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How to manage a quarter-life crisis

by
21 May 2021

The angst of twenty-somethings requires more than easy Christian answers, says Florence Gildea

istock

ANYONE who has spent time with twenty-somethings will have noticed a familiar refrain: “I don’t know what to do with my life.”

It’s the sigh that defines the quarter-life crisis — the feeling of being locked out of adult commitments, because a fulfilling job and “the one” feel perpetually out of reach, or locked into a lifestyle that feels dissatisfying and disappointing.

I know how persistent confusion about purpose can be, as “I don’t know what to do with my life” has been my lament ever since I graduated, seven years ago.

I look with deep envy at people who have had a career planned ever since childhood, when they got a toy stethoscope, fire engine, or chemistry kit. Why don’t I have a vocation like everyone else, I wonder. Did I miss a memo from heaven? Or was it not worth God clearing his throat to get my attention?

It is a problem that feels so personal, and yet is fundamentally sociological. As most young adults postpone marriage and parenthood until a decade or longer after they turn 18, there is an extended period in which they continue to question their identity, roles, and relationships.

Having followed the well-defined train tracks of school and university, during which parents and teachers offered them instruction and clear metrics of success, new graduates find themselves facing an infinite array of choice. The burden of being a success story now rests solely on their shoulders.

Yet the odds are stacked against them: combine high rates of graduate unemployment and under-employment, and sky-rocketing house prices, and it is no surprise that many twenty-somethings are querying whether they were dealt a dodgy hand. Indeed, one academic study questioning people in their thirties found that 70 per cent said that they experienced a quarter-life crisis. More recent research by LinkedIn put the figure at 72 per cent.

 

IT IS understandable to look for a quick fix when faced with this sort of angst, and perhaps it is tempting to present Christianity as a panacea.

One can decontextualise any number of verses from the prophets meant for the people of Israel, promising them an upturn in their collective fate after a national tragedy, and suggest that they are meant for us now as guarantees of individual good fortune. Add in “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” and it could well look as if clichés about clouds and silver linings, lemons and lemonade, are inscribed not just on fridge magnets, but into the fabric of the universe.

It might also be tempting, when counselling those wrestling with the apparent chaos and unfathomability of the world, to emphasise passages that present tidy laws of cause and effect governing how to land a good life. Deuteronomy and Proverbs would come up trumps: following God’s commandments leads to blessing, while disobeying them results in punishment. There is something reassuring about thinking that it all comes down to obedience and trying harder.

As long as the good life is decided by how far you push the pedal to the floor — the amount of time spent praying or in church, the number of mission trips and Bible studies — it’s all pretty simple. And people experiencing a quarter-life crisis are desperate for something straightforward.

 

THE surrounding culture knows as much. It has not passed businesses by that twenty- and thirty-somethings will invest time and money in finding their place in the world. From healing crystals to the law of attraction — with the self-help books, blog posts, and podcasts in between — there is a whole industry designed to put Polyfilla in the pits in their existential stomachs.

As luck would have it, these modern-day oracles can be compressed into bite-size listicles. Everything can be summed up in “3 ways”, “5 strategies”, “the only video you need to watch”. This is ideal for those who feel the need to prove their worth every second of the day, or to be a serious candidate for a Nobel Prize by the age of 27.

Given the exponential growth of the self-help industry, promoting Christianity in this catalogue of solutions might put bums back on pews. The fly in the ointment — or perhaps in the snake-oil — is that Christianity presents a radically different view of the problem and the solution. The terms of reference don’t match up.

It isn’t that vocation and a sense of fulfilment aren’t important from a Christian perspective. But there is something bigger than self-actualisation, personal fulfilment, and working out what you should “do with your life”, as if your job were the central reason for your existence.

Paradoxically, as Jesus taught us, the more we live for those ends, the more we will experience a kind of death. Whereas, if we put love of God and service of others above our own ego, then, somehow, we will become our true selves and be liberated from a false, smaller self.

A quarter-life crisis demands certainty. I want to feel that I am on the right track; I want demonstrable proof that it’s all going to work out in the end. Without a doubt, I want to read “I came that they may have life to the full” as “I came so they could live their best lives.”

Yet the Christian life is not one in which we will always feel “#blessed”, and the truths that Jesus asserted and asked us to live by are not necessarily tangible.

Refining fires are still excruciatingly hot. No matter how beautiful the outcome, they still burn. Saints from John of the Cross to Mother Teresa testify to the ways in which dark nights of the soul can close in, no matter how much we seek to feel God’s presence.

If the peace that Jesus gives is not as the world gives, it probably bears little resemblance to listening to Enya in a bubble bath; it may well not be measurable by our blood pressure. So, as attractive as it might seem to present Christianity as therapeutic balm for quarter-life crises for the purposes of evangelism, I don’t think Christianity “works” as a means to an end. It isn’t a tool, and Jesus certainly didn’t operate by conventional assessment criteria.

Christian equivalents to the life hacks à la Buzzfeed (“4 ways to get closer to God”; “3 tips for knowing God’s will for your life”; “Do this to find your Boaz”) seem at odds with Jesus’s mode of discipleship. Jesus didn’t leave us a Dummies’ Guide to the Kingdom of God: he spoke in parables, answered questions with other questions, and refused to be pinned down on particular policy positions.

And this leads me to think that he didn’t have the same hang-ups about efficiency as we have; and that transforming our imagination may be more important than giving us clear how-tos.

 

WHEN the writers of the epistles sought to comfort early Christians experiencing extreme persecution, they didn’t promise that, because God loved them, they could bank on just-in-the-nick-of-time rescues.

They didn’t prophesy that the Roman Empire would adopt Christianity as its official religion to signal that their agony would eventually pay off. The apostles’ message was that, because the followers of Jesus walk in the footsteps of the one who suffered even unto death and rose again, there is hope even in suffering.

That, too, is how Christianity can offer a way out of quarter-life crises, even if it does not answer them on their own terms — because, unlike me, Jesus wasn’t afraid of looking like a failure. He wasn’t paralysed by the fear of not living up to other people’s expectations, of experiencing the hot flush of shame, or of being rejected.

A way of life centred on the cross and resurrection is exactly what people like me need, because it changes the paradigm completely. It takes the burden off the self, and invites the individual into something infinitely grander. The meaning of our lives is no longer dependent on our achievements or performance, because more important than our individual journey is the one that all creation is on.

That creates room, and grace, for failures and imperfections. None of us can fulfil our true potential in isolation from the redemption of all things, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that the world is not as it should be and nor are we.

So, please, don’t try to fix my quarter-life crisis. Don’t give me a spiritual self-improvement programme or encourage me to see prayer as a means of ensuring that everything lands sunny-side-up. Don’t make God out to be my biggest fan, who is going to sign off on all my hopes and dreams.

I might want to be told that I’ll get a life worthy of a feel-good Hollywood movie, but what I need is to be invited into an upside-down world in which failure makes everything possible, and even death is not the end.

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