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"A soul is your true self—all that you are, all that you keep hidden, all that you show the world."
My older sister Linda spent the years before her early death drifting. Her life was marked by all the frustrating inconsistencies of so many teenagers in middle-class America. Like a rock in water, she maintained a constitutional resistance to the rich resources of love and adult presence around her. Once she became a teenager, she acted like an orphan, although she had loving parents; she acted like a refugee, although there was always a place for her to call home. She made decisions out of a palpable sense of insatiable neediness, although all of her physical needs were met. She struggled daily with social and emotional chaos of her own making; intellectually gifted, she performed far below her natural abilities in high school. She seemed unable to find a comfortable role for herself in the world, despite her family's relative stability both in the home and in the community. Both my parents worked from our home and were available for her at virtually any time. My mother was a Girl Scout leader; my father was a member of Rotary. My sister knew where to find all the adults in her life—she just did not appear to want to.
I know my sister's early years only through a dozen or so photographs that portray a busy childhood of Girl Scouting, youth athletic leagues, birthday parties, and religious celebrations. My mother was nineteen when Linda was born in the first year of her marriage. My father was a young war veteran just back from Korea. In photographs of their first decade as a family, the three of them look like a trio of friends, attending the World's Fair in New York in 1967 or a dude ranch the following year. However, almost to the day that my sister became a teenager, the climate of our house changed forever. My mother used to say that Linda went from making brownies with her to staying out all night with strangers. Her teen years began a cycle of making and then barely escaping the destructive choices of smoking, drinking, drugs, sex, and risky boyfriends on motorcycles. One sign of our family's state of crisis is that I do not have a single Kodak picture from that period, just the memory of an older sibling at war with her two young parents, a teenager whose strangely secretive and defensive personality felt like an alien in our home. Linda was twelve when my brother was born; fourteen when I arrived. This meant that my brother and I spent our childhoods sitting at the top of the stairs listening to the yelling that punctuated Linda's nearly decade-long war against my parents, the world, and herself.
In the calming twilight of those turbulent teen years, as she approached twenty-one, Linda began to come out of the fog of her adolescence. Many parents have watched their teenagers make this long-awaited transition, and my parents were as happy as any to see the impossible happening slowly before their eyes. My sister never got her act together to apply to college and therefore spent the years after high school living intermittently at home or with friends, working random jobs, and trying to find her footing. But although this young woman who had so many times come close to death in her adolescence appeared to be settling down, she tragically revisited her old habits one night, downing two drinks in one bar before driving to find an old boyfriend in another. That night she never arrived at the second destination.
Ironically, compared to the countless disastrous choices of her teen years, this choice to have two drinks and drive a few miles across town seems almost minor. Two state troopers, who slowly removed their hats at the sight of my parents for whom they had been looking all night, delivered the news that although my sister had somehow survived her disastrous adolescence, her single choice to drive while intoxicated the night before had ended her chance of living any longer. That picture of police officers ruining my parents' lives with just a handful of words is burned in my brain, and it has branded my life with a constant searching for the reasons behind my sister's inability to find meaning in her life and a stable sense of self. She did not die as a teenager, but she died as a result of the habits formed in her adolescence. While she was alive, her teenage years felt like an eternity. In the wake of her death, her adolescence was frozen into a brief and tragic enigma.
There is a small lake near my childhood home that sits by a sloping hill of granite rock. Behind a wall of trees, the face of the rocks display a collage of graffiti that reveals the secrets of spray-painting teenagers over the last four decades in my hometown. Among the cryptic words and arrow-pierced hearts, my sister's initials are tiny but clear in this well-known stomping ground for her and her teenage drinking friends. Though thickening trees make it harder to visit every year, I occasionally walk to this landmark and gaze at every contour of the letters for a glimpse into the soul of my sister on the night she branded that massive rock with her tiny initials. I stand in silence and try to hear the sounds and watch the sights of that anonymous night. Was she laughing while she wrote? Was she scared? Was she proud?
