While many of you may have noticed my hiatus from blogging, I can assure you that I have been busy reading, thinking and writing. I recently finished up my engrossing second summer read: Generation Me by Dr. Jean M. Twenge. With a young, spunky voice, Dr. Twenge presents a synthesis of her own research, as well as other notable sociological and psychological studies, concerning “Generation Me,” those Americans born after the Baby Boomers. Although other authors and scholars have frequently divided up Americans born in the 70s, 80s, and 90s into “Generation X” and “The Millennials” (or other comprable categories), Twenge groups them under the common label of “Generation Me” because of their shared extreme bent toward individiualism.
While this book will likely fuel numerous blog entries, today I want to start with one generational characteristic that Twenge introduces because I recognize its particular impact on contemporary Christianity. Twenge writes:
“The messages of our youth were unglaggingly optimistic: You can be anything. Just be yourself. Always follow your dreams. To borrow Alan Greenspan’s phrase, our upbringing was irrationally exuberant. Irrational, because when we reach adulthood we find ourselves lonely, rejected by graduate schools, sturck in a boring job, and/or unable to afford a house.” (212)
Due to the self-esteem movement in our childhood, including these idylic messages of “You can do it! Whatever it is!”, our generation was reared with higher life expectations for ourselves than any other. Meanwhile, Twenge argues, the statistics show that we have it rougher than our parents and their parents in many regards. Thus, “as more GenMe’ers reach adulthood over the next few years, there will be a full-scale collision between their high expectations and the unfortunate realities of modern life” (213). When the reality of life smacks us in the face, we are broken-hearted. We feel lied to, hopeless, and according to Twenge, severely anxious and depressed.
These lofty life expectations are not bad in themselves. Rather, they become dangerous when society instills them in a generation without teaching us how to anticipate failure and cope with disappointment. When the bubble is bursted, crisis ensues.
High expectations pervade career, romantic, and family aspirations, and–I think–our religious expectations. I look back on my own life my life with the Church: A young teenager inspired by the gospel message of unconditional love, I was devastated to discover the bloody past of Christianity in the history books. I grew up with a Church proclaiming conservative sexual mores, only to discover a disgusting mess of sex scandal and child abuse among its leaders. Catholicism continues to tout a message of radical love despite the fact that it continues to oppress women and LGBT folk (minority groups that my generation overwhelming supports). While the tradition claims unwavering consistantly, universality, and order, my theological studies have proved contrary.
I have often wondered where I attained such high expectations for the church. As an adult, they seem foolish now: “You shouldn’t have been so surprised these horrible things happen,” I tell myself. “The Church is a human institution, however blessed.” Yet, like the overly ambitious expectations my generation fosters in other areas of life, these high assumptions about religion came from somewhere. In many cases, they came from the Church itself. How our young Catholics supposed to deal with disappointment in a Church that refuses to really apologize, that doesn’t really make mistakes? That is universally and unwaveringly “consistent”?
Aspire to great things–yes. The message of Christ is one of radical, challenging love–yes. But please teach us how to cope with, to understand, to survive religion when we humans cannot meet these lofty, though often noble, standards.
Even if the Church does not want to deal with the fact that it might be setting up young people for disappointment by averring dishonest and unrealistic expectations for itself, the Church does have a responsibility to deal with the despair of my generation–the reality that we are left anxious and depressed by a society that crushes the dreams we were taught to believe in. For didn’t Christ come to bring hope to the hopeless?