“I spent the first few months of graduate school pretending to be a student of theoretical physics. This required no great acting skill beyond the efforts to appear unperturbed in the face of the inexplicable, which is as far as I can see one of the central tasks of adulthood.”
— Barbara Ehrenreich, Living with a Wild God
Sometimes growing up has felt like a series of moments when I was supposed to trade firmly-held conviction or irrepressible dissatisfaction with the way things are for — well, for an “Oh, well, everyone else is okay with it” sort of surrender.
I’m not talking about the good kind of surrender — those moments when you are humbled, when you admit to being in need of other humans, which I associate with growing wise. This surrender sounds like calling a friend before you’ve structured a perfect story about your sadness and all you can muster is “I’m going to cry,” before you actually do. And he waits on the phone for you to catch your breath, to locate words to wrap around your injury.
I’m also not talking about the surrender of incompleteness. This surrender looks like a dissertation abandoned, a to-do list left undone, an email inbox that simply isn’t your priority. That’s a beautiful surrender, too. The kind characterized by unbridled honesty with yourself, by choosing what is most important above what is most pressing, what is real above what is rewarded. It’s a choice born of maturity.
What I’m talking about is a surrender of moral imagination, a surrender of naïve and fundamental questions, a surrender of resistance to the status quo. It’s the part of me that — at 5 — asked my parents why some people sleep in the streets while others have warm houses and soft beds. It’s the part of me that — at 15 — railed against the idiocy of an abstinence-only education policy in a high school where girls were already walking around with babies. It’s the part of me that — at 25 — had burning questions about the amount of money that one could earn and even save, when there were people dying every single day for a lack of it.
I believe that sometimes we accept reality because we don’t have the energy to imagine or enact an alternative, or because we feel too alone in our quest for something more ethical. But what if we could spot other souls swimming ungracefully upstream? It could tease out the subtleties of a moral life in others, strengthened for the painstaking work. It’d be better than catapulting ourselves from indignation to resignation, solo and desperate.
So perhaps the first step we must take if we want to preserve our moral imaginations is to create communities where we can ask the hard and naïve questions. Some are grand, like my eternal confusion about money. Some come from a more personal place, but with grand consequences. Am I living with integrity? Do my values and my actions align? Am I who I believe myself to be?
Our daily lives are structured to provide us with a million reminders of the small stuff — the overdue parking ticket and the dishes in the sink and the meaning we attach to both that makes them larger than paper and water and ceramics. We sweat it all. We produce. We achieve. We churn. We pass out. We wake up and begin again.
And then, every once in a great while, in the average adult life, there will be this little break in the already-scheduled program. You watch a beautiful film and walk out into the moonlight feeling alchemically changed, open, hungry to talk about your real life. Or you hear that someone you know, someone just about your age, is on the brink of death. Or you swerve at the last minute and save your own life, or wake up from a terrible dream and feel the palpable relief of being in your bed, next to your sweating, snoring partner whom you love so deeply, even though you were really mad about the dishes before you went to sleep. Or you have one of those moments when you look over at your kid and realize that your entire life is built on inexplicable miracles that you mostly don’t notice because you’re so busy cleaning up around them.
But these profound and life-sustaining pauses are mostly serendipitous. You don’t plan for them (if you could, they would likely end up being one more thing on your to do list, which is kind of gross to think about). And they’re fleeting, like the smell of baking bread when you’re driving past a bakery well over the speed limit. So good. And then so gone.
It seems to me that the only way we can plan for these kinds of moments, or at least approximations of them, is by being in community and by creating structure within that community that invites the big questions to come out of the shadowy hiding places in our overscheduled, self-important lives.
As lovely as the serendipitous moments of existential awareness can be, they are internal and slippery. They are hard to articulate to someone else because they are left in a sort of netherworld of our psyche, a place where we notice something, feel something, and then struggle to wrap words around that something. This is the source of a lot of wonderful art, but it’s inherently isolating. It is lovely to grapple internally, but in order to extend our inquiry, both in time and in space, we have to ask some of the big questions among others.
This is what religions are supposed to do for people. I’ve heard from friends who’ve never felt more alive than after grappling with the big questions for hours in a church community group. And from friends who feel their most connected when singing a chant in synagogue that they know has reverberated for more than 5,000 years. And from friends who’ve found Muslim communities where studying the Qur’an leads them into challenging, gratifying questions.
And yet, I see so many others I know running out the doors of religious institutions en masse. And so many young people never go through the front doors in the first place.
So many of us feel as if our moral imaginations have been homeless, and we’re doing something about it. In a report called “How We Gather,” Harvard Divinity School students Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile (who have written a series for On Being) profile ten communities that they see satisfying people’s deep need for “personal and social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, and accountability” — everything from Camp Grounded, a summer camp for adults near Silicon Valley, to The Sanctuaries, a D.C.-based arts, social change, and spirituality organization.
“Churches are just one of many institutional casualties of the internet age in which young people are both more globally connected and more locally isolated than ever before. Against this bleak backdrop, a hopeful landscape is emerging. Millennials are flocking to a host of new organizations that deepen community in ways that are powerful, surprising, and perhaps even religious.”
When we are aching into adulthood, we need a place to lay down our heaviest mental and intellectual burdens with others. For most of us, most of the time, it still feels lonely to ask big questions about the ethical adult life. We surrender — sometimes little by little, sometimes all at once — to the status quo, the hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance we once cringed at when we witnessed it in parents and teachers, in co-workers and friends. It feels too hard, too heavy, to do anything else.
And yet, some of us are stubborn. Some of us feed our moral imaginations even when starving them seems far more convenient. Some of us found communities where our questions are safe and even admired. Some of us gather.
You can read more in my book The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, published by Seal Press.