Some days, all she could do was sit by her window, staring out. If you were to step into her living room, you would think you were seeing a mannequin, were it not for the four-day-old pajamas, the raw cuticles, the cold mug of tea.
The next time you saw her, she was babbling at high speed, tickled by the coincidence that you’d be visiting the island her family has gone to for 30 years.
“That’s wild,” she’d say. And the third time she said it, you agreed.
Her name is Stephanie, and she crossed my life for several months in 2008. She was not alone, this young woman in flight. She was part of a swarm.
When people ask me, “How have students changed? What do you see today?”
I answer, “Anxiety.”
Two years ago, Psychology Today published an article describing what the author deemed a mental health “crisis” facing today’s college students. “Evidence suggests that this group has greater levels of stress and psychopathology than any time in the nation’s history,” wrote Gregg Henriques. Stress, anxiety, and depression top the list.
To those who spend time in close contact with young adults, this came as no news. College counseling offices are overwhelmed. Today’s students are gifted, well-educated — and worried sick. They are dogged by the demands of achievement that often feels disconnected to meaning. They experience a vertiginous gap between their hopes and ambitions, and a belief that they can make a difference. Few of the young go to church. Few can name flesh-and-blood role models. Creatively self-destructive, they fill their schedules to the breaking point, over-eating or starving, over-exercising, cutting, over-committing. In a pinch, they overmedicate.
The young may be our harbingers. We see them more clearly than we see ourselves because they are the last cohort observable in aggregate by a bevy of adults on the lookout for their well-being. In truth, those who come to me for spiritual direction, a decade or more out from college, battle the same worry and self-doubt, the sense of being suspended somewhere in mid-journey with an insufficient grasp of where they have come from or where they are going — literally or metaphysically. In free floating, angst-driven flight.
* * * * *
When the Holy Family fled to Egypt, it was from a corrupt and abusive regime, the Roman occupation of Palestine, and from a specific threat — infanticide. When it was safe to do so, they returned, so that they could raise their son among family and fellow Jews in the tradition that bound them, in word and in action.
We, too, reel from corruption and searing disillusionment. I have come to believe that the roots of our rootlessness derive largely from our anxiety about authority and power. Who is in charge? What are the rules? What or who can be trusted? Police officers kill unarmed black men and are back on the beat the next week. Congress can’t seem to agree on where to keep the paper clips, much less watchdog Wall Street or establish rational gun control policy. One student last term told me that he’d arrived in my class a total cynic, beyond any hope that human beings could treat one another in constructive or helpful ways.
But where the dangers to Jewish subjects of the Roman empire were concrete and continuous, for many (not all) of us, the roots of our anxiety is more free-floating; our resulting moral paralysis, a sign of inner alienation.
The question that I ask today, as a new year and a new semester begin, is this: What do we need to return to? Our modern-day reaction to the plight of the troubled young like Stephanie is to suggest therapy. Therapy can be a helpful strategy. But because we are dealing with a spiritual crisis, therapy alone is a little like asking the apostles, at sea in the storm, to hire a net mender.
John the Baptist, with his radical challenge, may be the dawning edge of a different answer. Not for him the old ways, corrupt or merely comfortable. He set out to return people to themselves — the hard way. To be called to the river by John was to be drawn out of the dark opacity of bad habits and unconsciousness into mutual responsibility. It was a coming into an identity that was at once more than anything previously experienced as a “self,” and at the same time a submitting to a much larger common story.
That story, we see, in the baptism of Jesus, began with a naming and a claiming. In Jesus, it quickly expanded to a transformative ministry of summoning, gathering, and healing with love. In creating a “place” of belonging.
I have seen my share of baptisms. They are full of madcap antics, like children trying to slosh around in the font, and priests forgetting how to hold a baby, godparents forgetting to give the kids back to the parents, someone forgetting the chrism, and the older ones crying because they can’t do it again.
I don’t imagine that that day by the Jordan was anything other than grave and profound. And I can’t imagine baptism as anything other than the opposite of flight. It is arrival, in the deepest sense. John’s genius was in recognizing the power to create not only new people, but a new community. In this new dawning, Jesus discovered the meaning of his life.
* * * * *
Irenaeus, the 2nd-century Church Father, in a commentary on the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel, writes that the work of Jesus was not to save us from our nature, but rather, to restore us to our nature, and in the process of doing so, to bring us back into relationship with the deep interconnectedness of all things.
It may well be that this is the consciousness we must work to restore today. To offer communities of return as an alternative to flight, giving our young and one another experiences that suggest that there is far more that is trustworthy and good beyond one’s well-fortified self.
This takes growing into. Often, it takes leaping into. Just like those folks by the Jordan.
As it happens, Stephanie had her baptism by journeying to South Africa and working with orphans in squalid, tin-roofed quarters. For the first time in many years, she heard herself named. She learned the meaning of love in a place of community.
The funny thing is, she almost didn’t get on the plane.
What about you?