Monday, August 23, 2010

Picking Your Dreams

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we end up where we do. A number of people that were in high school arround the same time I was are graduating from college, and it seems like every time I turn arround, another one is engaged or married. Some of them are going off to law school, others setting up house, still others expecting children. Most of the people I know who got married around the same time I did have at least one (and many have two) children. There are also plenty who aren't married yet and are off pursuing other dreams. It's an odd thing to watch, because the ones off pursuing other things are doing what I was "supposed" to do, up until my senior year in high school, when I met someone and all those dreams changed. I turned from travel and graduate school to houses and babies. Education and advancement was still part of my dreams, but they took the back burner to family. That was the dream I picked, even though it's not exactly my reality now. We all, every day, knowingly or unwittingly, shape the future we want, pick the dreams we will pursue. Hopefully this dreaming is intentional, and we shape our future rather than allowing our circumstances to do so. At the same time, sometimes the dreams we pick turn out to be out of reach, or by the time you get there have changed shape entirely. The dream I thought I picked, of lots of children underfoot, has been slow in coming to say the least. You could say I'm surrounded by people who have either pursued the dream I voluntarily gave up (education and travel) or have accomplished the dream I chose but have not yet received (home and children). There is absolutely something to be said for our agency in shaping our futures, but I've also realized that there are some factors that are out of our hands. Sometimes they are completely uncontrollable, other times as a result of earlier choices we made in the process of trying to get where we think we want to go. I always tell people that if there's anything I've learned in the last five years, it's that God is really good at changing my plans. It would be easy to get caught up in the things that I wanted that haven't come, or get distracted by the fact that in giving up one dream to pursue another you could say I've received neither. But to do that is to lose sight of the bigger picture, that sometimes when we let go of one dream to pursue another, there's another end in store for us, different than we could have imagined, harder than we could have dreamed, and bigger, deeper, greater, richer than we could have hoped. All there is for us to do is make the decision, pick the dream, then pursue it with all that's in us, realizing that the final results are out of our hands, willing to embrace what life brings, even if it may not be the dream we dreamed at first.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Entering Adulthood in a Complex World

While in high school, I wrote a speech and then a term paper on the idea of adolescence, arguing that it was a myth, originally perpetrated by psychologist G. Stanley Hall, and eventually so absorbed into the American (Western?) psyche as to become fact. As a young "overachiever" I often felt constrained by the low expectations of adults, and sometimes felt as if they saw just my age, rather than seeing me. Looking back, I'm sure that I wasn't as mature as I felt, but I still hold to the statement that our society sets the bar far too low for the majority of adolescents. Humans have a tendency to live up or down to the expectations set for them.

At the same time, as I gain perspective in the complexity of the modern world I also understand why an "adolescent" stage can be beneficial, or even necessary, in bringing young people into adulthood. Although I wouldn't argue that life today is harder I do believe that modern life by definition is more complicated, so I see a place for a more gradual process of coming into adulthood. The creation of the idea of adolescence came in response to the industrialization of society, as more education/experience was considered necessary to function in the world. An article recently published in the NY Times makes the argument that we are beginning to see a similar stage present itself in "20-somethings". Just as a hundred years ago high school was a newer development, a reflection of the increased importance of education, so also today it is becoming necessary, even essential, to have a bachelor's, a master's, or even a doctorate. As education takes longer, and people are waiting longer to marry and have children as a result, a transition stage, echoing the transition of adolescents from children to adults, is beginning to present itself.

While higher and higher levels of formal education are required or expected, the need for other kinds of education has also become evident. In a world with an incredibly complex financial system, where there's a whole lot more to selling and buying a house than shaking hands, turning over the money, and signing a paper, it is more difficult to act as an adult, because more information or experience is required to do so properly. Life is not necessarily harder, but it is more complex. Much of the experience needed to function as an adult can only be acquired one way, experience. As high school (and now college) has replaced apprenticeships as the primary means of education, we have a lot more factual knowledge, but young people are often lacking the practical application of it. It is assumed that a college education prepares you for life, and although it absolutely is an excellent tool, I think many college graduates feel unprepared for other more practical aspects of adult life. I know for myself, I married young and was unprepared for the independent discipline required to live as an adult. I didn't go on campus to college, and I can definitely see how this would be a good first step, since it is a stepping stone between dependence on parental direction and adult independence, leaving room for mistakes and learning experiences in an environment that is lower stakes than a job.

There must be a balance, between paying the consequences for mistakes, and feeling as if a failure is insurmountable. Perhaps some sort of a return to an apprenticeship system would be helpful, not in signing our lives away as was the custom, but in a learning and mentoring based process, which acknowledges a young person’s status as a student, and gives practical instruction, and provides set milestones to adulthood. It would take the work of adults, parents and others, willing to step in, mentor, and direct. It would mean the setting of high standards, holding young people to levels of behavior and discipline, expecting hard work and accomplishment, and giving them the tools to succeed all the while providing room to fail, room to grow, room to become adults.

Perhaps someone needs to write a book: "What I Wish My Parents Taught Me: Lifeskills of an Adult".

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Broken Hurting People

In a geography class I took last spring, I came to the conclusion that the history of nations is fundamentally the story of human depravity. In ever continent, region, country, the basic plot was of one group of people exploiting, hurting, or trying to destroy another. Perhaps it is odd to pull such philosophical ideas out of a geography class, but that's what it kept coming back to. Often however, we have a tendency to distance the history of nations from the history of persons. We assume that even though humanity in unison tends to take advantage and hurt, in the day to day lives of persons this not the case. Recently however, a few movies and TV shows I've seen have led me to wonder if the average person is just as hurting and broken as the nations warring against each other.

On the whole, we are masters of disguise. Walk down the street, go to the grocery store, visit with friends, and it looks like we have it all together. You hear about or see the occasional exception of course: the man on the street corner holding a cardboard sign, the teenager who tried to take her own life, even the middle school boy who bullies his classmates. We act as if these people are anomalies however, as if the normal function of human life and interaction is much more refined and sane. I wonder though, if inside, the majority of humans feel like those social outcasts. Are we just more adept at hiding or ignoring the problem? I was watching The Joy Luck Club last night. Fascinating movie, sad but good. It's the story of four mother-daughter pairs, Chinese-American families. In each case, some trauma or or history of the mother impacts her daughter, and the hurt and pain is passed through generations. It ends in reconciliation for all of them, but doesn't shy away from the pain and hurt that they all feel (and all cause each other). They are each successful, and to anyone on the street, they look nothing like the homeless man, suicidal teenager, or middle school bully. But fundamentally I'm unconvinced that they are any different.

I've also been watching the TV show Rescue Me with my husband. I can't say that I would recommend the show to anyone, but it is an interesting study in firefighter culture, and I've been exposed to enough of it myself, and vicariously in the last few months, that I feel it's a fairly accurate representation of the lifestyle. However, the episodes leave me feeling depressed. They're funny, and interesting, and engaging, but it keeps coming back to how broken and hurting these people are. The firefighters in particular are scarred and often traumatized because of all they have to deal with in their job, but this also spills over into their relationships. Their families too are hurting. The question I keep coming back to is, "Are we all this broken?". Do we all just do a pretty good job of hiding from our friends and neighbors that we fear and fight and weep inside?

I believe strongly in the basic sinfulness of man, and the fallenness of this world. It has merely been all the more strongly reinforced recently that our lives and relationships are perhaps even more broken than we let on.