This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/15/16 as part of our annual Bridging service recognizing our Senior Youth’s transition into adulthood.
Our annual Bridging service always makes me think about growing up and changing times. Over the years, I’ve noticed how we all have someone in our lives who will always see us as the same person they knew so many years ago. You all know the phenomenon. You’ve got a sibling who will always see you as the controlling type. Or you have a daughter who will always see you as the annoying mom. Maybe you’re the happy type and some friends have a hard time recognizing when you’re in pain. Who here has parents who still see them as mostly irresponsible and totally uptight? (You all have diplomatic immunity right now, so parents this one doesn’t count against them.) Who here has children who still think their parents haven’t a clue? (see turn about is fair play.)
Earlier in our service, Starr spoke about the story of the “Hero’s Journey.” Stories are powerful and informative; sometimes they lead us forward and sometimes they get in our way. Starr spoke about the positive kind of stories; I want to talk about the ones that aren’t so positive, even if we sometimes think they are. We have two competing stories in our society. “If you dream big enough, you can change everything in your life.” The second pops up in dating advice when things go sour, “No one ever really changes.” We sometimes flip back and forth between those two when we want to hear a different answer. Both are true in their own way, or we wouldn’t repeat them as much as we do. But both are also not quite right.
For the first – dreaming big enough – think about school. The story goes like this: If you work hard enough you can get into a great school, and a whole lot of opportunities can open up for you. But sometimes dreaming big isn’t about getting into the great school, it’s about stepping away for a time from how things are usually done. It can be about taking the time away from the crazy pace and reflecting on the life you want to make. What is it these days – starting most seriously in 7th grade or 8th grade – test after test that determines compliance with national data points rather than personalized teacher goals? Our Coming of Age youth feel the pressure, and many of our parents don’t like it, and many of our teachers think it has the opposite impact than intended.
And by 16 you’ve got pressure to decide what you’ll study as an adult – if you take the path of college – that may or may not determine your first career. The story goes: If you dream big enough, you can change everything in your life… just make sure that you start planning it by the time you’re 12. If you can’t hear the italics in my voice from your seats, know that that’s kind of fantastical thinking. At the age of 12 you’re not going to know what you want to do with the rest of your life, so take a deep breath, and know that it’s ok.
To our Seniors graduating High School this year, as an adult you can always decide to do things differently. Sometimes you’ll have repercussions for the choice you make though. Here’s a secret I’m going to let you in on right now. Even if when the time comes to make that kind of life-changing decision, you decide not to do things differently, there are still repercussions. That’s the great lesson of adulthood – you can’t get away from it. You can change your major 7 times like I did, and still be fine. (environmental science, teaching, English, anthropology, archaeology, religion, urban planning and then (finally) onto seminary.) You can drop out of college, like I did, and pick up the pieces later. Or you can delay college, and take the time to figure out what you need to do without the pressure of high cost tuition till you know what your heart wants. And your heart may change over time – in fact it likely will.
That’s the part of cliche dating advice, “No one ever really changes,” that’s a bit off. A lot of people actually change quite a bit over time. We just don’t always see it over the short-term. It’s why some of us will always be seen as the controlling sibling, or the clueless parent, or the irresponsible child. Changing bits at a time are often hard to see, and families tend toward stasis … acting the way we always acted …. having the same fights we’ve always had. (Does that happen also in congregational life? Do we have stories we tell over and over again that are only felt because we keep telling the false story? We probably keep telling them because the folks that know the stories aren’t true stay quiet. That’s another hard lesson of adulthood, silence doesn’t make problems go away.)
With adulthood, there’s a chance to change some of that, and yet we often change less than we could. When we move out of the house (for the first time) the world feels so different. When we return home for the first time – everything feels like it hasn’t changed a bit, but it all feels so strange. It feels like our childhood home could fit in one of those glass snow globes, and we’re a stranger looking in from the outside, able to shake out the memories but not go back inside.
For those of us who have been driving already, maybe for a while – do you remember that first time you got into a car and drove away from home? Even if it was just for the afternoon? What did that feel like to you? I remember this incredible sense of freedom – even though I knew I needed to go back home that day. Things were somehow different. I had more control over my life. Entering adulthood is like that feeling. But as time goes on, that feeling disappears. Maybe major changes, like shifting careers, or moving to the City or away from it, or graduating from college, might trigger the feeling again. But for the most part, over time those feelings are forgotten.
I think that forgetting is part of why we start to believe that people don’t change, or that we can’t change. We fall into our habits, or take on responsibilities, or feel real obligations, and change becomes harder and harder with greater and greater repercussions. But remember – repercussions happen whether we change or not. We just need to choose or accept which repercussions we can learn to live with.
Growing up is like a scene from “Mission Impossible” (I’m thinking the old T.V. show and not the snazzy recent movies – but that’s just because I’m of-a-certain-age.) Some mysterious figure comes up to you, hands you an otherwise impossible assignment, and pretends like you have a choice in the matter. Then all record of what you have to accomplish goes up in a puff of smoke and fire, and you’re left picking up the pieces. For the most part, everything will work out as well as it could for an otherwise impossible set-up. You just have to figure a way with the cards that you have been dealt, with the team that you have. Or in the words of the great UU Philosopher-Theologian, Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” (from Oh, the Places You’ll Go!)
But there’s another flip to all of this. Growing up is not just about you. If you can change, make big choices in life, see and live in a new way – then the people around you can do the same as well. When you find yourself saying, “why won’t Mom realize that I’ve grown up, that I’m an adult now,” …and believe me you will find yourself saying that very soon… look for how you’re treating Mom or Dad the way you always have. If they’re treating you the same as usual, you’re probably also stuck doing the same. As an only child I can’t say from personal experience that it’s worse among siblings, but I’ve seen many friends whose sibling rivalry or sibling friendship grow only more intense over time. It’s a great trick in the work-world as well. It’s why people give the advice, “Start as you mean to continue.” Because whatever way you begin, is often how people will expect, or even demand, you to be around them. It takes a long time to change your patterns, and folks often take an even longer time to recognize the newness in your habits and styles. Just keep at it, and your world will eventually catch up.