So if you’ve looked at the internet once in recent years you’ve probably noticed that millennials have gotten a fairly bad rap. And if you’re like me, you’re probably sick of reading about how our parents have spoiled us beyond redemption and that’s why we’re a bunch of entitled, directionless twits living out an extended adolescence while lacking important things like grit. But bear with me for a second because I do want to weigh in.
One thing we’ve heard is how “coddled” the millennial is. I recognize that the term “coddling” has been used, more often than not, disparagingly, and in worst cases, as a diversion – a way to silence voices that threaten existing power and stand on the side of justice. This is not okay. And this is not the kind of coddling that most of the time is talked about.
Instead it seems to me that what we are really talking about when we are talking about coddling is the issue of a strong, and perhaps misplaced, self-reliance.
There comes a point sooner or later as we get older that we have to decide: What are we going to rely on in this world? Do we rely on authority? (No – this is a post-Vietnam, post Watergate, post punk-rock world. Where have you been the past 50 years?) Do we rely on financial security? (No – we came of age in a financial crisis, and our student loan debt is eating us alive.) Do we rely on relationships? (Sure… until someone changes their mind in the name of self-actualization… maybe it will be me… so, I guess, no.)
Which leaves only one thing to rely on, really: we rely on ourselves.
We are the true rugged individualists, although we have been trained too much in consensus-seeking to explicitly own it.
We rely on our own hopes and dreams, our own visions of self-actualization.
We rely on our wanderlust, our career ambition, our inner compass, wherever it may point: for most of us, it’s up, up and away.
We rely on a good buzz or a satisfying lay.
We rely on our talents, our creativity, our ability to talk our way out of a situation, our uncanny way with code.
We rely, pretty much, on ourselves. In a shifting, uncertain world, we know we can rely on what will be there at the end of the day: our feelings, our logic, our bodies. Our. Selves.
Which is a great plan, until you come to the end of yourself. It’s taken me my entire twenties and a good part of my thirties to reach the end of myself. To realize that all the education, all the raw talent, all the strength of my “inner compass”, did not equal Me. It took me until very recently to realize the strength of the grip that these things had had on my life, on my self-worth, and to name them for what they were – idols—and then to offer them up and burn them on the altar.
Because as much as we’ve been told “Follow your dreams!” and “You are so special!” and “You can do anything you set your mind to” – we get out there, and we get disappointed, and we get our hearts broken, and the world bangs us up a little till we are forced to ask ourselves: maybe I am an imposter. Maybe I can’t meet expectations; maybe I am not worth the investment (time, emotions, finances). Maybe I am not my degree, or my intelligence, or my way with people, or my fill-in-the-blank. And if I am not that, what then?
It’s then that we make our way to the cross.
The cross, that dialectical symbol of both death and resurrection: the place to offer our idols and our burdens, to nail them, and then to take up our true selves. That place of both truth and grace: where we reckon with the full weight of our pain and our sin, leave them there for Christ to deal with, and then to rise up in His strength. No longer to rely on our own abilities, left to sail by our own compass: but resurrected as His child. Claimed, named, led to where He wants us to go. And fully empowered by his Holy Spirit to do the tasks set before us, and to live into our crazy beautiful unexpected identity.
But we, we who are in control of our lives, we who are the masters of our destiny, captains of our fate – we don’t like to just leave things for other people to deal with. We’re talented and capable. We’ve got it.
As a parent I see my kids flexing their own strength, testing their own limitations. It’s a good and healthy thing to do, and we parents encourage their efforts. Of course, part of the process is missing the mark. Sam just started out in T-ball, and it’s a great place for him to exercise effort – and to learn where he has room for growth. One night after practice, he came home with Andy and told me how he’d run a lap with the team but “couldn’t keep up.” So as parents, we responded in grace: we bought him a pair of cleats, although we’d initially bristled at what seemed an unnecessary expenditure. But we responded in truth, too: “That’s okay.” And that was it. No need to compare his running to that of others on the team; no need to reassure him he would magically be an Olympic runner someday. (And no need to get our own image and self-worth wrapped up in our kids – now that’s trouble.) Because truth is, he will not always be the fastest on the team; he may not always be able to keep up. And that’s okay. It really, really is. Because that’s grit: not identifying with our failures…. And not identifying with our successes. And getting out there, time and time again, to play the game.
And because sometimes, truth is just as much what you say as what you don’t say. I read somewhere that our verbiage is sometimes just a way of us trying to control a situation. We speak because we need to justify ourselves in the eyes of others; we speak because we want to make things, make ourselves, make others feel okay (usually, about us). And on the other side is silence: a release of control, an understanding that we don’t have to fix everything. There was a temptation on my part to point out, “But you threw with more accuracy than most others,” or “But you’re faster than others at sprinting short distances.” I wanted to fix where it seemed wrong. But he wasn’t in tears about not keeping up; his spirit wasn’t broken; he was, I’m proud to say, rather matter-of-fact. So we took his lead and we let it go, we handed him the cleats, with the promise of: these might help. But with the implicit caveat: at the end of the day, don’t rely on your shoes. Don’t rely on being the fastest, or the strongest, or the smartest, or the best pitcher, so that you can feel okay about yourself. What you can rely on is that we love and accept you, no matter your performance. What you can rely on is that you love the game and play hard, and that’s good enough for us. We need to teach our kids that they can be vulnerable in front of us, and that we don’t explain away the weaknesses or the pain, nor do we shame them for it, but we embrace them in it.
What if we realized we were loved the same way? That our heavenly Father saw the truth about us – shortcomings and all – and even with that, responded in grace? Could we offer back to him the things we cling to in order to feel okay about ourselves? Could we release control and embrace vulnerability? Could we trust him with our true, imperfect, clumsy, fearful selves? Could we believe he really does have our best interests at heart?
My daughter Gracie’s favorite song for bedtime is Jesus Loves Me. Of course it is, right? Classic children’s tune; solid choice. But repetition after repetition, the grace and truth of the words came washing over me. How simple and plain, this love song from God:
Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong
They are weak,
But he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.
And I’ve learned: the most important thing I can do as a parent is not to inflate their self-worth, not to instruct them in how to succeed in pretty much anything without looking like they’re trying. Rather, it’s to point them to Jesus. To say, You feel so small sometimes. So do I. You are weak sometimes. So am I. And that’s okay. Because he is strong. And it’s in his strength we can rely. And we can be still and quiet in that truth, and in Him find our rest.