Adolescence and finiteness

This morning, while preparing for waiting worship, I started to read another sermon from Frederick Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark (see also here and here). This one is called “Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain” (205-20).

Buechner begins by decribing the etymology of the word “adolescent”: from the Latin verb adolescere = ad “toward” + alescere “to grow.”

The word designates human beings who are in the process of growing up. It is as simple as that. (205)

He then raises the question of whether we human beings are ever fully adult, and he shares this about himself:

[To] call me an adult or grown-up is an oversimplification at best and a downright misnomer at worst…. I am not a having-grown-up one but a growing-up one, a groping-up one, not even sure much of the time just where my growing and groping are taking me or where they are supposed to be taking me. (206)

Buechner decides it would be useful to coin an alternative, spurious etymology, one which he admits has no basis in linguistic fact, but which seems truer to human experience.

He pretends that the word adolescent is made up of the Latin preposition ad “toward” and the Latin noun dolor “pain.”

Thus “adolescent” becomes a term that designates human beings who are in above all else a painful process, more specifically those who are in the process of discovering pain itself, of trying somehow to come to terms with pain, to figure out how to deal with pain, not just how to survive pain but how to turn it to some human and creative use in their own encounters with it. (207)

How remarkably close to the leadings which have strengthened me in recent years! How fitting a label for my cycles within cycles of revisiting things I’ve thought I had grown through yet keep stumbling back into!

And Buechner cites two examples from sacred story which clearly resonate for him much as they have for me:

Adolescents are Adam and Eve in the process of tasting the forbidden fruit and discovering that in addition to good, there is also evil, that in addition to the joy of being alive, there is also the sadness and hurt of being alive and being themselves.

Adolescents are Gautama the Buddha as he recognizes the first of the Four Noble Truths, which is that life is suffering, that at any given moment life can be lots of happy things too, but that suffering is universal and inevitable and that to face that reality and to come to terms with that reality is the beginning of wisdom and at the heart of what human growing is all about. (207)

I came to waiting worship eagerly this morning, ready to center down and trust the silence. For a while, though, I was distracted by thoughts of an attractive young man I’ve seen recently.

Occasionally such chance meetings are distressing. On the one hand is my longing in imagination, on the other, my love for my life-partner Jim. Though I know I won’t act on such longings, the choice feels like loss.

Something opened, though, in worship this morning.

I thought of that man and his relationships, whatever they are. I thought of the joy and affection that Jim and I share.

And I suddenly knew what a blessing it is to be finite.

Having limits isn’t only about lacking what lies beyond them. Having limits also means being complete in oneself.

There’s a freedom in those limits one gradually welcomes as healthy. A calmness. A centeredness and contentment.

As Buechner would say, today I came through another cycle of adolescence and found it a gift.

I am glad for my finiteness.

And so it is.

Blesséd Be,

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