Stop Being Surprised

In every youth ministry I've been a part of, almost every time an adult who is not used to working with young people (and often, even one who is) is invited in to engage and interact with young people, they are surprised by the experience. "Those kids are so much more _______ than I thought they would be!" (fill in the blank: kind, intelligent, thoughtful, deep, honest, motivated, empathetic, spiritual, etc....) It almost never fails.

Have you had this experience? It's common in every youth ministry setting I've found myself in, and I am willing to bet that it's common in your church or ministry as well. 

Maybe we should stop being so surprised. If it is so common that young people disrupt our expectations and prove to be "exceptions to the rule," perhaps we should consider changing the rules and adapting our expectations. If we're surprised so often, maybe we should consider the possibility that what surprises us is actually what's to be expected. 

Let me get a little more specific...

In much of the literature on "adolescent development," from both psychological and (so-called) theological perspectives, there is a basic assumption that adolescence is a time of turmoil and chaos--a transitional stage wherein young people struggle through the process of "identity formation" and "individuation," completing the "tasks" of adolescence to achieve "societal adulthood." The assumption is that when we (adults) encounter them, we should expect them to be confused about who they are, preoccupied with themselves and with realizing their place in this world, and a bit angsty if not anxious about the world. This is what makes them "unruly" and "rebellious" and self-centered. Their occupation in the adolescent stage of development justifies our presupposition that, when we encounter a young person, we will discover someone who is less sophisticated, more shallow, and less empathetic than we are. They are not as "developed" as we are and so they are essentially (and I mean essentially, as in according to our essentialism) savages. If we discover an intelligent, compassionate, deep, and empathetic individual who has a basic sense of security and their own identity, we're baffled... and yet... we're ALWAYS BAFFLED! 

Now, the fact is--even if some developmentalist thinkers have convinced us that identity formation is indigenous to adolescence and that adolescence is the stage wherein people struggle with identity, autonomy, and belonging--this struggle is indigenous to all of our experience, no matter if we occupy the social space of adulthood or that of childhood. Individuation is a human experience, not an adolescent experience. So yes, you may find a teenager who struggles with their sense of belonging, but haven't you met a few adults who struggle with that as well, in ways that are indigenous to their own experience? 

If we have been so dissuaded from expecting young people to be caring and compassionate human beings that we are surprised every time we discover it, then maybe we're missing something. If our preoccupation has been so bent toward worrying about adolescence, getting to know it so we can fix it, then perhaps we should redirect our anxieties toward our own issues and our own orientation toward young people. Perhaps we should be less worried about what adolescence is and a lot more worried about how we, as adults and as ministers, should approach these people. And rather than managing the expectations we have of them, rather than worrying about how we can affect their lives, perhaps we should think about what we expect from ourselves and about how we might be disrupted by the experiences of young people in whose lives the Spirit of the Living God is present and active. 

Now, this is not about optimism. But it might be about hope. This is not about pretending that everyone is really made of sugar and spice and everything nice. No. We will discover the same kind of depravity in young people that we will find in adults. We will see greed and hatred and violence and everything else we read about in the news. But in hope, we expect that in the midst of whatever is going on in a person's life, God's Spirit is alive and is inviting us to participate in Her action. We simply must do away with any judgement that precludes our discovery of that action. 

Young people, as it turns out, are people. And as such, they are recipients of God's grace and they are the beloved of God. When it comes to spirituality, psychological maturity has no baring on the sophistication or profundity of God's action in one's life. If we get more mature, if we get better at things, we do not get better at being Christians. As Karl Barth wrote, people "may and can be many things, but never in what makes them Christians..." (The Christian Life, 79). This means that God is at work in profound ways, even in the life of one who has not entered the social world of adulthood. And we must orient ourselves to be affected and disrupted by that experience.

So we must not orient ourselves to adolescents as a mechanic orients herself to the engine of a car. We must not be preoccupied with the "problem of adolescence." Rather, we must be ready to discover whatever is actually there. We must not assume that they will be any less intelligent, compassionate, spiritual, or secure than we are. We must not assume that their life is in any more turmoil than ours is. We've got to stop being so surprised all the time and start expecting more.  


Danny said…
I thought a similar thought last night when I was watching "Moonrise Kingdom" by Wes Anderson.
wellis68 said…
Love that movie, Danny!