The search for identity among college-age adults

The search for identity among college-age adults

By Warren Sazama S.J.

One of the most common complaints I hear from fellow vocation ministers is how difficult it is for many young adults to make a commitment. Many are involved in vocational discernment processes that never seem to conclude. My hope is that the following reflections will give a deeper understanding of some of the commitment issues we encounter in our vocation ministry and help us guide young people through them.

David Nantais, SJ discusses some of the special challenges young adults face today in the age-old search for vocation and identity in his article, “‘Whatever’ is not Ignatian indifference.” (fall, 2004 of Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits). Nantais highlights how Ignatian spirituality offers time-honored help for meeting these challenges. In this article I attempt to integrate Nantais’s insights with Ignatian discernment principles and my own experiences working with people in discernment. I write this as a Jesuit steeped in the tradition of Ignatian spirituality and well aware that there are other rich sources of spiritual wisdom regarding discernment of spirits. However, I must rely on others more familiar with those traditions to share those insights.

Forming identity, finding purpose

Determining one’s identity, beliefs, values, and vocation in life has long been a key task in transitioning from adolescence to early adulthood, regardless of the path taken and choices made.

Nantais, 34, along with other observers of contemporary life, points out how post-modern relativism and recurrent public breaches of trust have perhaps made the transition into healthy, self-giving adulthood more difficult today than before. The past several decades have been witness to a series of devastating breaches of public trust in the church, government, business, and marriage. These include the clergy sex abuse scandal and cover-ups, political deception, corporate misdeeds, and a 50 percent divorce rate that directly affects many young adults with whom we work. All this can readily breed a skeptical and dismissive attitude about these and other major institutions—from Wall Street to Rome and back to their own homes—making it especially daunting for today’s young people to responsibly pursue a course worthy of their personal fidelity.

Indeed, attempting to claim and sustain a personal identity and meaningful vocational path in this environment can all too easily lead young people to confusion, isolation and even despair. In the ruins of so many fallen idols how do young people discover a life-path worthy of their commitment, worthy of the gift of their very self?

Pseudo-solutions offered by contemporary culture include latching on to one form of external identity or another such as material success, the right look (appearance, clothing), the right job (status, money), having the right things (consumerism), or an aimless inability to commit to anyone or anything—perhaps resulting in moving from one uncommitted, shallow relationship to another.

While these diversions might temporarily numb the pain, none bring long-term satisfaction, happiness or inner peace. They lead instead to craving more and more of whatever external prop one is using in order to maintain his or her shaky sense of self-worth—futile pursuits in fending off the wolf of inner emptiness.

Vocation ministers assist with self-awareness

Self-awareness of this inauthentic way of being, however, is the precise point at which Ignatian discernment of spirits can provide invaluable aid. We vocation ministers can be especially helpful to young people in helping them come to this life-giving selfawareness, whether specifically in their vocational discernment process, or more generally in spiritual direction or as Busy Student Retreat guides. The transcendent treasure trove of Ignatian spirituality (and in particular Ignatian guidelines for the discernment of spirits) can offer a true beacon for navigating through the fog that shrouds the search for a clear personal direction worthy of vocational commitment.

St. Ignatius observes in his guidelines for the discernment of spirits that the Holy Spirit repeatedly tries to call us away from our counter-productive diversions back to our particular path to personal wholeness and well-being. By listening to the Holy Spirit we can begin to tune into the inner dissonance and restlessness. This inner restlessness is a call from God often experienced as longing for a life of “more.” Not more external props or trappings, but a life that is more meaningful, more fully engaging, more deeply satisfying and more joyful.

These disturbing feelings of inner anxiety and emptiness of a self-absorbed life, however, are often not recognized as coming from God. In this way the “enemy of our human nature” (as Ignatius refers to the evil spirit) tries lulling us into complacency and remaining on a path that is ripe with distraction but barren of the true fruits of inner peace and happiness. The “Father of Lies,” as Ignatius also refers to the evil spirit, tries to mislead us into believing that a self-absorbed path of materialism, consumerism, and superficial relationships is indeed the path to happiness. We just need more of it!

Those on this self-destructive path will inevitably experience powerful, inner resistance to acknowledging their sad inner state. And this resistance, supported by the evil spirit, fuels denial and repression of the resultant feeling of angst which, in turn, drives the person to continue along a forlorn path, continuing to numb himself or herself with even more possessions, money, status, casual relationships, busyness, partying or other distractions. The evil spirit and dominant contemporary culture encourage this path of self-centered materialism, and, as St. Paul tells us, deride the wisdom of God as folly.

Recognizing the Spirit’s proddings

The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, tries to prod us toward recognizing our truest, deepest desires and inner longings, even though this can be an uphill battle in an atmosphere that relentlessly promotes superficial desires. Our gently pointing out the dynamics of this inner tension and its sources from the evil spirit and Holy Spirit respectively can help a young person grow in crucial self-awareness. This is a very important way in which we can help young people recognize what is going on inside of them, its meaning and implications.

