Swimming Upstream

Working and spending time with college students and young adults give me opportunities to see and understand their passion against injustice, bureaucratic status quo, and complacency. These young people have so much energy that, often times, their minds possess uncontainable powers. When they are faced with resistance or hardship, the idealistic hearts get hurt, which can lead to a negative doubt of society, other people’s goodness, resentment and hatred for the world around them. Nevertheless, when these outbursts of young, idealistic, and creative energies are guided and formed with a deeper understanding of the human person, character, and virtues, they become powerful and life-giving. I have seen, with my own eyes, the possibilities when one forged and formed beautiful minds with patience to direct their raw energies and make them life-giving and counter-cultural as they become lovers of God, swimming against the stream of popular opinions toward the Truth and its desire for the highest good.

Aleteia recently posted an article regarding the constant rise in depression for young people. While there are many causes for this phenomenon, the suggestions seem to be something that is very similar to what many spiritual masters have been suggesting for the longest time. It can be boiled down to the foundational confusion of identity, who they really are and what is taught, given, or expected of them in society! While many reacted to the social expectations and demands with their own version of a self-created and personal-based version of fluid, sometimes non-binary, version of self-identity to regain the freedom of the self to define itself (instead of what society expected of them), this creates more confusions and make them more prone to depression. Why? Ontologically speaking, it is not — and will never be — the real answer! What seems to be deemed as a social resistance or psychological reaction by the self-based identification of one’s self can only go so far for our true self and its identity is much more in-depth than what we really think we are at the moment. That would only be real and applicable if we are simply social animals or intellectual products of what academia is portraying us to be. They are all simply sound-good but ineffective “band-aid solution” to a deeper sense of identity crisis.

Furthermore, in a utilitarian society where one is expected from of young to perform and succeed as not to fail, many feel the pressure to continue with the accolade-oriented path when they are adults. As a matter of fact, just as we have formed our children from of young to stand out and be successful (sometimes at all costs), we subconsciously made them into functional machines that feed on worldly achievements and prestige. We taught them and subconsciously made them chase after the constant hype of self-created and self-based achievements in order to be loved, as if to socially stand out, to be recognized, and to be accepted is the only important thing in life and what everyone needs to strive for. To be functional, successful, prestigious, powerful, and to stand out have often become the daily motivational vocabularies of what it means to be human. We have taught and bought into the system where we are defined by the quantities of what we have achieved or can do as functional beings. Sometimes parents even pressured and paved the (desired, successful) paths for their children without discerning with them what is asked of them from God. They were often told to go to college, or to do something to be successful, that it seems like their paths have been one-sidedly drawn out for them with certain expectations. All done, of course, with good intentions because we want our children and young people to succeed in life (as we socially understand it)! Nevertheless, what we have often failed to teach our children is how to pray, how to have a personal relationship with the Lord, how to grow in their faith identity, and how to be strong against the everchanging currents of this world.

It is sad that the typical path or expectations for our young people are often undiscernably drawn as if it is the only monotonous plan for success. We say the things that need to be said because they are the only things we can relate to from our own understanding of society and one’s place in society — all without prayer and proper discernment. One could imagine the typical “motivational” (but uninspirational) speech, “If you do this, you will be successful. Be a part of society and do what is expected of you!” One could then think… Well, if that is the case, why not just go with the desired or planned course of actions, especially if this is what going to make the adults happy? They have always been there and had not failed yet! They have always been there to support and made things right if anything is to happen! However, the only difference when these young people are adults, they no longer have their parents by their sides all the times. Life is not always fair, things are not always how they are supposed to be, and parents are not always right. Therefore, one has to learn to be adults and become decision-making people. The popular term “adulting” portrays the necessity when one has to step up to be an adult, doing what is necessary when there is no more adult “comfort zone” or “safety net” around to care for them. As they continue the same course of actions that are based on functionality and achievement (as expected of them), but without the constant parental cares, many have withdrawals, developed unhealthy coping mechanisms and habits, and overcome by depression. The hyped up expectations (that was the natural part of their upbringings) based on success and achievements when met with reality and its uncertainties create the perfect storm for depression and confusion.

