Not long ago I was chatting with a couple of middle-schoolers when one casually dropped the word existentialist into the conversation. Startled, I backtracked to ask where on earth she'd heard the term and who had taught her what it meant.
“Everybody in our generation uses it,” she and her brother shrugged. The concept was so embedded in their mental landscape they literally couldn't recall when it first entered their vocabulary or their hearts. A little skeptical, I pressed further. As we talked it became clear Alex and James understood the term perfectly and were serious in claiming it for themselves.
They spoke quickly and surely of a despair brought on by “the politicians, the planet, all that stuff….” They had learned the climate tipping point would hit within their lifetimes and felt helpless in the face of catastrophe. Alex described a moment when she'd been trapped underwater beneath a piece of equipment, unable to breathe. She said she suddenly realized "We all die and in the end nothing really matters." Her brother had seen her tumble and rescued her, but both were shaken by the incident.
While they agreed on the bleakness of their likely future, they sparred a bit on meaninglessness. Neither sees religion contributing anything of value to the conversation. Instead they find hope in music, glimpses of beauty and moments when people come together spontaneously on behalf of kindness.
Their generation's angst finds expression in musicals like Dear Evan Hansen, a Broadway hit chronicling high school students' desperate search for meaning and belonging in the wake of a classmate's suicide.. An adult friend of mine saw the show recently and lamented its despair; James and Alex cite it as a source of strength. They hear their struggles echoed in songs like You Will Be Found:
Have you ever felt like nobody was there?
Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?
Have you ever felt like you could disappear?
Like you could fall, and no one would hear?
Later verses express their hope:
Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
And when you're broken on the ground
You will be found.
James and Alex are well resourced and well nurtured, but they suffer from what Viktor Frankl calls “existential stress.” They feel betrayed by the universe and the adults who are supposed to be watching out for them. They are searching for a coherent vision in a world that offers too many cynical and confusing choices. When asked what they considered the purpose of life, they answered, "To be happy - and to make a positive difference." I was impressed. When I inquired about the percentage of their classmates who would have a similar response, they hesitated. "Some of them don't think about much of anything," James said ruefully.
Alex and James are exceptionally articulate and obviously comfortable with big questions. They are clearly finding their way, at least so far. Not all young people are so fortunate, as our rising teen suicide rate attests.
Research indicates a sense of meaning and purpose is essential for humans to truly thrive. Yet only one in five high school students and one in three college students studied claimed a clear sense of purpose.
Most of Alex and James' conversations on the topic have been with peers rather than adults; many took place online. Every young person can benefit from a wise mentor as they begin this critical search. William Damon in The Path To Purpose notes that adults cannot create a sense of purpose for children, but we can offer options. At the very least we can learn how to get out of the way and quit putting up false road signs.
We can tell stories that are true, share visions that matter and bear witness to suffering and hope. If we're willing to do our own internal work we may even be able to be a Yoda for some young person. May we all be found in the process.
I can trash social media with the best of them. Yes, technology disrupts our lives and sometimes fries our brains. The sight of seventh graders sitting shoulder to shoulder after school, thumbs flying, oblivious to one another’s presence, makes me shiver. I weary of the constant battle - with grandkids and with myself - to tame the monster.
But seriously, what would we do without our smartphones? And who knew technology could help us pray??!! In an ideal world we wouldn’t need outside help, but nobody I know lives in an ideal world. In the real world I can use all the help I can get.
I use two apps on a regular basis to help me stick with my morning prayer/meditation routine. My favorite is InsightTimer, which is free and pretty amazing. I use it primarily for the timer function, which saves me from peeking at my watch when I should be thinking deep thoughts. If you like you can also set it to sound a few times during your meditation to remind you this is serious business, just in case you've forgotten and started planning out your daily itinerary instead. (Unfortunately, on a really bad day i can get to the end of my 20 minutes and not even remember hearing the gong.) You can select from different sounds to begin and end your session and how long you’d like to spend.
The app has classes available for purchase, but there are so many free guided meditations available you could listen to a different one every day for the rest of your life. Granted, some of them would be terrible, but they’d be free. You can also form an online group and check out who in your town is meditating and what they’re listening to. (Some people would call that Too Much Information.)
Most guided meditations on the app are secular or lean toward Buddhism or Hinduism. Christian meditations are available but rather scarce, not because the owners discriminate against Christians but because there's a scarcity of Christian teachers. Which is pretty interesting, when you think about it.
