THERE couldn’t have been anybody in Britain who wasn’t touched by the death of Stephen Sutton last week.
Before the 19-year-old finally succumbed to terminal cancer, he gave us all a lesson in defiance in the face of terrible illness, just as some of us have seen in our own families.
But I think there were two other lessons that Stephen taught us, should we care to stop and consider his legacy.
One of them is a theme I keep coming back to, even though you might think this column sets itself up to whine on about how much better our generation was than ‘kids today’.
What most embarrasses me about being in my fifties – yes, even more than my waistline and my diminishing fashion sense – is being cast as a grumpy old man. That’s because although I often hear older people complaining about young people, I don’t.
That’s not to say I approve of their ridiculous habit of wearing their belts around their backsides, or the idea that rap deserves to be classified as music, but coming from a generation that gave the world platform shoes and Saturday Night Fever, I figure we shouldn’t really be throwing stones from our glass houses.
And I have to say that painting all youngsters as uniformly bad really makes me angry.
Stephen Sutton was, without doubt, an inspiring young man, whom all of us would have been glad to shake hands with, but I think he would have been the first to point out that he was not a one-off.
Some older people will have you believe that Stephen’s generation are lazy, drug-crazed louts who would sooner mug an old lady than help her across the road, but in reality they are no worse than any young generation in any period in our history, and probably much better.
Indeed, I sense a lot of compassion among young people, a desire to get along with everybody and – best of all – a growing reluctance to fall into the trap of a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality and the vilification of minorities.
In fact, I doubt there has ever been a generation that’s more intolerant of intolerance.
Generally speaking – and especially considering some of the unfair pressures we put on them these days – the Stephen Sutton generation isn’t half bad.
And this brings me to the second lesson that Stephen’s story taught us.
We are used to hearing stories of how social media has been used as a platform for bullying or libelling, or even organising riots, but it is no different to any other means of communication in that sense. And for every bad thing that gets blamed on Facebook or Twitter, there are a hundred positive effects, of which Stephen is the best (but by no means the only) example.
If it wasn’t for social media, we wouldn’t have been mourning the death of Stephen Sutton last week, for the simple reason that we would never have heard of him.
Only because ordinary people – led, incidentally, by young people - got together and made him go ‘viral’ was he able to have such an impact, which to me underlines how something that is often perceived as inherently bad and dangerous, actually amplifies good far more than it encourages bad.
I think it would be sad if Stephen Sutton was remembered only out of a kind of sadness.
It’s time for us to take heart from our young people, and listen to them - because I sincerely believe there is a little bit of Stephen Sutton in nearly all of them.