So maybe you’re facing some major life changes as you sit down to read this. Maybe you are graduating from high school or college (yes, some folks that age read things from their church). Maybe your child is going off to school and you’re facing that Empty Nest you’ve heard so much about. Maybe you have two leaving at the same time! Maybe you’re getting ready to move this summer. Maybe you or your children are changing schools next year and wondering what that will be like. Spring brings a new season of growth and just watching things bloom reminds us that, no matter our age or station, things are moving forward. Spring symbolizes change. It’s all exciting. And downright frightening at the same time.
Who will I be when this next change happens? That’s a huge question that faces us so many times in life. One of the more traumatic times for us in our young adult years is when we realize we have to go out into the “real world.” No more school routine. No more living at home. No more familiar nest. The nest pushes us out and we start looking for employment, moving and establishing our own homes, figuring out all those things that have been figured out for us for our whole lives. A few of my college friends, when we were finishing up our last semester, went into full panic mode. A group of them decided they had to have one last fling. Backpacking was their answer. A few went out west. Another group went to Europe. They weren’t quite ready to “settle down” as they said, though, as I moved into a $100 month duplex and looked for a job, it didn’t feel like settling down. All of us began to deal, in a new way, with the matter of who we wanted to be and who we were without an identity being provided for us.
The late 20s are big identity crisis years. Approaching 30 we begin to realize we’re really adults and, not only do we provide for ourselves, we’re called to make a contribution to society. That’s when most make family planning decisions. Some decide to have children. Some decide that’s not what they want to do. Careers are taking shape and that’s a shaky ride for most. Hardly anyone goes to work with a company at 22 anymore and stays there until retirement. By 30 most have already had a few different jobs and are still figuring out what they want to do.
When children come, they shift our perspectives. Everything seems different. We have someone dependent on us. Not only do our cars and houses and lifestyles change dramatically with all the things children need, our whole approach to life changes. We go without sleep. We wonder about money. Someone is always sick. And then the activities start. We get caught up with ballparks and fields, gyms and clubs, practices and games. Too much of that is keeping up with the Joneses but most of it begins with a desire to offer our children opportunities.
And then it happens. Children leave. Of all the crises a single parent or married couple faces, this is the biggest one for most. Those children who we have spent so much time and energy with move along and parents have to adjust. There are enough marriages that fall apart at that point to scare every married couple. Many marriages reach a new depth of intimacy and recommitment. But both scenarios bring big identity questions. Who am I now that my children aren’t the most important thing? Those who start that work earlier than graduation have a leg up, that’s for sure.
Later there might be midlife crises, career shifts, spiritual awakenings, health scares, deaths of family members, retirement, aging parents, downsizing from family homes, moving into assisted living, facing our own deaths. Maybe we think life is supposed to be smooth and steady but I don’t know anyone whose life really is.
All these shifts that life throws at us invite us to figure out who we are. We spend much of life identifying who we are as we are defined by something outside ourselves: our parents, our school, our activities, our children, their activities, their school, our jobs, our lifestyles, our accomplishments, our spouses. Eventually all of those things shift and the question lingers, is presented more and more starkly: who am I?
The question is a lifelong question. There’s no one answer that lasts all of life. Self-discovery is daily work that takes all our days. In some ways who we are changes with the seasons of life. Maybe we just keep seeing different layers as they are peeled back.
Being quiet and meditative helps. Being honest is a must. Having a community to share your journey is good. The question of identity ultimately takes us further than self-acceptance. As we get deeper into self-acceptance we come to develop an appreciation of that gentle force in life that always holds us up. Our inner questions lead us to God, a higher power, that which is greater than us. Our inner questions lead us to love.
So maybe you’re facing a really big change. Dig into it. Don’t look for a way out. All that you desire is calling out to you. This is the work God gives to each of us.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.