Nantais insightfully points out how Ignatius’ “Two Standards” meditation in the Spiritual Exercises provides a helpful lens through which we can help young people view their inner struggles. In this meditation Ignatius observes how the human condition includes two inner compasses—one leading to God and freedom and the other to sin and broken relationships. Young people—indeed all of us—have to choose which inner compass to follow.

Ignatius writes that the enemy of our human nature tempts us with riches, honor and pride. While the forms of these temptations have changed over time, the consequences of giving into them have not. Nantais observes how young people are encouraged by popular culture and social pressures to base their personal worth on the external factors mentioned above, such as income, the right look, status, and exaggerated autonomy, rather than on interdependence, trusting relationships, meaningful commitments and inner factors such as an authentic spirituality, core beliefs, and enduring values.

Moreover, Nantais, along with Michael Ivens, SJ, helps us see how giving into these temptations is a form of pride because, in succumbing to them, we in effect attempt to establish ourselves as absolute—as the center of the universe—rather than acknowledge our true identity as creatures and beloved children of God. It is precisely through this humble acknowledgement that we give praise and reverence to our Creator. “The key problem is not the possessions in themselves,” Nantais notes, “but rather how tightly young adults grasp onto them for the sake of their identity.”

Hesitation to commit

Avoiding commitment is another key way, he says, the evil spirit tempts young people into the prideful belief that there is nothing greater than themselves and their personal needs. “No one can make a claim on them and no person, institution, or religious organization is worthy of them.”

However, as social beings we need to commit ourselves to someone or something beyond ourselves, hopefully something that will give our lives true meaning. If young people do not see that there are persons or communities worthy of their commitment, they will be left to hop from one superficial relationship, spirituality, or trend to another, leaving them feeling empty, anxious and aimless. I’m sure we have all sadly encountered young adults in this trap. As more experienced adults who have dealt with the realities of the church and our religious communities and overcome disillusionment, we can be witnesses of hope for them.

Ignatius’ Two Standards meditation points out how both the evil spirit and good spirit work within us. Armed with this knowledge, we can help young people move toward the inner freedom to move beyond cynicism and make good, prayerful decisions under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, decisions that lead to a meaningful life filled with love, hope, true joy, and inner peace.

The good spirit challenges them to overcome their temptation to despair by daring them to hope, believe in transcendent values, and give of themselves out of genuine love. The good spirit calls them to overcome the temptations of self-centeredness and individualism by entering into trusting relationships and authentic community. The good spirit inspires them to see beyond the superficial appeal of materialism and selfindulgence that ultimately lead to only to isolation and respond to options that call them into union with God. The good spirit prods them away from the distractions of constant activity, cell phones, television, and the like, pointing them instead toward reflection and prayerful silence.

The good spirit encourages them to overcome the lure of cynicism and dares them to strive to make a difference and give of their time and talent to a mission or project that involves some greater good and or sense of purpose. The good spirit spurs them not to give up the search for an authentic spirituality that will serve both as an inner anchor and compass as they navigate shifting currents of change and relativism that threaten to swamp them.

As vocation ministers we can help guide them in these discoveries and encourage them to follow the good spirit rather than the temptations of the evil one.

Daring to trust the church

While it’s true, as Karl Rahner, SJ eloquently pointed out, that all institutions, including the church, are made up of sinful human beings and therefore can and will let us down at times, if we and they dare to put our faith and trust in God, we can help them see that there are truly meaningful options worthy of their commitment.

The church endures as the Sacrament of Christ on earth and continues to be of divine origin and guided by the Holy Spirit, despite the failings of some of her ministers and leaders throughout history, even to present times. The failings of some of her ministers only highlight the need for good people to respond to God’s call to minister in the church, and I think many young people in their better moments see that. Similarly, marriage remains a sacrament in the Catholic Church graced by God despite the failings of many married individuals. Divorce rates only highlight the need to take the marriage commitment more seriously and enter into this sacramental covenant more thoughtfully.

While any meaningful life commitment will likely involve some combination of sacrifice, suffering, and disappointment, there is also the promise of inner peace, deep satisfactions, and joy, and we can witness to that. We can help them see that there are many good priests and religious who faithfully, happily, and fruitfully live their vows as their way of loving and serving. Loving marriages give witness to the life-giving potential of this commitment. Meaningful work that makes a positive difference in the world is possible. A positive spirituality and genuine relationship with God are also possible. Authentic community and human relationships do in fact occur through grace.

As members and vocation ministers of religious communities in the church, we can bear witness to our experience that religious life offers one wonderful option for a more meaningful, satisfying life.

Our plea to young people today needs to be: Please don’t give in to the temptations of cynicism, despair, and individualism. Never give up your search for meaning. It is indeed as possible as ever, even in today’s postmodern world, to find a personal path worthy of your choosing.

As Tolkien said in The Lord of the Rings, “Ours is not to choose the times in which we live but how we respond to those times.”

Warren Sazama, SJ is vocation director for the Wisconsin Province of Jesuits. He has served on the Board for NRVC. He has authored several vocationrelated articles and given presentations on the vocational discernment process to vocation directors and college students.


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