There’ve been a lot of recent reports concerning the state of health of our young people. Surprisingly, the number one health problem among young people is not the use of drugs and alcohol but childhood and adolescent obesity. No doubt about it, if left unchecked, obesity will have devastating health and economic consequences for many people. Linked to diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary disease and, ultimately, early death, obesity is one health problem parents can do something about in many, if not most, instances.
Many factors contribute to child and adolescent obesity; some are modifiable (like diet and exercise), while others are not (like genetics). In its recent report, the American Obesity Association noted that 15.5 percent of adolescents (ages 12 to 19) and 15.3 percent of children (ages 6 to 11) are obese. This increase in obesity among American youth over the past two decades has been dramatic and is almost triple the rate of obesity when compared to the era when this generation’s parents were themselves young people.
What’s the number one culprit in this rapid rise in childhood and adolescent obesity?
The research indicates that the primary culprit is snacks of choice and, in particular, fast food and soda. These appear to be the most significant influences upon weight gain among young people. The research also indicates that a second culprit—the lack of strenuous, physical activity—is the consequence of young people watching too much television and spending too much time sitting in front of a computer screen.
What is interesting about these data, researchers report, is that parents for the most part tend to underestimate the health risk of excess weight to their children as well as the difficulty young people have in achieving and maintaining the behavioral changes long known to prevent obesity. But, it should be noted in contrast to what many parents believe, they are critically important, especially when it comes to creating a more healthy and active environment for their children.
Obviously, however, administering the “cure” for this disease won’t be easy, especially for parents!
For example, we all know that eating healthier foods and getting more exercise is good for everybody. So, it only stands to reason that, if parents want to limit the amount of fast food and soda their children eat, then parents should also severely limit, if not entirely eliminate fast food and soda from their own diets. “Teach by your example,” is a sound dictum. Furthermore, if parents don’t want their children lounging around and watching television or surfing the Internet for hours on end perched upon a chair in front of a computer screen, then parents should engage their children in some form of strenuous, physical exercise, like playing basketball, bike riding, rollerblading, hiking, golfing, or even taking family walks after dinner each evening. Think about it. Despite the grousing, what young person doesn’t enjoy engaging with one’s parents in physical activity, especially those where there is a little bit of clean and healthy competition where a child can “best” a parent?
Besides all of the health benefits associated with physical activity and how these deal effectively in combating juvenile obesity as a medical problem, I want to note one spiritual benefit we oftentimes don’t think about. That is, as parents and children engage together in strenuous, physical activity, children learn to appreciate more fully what it means to be a family member and to overcome what I want to suggest may be at the heart of childhood and adolescent obesity as a spiritual problem, namely, being alone and having nothing to do. Especially at this time of year, it’s the familiar, old complaint that parents hear all too frequently, “I’m bored. There’s nothing to do.”
As a spiritual problem, this complaint reveals something very important to parents, a matter about which they should be very concerned. It’s not simply the matter of a lack of motivation or imagination; no, its the more important matter of being incapable of being alone with oneself, of being quiet and of listening to oneself, and of engaging in healthy activities—like hobbies and strenuous physical exercise—that stretch young people beyond their self-imposed limits and test the strength of their souls. When a young person says, “I’m bored. There’s nothing to do,” parents should be aware that children and adolescents are really saying something about the quality of their “soul life,” namely, that there is a gaping hole in their souls that nothing materialistic is filling. In fact, by trying to fill that void with things, young people become addicted to a crude materialism that dupes them into believing they can fill the gaping hole present in their souls by acquiring more and more things, experiencing ever greater and more pulsating sensations, and gorging their mouths with unhealthy food, all the while avoiding the confrontation with their “soul life,” that is, if young people are to mature in grace and wisdom before God and man.
Many parents argue, however, that there’s a big problem if they are to confront childhood and adolescent obesity as a spiritual problem. If it’s not the problem of time, it’s the problem of energy. After a full day’s work, parents, asset, there are so many things that have to be done. If parents don’t do those things, they won’t get done. And, that’s to say nothing about energy. After a full day’s work, all that many parents want is some peace and quiet “Far From the Maddening Crowd,” as Thomas Hardy entitled his Victorian romance.
But, it must be asked, “If child and adolescent obesity is a consequence of a spiritual disease and children and adolescents today are filling the gaping hole of loneliness and boredom with unhealthy food, if parents don’t have the time and energy to satisfy the spiritual hunger of their children then who will?” After all, whose responsibility is this in the first place?