I have always been dissatisfied with both my knowledge of my sister's soul as well as my understanding of her teenage experience. The drive to understand Linda—to know her and accompany her on her tumultuous teenage journey—has led me to live and work in the presence of teenagers as an observer and a listener. I want to catch the hints my sister and all teenagers drop to see if anyone notices them fall. I have such curiosity for their words and ideas—a curiosity that I have always known was born in silent grief for my sister's brief life. I do not know what my sister would have said about her soul, or how she would have described it, but I see so many of her behaviors and struggles played out by teenagers in my life every day. When I hear them speak about the soul, at times I catch myself piecing together a definition that perhaps my sister would have woven. For years now I have been listening to teens speak about the soul, and the experience has convinced me that it is the key to unlocking their spiritual worlds. An adolescent's definition of the soul does not tell us everything about his or her spiritual life, yet for me it is the door into the sacred space of their spiritual imagination that holds every truth there is. I will never know how close I am to finding my sister's definition of the soul, but that uncertainty is a powerful motive to keep listening.
* * *
My mission in this book is to tell you what our teenagers are saying, right now, about their own lives, and give you the words they are using for their deepest thoughts and experiences. Often I sit in restaurants or cafes with other adults who are full of questions about my days in the hallways and classrooms of a typical high school. Most adults, no matter how distant from children or teenagers, never completely lose their curiosity for what young people are saying or doing. Conversations with my adult peers never fail to awaken memories of their high school days and cause them to blush or burst into smiles and laughter. For some, the whole process of schooling was a nightmare; for others, the memories are sweet and nostalgic; for most, growing up in school and at home was a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows. Some adults still relate and connect to the teenager they once were; others feel completely disconnected from that ancient adolescent self. But it never takes more than a few minutes of my stories for someone to interrupt me and pose the perennial adult questions: "How can you take teenagers so seriously? What do they know about the real world? They haven't even left home yet! They've never paid a bill, bought a car, got a good job, or earned a diploma. Their lives have barely begun. They don't know anything about real money or real love. They don't even know what they don't know."
Yes, it is a constant temptation to listen to the talk of teens and take them too literally or to forget the fact of their only recent and ongoing maturation. The best research on the teen's developing brain tells us that the prefrontal cortex (the center of complex thoughts, analytical power, and executive functions) does not even finish growing until one's early to mid-twenties. Parents and teachers cannot serve as mature mentors or engaged educators if they make the mistake of taking the talk of teens at face value. Finding the truths amid their tales requires patience, as well as humility in the face of their authentic human experiences. We must, if we are to earn the title "adult," exercise critical reflection on their expressions, however inspiring or insightful, in light of their developmental limitations. Making meaning with adolescent expressions is often an art and always a vocation.
Yet having said that, what about the quality of conversation among adults in cafes and restaurants anywhere in this country? Lean your ear toward your adult peers as they talk to each other or whisper (loudly) into their cell phones in public. Don't you hear the same kind of knee-jerk, misinformed, heated, accusatory, clueless, self-serving, and goofy statements on politics, current events, or relationships? If we are honest with ourselves, the tone and substance of many of our own conversations in the "adult" world are not that much different from those I hear in front of lockers in high school hallways. Just because our brains are capable of greater levels of thought, appreciation, creativity, virtue, and depth does not mean that the majority of adults make use of what doctors call the "high-end real estate" of the prefrontal cortex of the adult brain. Are adult conversations more reliable transcripts of truth than those of teenagers? Only on certain subjects.
I am not discrediting the knowledge and wisdom that comes with age. I spend the majority of my days talking with young people about their moral and ethical challenges and choices, and I can tell you that they need a lot of input and investment from morally mature adults if they are to survive and thrive. Young people need adults to use and share every ounce of their acquired wisdom on how to navigate a moral and spiritual life in this broken but beautiful world. Only a fool would say that an adult is no more equipped to understand themselves or their world than an adolescent. But in the area of spiritual things—of observation, experience, and reflection on the core realities of love, hope, faith, and loss in life—let us not too quickly consider the words of young people as simply naïve or childish. People of all ages have souls and therefore we all have the unfolding story of our soul to share at every age and stage of our lives with anyone willing to listen. I would be an ungrateful thief if I did not credit so many teenagers for enlarging my understanding of myself, of the world, of love, and of God. Their vision and clarity is not as strong and informed as it will be later in their lives, but I would still jump out of the way if even a small child claimed to see something falling on my head. Lack of clarity obscures truth; it does not make it impossible. Real souls have real experiences. Our souls give us all something to say and to share with everyone, as soon as we are able to start saying it.
