My daughter recently graduated from college. During the graduation ceremony, the senior class speaker offered a rather confusing, rambling speech interjected with giggles (she seemed very nervous). Given the prestige of this particular college, I was a little taken aback by the poor quality of the speech. I’m not sure what she was trying to convey, but I noticed that she referenced “mental health” several times. This is something I’ve observed from my own daughter and her friends—the open and public sharing of mental health concerns and expectations.
Certainly, mental and emotional health and wellbeing are important, vital to one’s overall wellbeing. And, it’s a good thing that this concept has been taken out of where it was once kept, in the private sphere, and given some public space.
Yet, I can’t help but feel a little unsettled by the ways through which this concept is expressed and referenced, and the seemingly easy dismissal of avenues to wellbeing from the past—like religion.
A couple of years ago, when my daughter was going through a particularly difficult episode in her life that involved medical and educational issues, I suggested that she try religion. She has, for a number of years, professed herself to be an atheist, although willing, from time to time, to grace Old South Church with her presence when she’s home. She has also, and I’m very thankful for this, not made a public display while at church to demonstrate her lack of affinity for the church, its theology and traditions. She may sit with a frown on her face and she doesn’t appear to participate much, but she’s there and respectful about the experience. But it’s clear enough that she’s not especially fond of Christianity, at least not the Congregational/United Church of Christ variety.
When she was going through that difficult patch, I tried to suggest that she might consider another form of religion or religious practice. After all, there are plenty of choices, and plenty of subsets within various religions. Perhaps one of them could offer her a place/space through which she could explore and discover a sense of peace and purpose, a stronger sense of herself and her inner resilience. She gave me one of those “oh mother” looks, like I was suggesting something completely outrageous.
When I was her age, religion was vitally important to me and my sense of wellbeing. I experienced many difficulties on my path through adolescence and young adulthood (and certainly through my adulthood). My Christian faith always offered a place of peace, a sense of belonging (especially when I felt like I belonged nowhere else), and an assurance of love and hope. My faith both nurtured me and challenged me. It helped me feel that I was a beloved child of God, and that my life had purpose and meaning. All of that is still true today.
But, my daughter and her peers appear to reject such paths to wellbeing. For most of her friends, it may be a little more understandable to reject religious practice since their parents (and perhaps grandparents) rejected religion long ago. And with all of the terrible religiously related headlines, it may be no wonder that religion is not even considered in relationship to wellbeing.
Despite the problems, religious traditions generally offer (much of the time, anyway) ready-made pieces for assembling a structure for understanding oneself, one’s place in the world and one’s connections to others. The path to emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing doesn’t need to be completely re-invented over and over again. Religious traditions are far from perfect, I realize, and there are aspects of religious practice that have damaged many people. But, religion is not all bad and, in fact, can be very helpful.
As a mother of someone poised at such a significant moment in life, in stepping out into the realm of adulthood, I worry about my child’s lack of a spiritual safety net—and her friends as well. It’s not easy becoming an adult, and seems even more fraught now. There’s plenty to deal with in setting a path forward. While friends and family can offer love and support, it’s really one’s own inner life that provides that necessary foundation for wellbeing—no matter the path of employment, education, etc. Religious and spiritual practice doesn’t guarantee wellbeing, that’s for sure, but it is through such traditions that countless people have discovered deep and abiding meaning for their lives. It’s too bad that the whole enterprise seems to be in the process of being heaved away, especially without a real sense of a sufficient replacement.