll get away with something. That's no fun, but if being a grown-up were fun, we wouldn't be living in a junior high world.
In his speech, Tom Brokaw went on to give this advice, which I think is pretty good:
In your pursuit of your passions, always be young. In your relationship with others, always be grown-up. Set a standard, and stay faithful to it.
In real life, when grown-ups have grown up conversations, adolescents either leave as quickly as possible or stay and try to act like grown-ups. I bet it works the same way in the life of the Church.