However, do not be afraid. These moments of confusion and crises are opportunities and invitations to pray, reflect, and seek something deeper than what society has been asking of us! Crises, in the providential plan of God, can be moments to seek a clearer understanding of where we are, who are really called to be, and where the Lord desires to lead us in our own faith and life journey. Dare to ask questions! Are we living or being treated like machines that only exist to be functional, task-oriented, and expected to be productive? Think about it! How are we living our life? Are we living like a normal person being, created and loved into being by God, able to reflect, meditate, pray, and embrace all things with wonder and awe or are we simply functioning and operating? Are we too focused on tasks and productivity in order to feel needed and in control? Is that really what we are meant to be?

In our everyday life and interaction, we often allow ourselves to be defined by how we operate and function. Perhaps we are the cause of our own self-defined failures because we keep ourselves (too) busy and preoccupied just to be socially functional instead of simply being who we are. We complain why we are so tired, anxious, sleepless, worried, frustrated, and the likes but forget to look deeper to why we are the way we are now and look deep from within to see what we are called to be. The restlessness of our body, even life’s crises and confusions, point to the greater restlessness and desire for God in spirit. That is why it is important for us as human beings to listen to what our body and spirit are telling us deep from the heart of heart. We dislike self-probing inquiries and the necessary self-reflection and meditation, but they are important. We have to be honest and humble enough to look at ourselves completely, both body and soul.

As typical post-modern people, our body and spirit are in a constant state of flux, never have enough space to rest! Relationships break down because we have lost the needed communication and personal touch that comes from the heart. Many break down psychologically and physically because they have forgotten to care for themselves and be attentive to what their psyche and body are telling them. We cannot pray and hear what God has to say if we never have enough time to open up and to use our spiritual senses to listen, see, feel, and touch God and the working of His grace in our life. We often time are too tired when we come to relationship and prayer; therefore, both sides of the human and spiritual relationships suffer greatly. Therefore, it is important to know that perhaps what our soul and our body are trying to tell us is that something has to change! We cannot simply go on as we had before if whatever we have been doing is slowly breaking us down, destroying us from all sides, and unhappily bringing us to where we are today.

Perhaps the antidote to our post-modern problems and confusions needs to stem from our own personal and intimate relationship with God. We have to undo the apparent, confusing, and failed expectations of what many people and ideologies are asking of us by grounding ourselves in God. Only in prayer do we learn to truly give the gift of our self personally, intimately, and completely without worrying about what we need to do to be the best and most productive. Only in prayer do we learn to truly embrace our calling and live it out with joy as we offer our whole self, body and soul, as a way to give thanks to God for what He has given to us and share it with our brothers and sisters genuinely and selflessly. We are more than what we can do, how we function, or how productive we can be. We love and live fully when we give the truest and most genuine gift of who we are without self-centered pretension, justification, anxieties, and worries.

That is why we have to begin our journey of self-discovery from confusions and unrealistic expectations with prayer and discernment in order to truly understand who we really are and what we are created to be. We are not just some social products, results of scientific proofs and theories, self-defined outcomes based on a duped understanding of personal freedom, achievements, powers, or prestige. We are created by God for love! That is why it is important to know who we are in His providential plan for us and for the world. This ontological reality and identity tell us who we really are for it is not simply grounded on some personal, social, or psychological definition or invention! If we are really created in His image and likeness for greater things, we need to lift up our hearts and transcend the social trends and ideological fluxes. If we are meant for something greater, as our hearts yearn for Him and His infinite love, we need to pay attention to what is filling our soul and the things that we intake daily so that we are not unnecessarily occupied with lesser goods. If this world and its downstream currents are pulling us away from our own very true self, especially our peace and happiness in the Lord, we need to fix our energy and our soul on Him as to have the energy to swim upstream toward Him and things of the highest good. Saint Paul said this beautifully in his letter to the Colossians“If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” (3:1-2)

We are called, then, to begin our days with prayer as we offer all that we have and will do toward God, step back and enrich our days with moments of rest and prayerful reflection, examine our conscience and spirit by looking back at what happened in order to make a better resolution for the next. It is good to reflect in order to reprioritize and let go of what is not needed. It is crucial to do some body and soul house-cleaning in order to clear up space and time for what is important. We do not have to be socially trendy, productive, fully functional, and a person that completes all tasks at the most optimal time to truly be who we are called to be as children of God. Let us, therefore, fix our gaze on Him, gauge our self with His loving standards as we learn to humbly, lovingly, and genuinely love as He has loved us.