Picture a picture. A photograph. I’ve got a specific one in mind, but it’s likely one you’ve not seen. Any photograph will work for this lesson, but if it’s one of your own, one from your youth works best. Your teenage years. The photograph that I’m imagining is one of a slightly older friend of mine. It shows him as a teenage machine-gunner in Vietnam. I didn’t know him at the time, of course; I was too young to be sent off as a national sacrifice for a police action to protect capitalism. In any case, I got to know this friend later, after he’d survived the conflict, wounded but alive, and I was struggling to survive puberty. Emotions at that time were off the charts, but I never saw the photo until I was an adult.
Why am I asking you to think of old pictures? I was recently reading a discussion where intelligent people were wondering why, throughout human history, we have idealized youth. I suppose there’s no single answer, but I have a suspicion that it has to do with evolution. We often wrongly assume that we can get at the naked truth. As if we could somehow get outside of our own frame, our personal point-of-view, and look at reality objectively. Our brains, however, evolved to help us survive in an often hostile environment. The “point”—if you’ll allow me to hypostasize a bit—of evolution is to survive long enough to reproduce. Many species with young that can care for themselves simply die at that point. Mission accomplished.
As human beings (and mammals) our young need parental care to survive, at least for a few years. Biology would seem to dictate that by the time we can reproduce—that self-same puberty which is such a difficult age—is the point at which we’ve reached our evolutionary goal. There’s something deeper going on here, of course, but I wonder if this might not be behind the question of why we idealize youth. We remember with a sharp pang—don’t need to see a doctor about that one—the incredible and unsurpassed discoveries we personally made at that age. There will be other surprises as life goes along, of course, but nothing will ever equal our biologically determined goal. I’m oversimplifying, I know. Still, this may be one mystery that is less mysterious than it seems. I know this because I have a photograph of a young man. It matters not if it is of someone I know or me. We have made it through our most awkward age, and we reflect on how it made us into who we have become.