Finding One’s Place in the World

At First Unitarian Universalist Society in Burlington, Vermont, we are wrestling through the interim interlude by which we will envision a new era of ministry and fill it with the right person or people.  A week ago yesterday, we assembled in the sanctuary after worship — without lunch — for a “listening and sharing” session which went for almost three hours with almost no one even leaving to use the restroom.  No lunch was served in advance, and yet no one left.  No Jesus appeared to multiply any loaves and fishes concealed in our garments and carryalls.  And yet, no one left until they felt everyone was satisfied.  And it was a pretty large turn-out, by either proportional or absolute measure.  Most pews were filled, so much so that some small groups had to relocate to The Parlors and Alcove.

We are invited to do it again this next Sunday, and this time, they promise “a light lunch.”  They know we will stay, and that we’ll do better work if we are not hungry.

Since I went through one of these a few years ago at King’s Chapel (my official home congregation), I begin by noting that this might be a more common part of interim work — especially, as in each of these cases, after a successful multi-decade ministry.   And in both cases, what stuck with me was the love of the society, leading people to show up and stay put despite personal discomforts.  In my own case, I took a Sunday off from my paid work in Vermont to drive down and sit through the three hour meeting, as hungry as anyone else — and then drive back.

And how did these societies articulate their motives for sitting through these meetings?  In Burlington, people spoke of the Society as a home and a family in their lives.  A place to be and grow themselves, and their children, with safety and support.  What they fear is losing the qualities that make this happen for them in this place.  And by place, they were articulate, they meant all of it — the people, the building, the worship, the music, the committees, the public witness, the professional ministries, the religious education, the administrative staff — the whole interwoven entity implied by the choice of the official name, “Society.”  And although it has a completely different theology, King’s Chapel, too, is officially a “Society,” and for the same reasons.

I contrast this with the descriptions of  disconnection in the lives of two young men who recently engaged in murders.  One brought weapons of mass destruction to a supermarket where he knew there would be still-standing civilian targets, gathered by his member of Congress for Constitutional purposes.  He might have been trying to achieve “suicide by cop,” but he certainly killed a number of innocent people whom society will miss.  And afterwards, numerous neighbors, classmates and professors noted that they expected him to explode like this, for he and his family kept to themselves, accepted no connections with anyone.

The second young shooter was written up in the New York Times I am just now reading, but dated January 2 of this new year.  His victim was not another person, but himself.  The military has not yet officially declared him a suicide, but the description of the scene and crime eliminate other conclusions.

David Senft had no such sense of place and family as we honored and gathered to protect in the sanctuaries of both these Unitarian Universalist societies.  His parents had a troubled divorce when he was five.  He lost the stepparent who was his most stable nurturer at the vulnerable moment of 18 or 19 years old — right when a person is challenged to “grow up and make their own way in the world,” rather than reach out for these stable networks.  Indeed, a UU of this age wouldn’t even know exactly whom to call for ministry in our faith.  Would it be the campus chaplain, the campus mental health team, the local congregation or the one from which they have “Come of Age” and moved on?  And if, as often happens, she or he is not in college, or not settled into it deeply enough to enter its caring networks, what then?

In any case, David Senft made the common choice of joining the military, an institution which is structured, fairly stable, and claims to have a health care system which includes mental health.  And the military, both as individuals and as a caring institution, tried to help him.  Friends even advised him not to reenlist when his first tour ended.  When he reenlisted, concerned officers and mental health officials took away his personal weapon — it was a roommate’s weapon that he used to kill himself (if that is what he did).

So why did he reenlist?  Having married a fellow soldier, and with a young son from an earlier marriage, why did he decide to put himself in a harm’s way he must have been aware of?

Where do young adults go, in this crazy world?  When post-secondary education isn’t the answer — as it wasn’t for several recent mass murderers — and the military isn’t safe — as is suggested, in this Times article, by the rising number of suicides during third and fourth deployments to active fronts — what do we offer?

A record number of young adults, not only here, but also in Western European countries, are moving back in with their parents.  They are marrying less and less, whether or not they fall in love or into bed.  In his excellent blog today, Gary Kowalski rightly points out that that anti-racism still has a significant economic underpinning.

But this young adult despair is not just for African Americans anymore, and Dr. King would be the last one to leave this unmentioned.  Unemployment goes way beyond what it does to the paycheck, and young adult unemployment has not seen such high levels in my long lifetime.  The experience of my nephews does not match mine at all, despite our common genes.  In my case, although I have sunk from what I once had, I still have an abundance of healthy networks in which I expect to survive as a spiritual and physical Self.  They have been cultivated over decades, but they began with other people’s stabilities.   Forerunners made them for me, in family, in church, in work and in education.  Yes, they had advantages from their race and ethnicity, and these advantages began by robbing others, through tools based on racism and ethnocentrism.  But my nephews have no such confidence, despite the university degrees we could give them, and even the professional training.  Law school, according to the New York Times’ current hot topic, is not what it used to be… and medical school, too, will have lowered economic expectations if we shift toward salaried, monitored, universal care.

So, white as we are, my siblings and I do not expect to pass anywhere near this much advantage to the children we have borne.  Recent social changes — rooted in economic dislocations over the last thirty years — have bled even our once-privileged societies dry.  If we are the last generation to benefit from the New Deal and Great Society, what will our young adult children have to do to keep themselves alive in any way?  And what will happen to their schoolmates, their religious peers, whose families started with, now have wound up, with fewer advantages than my family was able to grasp and hold onto for so long?

A lot of them will not see any answer.  They won’t just pick up guns.  The National Rifle Association (NRA) has got this right this time.  Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  And more of this killing is currently being done with shredded contracts than with guns.  Even if you add in knives, prescription drugs and exhaust fumes blown into the car cabin,these are not the problem.  They are the symptom of a generation being thrown into what was once a world — something we ominously now call “a planet”, and told to sink or swim, without the benefit of stable, nurturing societies by which to navigate, on which to float for rest, and by those means, eventually, return to solid ground.

Our whole country needs to gather in its various sanctuaries and name this problem out loud.  We who disdain the “bootstrap” theory must be first to meet with those who believe it, who used it — and ask them to enumerate the bootstraps that worked for them.  Then we must ask them to match up the bootstraps they see dangling toward our current young adults — not just the ones they know, but the ones who are already self-isolating or lost — and then see who is left over.  Citizens, after all, are citizens — and that’s not even counting the immigrants among us whose conduct has given them the same vested interests, and subjected their children to the same vulnerabilities. How do these folks plan to weave and extend new bootstraps for these young adults?

But we who live in privilege still — shrunk as it may be — are going to have to face what we truly have, and how it is distributed.  How did we achieve the societies in which we raised our children, and how do we pass that along?  What are the most immediate assets we can provide, not to build heaven on earth, but just to throw out a lifeline for other parents, who have no hope their children will grow up as healthy adults, must less members of a society which cares enough to keep them that way?

Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is getting lots of play this weekend, as well it should.  But his dream assumed a healthy middle class for African Americans to enter, provided they were able to do what it took to earn and hold a family-supporting job.  Where is that society now?  And how can we get it back, for all the young adults who wish that dream still applied to them?


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