Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ask the Big Questions and Fail More

On Saturday I participated in William and Mary's annual Service of Celebration.  It is a multi-faith service that offers a time of worship during the busy commencement weekend. The speaker this year was Varun Soni, the Dean of Religious Life at University of Southern California and he is Hindu.  It was the first time in William and Mary's history that the speaker was not either Christian or Jewish.

Dean Soni talked about the Millennial generation, the generational cohort that the college graduates are a part of as the most multicultural and most multi-faith.  He talked about the opportunity provided by the fact that so many Millennials are among the "nones" - those not affiliated with any particular religious faith.  This attitude of opportunity, rather than fear or despair, resonates with me.  After many years and three different religious affiliations I understand why so many young people are choosing not to affiliate 

Dean Soni's talk focused on Living an Authentic Life.  It is a question deeply related to the question of discernment and vocation which I have been wrestling with and contemplating for most of my life since college.  What is it I am called to do?  How can I best serve the world along with taking care of myself and my family?  What are my gifts and where will they be best used?  I am going to focus on only two of Dean Soni's points - the asking the big questions and failing more.

Asking the big questions - who am I?  What is my purpose?  How am I to live? These are central spiritual questions.  They are questions we wrestle with our whole lives since the answer changes as our life unfolds.  They also cannot be simply answered by means of our faith traditions and by that I mean that our faith traditions can give us tools, examples of how others have answered these questions and this can be helpful but each generation and each person is called to wrestle with these questions and find our own answers.  The answers to these questions will hopefully be translated into the ways we live our lives for these are not solely intellectual questions but questions of heart, questions of authenticity.  If who you say you are is a person of integrity but then you do not act that way in your career then your life is not authentic.  They are also not solely individual questions but communal ones as well.  How are we as Americans in the year 2013 called to live?  What sort of nation will we be?  They are questions faith communities must ask as well.  What does it mean to be Unitarian Universalist?

Many of our faith communities including UU ones are asking these questions. As membership stagnates or declines, as young people seek and create their own communities, change is called for.  We can see the tensions of this throughout American religion.  Some are saying that what is needed is a new orthodoxy  a return of a certain strictness much like what Pope Benedict practiced.  He was willing to accept fewer people in church for a strict orthodoxy and adherence to church teachings particularly teachings around sexuality.  Others see a return to orthodoxy as a way to keep or draw back in members - that people left because of the lack of orthodoxy  However this seems to fly in the face of evidence such as from the Barna Group and You Lost Me by David Kinnaman that it was a rigid adherence to certain doctrines or beliefs, particularly around questions of sexuality, that made young people leave in the first place.  On the other hand there are more hopeful people like Diane Butler Bass who see this time as presenting new opportunity.  That it is a time of renewal and revitalization but that in order to get there the old needs to die.  I am in the more hopeful branch. I am inspired by the multi-faith possibilities.  I want to be part of this movement to explore spirituality and spiritual questions authentically.  The Millennials are leading the way on this by getting involved with Interfaith Youth Corp and the President's Interfaith Service Challenge.  They are putting their faith into action and they are sharing what they are discovering with one another.

This is part of why I love campus ministry - there is so much possibility to explore faith, service and the big questions.  It is because it was as a young adult that I began to seriously reflect and wrestle with my faith and these big questions.  I was so blessed to have my questions welcomed and to find support within the campus ministry at Georgetown.  My experience was that I was given not just permission but an invitation to question, to struggle, to wrestle.  I am so grateful for that.  I experienced it in a similar way at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley where I was welcomed and supported. I had a spiritual director, I went on two silent retreats and attended community Mass as often as I could.  It was a time of revisiting many of the questions I asked at Georgetown and a deepening of my own faith and self-understanding.  Now I want to serve by using my gifts to support others in their spiritual journey.

One of the other points Dean Soni made was challenging. He called upon the graduates to fail more. Using sports as a metaphor he talked about the most successful athletes were also the ones that the highest number of missed shots or failed attempts. Their success was about persevering in the effort, about taking risks about doing something rather than nothing.  I imagine I was not the only one in that room challenged by this statement.  As one who was raised with a fair amount of privilege and expectation of success, the message of my childhood was that failure was not OK, not even average was OK - I was expected to be above average.  The message of my upbringing was to be successful in high school to get into a good college and then onto a successful career.  When I brought home grades that were only average, I would be lectured about how I could do so much better.  That I was so gifted and smart and that I needed to just do better.  It was all about having the right answer, getting the right grades. Now I know that my family had the very best of intentions. They only wanted the best, they saw my potential and wanted me to live into it.  I know I as a parent have done this as well.  Yet one of the unintended after affects is that I am often paralyzed by a fear of failing.  What if it doesn't work?  What if I get it wrong?  Or maybe the middle of life question - did I just make a whole mistake of my life?  Where did I go wrong that I find myself here at this time?

I struggle with risking failure, with risking period.  I want a sure thing, I want a guarantee that it will all turn out OK   Yet I know that in order for it to work out, I need to try.  I need to risk.  I often reflect on the Marianne Williamson quote that it is not failure we fear but our own greatness.  Maybe that is true. Maybe what feels like a fear of failure is really about what would happen if I really just put me, all of me, not hidden under a basket or fearing that someone will be offended, out there? What if I was really successful and really claimed my gifts?  Now I have to say that this has gone somewhat easier as I have gotten older.  I am more fed up with deferring to others. I am more willing to claim my own place and my own knowledge.  I am more willing to accept with grace the thanks and praise I receive for my work.  Since I know more about who I am and what my gifts are, it is somewhat easier now to understand what will work and won't for me.  There is a freedom in knowing that I can't just do anything or be anything.  I am someone particular, with particular gifts and particular limitations.  My life circumstances do limit what I can and cannot do and there is a gift with those limits.  Unlimited choices are too much, too overwhelming.

Yet I wonder is there a way to not get so lost in the journey to the authentic self.  I wonder is there a way to inspire and mentor our young people in ways that help them figure out who they are sooner, rather than waiting until the middle of their lives to find out?  Is there something in this generation that is growing up in a more diverse - in all ways diverse, world that will allow them to not take ten or twenty years to figure out who they truly are?  If not this generation than what about the ones right behind them, ones like my daughter who is just on the cusp of the Millennial generation - will her cohorts figure this out sooner?  Can we as adults, mentor and nurture the journey? One of my favorite antidotes from Parker Palmer is how he started a letter to his granddaughter about what he saw in her from the very beginning of her life.  He was keeping a record to give to her when she was older, that she might sooner discover her authentic self then he himself did. I see in my own daughter, a greater capacity for risk hopefully because we have tried to instill in her the knowledge and feeling that she will be loved no matter how well she does; that it is more important that she explores what calls to her, that she tries to follow her passions even if it does not work out; and that ultimately struggling with the big questions remembering that how she answers them should be congruent with how she lives. Perhaps in watching and engaging with my own child and her journey, I myself am returning to my own soul, my own authentic life.

So let's ask the big questions, fail more and live a truly authentic life!