The Young Adult in All of Us

a sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove, co-minister
June 1, 2003

I like to say that I went to college in three decades, which is true. I started haltingly in 1969, fumbled around at it some more in the early 70s, and finally graduated in 82. The third time was the charm. I was really ready to apply myself by that time and did pretty well, so I was up for some awards, including the kind where some group wants to put your name and a paragraph about you in a big book and then charge you 40 bucks for it so you can point to it on your bookshelf.

One of those come-ons was for a volume called "Outstanding Young Men of America"—but I was over 30 when I got the "invitation" to join these prestigious ranks. I felt like and was an adult returning to college (more than a decade after first matriculating). I was then surrounded by really "young men," so I wondered how I could still be eligible for such an award. Turns out the cut-off age for "Outstanding Young Men" was 35. So I figured, what the heck—I sent 'em a blurb and wha'd'ya know, I got in. (Big surprise.) But I refused to pay the 40 bucks. (Although I think my dad may have.)

I tell you this small story only to help notice that 35 is also the upper limit for what Unitarian Universalism calls "young adults." (The definitive age range is usually described as 18–35.) And this cohort is getting some good attention these days, partly out of a growing commitment on the part of many UU elders to be more inclusive of them in our collective religious life, and partly because a growing number of leaders from within that age range are stirring and impacting our movement in encouraging ways.

So I want to honor all the young adults among us this morning, and if you're within that 18 through 35 age range, please stand up for a moment. [A handful rise.] Thank you for being here!

Now anyone with us this morning who is looking ahead to their young adulthood is welcome to take notes, as I honor your future path. And I also want to honor the "young adult" that still lives in the rest of us elders.

If you are over age 35, let me make a personal inquiry here. Raise your hand if you would say that your young adult years were influential in making you who you are today. [Most raise a hand.] Okay, and now keep your hands up if you think you can explain why this young adult period was so influential for you. [About half the hands go down.] Well, by the end of my presentation this morning I hope that most of you will have an even greater awareness of just how it is you are a reflection of your young adult era, and I invite you to ask each other about it afterward.

In almost everyone's life, important personal qualities that enrich—or plague—our lifelong journey take root in and around the third decade of our life: our 20s, roughly. In ways we don’t always recognize, the issues that emerge in our young adult years stay with us and often animate us all the way to the grave.

It is a very different task we face after leaving adolescence, an era which is, of course, quite formative in its own ways. But, in an oversimplified nutshell, the developmental quest of the young adult becomes less about breaking away from parents and more about the external challenges and inner resources that will initiate a new level of self-awareness, a deeper relationship with one's own being and the wider world.

For me, the deeper value I get from life really began to take shape in my late 20s, and I will use some examples from my own story to help portray five dynamic elements of the young adult quest. These are five primary, perhaps universal aspects of young adulthood that I think shine like beacons, urging us into increasing maturity.

To help us track them more visually, I will locate these five beacons in the compass points of the four cardinal directions plus a center point, the hub. These are stations to represent five quests of the young adult, as I see them. And each stop along this wheel's edge has both a goal and a danger. See if you recognize some familiar themes in any of these illuminations…


First, in the East, where the sun rises, would be the quest for Identity. After high school we are highly (if sometimes slowly) engaged in establishing an emerging adult identity. There is some significant continuity with our adolescent path, of course, as we spread and flap new wings, but the young adult quest ups the ante considerably, most notably because we are now able to choose for ourselves, in a big way.

To forge a reliable sense of personal identity in the suddenly wider world encountered by young adults, we look for tests, challenges, experiments that teach us about ourselves. It used to be, in earlier cultures, that adolescents were initiated into adulthood by their elders, often without any choice. With much less of that community-based ritual available to young adults today (unfortunately, I believe), we now usually have to go looking for it ourselves, because we intuitively know that rising to meet new challenges is how we grow.

