This is a partial explanation of my affection for G K Chesterton's quote on tradition.
Last week, I stopped by an art supply store to get a gift certificate for my father. The young man behind my counter, who looked to be in his early 20s, had tattoos from his upper arms all the way down to the first knuckles of his fingers. His ears had been pierced with those disks that create large holes in your ear lobes, but the right one had gone horribly wrong and while the left ear lobe was a large, hollow loop, the right one had broken and two strands of flesh dangled down where his earlobe used to be.
In an frenzy of unrestrained self-expression, he had permanently mutilated himself.
I tried to keep up some normal banter with him while he filled out the gift certificate, but about halfway through I faltered and just couldn't continue. The sight of this boy, young enough to be my son, his body polluted and torn, took all my strength from me. I wanted to cry.
This boy had been allowed to make whatever decision he wanted about his body. Society no longer held to traditions of appearance or propriety and did not enforce self-restraint through opprobrium and censure. Instead, each tattoo and each piercing was celebrated as an act of artistic freedom. The end result was a hideous mess. No one had protected him from himself.
The young man recognized the look on my face. As he was finishing the transaction, he saw my eyes go to his mangled ear. He stopped speaking as well and his body slumped a bit. It had all happened before, many times.
Toddlers have one way of hurting themselves and young adults have another. While we make sure little kids wear helmets, live in houses with baby gates and outlet covers, we not only allow, but applaud our young adults when they permanently coat their bodies in childish art and puncture their flesh with various pieces of fishing tackle. I don't think we realized that when we did away with traditional norms of behavior, we were taking down the barriers to self-destruction that kept our younger generation free to make choices later in life.