A Coldplay song recently released from the “Catching Fire” soundtrack, “Atlas,” has a symbolic meaning that resonates throughout a great deal of the most popular juvenile and young adult fiction of the past generation. I suppose it may be an unusual habit, deeply symbolic in itself, but I am immensely fond of juvenile literature in general, and always have been. I wrote a college entrance essay on one of the novels in the “My Teacher Is An Alien” series, a series of short novels that shows a group of troubled teens saving the world from destruction. In Harry Potter we have a group of young people with the burden of fighting against the most evil figure of their time. In the Hunger Games trilogy we have Katniss Everdeen and her friends carrying the weight of a massive rebellion to save their own people. In Ender’s Game we have a young man carrying the weight of humanity on his shoulders, along with friends, in a massive war with a brutal alien species that is also deeply misunderstood.
Why does so much of the best and most memorable fiction for young people have at its core young people carrying a burden far beyond their age, a burden that deforms and twists them under its weight? Just as Atlas was twisted by the weight of the world in pagan Greek mythology, so too all of those who bear the weight of their world or their society are deformed under its weight. Whether we are talking about the curse of nightmares and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that haunts the heroes of juvenile literature, or whether we are talking about the literal and figurative scars and the close encounters with death, and the loss of family and friends and loved ones, the young heroes of fiction do not escape the griefs and sorrows that come to those who are involved in heroic causes. One cannot save the world, or any part of it, without a great sense of loss.
Why would young people feel this burden, though? It seems ironic that a generation that is largely thought to be among the most spoiled in history feels such a heavy burden. And while it is true that young people have often received a great deal of material blessings, there are other heavy burdens that young people have to bear. These burdens include the mental and emotional burdens of having to deal with a crumbling civilization and crumbling institutions. Young people want to make the world a better place, even among those cynical Generation Xers who like John Mayer are “Waiting On The World To Change.” Without a proper vision of a better world and small enough steps that are achievable and opportunities to build competence and confidence, or a large enough crisis that gives opportunities for advancement and honor for the young, all that idealism gets frustrated in wish fulfillment.
Previous generations of the same type as this generation had, in their young adulthood, major causes to help fire their idealism, including the American Revolution and World War II. These young heroes were honored for generations as a result of their deeds, showing at least some progress in making the world a better place through putting ideals into practice and defeating forces of tyranny and evil. Let us hope that the young people among us can work on dealing with our own issues, and developing the skill and practice to handle the world around us. There is much that we could do, if we had the proper village and the proper encouragement. If the weight of the world is to be on such slender shoulders, let us hope that we bear that weight well.