Sunday, February 13, 2022

I Wish I Knew This When I Was Younger (The Importance of Teaching Theology of the Body to the Young)

Imagine twelve-year-old children wondering when they're old enough to have sex, questioning their sexual orientation, whether feeling more comfortable with your same gender means you are homosexual and if it's okay to love someone and not be sexual with them.  In a group of less than 60, after a 50 minutes presentation on sexual ethics with an emphasis on Theology of the Body, these questions were asked, illuminating the plight that young people are struggling through in this day in age these.  It makes one wonder "How many more are struggling with these thoughts, these questions, these feelings at such a young age?"  Not only was it eye-opening, it was heartbreaking, and it makes one fear the future of these young ones, wondering how many of them will fall into the traps of lust and physical pleasure as they stumble along the wrong path in search for that unconditional love.  Like a plague, this hypersexualized culture has been disseminated through humanity, infecting even the young and innocent minds that should be protected and cherished.  But not only has society become hypersexualized, it has blurred the lines and boundaries between love and lust, male and female, affection and sex, empathy and attraction. 

This comes as no surprise as young people are not only surrounded by this from the various media and entertainment messages but also in their family settings. "Sex sells" and sexualization of inanimate objects to boost public attention for products has been a marketing idea since the 1870s, but the sexual revolution of the 1960s propagated the changed perspective of sexual intercourse and sexuality from being private and monogamous exchange between a husband and wife to one of an outward expression of inner desires and self-serving pleasures with whomever a person wishes, has trickled down the generations.  The concept has been fueled by mainstream media where from concerts, to movies, to music are full of nudity and sex, often without showing the negative consequences that occur with pre-marital sex such as STIs and unwanted pregnancies.

Pornography is a growing issue among teenagers with which 90% of teenage boys and 60% of teenage girls have been exposed to pornography before the age of 18.  Gone are the days of accidentally coming across a dirty magazine on a store shelf or stashed or tossed away somewhere.  Accessibility is fueling the issue as studies show that 95% of teenagers report having access to the internet, and children as young as 8 have accidentally stumbled across pornography.  More than half of children have seen sexual images on a daily basis, and 10% of teenagers claim to access porn on a daily, contributing to the increased objectification and dehumanization of others, including themselves, leading to more risky sexual behaviors without caring what happens to the partner so long as their own sexual pleasures are satisfied. Although there has been a decline in the percentage of teens having vaginal intercourse over the last decade, the number of having oral sex is 1 out 5 teenagers and  60% of teenagers claim to have sent sexually explicit text messages.  More than half of new sexually transmitted infection cases were among youth between 15-24 years old. In only a span of 5 years, the number of teenagers reporting themselves to be "non-heterosexual" rose from 8.3% to 11.7% from 2015 to 2019, with the trend higher in females than males.

Body shaming is also an increasing problem, as  94% of girls and 64% of boys have been shamed for the way their body looks, an issue fueled by social media use as filters in applications such as Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat show a person as the "ideal" face and body type.  The negative body image and negative view of self further increases desperate longing for inclusion, feelings of being love and worthiness that they seek self-destructive means to quell it, impulsively reacting to the immediate gratification of that longing without any thought of consequences.  As each encounter further stimulates the reward circuit of the brain, it leads to addictive behaviors and a reworking of the developing brain that can cause long-term negative effects, often leading to depression and anxiety.

Yet despite immediate accessibility at their fingertips, there still seems to be a subconscious sense of the dichotomy between sociocultural norms and the truth of their dignity burning within their hearts that they are afraid to express or be let known for fear of retaliation, ridicule and ostracization.   There is a way to show them their worth and the love they truly deserve to experience and have rather than settle for being utilized as a tool for the short-lived, immediately gratifying pleasure. The answers lie in Pope Saint John Paul II's Theology of the Body.

The teachings of the Theology of the Body give us hope because of  two basic ideas: 1. Since is God can be seen in all of creation (Romans 1:20) that also means that God is revealed in the human person. 2. If all of creation is good (Genesis 1:31) then that also means that the human person is good. The acceptance of these realities is a life-changing experience that I can attest to.

During my first trip to the Theology of the Body Institute I had Christopher West melt my heart not only with the teachings of JP2, but also with the way he was able to get me to accept the truth of myself. Yes, it was hard because I had to look inward and face not only the things that had been done in my life that hurt me, but also the hurtful things I did to others, with the latter being the hardest because those were certainly examples of me not recognizing the good in others. 

What was most interesting was the fact that while I did go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in order to make amends with God as well as myself, that was not the main focus of what I did during my first week in the Philadelphia area. I listened carefully, probably like the disciples did to Jesus when He walked the earth because I had great trust in what I was hearing. When I was not in class I spoke to many of my other classmates as we shared our stories with each other with many of those conversations being very personal in nature. The trusting environment was like nothing I had ever felt before as I could really feel that all of us believed the teaching that told us that we are good in the eyes of God and have always been good in the eyes of God. That was a turning point in my life. 

