His name is Zeus. Well, not literally Zeus, but it's close enough to the truth. He is a real person, but even without privacy laws I wouldn't want to tell you his real name.
Because even though he's smart, cunning, and adaptable, on some days he's also deceptive, aggressive and untrustworthy. And I would hate that to ruin your first impression of him. Because he's so much more than his worst days, and he has so much more to live for than what is currently on his plate.
Yes, Zeus is in youth prison, and I can tell you that he has done some heinous things. Things that we should never tolerate as a society and things that would make your blood boil if you knew the people affected.
If I were to tell you his story—give a glimpse into his upbringing—most of us would be horrified by it: a lack of family support, an abundance of negative role models, not a lot of interest or high-level positive direction, let alone personal affirmation. It becomes worse when alcohol and drugs get involved, and Zeus doesn't seem to fit the linear system that the rest of society seems to be tracking along.
For over 18 months I spent time in a youth justice residence, and stories like Zeus' would absolutely break your heart. Or, at least they should when you find out that they're far from unique.
Yet, I have also witnessed hope.
The thing with teenagers in a youth prison is that they're still teenagers. They still don't know who they are yet, and are looking to other people to define who they are—desperately seeking acceptance and affirmation.
This kind of meta-narrative is something we have been talking about in churches for years when it comes to youth ministry, but I can tell you that there is nothing cooler than seeing the most hard-hearted criminal respond warmly to a piece of life-giving encouragement—not with a smile or a high-five, but a widening of the eyes that say "Really? Is that true?"
Because sometimes you can be the first person to be speaking warmth and affirmation into their lives.
Recently, I decided to live my entire life by a hashtag: #nothingbutencouragement. Because I am becoming more and more convinced that encouragement is the currency of life that most people have become bankrupt from; and when people are lacking currency in life it can affect a whole lot of areas too.
I will never forget volunteering in a compound that was the end of the road for kids aged between 8 and 12—too naughty or rebellious for foster care, but too young for youth prisons. Unfortunately, a lot of them are headed down a path towards the youth justice system.
We took them to Chipmunks—an indoor playground for parents who want to leave their kids in the hands of giant and colourful contraptions. For most of them, it was as if they were going to Disneyland.
We had nearly 50 of these rascals in our care, and it had been a morning where it felt like everything in life was meaningless; the kids had been ratbags and it had definitely taken its toll on me. I sat in a chair at the foot of a giant inflatable slide and started to catch my breath.
Within the shortest of five minutes, one of our kids ran up the 10 metre inflatable slide and gracefully went down on his derrière. It was nothing special—heck, people have been using slides for decades, if not centuries. But I called out, "That was great!" He looked at me like a child who had just tasted McDonalds for the first time, and instantly ran up it again to perform the exact same manoeuvre, hoping for a similar reaction.
I would have been a meanie to have denied him.
Soon enough, there were ten kids lined up at the top of the slide, waiting for me to notice them and yell out something encouraging. When a parent would walk past and make a passing comment about what a strange situation this was (was I an uncle? A friend? A stranger? Oh! A youth worker!)—the kid who had just completed the slide would call out from a mere two metres away: "MATT! MATT! DID YOU SEE THAT?"
This is not a joke or an exaggeration. Within another 15 minutes we had nearly all 50 kids lined up from the top of the slide to the bottom. The rest of the indoor playground lay dormant like the completion of a jack-in-the-box.
Everyone wanted a taste of the affirmation drug.
When I tell people that story in person, they usually respond in a manner that makes me sound like a hero, and that what I did was special. But they're all missing the point: this is an incredibly sad situation that could be easily remedied if we all took more intentional care of the communities we live in. If encouragement is a currency then the good news is that we all have the ability to run our own factories and be minting it for everyone! There is heaps to go around!
And perhaps that's a hope we can hold onto. As Charlie Schulz, the creator of Snoopy wisely surmised, we often can't remember those who have achieved the top honours in areas we think we care about like money, fame or sports. But when it comes to people who have taken an interest in us, or supported us, or encouraged us—they matter the most. People who speak life and light into lives are better gifts than those at Christmas—and hopefully people encounter them more than once a year.
The saddest thing for me is that we have a whole army of young Zeusses in the wings of our communities, nestled in families that could do with some of this encouragement currency. I hope that you'll be someone who manufactures it for everyone you encounter, even the strangers and enemies you come across, because you never know how it'll be spent and then passed on again.
Matt Browning is a storyteller and lover of ideas. He has set an April-Year’s resolution to be less busy.
Matt Browning’s previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/matt-browning.html