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Faith and Doubt: Teenage and the Quest for Meaning

Tonight is the first night of Passover, as well as Good Friday, and, so I see in the Times, yesterday was a Jain holiday in India. Every year I cobble together my own version of the Passover service — which you can do because the holiday is observed at home. While there is a book you use, and there is an order to events, (“seder” means “order”) for those of us who are not Orthodox, there is room to add, linger, and trim parts — which means we can personalize the story. The story, of course, is of the Jews escaping from slavery in Egypt. But the story is also centrally about inspiring young people to ask questions — and thus through their questions to come to care about the story. So each year there must be new questions and new stories — which is, of course, why I love Passover. It is a holiday of inquiry.

All of this focus on faith linked in an interesting way with my YA Materials class at Rutgers. One student is a devout Christian, and while she was open in all of the right ways to the dark and dystopian YA novels we read — no instinct to censor, no frantic hunt for “messages” good or bad — she felt the books failed young readers in not offering them what she experiences as the hope and light of faith. Now I don’t share her faith, or even the sense that any religion has a special claim on what it offers young people. But I do think our literature — especially our fiction — is week on faith, philosophy, spiritual yearning. It does much better at shining a light on internal suffering than on epiphany. As another student in that same class pointed out, even for kids with very troubled lives there are moment of joy, of transcendence, of uplift, and of faith — of some sort. The typical 60s teenager carried Hesse in his backpocket, at least in my neck of the woods. We might be Steppenwolfs, but we were on a Journey to the East — a quest for meaning.

What happened to that sense of adolescence as a time of spiritual yearning, seeking big answers, asking big questions, seeing the universe in a grain of sand, feeling that there were deep truths in a smile, in a tree, a sunset, a touch, a force beyond us? I repeat that I am not advocating for any faith, or even faith at all. But I wonder if we have become so attached to limning the misfortunes of coming of age that we have put into the shadow the equally valid hopes, yearnings, and moments of transcendence. The world is too much with us, we see all the details of the tweeted now. We don’t see that equally true teenage sense of, or at least deep yearning for, a beyond.


  1. Shelley says:

    Beautiful post! It reminded me of Wordsworth’s poem (since it is Poetry month…)

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

    Thankfully, there are a few YA novels that grapple with faith. Off the top of my head, Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande comes to mind.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I was alluding to that very line, as well, of course, as to Blake: Auguries of Innocence, which begins:

    To see a world in a grain of sand,
    And a heaven in a wild flower,
    Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
    And eternity in an hour.

    A robin redbreast in a cage
    Puts all heaven in a rage.

  3. Shirley Budhos says:

    Adolescence angst for many of us was the time to question the old rituals and answers.
    With commitment to faith come obligations which, I’m not sure we moderns are not ready to accept. Also, in the US and other secular places, people choose dogma & belief as they do items on a Chinese menu. Whatever the belief, the answers are not easy to come by. And, the optimistic answers are often missing, but the wish to believe that a Higher Being rescues us may be comforting.

    Many years ago, a dear Muslim friend who honored me by praying in my home, asked me to edit his doctoral thesis on “The Modernization of Libya” (Oh, those days of the young, flamboyant Quaddafi!), and though my friend knew I was a non-observant Jew, at the end of our project, he asked whether he had convinced me (not to become a Muslim but to believe). When I replied, he said (wisely), “then you have no consolation.” The events of the 20th century and earlier certainly make it hard to be comforted and assured.”For this, for everything, we are out of tune;”


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