The insecure little boy who was at times picked on for being the smallest boy in class...is good. The scared student who never felt like he was close to being as smart as the best students in his class.....is good. The young man who never felt like he measured up to what a girl his own age would be attracted to....is good. The person who never measured up to members of his family or peer groups....is good. I could really hear the Lord speaking to me in a way like never before. 

I am the Lord thy God and I proclaim to you, My child, that you are good. 

Finally, I believed it.

There was one final moment during my first course at the TOB Institute that I will never forget, when Christopher West told us to take what we had learned and share it with the world. We were also reminded that we couldn't give what we didn't have so, we had to continue living our faith the right way. 

Such an acceptance did not remove my life struggles but it did help me see these struggles in a different way due to the fact that I saw myself in a different way. There are still moments when I had to endure the pain that comes from being hurt by others as well as the empty feeling I have when I fail those who matter the most to me. But, the way I handle it changed because I noticed that none of these painful moments took away my belief that I am good in the eyes of God. This lit a fire in me and I became determined to evangelize what I had learned because if these teachings were able to change my the negative self-perceptions that I held on to for so long, how much impact could this bring on the youth that I teach?

So how can we broach the subject with a generation full of answers that they have searched on the internet?  By ensuring that they are L.O.V.E.D.
Listen
Observe
Validate
Encourage
Direct
Listen to their questions and their stories.  It is important to allow them the chance to express the thoughts on their minds and hearts without fear of judgement or ridicule. More important, listen to the things they are not saying, reading between the lines where we can discover their pain.  In doing so we can gain insight to their personal struggles and can steer the conversation to be more individualized to their needs.

Observe who your audience is and their interactions and their body language.  It is in the unspoken gestures that we get more sense of what they are grasping onto, and sometimes it's the quiet ones who are the deepest thinkers.  As a high school teacher I deal with teens at various phases in their lives and different life experiences. Freshmen can be really unsure and really want someone that they know will listen to them. Seniors have more life experiences and have certainly made mistakes while also having others perhaps do things to them that deeply wounded them.

Validate their feelings and let them know they are not alone.  One thing I loved about Christopher West's approach was that he was not afraid to share his own shortcomings, something that I had already incorporated in my own teaching method.  In doing so, the students are able to see that you are real, relatable and just as imperfect as they are.  In share our own failures with the purpose of showing how God changed our lives it is realistic for our audiences who are filled with people who have their own human story. 

Encourage them to look inward and to pray.  In addition to the usual growing pains of adolescents, some also have family lives that have challenged them in various ways. At times, the teachers are that paternal and maternal guidance that is needed. Teachers can have the positive impact needed to find their inner value and inner peace.

Direct them to the truth: that they are good in the eyes of God. Their thoughts and feelings matter. Their life experiences are valid and important to us as well as the Lord. Further, they MUST know that no other person on this planet can fulfill them. That is the lie that our culture tries to tell us and once they accept the reality that only the all powerful and loving God can truly fulfill them, it will also be a life-changing for them.  Help them to find the answers, guiding them to the right channels should we not have the answers ourselves.

In many cases their lives are literally in our hands.  While we will make mistakes, we can never fail when it comes to showing them not only that God sees them as good but that we love them as well. In doing this, I can promise you that you will see the impact you will have on their lives.  There were many occasions the senior girls tell me tell me, "I wish I knew this when I was younger," perhaps during their freshman year of high school. That alone should encourage us to accept the reality that young people need to learn this message as soon as they can ponder the idea of becoming emotional involved with another. 

The young ladies' reactions are priceless, often becoming emotional as they are not only affirmed as daughters in the eyes of God but also, because they feel the confirmation of a voice that had always been speaking in their hearts that told them that they were both beautiful and valuable even though the world around them tries to convince them otherwise. They expressed an unwillingness to settle for the attention of just anyone who won't value them, expressing that they truly accept their value in God's eyes.

Teenage boys have stated that the teaching not only affirmed them as young men but also allowed them NOT to feel alone in such a chauvinistic world since many of them do come from families that raise them treat girls with respect. It's difficult to act appropriately when their peers do not adhere to the same worldview. When they hear someone else say the things that they were taught in their own homes it encourages them to embrace such a truth. 

Theology of the Body encompasses the spiritual truth within our physical humanness. It is imperative that we reach the young people and show them their worth before they are faced with decisions they could later regret.  Though it may not stop them completely, they at least have heard the truth and know it in their minds with an aim to penetrate their hearts.  This can be achieved by not only speaking to them, but relating to them with our own human stories, while listening to their qualms and letting them know how much they matter and are L.O.V.E.D