Reflections on “emerging adults”

Reflections on “emerging adults”

They don't make 30 like they used to!

By Don Bisson F.M.S.

Religious love to tell stories, especially stories from the trenches of difficulties and struggles. The stories have both drama and humor, with some hyperbole attached to scenes, and the stories seem to grow through the years. They usually begin with some introduction like, “Where I was teaching at ... we had so many students…”; or, “We were so poor that…”; or, “Do you remember that pastor?.…” Since most vocation ministers are far removed from the experience of today’s young adults in discernment, we certainly have a responsibility to own our stories, but we also should be open to listen to new stories of young people discerning religious vocation. Baby boomers and older members in vocation ministry need to learn a whole new set of challenges which have not been a part of our experience. Though some new vocation ministers are in their 30s, most are removed by several generations from the younger men and women who may be attracted to religious life. This in itself is not a problem, but I would add a word of caution: be respectful and insightful but not judgmental about these young people who are sincerely struggling with their life issues.

Like most religious who entered immediately after the Council, I entered at 18 with relative maturity and academic preparedness. There was both a social expectation and a reality that a young person should be open to choose life and make decisions. My lay friends were also choosing careers, spouses, and colleges; we were bridging adolescence with young adulthood. As soon as I graduated from college, I was given many responsibilities as a professional in our institutions. In the early seventies, many mid-life religious were leaving their congregations/ orders, and those remaining were given even more responsibilities. I took final vows at 25 and was doing provincial formation work by the time I was 30. At this age I was already re-evaluating my adult choices! In contrast, I have just finished being novice director where the novices were all making first commitments in their 30s transition, after a long period of investigation and experimentation.

I deeply respect both our journeys, though the structures and challenges are vastly different. Jeffrey Arnett, in a superb article in American Psychologist, May 2000, writes on a new developmental theory called “emerging adulthood” as distinct from both adolescence and young adulthood. He totally confirmed my experience of working with this age group. I hope to share some insights for vocation ministers active in sincere discernment with men and women who are growing into maturity and vocations within this stage.

Traits of emerging adults

I would like to emphasize some of Arnett’s thinking on this developmental stage.

  • This phase of development is most prevalent in industrial countries, which demand a much longer period of time to obtain higher education and independence.
  • Emerging adulthood is distinguished by relative independence from social roles and from normative expectations.
  • This period seems to have great variety and can be distinguished as a role-less role. There is a long period of making independent decisions.
  • There is an extended period for identity explorations in the areas of work, relationship and worldviews. There is a process of experimentation and new experiences which gradually leads to making enduring decisions.
  • These explorations may include short-term explorations in work and travel which may involve risk behaviors and desires for novel and intense experiences.

Emerging adults are neither adolescents nor adults. They have unique needs and issues which the vocation minister must address without projecting either a negative adolescence or an idealized adulthood on them. They are not excessively immature in comparison to those of us who had different life experiences. They are simply in a different process which demands different responses. We need to avoid negative judgments because they are taking longer to discern lifestyle decisions. We also need to withdraw expectations— based on the fact that they have lived alone in an apartment, had a job, and have been involved sexually—that they have reached full adulthood.

The shadow is the repressed, unknown, forgotten and rejected parts of ourselves. We can project our dark sides onto these young people with unrealistic expectations and judgments and thereby deny their unique experiences. We can also project our golden shadows onto them. We can idealize their seeming freedom of lifestyle and see integration and maturity which does not yet exist. I have seen a number of younger people, pressured with undo expectations, and lacking readiness for formation, make incomplete and premature decisions simply because they had not yet had enough time to finish the emerging adult stage. In those situations, they leave formation because the developmental tasks of this stage were not yet accomplished. With proper acceptance and patience on the part of the vocation minister, and when sufficient closure to personal issues has been accomplished, they may return. This is a time in history where both patience and process are essential for discernment in vocational choice making.

For more effective discernment

I would like to suggest a few areas which may assist the vocation minister to be more effective in the discernment process for men and women looking at religious life as an option.

A young person may have an intuitive attraction and desire for religious community. When shared with the vocation minister, it needs to be seen within the context of multiple choices and as part of a phase of experimentation. The individuation process within our culture allows for a longer period of investigation. A period of relationship with growing knowledge of the person is necessary, even though he or she may be sincere in looking at religious life. The vocation minister must ask: How serious does he or she seem to be in regard to religious community? What kind of investment should I pursue with this person? Is there a growing desire to eliminate some options in life and to begin to focus on discernment? What areas of growth are taking place in the areas of work, relationship and worldview? Vocation ministers working with several individuals in discernment may find a fairly wide representation of the full spectrum of responses to these questions; this is an extremely personal process.

Emerging adults have an attraction to both width of experiences and intensity of experiences. I have noticed that often these experiences are not reflected upon, and are far from being integrated. Experiences for their own sake can become addictive and shallow. The vocation minister, as mentor, listens to these experiences and helps the young person to glean the learnings and meanings from them. The mentor evokes the capacity to stop and savor these experiences as data for discernment. Without proper boundaries and limits, young people may unconsciously be repeating needy behaviors which do not move toward clarity and choices in life decisions. The mentor helps the young person to freely sort through endless options for clearer closure.

