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Young men finding words and worth

  • 08 August 2018


At the recent launch of the #WorthASecondChance campaign I had the privilege of listening to young men who, in their own estimation, had turned their lives around from fragmented childhoods, troubled early adolescence and behaviour that could have brought them into conflict with the law.

Now they are clearly hopeful, self-confident and are making plans for the future. They attributed the change to programs in which people stood by them and helped them reflect on their lives.

I was particularly struck by the language they used to describe their lives. They spoke in very general terms and in a limited and flat vocabulary of the time before they became engaged in the program where they found support. They were inarticulate.

But when describing the change that had taken place in their lives they spoke fluently in the language of psychology and therapy: of wellbeing, growth in self-esteem, inclusion and connection. They had found an analytical vocabulary to describe themselves and how they now wanted to interact with the world. Finally, when they spoke personally of themselves, especially through song or poetry, their language was simple, direct, warm and distinctive.

Their evident joy at growing in confidence and self-awareness confirmed the importance of language for finding meaning, for developing personal relationships, for connecting with the world and for a firm sense of self. The things for which we have no words or symbols have only a shadowy and barely understood existence.

The path to adulthood is in large measure a process of learning words, coming to use them discriminatingly and discovering their resonance in relationships and in work. Ideally the early stages of this path run through a stable and warm network of relationships within family and community in which words are linked to a tradition expressed in stories and symbols.  

Where young people grow up in a world without stable relationships or words to negotiate the world, their education is likely to be an experience of alienation and rejection. They will then find it difficult to find the right words for exploring respectful relationships, for understanding the world and their place in it and for finding employment. They risk becoming inarticulate and alienated even from themselves.


"The alternative is their alienation and the making of a society in which adult gaols multiply across the land as a monument to its failure to care for its children."


Even though their growth is interrupted in this way, however, they can