My second favorite app is Pray-As-You-Go, put out six days a week by Jesuits in England. PAYG reflects on the Scripture reading of the day for ten to twelve minutes. It begins each session with a contemplative piece of music. A narrator then reads the Scripture passage for the day and another invites a reflection and application to your own life. The Scripture passage is reread during the remaining few moments and the session closes with a doxology: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.”They've expanded their offerings to include other forms of prayer, several of which are familiar only to Catholics. They're worth exploring, but I usually stick with the Scripture reflection.
I tend not to use this one when I’m on track with my spiritual regimen, but lean on it gratefully when life is hectic or hard. The combination of music and narration sometimes gets a little busy for my taste if my mind is behaving, but when I'm wound up they're just what I need to wrestle my brain back to business.
My shallow side loves the English accents because they make me feel like I’m traveling in Narnia, the land of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I also notice that my brain quiets more easily when I listen than when I read a reflection.
This is just a small sampling of available resources. The biggest challenge these days is sorting through all the options to find one that works for you. The great thing about apps is that if you find one you like, you can listen in the car, at lunch, in the morning seated with coffee and a candle, while watching soccer practice.
These two are available online at www.insighttimer.com or www.pray-as-you-go.org or wherever you access your apps. And no, I am not receiving any compensation for recommending these. They're really and truly helpful.
Or the Senate Committee Room or...
Like so many others, I’ve been hooked by the Supreme Court confirmation firestorm. The situation is tragic regardless of who or what you believe. Rather than debating who's right or wrong, I'd like to examine a spiritual practice that can help each of us respond.
We're fascinated by this drama because we find somebody’s behavior appalling, and really bad behavior is frightening. When groups of people become enraged a terrifying sinister energy seems to emerge. And when we feel personally endangered our own dark side - vengeful, slanted, self-protective - fights to cut loose and start swinging.
I’d just finished reading the latest wrinkle in the unfolding story when suddenly an image of Jesus walking into that room came to me. In my imaginary hearing room he wasn’t there to take the stand or to take someone’s side. He was simply being present.
The effect on me was remarkable. I immediately calmed down - not completely, but substantially. Gone was my feeling of the world rocking beneath my feet, and I could sense a peace and clarity surrounding Jesus. The scene didn’t shift my opinion about who was telling the truth. It did shift me toward compassion for everyone involved. Until that moment my compassion had been reserved for the persons I considered to be injured, while I focused my judgment, resentment and anger on the other guys. Those guys included a large portion of my fellow Americans.
Regardless of what did or didn’t happen at a party 30 years ago, tragic incidents of sexual misconduct happen every day. We clearly need new awareness and revised systems to help us reduce their incidence and impact. The spiritual practice of imagining Jesus in our midst is one small tool that can help us get there.
The picture in my head showed up without my asking, but we can consciously decide to create imaginary scenes. The visitor we imagine doesn't have to be Jesus. For me as a Christian, Jesus is a spiritual touchstone. For Buddhists it might be the Buddha, for Muslims Muhammad. We can visualize a major figure in our spiritual tradition, or someone we rub shoulders with every day. The key is to choose a person of compassion and wisdom and to use our imaginations to create a vivid picture in our minds.
Visualization As Spiritual Practice
A practice is something we do on a repeated basis, usually to accomplish some result. Brushing your teeth is a practice. So is regularly checking the air in your tires or rewarding your dog's good behavior with a treat A spiritual practice is something we do on a repeated basis to call us back to our core beliefs and help us live according to them.
Athletic coaches as well as pastors and spiritual advisors teach visualization. Research demonstrates that athletes who visualize success are more likely to achieve it. Vividly imagining a spiritually-inspired scene helps anchor us in our own spiritual base. When we visualize we draw on our sense memory of sight, hearing and sometimes smell to help change our thinking and our mood.
Visualizing Jesus is a spiritual practice that helps me shift gears and see things in a new light. When I picture Jesus in a contentious scene several things predictably happen:
At their best, spiritual practices engage our whole selves - our bodies and emotions as well as our minds. When we tap into our sense memory to create an image different from the ones our overheated brains are currently cooking up, we get wiser.
And more peaceful, and compassionate, and hopeful, and...
Photo Dirksen226, Wikimedia Commons