“Are you gonna exist or are you gonna live?” The question came from behind me as I browsed the reference book aisle at Barnes & Noble the other day. “Cause living means taking responsibility for your life and choices. Existing is just letting things happen to you.”
Those weren’t the speaker’s exact words,, but that’s the gist of what he was saying. After shamelessly eavesdropping for a few minutes, I discreetly glanced over my shoulder to see what was going on. The speaker was hidden from my view, but the listener – if he could be called that – was a young black teen who looked less than happy to be on the receiving end of the speaker’s words.
Curious, I prolonged my browsing, the better to hear the rest of the speaker’s monologue on the opportunities that were available to this young teen if he decided he wanted to live instead of exist.
“When I come to Barnes & Noble,” the speaker went on, “I come with a purpose. I ask about the section where the self-help books are that can help me change my life” (my paraphrase). The speaker continued on in this vein, trying to incite some response that would indicate his words were getting through to the sulky-faced teen.
Wanting to see who was trying so hard to make a difference in this young man’s life, I rounded the end of the aisle and glanced back once more. The speaker was leaning on the shelves, head bent toward the teenager, so I couldn’t get a clear look – at least without becoming a more obvious eavesdropper than I already had been. He was certainly older and wiser than the teen he was addressing – maybe an older brother – but most likely not his dad.
I left Barnes & Noble without purchasing any books, but the overheard entreaty stayed in my mind.
In the KJV, Proverbs 29:18a is rendered, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Other versions translate vision as prophetic vision or revelation, and perish as unrestrained or cast off restraints. Regardless of the version, the verse well describes the times in which we live. But though it probably isn’t the most accurate translation, I like the KJV version best. It seems to describe the lives of so many young men today – particularly, but certainly not only – those in the black community.
Because they’ve not been given a vision of what it means to be a real man, many young men today are perishing – both literally in cities like Ferguson, MO, and figuratively all around the country. With few fathers to guide them and a culture that often seems to despise them, they’ve lost a sense of purpose and a belief in their value to society. Consequently, many are languishing either in real prisons or in prisons created by addictions to pornography and video games, by their lack of education, and by a lack of jobs.
I applaud the speaker in Barnes & Noble for stepping into a young teen’s life and trying to show him that he has a choice about whether to live or to simply exist. The words he spoke contained much wisdom, and if the young man is smart, he’ll chew on those words. But curing the malaise that has afflicted our young men will require more than self-help books and more responsible choices. Ultimately, only embracing a prophetic vision of biblical manhood, and a willingness to accept the restraints thus entailed, will enable our young men – and by extension, our culture – to flourish and thrive.