A danger in this is that we might choose ways to test our emerging identity that are ultimately or at least regrettably destructive, either to ourselves or to others. One educator [Sharon Parks] who has written extensively about "The Critical Years" of young adulthood [Harper & Row, 1986] helps me understand the danger of this quest for an emerging identity when she says that experimentation indicates a "vulnerable soul being fought for." We are inherently vulnerable as young adults, although of course we may not show this overtly.

Nonetheless, our emerging identity is shaped by our responses to the rush of new stimuli—in the college world, the work environment, new social settings, etc. To almost any and all of this we bring a new-found power to choose, which can include choosing to go toward or away from things. As a new young adult, one aspect of choice that I activated—just as soon as I could get out of the house—was to travel. I just couldn’t seem to stay put as I dropped out of two colleges in a row, each time to go on cross-country adventures that taught me a whole lot about who I was.

Tests and challenges abounded on the road. For my first four years out of high school, I never lived anywhere for more than three months. My emerging identity was that of a continually uprooted explorer, as I eagerly began a quest to visit every state in the union, hitch-hiking a lot of the way.


My willing wanderlust leads me to the second element of the young adult quest, a beacon in the South, when the sun is high in the sky, spreading warmth over the landscape, and young adults follow their emerging identity to uncover the Passions that fire their lives. One of my early passions was to scratch the persistent travel itch.

Where we go in our lives and why we do what we do often (hopefully!) result largely from our passion for various parts of our own being and our world. Passion directs us. Passion activates us. Passion describes us. It is an essential force of our lives—and it begins to focus its power during our 20s. Passion is a wonderful if often mysterious activity of intuitive movement, including a lot more than just romantic allure. And it drives the young adult onward into exploration and discovery—or not!

The danger that shadows one's passion during this period is ambivalence, which is not always a bad thing, to be sure, but when extreme it can discourage and debilitate. Young adults can be very ambivalent about much of life's menu and agenda, at times drifting into a lethargy that can have unhappy consequences. For me, I could have cared less about a career for much of my young adulthood. Make some money, sure. But a career? Eh. (This ambivalence did not come back to haunt me in the long run, happily, but with just a slightly different turn here or there, it sure could have.)

Meanwhile, also on a partial list of my young adult passions would be: my generation's music; photography (although I was ambivalent about pursuing it professionally); the full moon (I invented rituals to celebrate its return); and community— mostly because my hunger for it went thoroughly unsatisfied after I stopped working at the UU summer camp that had shown me what inspiring community life looked like.

Out of our young adult passions can rise a dream that may be obscured by various other pursuits for some years, and yet still linger in the heart. For me, my dream of living in an intentional community, fired by the passions of my young adulthood, still nibbles at my soul, as I explore, say, the option of co-housing. The same passion eventually urged me to consider the ministry of congregational community-building.


These noble energies segue smoothly into the next quest, the beacon of the West, where the sun sets, and as we exhale into a time of reflection the emerging young adult rides fiery passion into the softer glow of Idealism. During our 20s, we listen for voices that invite us into idealistic postures as we strengthen a set of values that will guide us into the future. The quest is to find whatever inspires our increasingly sophisticated need to trust, and we lift ourselves up with those visions.

Young adults can be notoriously idealistic. And though some of those postures may well fade under the pressures of time and reality, others probably solidify into life-long anchors of value. I can think of one of each kind in my evolution. I was rather rigidly idealistic as a new young adult and upset at (among other things!) the assumptions that are made by this culture based entirely on age, particularly around the age marker called 18. This may have been triggered by the historical fact that just as I was about to turn the magical corner called 21, the legal age was lowered to 18, and suddenly my younger sister could vote and drink, while I had been forced to wait all those years!

My righteous position was that no one should be judged so arbitrarily by a number that reflects only chronological age. I had noticed that people clearly mature at different rates, so I felt that deciding or allowing anything based on one's annual number was ludicrous. My overly idealistic response to this obvious injustice was to refuse to celebrate birthdays—my own or anyone else's—for four or five of my early young adult years. It was awkward, to be sure—but highly principled, yesiree! (I finally came to see that birthdays are just another excuse to celebrate each other, and there can’t be too much of that.)

