Late Adolescence and the Need for Meaning, Part 1

April 22, 2021

“The young know they are wretched, for they are full of the truthless ideals which have been instilled in them, and each time they come in contact with the real they are bruised and wounded….They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life.”
— Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

“The secret is that there is no secret. That is what we really wish to keep from our kids, and its suppression is the true collusion of adulthood, the pact we make, the Talmud we protect.”
— Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin

In adolescence or young adulthood, our children confront the big questions of meaning. As the quotes above illustrate, youth must come to terms with the disappearance of mystery that accompanies coming of age. I remember a phone conversation with a friend who had been a passionate student of French language and culture in college. A year or two after graduation, she found herself ordering office supplies and scheduling meetings at a small firm that imported French goods. I still recall the deep sense of betrayal she expressed. “In college, we explored these incredibly fascinating ideas, and now there’s no place for that.” And it wasn’t just that her entry level job was unsatisfying. It was that she perceived that adulthood was an “arid and precipitous country” that must be crossed. We had been fooled. The adults had made false promises that life might be full of adventure and meaning, when really it was about trying to pay the bills.

Perhaps nowhere is this theme more poignantly explored than in the 1967 film “The Graduate.” As the film opens, Benjamin Braddock has just graduated from college and come home to California for the summer. While his parents boast to their friends about his academic achievements, Ben is lost, staring into a future that is as meaningless and banal as “plastics.” That the high-brow pursuits of college become meaningless nothings is underscored when Ben attempts to talk to Mrs. Robinson about art, but she declares she is not interested in the subject. Later, he asks her what she studied in college. “Art,” she replies.

Benjamin’s sense of alienation from himself and the hollow lives of the adults around him is strikingly portrayed in the scuba scene which marks his 21st birthday – his official entry into adulthood.

Feeling lost and adrift, Benjamin looks to the adults around him and realizes that they have never figured it out either. Their lives are superficial and devoid of purpose. So too, Maugham’s protagonist returns from abroad as a young man and is “appalled” at the waste of life that he finds when he greets his aunt and uncle. “They had done nothing, and when they went it would be just as if they had never been.”

For some young people, disillusionment sparks a crisis that can result in depression, acting out, or underachieving. If young people feel dread or despair as they face into the future, they may resign themselves to meaninglessness, becoming bitter and hopeless. Or they may escape into numbing addictions, attempting to fill the emptiness with alcohol, television, or other distractions.

When youth reach the point where they peer into their grown-up futures and try to discern therein a path of meaning, they look to their parents and other adults to see whether we might have discovered some answer. If they can see that we have successfully wrestled with the issue of meaning, we can be a hopeful example to them. If on the other hand, we have deferred or avoided the question of meaning, our children’s quest may be a lonelier one. If being a parent has been the sole thing from which we have derived meaning, our children may feel this as a significant burden as they confront their futures.

Therefore, our children’s adolescence or early adulthood – which in many cases corresponds to our own midlife – may stir up our own unresolved questions about our place and purpose. This is an opportunity for us to do our own work at a critical time in our lives – and our children’s. How we as parents influence our children’s search for meaning is a theme that is explored in the Grimm’s fairy tale “The Water of Life,” which I will discuss in part 2 of this post.

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