That’s part of what today’s gospel is teaching parents, in particular, about what discipleship requires of them in their role as the first and best educators of their children. This means providing young people spiritual direction…even when inconvenient.
Upon hearing the news of the beheading of John the Baptist, Jesus withdrew from the crowd to find a quiet place where he could be alone and grieve his cousin’s death. But, a large crowd was following Jesus and pressing in upon him. Its members were hungry, not just for food that would satisfy their physical hunger but, more importantly, for an experience of love of God and neighbor that would satisfy the spiritual hunger present in their souls.
Why was the crowd pressing in upon Jesus when, quite clearly, he was looking for some “down time” to be alone and recollect himself? In their experience, these people had discovered the meaning of the phrase from scripture, “All who are thirsty, let them come to the water.” What the people in the crowd wanted was this divine water, the water that would slake not only their physical thirst but more importantly their spiritual thirst.
Like a weary and tired parent after a long day’s work, Jesus could have said to his disciples when they told Jesus concerning the crowd, “Let them take care of themselves. I need my time alone.” Perhaps we not only could understand but could also appreciate Jesus saying that. But, he didn’t. Instead, placing love of God and neighbor ahead of love of self, Jesus turned his back on what he wanted to do and offered what little energy he had for God to bless it. Through his generous self-offering and with God’s blessing, Jesus was able to provide for the physical and spiritual needs of every person in the crowd to the point that there was enough left over so that Jesus could then take some quality time for himself so that the could alone, reflect, relax, and recoup his energies.
Notice how it didn’t happen the other way around. Jesus didn’t take time for himself so that he could recoup his energies and, then, go and minister to the crowd. No, Jesus generously offered what little he had and ministered to the crowd. Then, he took refuge in a place where he could recoup his energies.
That’s what discipleship requires of parents. When they feel wrung out and devoid of energy as happens at the end of a long day or at this time of the summer, the physical and spiritual needs of their children require parents to contemplate what love of God and neighbor are challenging parents to do, that is, if their goal is to provide the “living water” and “bread of life” for which the souls of their children are starving.
Few of us will ever starve and, although we may not eat healthy, most of us eat more than enough to survive. Perhaps we feast sumptuously, as Herod did at the birthday party he hosted for himself when he filled his stomach with food during a hedonistic, bacchanalian feast which only fed jealously and hatred. However, while we may have satisfied our physical hungers—even if we did so with food that isn’t healthy—we continue have spiritual hunger pangs indicating a hunger in our souls that is difficult to identify and even more difficult to nourish. And young people today know very well the spiritual hunger present in their souls and they’ve found that a hedonistic, bacchanalian feast of material delights isn’t satiating that hunger.
Just as each of us can choose healthy food and a healthy lifestyle that satisfies our physical hunger pangs, so each of us can also choose spiritual food and a spiritual lifestyle that satisfies our spiritual hunger pangs. Imitating Jesus, all this requires is for parents to offer the little they possess to God, allowing God to bless and sanctify their little gift and, then, distributing it generously to their children. In this way, parents embody Jesus’ perfect generosity and His ability to do more than to place food into the stomachs of their children.
It is in this sense that discipleship certainly requires heroism on the part of parents. But, oftentimes, it’s not the type of heroism we normally associate with discipleship.
It’s the heroism associated with not allowing the desire for solitude, peace, and quiet to become an idol that keeps parents from providing for the physical and spiritual needs of their children. Parents need to remember that Jesus didn’t grouse at the disciples, saying “Leave me alone. I’m too tired. Besides, I just lost my cousin. Can’t you leave me alone to grieve my loss?”
It’s also the heroism associated trusting that God can transform the small contributions parents can offer their children into spiritual food—the “living water” and “bread of life”—that not only nourishes the crowd of children pressing in upon their parents but also leaves twelve baskets full of leftovers so that parents can then rightfully sit back and relax for a bit.
In this way, young people today who are looking for an experience of God’s generosity in their lives will find it in their parents, who satisfy the spiritual hunger present in the souls of their children by offering them the living water and bread of their lives given generously in a selfless act that God has blessed and made holy. And, it is in this way that young people today will see the face of the living God, not “out there” as if God is far away but in the face of their parents who are “right here” fulfilling their vocation of ministry and service to the spiritual hunger of their children.
Does today’s homily raise any
question(s) that you would like