Meanwhile, an ideal that was born in me during those young adult years and continues to fester is my inclination to avoid and oppose materialism. Something of the counter-culture got inside me then, and I am still not a very good consumer. But I sure can recycle!

As for the danger accompanying this aspect, it has to do with another reality that often confronts the idealistic young adult. Things are just not always as clear and simple, as cut-and-dried as we might like them to be. Attached to maturity usually rides complexity, often bearing a healthy dose of paradox—which now sounds like a new pharmaceutical (ah, Paradox), but is actually an ancient and infernal device. Two opposite truths can sometimes coexist, which can be severely distressing to idealists.

I've tried to learn to appreciate paradox, but the danger is that such awareness can instead make one overly cynical and nihilistic, unable to muster any ideals, feeling like nothing makes sense or matters anyway. I remember trying vainly to resolve some unseemly complexities that I encountered in my young adulthood, such as how to reconcile the overall abundance of our culture with the harsh deprivations endured by so many people elsewhere, and why otherwise smart people would engage in obviously self-destructive behaviors.

There were periods in my 20s when I was extremely distressed, as my near-sighted idealism bumped up against new awareness of the absurdities of the human condition. I guess I went on to develop apparently effective ways of suppressing, perhaps numbing this particular raw nerve, but every now and then it gets exposed again and either challenges my still active idealistic tendencies or draws me down to some depths I care not to remember.


But let's move along before we sink into the meaningless sunset. In the North, while people hunker down to Earth as the sun shines elsewhere, we find the fourth aspect of the young adult quest: a longing for Connection, opportunities where we can apply the idealistic passions of our emerging identity, usually in relationship with others, one-on-one and in bundles. Cut loose from adolescent moorings, young adults have to seek new places to belong and be loved, as we watch our familiar old touchstones change—or, often more accurately, as we change in relation to our old touchstones.

Myriad beacons invite the young adult into intriguing relationships, as we explore both intimate connections and various group energies. But this also often provides a steady diet of disappointment, which highlights the ever-present and all-but-unavoidable danger here: loneliness.

Even as we might hunger for connection and seek salvation in crowds, we can at the very same time feel cut off and isolated, with few resources to reach out and find the connections that we sense will satisfy us. Romantic, communal, networking connections can be elusive for many young adults, and the subsequent loneliness and self-doubt can get downright oppressive. Transitions come fast and furious, often short-circuiting any growing connections and adding to the loneliness.

In my young adult searching for connection, I was obsessed with finding a place where I felt I belonged. This was certainly a factor in my itch to travel, to find a geographic solution to my hunger. After growing up in one UU church community, with a decade of great summers at a UU camp (two places where I was deeply connected), I no longer had these moorings. I was cut loose, floating, lonely.

But eventually, as often is the case, I discovered I just needed to click my heels and return to a relatively familiar landscape, although now coming back as a very different person —and of course more highly evolved. Toward the end of my young adulthood, I happily reconnected with UUism and even found a path into ministry, both of which have given me a strong sense of belonging, indeed.

But there is still an abiding loneliness, as there is for everyone, I suspect. It is an ironic companion on our human journey. It reminds us that some sort of suffering is everyone's lot, and, each in our own way, we find resources to deal with whatever suffering comes our way.

Some of those personal resources likely first developed in our young adult years and, hopefully, the connections provided by such experiences have deepened since then. I think of some of my longtime friends, with whom I shared powerful young adult moments, and how hard I've tried to hold onto them, because they are significant resources for me. New friends are important, too, but there's no substitute for the old friends who can stay current in your life.


And this steers me into the Center of the wheel, to my last stop on this tour of young adult quests. At the core of all this personal exploration and evolution, at the heart of the drive for identity, passion, idealism and connection is a beacon that rises directly in front of the young adult, and stays just ahead of us from then on. It's the call to find and make Meaning for our lives.

We do this with varying degrees of awareness and intention, but make no mistake, we do it all the time, whether we would even admit it or not, whether we even recognize it as such. Making meaning is what we do at every turn, especially during transitions and rituals…in the aftermath of losses, failures and disappointments…when we feed our hungers and passions. We make meaning out of the hand we're dealt, the experiences we stumble upon, the ambitions we embody. At our core, our center, we are meaning-making creatures.

