One of the things I’m most interested in thinking about right now is the human brain during teenage years and the early twenties. I just completed a project for graduate school about social emotional learning and development and was amazed by all adults can do to enrich and equip the emotional health of teenagers. Working with young people who are crossing over the bridge in development where their ability to comprehend language and speech is mostly complete into frontal lobe development is a fascinating, though sometimes exhausting, place to spend my working hours. According to Psychology Today “Fifteen-year-olds have not yet fully developed the ability to understand the consequences of their actions and act accordingly. They have difficulty with planning and organization, and learning from their mistakes. They often act impulsively or inappropriately, they have roller-coaster emotions, and working towards distant goals rather than being unduly influenced by immediate rewards is a stretch for them…The brain evolved in this way for a good reason. Teenagers need to take risks in order to make the leap from home and reliance on parents to independence.”
Not only is this directly tied to my profession, but it has become a fascinating topic of conversation with my friends and peers in recent years as we think back and study patterns, passions, and behaviors of our own teenage years and early twenties. For most of us, it was a time of great desire to connect with something, though the means to attain the nondescript something may have varied under the large umbrella of simply wanting to feel alive: music, faith, the outdoors, literature, sports, theater, justice. We took risks of all kinds in order These roots remain in each of us still, and yet the highs and the depths we felt seem like distant acquaintances, or as though they have gone through a strainer of life experience, wisdom, and perspective. My thoughts are ongoing.
Overlapping these trains of thought was my reading of The Secret History by Donna Tartt over the past few weeks. It was published in 1992 and unbeknownst to me, a cult classic, especially among people who were teenagers or college students when it came out. It is the story of a tightly knit group of friends at a small, private college in Hampshire. They are privileged, passionate classics majors who shun the traditional college scene for lives steeped in nostalgia for ages past and a devotion to their father figure professor Julian. The narrator Richard, speaking many years removed, reveals how he providentially obtained a scholarship, left home, shamelessly lied about his past and became a part of this group of friends. He opens the story confessing to the group murder of one of its own that occurred not long after he learns of the dark place their thirst for something more took them.
After doing some research I learned Tartt called it not a whodunit, but a “whydunit”: the reader knows immediately where the book is headed (with a twist or two) and along the way is able to watch the motivation, justification, and aftermath. This book was one of those long ones that is fun to sink into–the kind where I can’t just pick up another book after completing it because I’m not ready to completely leave it behind.
What I’ve been left with as I consider the book is a bit of character analysis through the lens of the prefrontal cortex, though I will only provide the questions as I don’t want to give the story away. I love the line with which Julian opened their classes: “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?” It brought me back to my own teenage years which were ripe with the longing for something bigger, for meaning, for something to get lost in. But, what did this invitation into the sublime do for these characters in particular? What does the sublime offer us as adolescents? As adults? What do we lose and gain as we develop?