Gradually during this period, the person in discernment moves from the need for independence into interdependence. The same interior movement which carries the young toward marriage and family life moves others toward generativity in community and ministry. Their contribution to the greater society and church becomes a way to a fuller life. An intensification to contribute outside of self begins to grow. A wider purpose in life is being sought. This is the time when we vocation ministers must connect the young person with the three areas of our own lives: community, ministry, and spirituality. They will share more consistently with our life through live-in opportunities, sharing retreats and prayer experiences with apostolic encounters. These may draw the young person into the particular structures, which make religious life a real possibility as a lifestyle. Withdrawal from endless options is a sign of movement from emerging adulthood to young adulthood.

One characteristic I have observed while mentoring young people through emerging adulthood into adult decisions, is that the person gradually feels constricted by the lack of structure. The ambivalent independence of their life feels unfocused and floundering. This psycho- spiritual urge to become someone has a parallel in the advance of a process for discernment of lifestyle. The characteristic questions which need tending are: Who do I really want to be? What do I have passion about in my life? Who do I want to spend my life with? These questions may help structure a more meaningful way of being in which religious life can be a viable option. During this period of unease which propels growth, more serious conversation can take place. And ultimately discernment leading to application and entrance can then take place.

When this process takes on more serious meaning and commitment, a more formal discernment takes hold. Obviously, the person’s spiritual life and prayer life have been an ongoing reality. Yet, it is during this stage that consistent prayer, spiritual direction, and retreat experiences become more focused. Prayer is the place to bring all the pros and cons, fears, issues, and experiences before God to affirm or challenge the decision for religious life. As representatives of the community, our role is to hold all this data prayerfully as well, either to confirm or question the process. Our experience of religious life within the particular charism of our community allows us to be the “gatekeepers.” God is at work with these young people, creating and chiseling them into the unique persons they are destined to become. I have noticed that a person with a religious vocation seems to become him or herself even more clearly and powerfully through the encounter with religious life. This is not necessarily an easy relationship; but, all will find the process growthful, including ourselves.

We need to remember that these individuals living in the emerging adult stage will not be living out all of our values as they discern future lifestyles. During a period of experimentation, you may witness behaviors, styles of clothing, tattoos and piercing of body parts which seem rebellious and counter-cultural. We need to be present to their deepest desires and realize they are exhibiting personas which change rather frequently and easily. These may be the same individuals asking about a habit in the very near future! With time, a bridge is created between their interiorized value systems and external manifestations, and we will see exterior manifestations which are more appropriate and in keeping with our traditions.

Qualities and tactics vocation ministers need

There are certain personal qualities that not only assist the competency of vocation ministry but lead to a happier life. Following are some of these qualities which we need to continually reinforce, as well as some tactics that can make us more effective.

Sense of humor If we cannot laugh at ourselves and see the humor in life, we will grow very tired of dealing with people in transitions. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, our stories always have a humorous dimension.

Patience To minister to this age group, and to be mentoring and journeying with them, takes a compassionate patience. There are many resistances in them to growth. The vocation minister will probably know most of them in the process.

Look for depth When journeying with someone over a period of years, we should seek out depth values. Can this person sustain a lifestyle which supports an affinity to an interior life, generative ministry and community interaction? Many of the more surface issues can be worked out in time.

Separate yours from theirs As suggested earlier, their experiences will be radically different from ours. It is important to separate one from the other and learn to accept and affirm as God-driven the experiences of these searchers. This pushes us to be generative and understanding. We are challenged to let go of our own needs to deal with their issues of discernment. It is important to name our needs and to deal with them appropriately in another space. Being in supervision with a professional may guide us in facing our own issues, which are provoked by the formation encounter. These encounters may push our buttons, but we have to be reminded that these are our issues and not theirs.

Educate the community Vocation ministers are chosen for their spirit of generosity and love of the community. We are the liaisons between the experiences of new members and the professed. A unique role of bridgemaker between these two groups falls to us. We need to take every opportunity to educate professed members about the realities of men and women discerning religious life who may be older candidates, possibly having been married or independent and professional; or who may be younger candidates experiencing emerging adulthood.

Detach from the outcome In vocation ministry the old definition of professional success no longer applies. We deal with few seekers, and success cannot be defined by how many of them enter the community. Success for us is our fidelity to walking with others in an intimately spiritual way during a period of transition which will lead to a new life. We need to hold the value of the process more tenderly than the judgments of the community. We are instruments of the community, but we are instruments of God first and foremost.

Belief in the goodness of others Through my formation work I have seen over a period of years the growth and spiritual maturing of these emerging adults into responsible and loving religious. It is such a grace to see the evolution and the work of God. God has used all cultures and periods of history to reveal mystery. We need to trust that these developmental shifts and changes are being used in the same way. We are the ones who need to be open to God’s work around us.

I have often shared in workshops that today the vocation crisis is in the process of receiving new members. When there are no new vocations, we lull ourselves into a safe sleep and death. When a new member arrives, we are forced to create a future, renew communities and stretch out of our old stories into new ones. Let us have the courage to listen to new stories and share in them for a preferred future.

Don Bisson, FMS is a Marist Brother who has worked in all levels of formation and who is on the International Formation Commission of his community. He presents workshops, consultations, supervision, and training on formation issues throughout the English- speaking world.


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