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The Soul of Adolescence

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by Patricia Lyons

An adolescents’ fragile but no less creative and dynamic language for spiritual life has little or no connection with much of the language found in the scriptures of the mainline religions. Many students have positive associations with “spirituality” or “faith,” while “organized religion” is most often viewed with skepticism, if not anger or total rejection.

When my students defined their rejection of religion, many do so by describing their experiences of church or synagogue in a way that makes religious thought and practice unpalatable for thoughtful people of any age. And many describe the alienation they feel in many churches, synagogues, and mosques when the encounter overt or covert demands for what they perceive to be self-denying uniformity amid unexplained and eccentric rituals in ancient language. But despite this frustration, I have yet to meet a student who rejects spirituality as a capacity or habit for people of any age. There is simply no discernable anger among teenagers over the spiritual promise or practice of lives, whether or not the student engages in either. They possess hope, and even pride, in their spiritual potentials and the spiritual potential of the world.

However, communicating with young people about their spiritual life in a way that disarms their defenses against conventional religion means speaking in their terms, not ours. We must respect their curiosity and even passion for spiritual realities. I believe that traditional religious communities actually share many truths found in adolescent talk of spirituality; we have more in common than either generation might think. But we need to find out which spiritual word and concepts have currency with young people in order to translate the timeless truths of our traditions into timely teenage speech.

In their definitions of the soul I have found a whole world of ideas that any parent, teacher, or spiritual mentor would want to pursue with young people. Knowing how adolescents define the spiritual life – specifically, how they think their own soul works in make the spiritual life possible – is essential for adults who want to understand what teenagers do and can believe.

I ask students to define the word “soul” because of all the terms associated with faith or spirituality, it is the one with which they are the most comfortable. It never fails to open a window into their deepest spiritual ideas and experiences. The word is so ubiquitous in our culture – used to describe anything from food and music to perfume and cars – that kids feel free to employ it themselves. Teenagers have an infinite number of definitions for this word, but these beautifully varied definitions point in most cases to something meaningful that enhances life, establishes human dignity, and transcends the physical world.

Trained theologians and philosophers might find the adolescent uses of this for clumsy, contradictory, and ambiguous, but many of these same intellectuals use similar adjectives for adolescence itself. But if those of us who are parents, teachers, and mentors can see adolescent statements of spiritual truth as authentically stating needs rather than irreverently rewriting creeds, we can perhaps start an intimate conversation rather than conduct a distancing diagnosis of the young people in our lives.

Too many teens are convinced that those of us in the adult community do not know the difference between diagnosis and dialogue. Educators understand the need for both, but it is my students who have never failed to show me how little commitment I sometimes show to the practical work of honest dialogue.

How do you listen with youth?

Patricia Lyons is Director of Service Learning at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia, where she teaches ethics and religion. This article is an excerpt from her book, “The Soul of Adolescence: In Their Own Words” (Morehouse, 2010), in which she shares first-person accounts of adolescent ethics, spirituality, conscience, and struggles with despair. She deciphers the language of youth so that any teacher, parent, or mentor can learn how to hear, understand and respond more effectively to the spiritual hopes and longings of teenagers.

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