My ode to the youth of today (but especially teenage girls)
My wife works with teenagers. Her business helps students from all over the US get to know themselves and sets them on a path to college that fits them — not the other way around like many other college admissions counselors do.
Her business takes a lighthearted approach to the historically stuffy and rigid process of college planning. In turn, her students open up to her and her counselors much more than they do with many other people in their lives. It’s a fascinating thing to witness.
We often talk about the younger generation — ‘Gen Z’ as they’re called . On my ministerial pathway, I see them as the ones I’ll be serving throughout a large part of my life (just as my wife is).
They’re absolutely fascinating, inspiring individuals with huge hearts and a zest for life. I get to hang out with them when I teach college essay writing workshops (this is as far as my expertise reaches as I barely graduated high school myself).
In a spiritual sense, what’s really interesting is, many of them grew up with zero to little religious dialogue in the household. In a way, I see this as a great thing, but I also feel there’s something missing — something they’re yearning for — spirituality speaking.
Today, I want to talk about present-day teenage girls. Not to leave out the dudes, as I’m sure many of them are in the same boat, but I want to keep it specific today, not general. Plus, I have a daughter, so I like girls better:)
Many teenage girls see no separation between them and their social media feeds.
Now, before you think this is an anti-tech rant by an older dude (I’m not that old, but when I’m hanging out with them, I definitely feel it), you’re mistaken. Social media has brought us closer together in a lot of ways. My relatives from the other side of the country get to see Rory grow up. I can write this to you. I can send my wife an inappropriate text message whenever I want. It’s awesome.
But a lot of these girls (and guys too, but again, we’re talking about the gals here) have their entire self-worth tied up in their social media interactions. Some of them make a slip or two. Some let their hormones get the best of them (as we do when we’re young). Others are driven by things much deeper and darker. And others have been shamed against their will.
However it happens, suddenly, a certain story of them is permanently embedded in the social stratosphere of their life. A story that may not reflect their true, beautiful, wise, authentic selves. One that is really hard to get away from once they’ve gotten into it.
Soon, they’ve lost themselves in the digital social whirlpool of their youth. So vulnerable. So exposed to this sort of thing at such a compromising age.
This breaks my heart.
And so let’s rewind to spirituality and the lack of it in many of younger people’s lives...
Would it be better if they had an iron-fisted fundamentalist religion? Would they be better served if they were made to believe in an angry male anthropomorphic deity in the clouds that shamed their bodies, shamed their hormonal pulls, and shamed their ‘off-color’ thoughts?
I say hells no (you can quote me on that). I understand the human spirit — I have one myself — and I know that certain things cannot be suppressed for very long without adverse effects down the road. We know that as a culture now.
What these kids are searching for is a sense of belonging and approval. The problem is when they look to their social circle to provide it. And when your social circle consists of people as emotionally unstable as you (I say this in the most non-judging, matter-of-fact tone), you’re in trouble.
Which brings us to the role of spirituality/religion. Since I’m headed toward this type of work, I always wonder about the utility of spirituality, especially for younger people. Is it relevant to them? Is it useful?
This leads me to more questions (which happens often here on the blog)…
What if these girls believed in an inherent Presence that loved them, unconditionally?
Not when they were baptized. Or confirmed. Or when they were ‘nice’ or said a rosary or fourteen.
What if they could see themselves through the eyes of a ever-loving God? And what if they could look at each other with this same gaze?
What if they understood that the only reason they so desperately seek the approval of their friends was as a way to approve of themselves; and that they didn’t need the former to experience the latter?
This is the potential of spirituality. Not sacrificing your humanity for the approval of some angry asshole in the clouds (much like a lot of their human fathers, unfortunately). But the kinship with an ever-present, ever-accepting atmosphere, closer than their breath. A presence that loves and approves of them from the get-go no matter what.
What if they realized that approval isn’t about ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Would they be trying so hard? Would they give up so easily on something they need not strive for in the first place?
What if they felt a safe ground of being when they were at their lowest of lows aside from that of their parents (which is a nice plus, if you can get it)?
What if they saw God as the thing that meets them, not just when they’re winning, not when their friends are ‘hearting’ their Instagram photos like crazy, but in their darkest moments when they’re feeling like absolute dog shit?
We all have this existential fear of nothingness. This dread that we’re going to die as hopeless, helpless blobs of fleshy wasted space. That our lives will pass on and we’ll not have ‘won’.
I feel a certain sense of it right now, typing this.
This terror is exacerbated by social media (even for us older dudes — I can only imagine what teenage girls are going through).
Our world has ‘perfect’ in our face all day. The hot ones. The ones winning. The virtuous ones. The ones who don’t care what other people think. The consistent ones. The ones who #hustle. The straight-A’s. The ones who take the best #gymselfies.
Therein lies the problem with our Christian institutions of today. They speak of virtue as transactional. That only the ‘perfect’ ones get in. The ones who’ve been saved from that whole ‘sin’ thing. Everyone else is out.
Even though this form of Christianity may not directly be present in the minds of our kids today, this sentiment is. It began long before Jesus and has been passed down through the ages since.
The deep, existential pangs of nothingness hurt when everyone else seems so ‘perfect’. But here’s something to keep in mind…
Jesus didn’t gravitate towards the ‘perfect’ other than to show them how ‘off the mark’ they really were.
Christ wisdom (taught by many others than Jesus, but this happens to be his forte) points to a God who meets us exactly in that moment of nothingness and insecurity when we think we’re miles away from it. He pointed towards the spiritual truth that, in the very moments that we trip and feel shameful and humiliated, this God is there who meets us, cradles us, and sees right past our wounds.
I can think of a few times when this presence has helped me laugh it off after I smashed my skull on the proverbial sidewalk of my life.
Most religion — even progressive spirituality — of today either insinuates or outright states that the only place to experience the divine is in a ‘higher’ place. Whether that be an afterlife up high in the clouds or a higher state of consciousness, this God does not live in the blood, dirt, bone, and suffering of our lowest lows.
A certain persona of righteousness, perfection, happiness, generosity, wealth, etc. is where we touch God’s hands.
Jesus, however, spoke of a God who meets us when all these so-called ‘righteous’ things are gone and tells us assuredly, “You’re ok. You’re loved. You’re a child of the divine.”
How many kids are raised with an undertone of disapproval and shame that creeps into their social media feeds and everyday lives later in life?
Jesus taught that it’s in our brokenness, pain, and strife that we’re met with the divine.
Not when we’re winning. Not when our ego thinks we’ve checked off all the boxes and scored higher on the point system of humanity.
And that’s why the ‘perfect’ of his day crucified him. Jesus came along and showed us of a God that has thrown out their contrived point system.
What if this was the spiritual starting point of the youth of today? What if this was their Gospel wisdom?
Do you think this might help?
I think it’s worth a shot.