I do encounter a small number of adults who say that they do not care what young people think about what is true or real. But it is rare to meet an adult who does not care about what young people do, in their homes or their neighborhoods. We are all affected in some way by the maturation process of teens and are therefore all invested in how young people are perceiving and participating in the world. The reality is that teenage perceptions, however narrow or flawed, will direct their thoughts, actions, and imagination. Whether it is to reach teens at the heights of their abilities or to rescue them from the depths of their depressions, we must learn the languages of their hearts. Teenagers are not only the future of our society, but they are also living, breathing souls in the present with the power to bless or destroy lives around them.
What ultimately matters to me is not how qualified teens are to make their statements about themselves or the world, or how qualified I am to interpret them. What matters to me is what matters to adolescents. If you care about the life and health of adolescents, then you know already that it is more important that young people understand that we are listening than it is that we understand what they are saying. Love does not qualify anyone to know the meaning of words, but love does justify anyone who tries to listen to another soul.
* * *
If the word "soul" did not exist, we would have to invent it in order to understand the spiritual lives of teenagers. They use the word with such force and trust that I have come to see it as theirs, conveying their deepest hopes,fears,and dreams for meaning and dignity. I remember distinctly the first time I asked one of my students to define the word "soul." The conversation was all too typical of "religious talks" with teenagers; she was a pro at letting adults in her life know by her sarcastic tone that she was no one's fool and that organized religion was a threat to her commitment to individuality and freedom. But I asked her anyway. According to that day's entry in my first-year-in-teaching journal, she said, "Religion? You mean hypocrisy, hate mongering, and money-grubbing? I'm not religious." I asked about the Bible; she thought it was "scary and irrelevant." I brought up God. "God?" she asked, raising her eyebrows. "Whose God? I don't believe in anyone else's God. I'm agnostic."
At some point, as we moved through this usual transcript of teenage talk that points out the unpopularity of religious terms with this generation of young people, she mentioned the word "soul." I cannot remember exactly how it entered our chat, but I do remember that her voice changed—she used it boldly and as a dear personal possession, as if the word "soul" lived and breathed beyond traditional doctrine or dogma. I could barely wait my turn to speak:"What do you mean by the soul?"My question brought her to silence and she stared at me. After a compassionate pause, she declared confidently, "The soul ... you know, like, your soul." She patted her chest with conviction aimed to persuade. It was more like she was trying to remind me of something rather than trying to teach me something new.
"Do you mean something religious?" I asked feebly. She jumped in—"No! The soul is bigger than religion!"—and then she launched into an animated and upbeat list of synonyms, metaphors, music lyrics, and personal stories about the word. To her, the soul was a voice, a guide, a compass, a magnet, and a container of hopes, fears, dreams, and secrets. "You can feel it," she insisted, "and it tells you stuff you need to know." Clearly she was speaking of a dear friend. The conversation about religion had been pat and lifeless, but this talk of the soul burst with creativity, levity, and freedom. The use of the word "soul" had moved this awkward chat about religion into the familiar neighborhood of her personal experience of her spiritual life and the spiritual life of the world. One word brought us to a place of conversation where she felt at home and in control of her ideas, or even excited about her lack of control of them and the transcendent way those ideas and images so gracefully took control of her. She was clearly not making up these ideas; rather, she struck me as a person in full obedience to their presence in her experience. She was telling me what it is like to have a soul.
Through her use of the word "soul," she was talking about all the spiritual aspects of her being and sharing many of the spiritual aspects of her life that I, as her teacher and mentor, needed and was honored to know. In a matter of minutes, I knew about some of her deepest fears, relationship wounds, moral values, high hopes for humanity, and aspirations for a divine presence in human life. In other words, I understood her "theological anthropology"—her concept of the spiritual resources and spiritual potential of the human person. Without question, knowing this about any person's worldview yields tremendous understanding of their view of life, meaning, and purpose. It had not occurred to me before this conversation that the quickest way to discern an adolescent's theological anthropology is simply to ask them to define the word "soul."
Excerpted from The Soul of Adolescence by PATRICIA LYONS Copyright © 2010 by Patricia Lyons. Excerpted by permission of Morehouse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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