A group of students gathered recently in the upstairs hall of Massachusetts Hall to hear an Episcopal priest address a question that has likely has crossed the minds of many young people (and perhaps those of their parents well): When would they finally be adults?
Rev. Frank Strasburger, author of Growing Up: Limiting Adolescence in a World Desperate for Adults, was Princeton’s chaplain for 10 years and is the parent of two Bowdoin graduates and the father-in-law of another. He began his talk by telling the audience that he has heard that people nowadays don’t reach adulthood until they are 35.
“We can’t afford that and neither can they,” Strasburger said. “It means something like 60 percent of people who vote are children. That doesn’t make sense, and it’s a strange way to run a country.”
But how do young people become adults? And how can we gauge when they have reached maturity? Is it meeting certain benchmarks, such as getting a good job, getting married and having children to define adulthood? “Those things might or might not happen to you,” Strasburger pointed out. He suggested instead that maturity is reached when a person has both embraced his or her mortality and realized that he is not “the center of the universe.”
Strasburger defined mortality more broadly than just bodily death. “Mortality is not about dying physically,” he said. “It’s about the limits of our power.” He continued, “Growing up is beginning to discover what these limits are, and beginning to discover who you are and who you are not.”
Part of this process requires stripping away one’s delusions. While some may dream of becoming an illustrious architect, a globe-trotting journalist or a charismatic teacher, we might not have what it takes to actually obtain glory, or even jobs, in our desired field.
Even if they don’t become the basis of a livelihood, passions should be pursued, Strasburger said. He urged the students to figure out what they love — to do what they think matters. That, however, may involve “closing doors,” accepting limitations and aborted visions. It means, also, accepting failure. “This is a time when you’re having to make these choices. …Identity is really about embracing your mortality because that introduces you to who you are.”
Strasburger then moved on to what he called the other axis of adulthood, relationships and relating. He argued that narcissism is an obstacle to real relationships, and that only after relinquishing narcissism do we begin to know the people around us, he said.
This process can be psychologically daunting, for we initially establish our relationships on projections, fantasies and illusions. At some point in long-term relationships, partners realize the person they thought they had been dating is actually quite different, Strasburger said. “That is when you withdraw your projection and begin to relate to another person.” Some might flee. Others, though, will find this stage exciting.
Nearing the end of his talk, Strasburger posed his introductory question again. “How will you know when you’re an adult? You become an adult when you’re humble and honest enough to be nothing more, and courageous and passionate enough to be nothing less, than who you are,” he said. “Every one of you wants to make a difference in the world. You want to matter. Becoming an adult is about committing yourself to making a unique difference only you can make, right now. ”
Over the next six weeks, Strasburger, who lives in Brunswick, will offer six discussion groups for students on mortality, empathy, identity, relationships, and finding your passion, as well as a discussion on power, gender and sexuality. The offices of Religious and Spiritual Life and Residential Life sponsored the program and talk.