The Itinerancy of Our Youth
When I have grown old, I suspect that I will look back at this time in my life and see it as the most existentially challenging chapter to have lived through. It’s not that I’m going through anything particularly grueling—nor that I expect to not face grueling challenges in the future—but that my relationships, personal experiences, and limited amount of insight have each taught me that being a young adult means wrestling with massive forces beyond my comprehension. The perennial questions of “direction” such as vocation, career, what beliefs to accept and ideals to follow all has something to do with it. Usually it means feeling lost. It means facing down lonely and sometimes crippling darkness. Going through this on my own is one thing, but what hurts me the most is seeing other young people I know and am close to dealing with the same things.
Every young adult I know struggles with these questions. For example, last year I found myself taking a very long car ride to nowhere in particular with an old high school friend who was terribly afraid, depressed, and confused because he thought he might be “gay”. One of my closer friends has just completed his master’s degree in organ performance, and struggles with the question of direction and career without any clear job opportunities outside of the church world, along with standing at an impasse regarding dating, relationships, and the prospect of marriage. A former acquaintance of mine battles against his own will and pride because he’s reflexively and anxiously terrified of never amounting to anything, especially after several years of mistakes and setbacks. There’s more, including all of the stories I don’t know. These personal experiences add up to testimonies of shattering loneliness, instances of profound disappointment, and a heart-wrenching litany of bitterness, shame, and sadness.
I have no response, only my own experiences. I have yet to see what lies at the bottom of this abyss, only the experience of having stared long into it. My experience of coming into the Church a few years ago seems for me to be the real catalyst for this. I wish I could give a bright and glowing testimony of coming to know the glory of the Church, coming in amid bursting fireworks and angelic choirs with an overnight, seamless Pauline conversion, but I cannot. Yes, there was joy, unspeakable joy, but it was mostly a time of great confusion, darkness, and loneliness that brought to surface many of the dormant fears I had yet to acknowledge. I still find it fascinating how I could have lived oblivious to my own selfishness for so long, comfortable with being an unreflective jerk. Then my entire life turned upside down—almost all of my closest friendships ended in bitterness (usually through my own fault), my life direction faced a great blow when the problems began to seep into the classroom (again through my own fault), and I struggled and grasped to take advantage of whatever certitudes I possibly could. Clearly this is not the expectation that one has when making such an awesome decision as entering the Church and turning one’s life over to God, but one of the few certainties I could squeeze out of this experience is that God is not a safe God.
God is dangerous. In His inscrutable mercy, he stands in and above our lives and continually threatens the status quo. Everything—our relationships, our routines, our comfort and security—stands before God like straw before a great fire. He is willing to upset or to allow the upset of the very structure of our lives when He sees fit. Perhaps we might be like Cain sent off into exile for murdering his brother; perhaps we might be like Abram called into an unknown country for an unseen purpose; perhaps we might be like Job staring into a great and mysterious chasm of suffering that has no hint of meaning. A single human life, when authentic, blends each and every one of these experiences into one life offered to God in union with Christ’s suffering.
The great fear that young adults have in the face of this great and dangerous mercy is that of a life never truly beginning. We find ourselves in a continual wandering, searching for a point of initiation into a realm of safety, certainty, and rest. When I moved back home after coming into the Church, I found myself with this fear—when will my life truly begin? When can I begin to actually move on and build a life for myself? How do I get there, and where am I?
For all of the virtue there is in taking life into one’s own hands and becoming the “self-made man,” the realities of life often refute this as a myth. I’m not strong enough on my own. Without the help of God, I’m not even guaranteed my next breath. In fact, sometimes the worst thing we can do is to take things into our own hands apart from the will of God. Self-determination and responsibility is one thing, and it is healthy and necessary; imprudence and impatience is quite another. Starved of certainty, we cannot grasp at straws—self-willed goals, vain ambition, all of the possible self-made selves that populate our imaginations. I would discover this after attempting a year of diocesan seminary, even after realizing that my true vocation was more apt to lie within a religious order.
I’ve come to suspect that the greatest part of the problem is our expectation for life to “begin” in a definite, clear, and comprehensible way. That’s not how it works—rarely is there a moment that demarcates the end of waiting and the beginning of living. Be careful should one appear, as it’s still vulnerable to the contingencies of life. All of life is wandering; “being alive” doesn’t mean eradicating the open-ended sense of itinerancy and rootless-ness we know as young adults. It means growing into it. We court it as the price of living with the full dignity of a free nature. God doesn’t call us to comfort or security, but to the greatness of a free and totally human response to His love and grace. That’s why God is a dangerous God. Faced with the terrible darkness of the uncertainties of life, we question, and we can never find an answer, because the picture is too big for any of us ever see.
At bottom, I can’t give any answers as to why being a young adult is so hard and grueling. I can’t draw a map of how life works and exactly what itinerary God has to give to each one of us to make us saints. Though I can read the writings of the spiritual theologians and the great mystics, I can’t look forward and say, “This is when and how I will become a saint” or “This is when and how you will become a saint.” I really don’t think that there’s a single moment when that happens. Aristotelian wisdom says, “Call no man happy until he is dead,” not simply because we only find true happiness in Heaven, but because the entirety of life from beginning to end given to God as a free response to His love and grace is the only true measurement of one’s happiness. As a young adult, it’s easy to lose that perspective, that it’s all of life in its totality that is the standard—and that is how I understand the present challenges: I can’t understand them, because I’m not supposed to.