And as young adults, when we're relatively new at this job and often a bit clumsy with the tools and the language, it can be a demanding path. Especially so if there are no mentors or trusted guides to help sort out all the swirling issues that fly around in the spin cycle that can be young adulthood. Friends and companions to fall back on are the most common resource young adults have. Older mentors are often sadly few and far between.

And if we're lucky, we can do some good, productive meaning-making before we get caught up in the added rigors of raising a family and/or establishing a career. These two pursuits also contribute great meaning to our lives, to be sure, but they can require so much attention that they might obscure other important meaning-making activities. Thus, for some people, the postponed efforts at making meaning can reappear, sometimes suddenly, a bit later, say, during what's fondly called mid-life.

I may have been lucky to have my mid-life crisis as a 27-year-old young adult, when my first marriage fell apart and I was spinning my wheels, both figuratively and literally. On a solo drive cross-country, in a haze of painful transition, I uncovered for myself a saving philosophy that quickly became a cornerstone of the rest of my life, which it still is. As I reflected on the tattered shreds of my previous realm, I suddenly found great comfort and guidance in the concept of Balance as a profoundly ubiquitous force in the universe and in my personal life.

The implications of an all-pervasive Balance helped me make meaning out of so much that had been fuzzy before. I could actually feel my world stabilize and focus. While still motoring straight ahead, I turned a corner. That extended moment of centering realization—with pavement flying by underneath my feet and new light bulbs coming on in my head—was one of a small handful of huge turning points in my life.

…Which helps me conclude this tour with the reminder that all the general aspects I've described and attributed to the young adult quest are also embedded in us older adults. We may well become less impetuous as we age, but we can still hear inside us the voices of vulnerability, ambivalence, cynicism, and loneliness—hopefully faint voices, but recognizable nonetheless. And we still seek to strengthen our authentic identity, as we enjoy the passions that animate us, deepen an idealism we can trust, and build reassuring connections—all of which assist us in making meaning out of our existence.

These goals and dangers help make us who we are. We often add course corrections or wholesale changes as we go along our paths, but we can also recognize many seeds that were planted during our young adult years.

And finally, I want to invite your consideration of what all this means for us sitting here, as a congregation. If we, as Paint Branch UU Church, honor both the general goals and the dangers of young adulthood as well as the specific paths of specific young adults among us, do we want to offer anything more supportive to the current and future generations of UU young adults?

It has been said that the test of any culture is its ability to receive its young adults. How would you judge our local success at this? I've heard a description of congregations that are effective in this ministry as "safe holding environments" for young adults to center in as they journey in and out of various transitions. What would that look like here if Paint Branch were to be more of such an environment?

Three decades ago, when I graduated high school and was cut loose from my familiar UU moorings, there was virtually no young adult community to catch me, and I floundered through much of my 20s, rarely venturing anywhere near a UU church. I'm very happy to note how much that situation has changed for 21st century UU young adults. Now there is a very active UU Young Adult Network and emerging campus ministries and young adult groups in more and more congregations and regions.

There's a healthy wave building, which is a very good sign for our movement. And it is very much worth our support. Young adults are a vital presence among us; they contribute their great gifts and help us to remember the vitalizing images that inform our own journeys, regardless how far away we are from those years ourselves. I honor both those of you who are currently young adults and those formative years that so shaped others of us who are ahead of you on the curve of life.

To us elders centered in congregational life, it may feel like UU young adults are often out of sight/out of mind. This would be neglectful not only of them, but also of the young adult that still lives in and animates all of us, and it would deny exciting possibilities for inclusion. "Wonders Still the World Shall Witness…where today we plant the seed" [hymn #139]. May the compass of our present point us toward a fulfilling future for all ages when any gap* is filled with rich relationships.

*(Reference to the UUA's "Mind the Gap" Campaign, to raise funds for the support of youth and young adult ministry, which was done in a special collection after this sermon.

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