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An open letter to twenty-somethings

A recent Huffington Post article notes the work of Former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz in his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Deresiewicz reports that we are experiencing an epidemic of depression among millennials, and he offers suggestions on how Baby Boomer parents have unhelpfully contributed to this phenomenon by the way we taught our children a false worldview.

The Huffington Post article is well worth a read, though, as a theologian, I would quibble with its explanation of the phenomenon. My purpose here, however, is not to explore Deresiewicz’s findings, other than to say that my own empirical experience matches his. In my own pastoral relationships with young folks in their twenties and also with many Baby Boomer parents of young adults, I’ve discovered  astonishingly frequent cases of what many describe as depression among extraordinarily talented high-achievers. Sometimes the causes are physical and require specialized treatment, but often the problem is in their mental mappings of the world. We’ve taught them they must be perfect, and, as a result, they have dutifully sought the perfect team, the perfect school, the perfect mate, and the perfect job. We’ve taught them that the stakes are high in everything they do, and so their lives must be filled with frenetic activity by which they demonstrate themselves worthy and thereby earn a good life. And when they discover themselves “falling behind” in the corporate climb or in finding the perfect mate or when they stand on the pinnacle of success yet touch base with a profound emptiness within, their lives take on a restlessness and anxiety that often leads to cries of despair.

It breaks my heart to see such suffering. With that in mind, I offer this open letter to such weary souls:

Dear twenty-somethings,

Thank you for sharing the depth of your pain with me. You remind me of just how hard it is to be your age. It’s a difficult decade of life because we yearn so much to secure ourselves against loneliness and economic travail and yet have limited control over so many variables. This will pass. You have to keep walking, though, for that to happen.

I understand what it means to feel despair. I know what it means to worry that you’ll forever be alone. I know what it means to feel the sting of death when folks turn away from you.

But I also know that the great struggle of our twenties is to see the world the way it really is. We’re tempted to believe there is no cause for hope. We’re tempted to believe that at stake in every relationship is the possibility of finding our soulmate. We’re tempted to believe that the dissolution of intimate relationships means cruel rejection of our identity rather than deliverance from a potentially unhealthy union. The clock ticks, and we name each tick a curse rather than thanking God for the gift of time. We fail to see the world the way it really is.

Beloved child of God, set your eyes on the truth about the world and determine to live in that world, and not in the false world in which despair is possible. That’s not the real world. None of the stories we tell ourselves in our despair are truthful descriptions of the world. The truth about the world is that you do not have to become because you already are. God has already declared you worthy. You don’t need to achieve that. You simply need to embrace it. Luxuriate in it. And allow yourself the time and space to learn what it means to live as one already declared precious by God.

When you forget the real world and need a reminder, perhaps you can calibrate your vision by returning to two of my favorite pearls from Scripture. These describe the world the way it really is:

We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

Thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you (Isaiah 43:1-2).

If, as many of us do, you sometimes get anxious throughout the day, let me suggest the ancient therapy of saying the Jesus Prayer. Anxiety is not new. For 2000 years, Christians have met the symptoms of anxiety immediately with a simple prayer. I urge you to develop that habit. It’s a healthy response. Chase the anxiety away with one of the following forms of the Jesus prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Or shorter:

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Or even shorter:

Lord Jesus, have mercy.

Or my favorite — the one Benedictine monks always say:

Lord, make haste to help me. Lord, make speed to save me.

Know that you are never alone, that God has called you by name, and that God seems right now to be teaching you the virtue of patience. Someday, you may have to teach that virtue to your own daughter or son. So learn that virtue now, and be alert for all the blessings God intends for you. If you do these things, your joy will be complete, for you are so dearly loved.



A Baby Boomer Priest


The featured image is “tannis-one-hour” (2010) Jeremy Hiebert. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I think–with the some of the usual caveats about generational analysis, etc.–that this is a very good letter. I wonder, however, if it could be supplemented by two things that are often invisible in our larger society.

    1. The therapist Brooke Donatone claims that a number of factors, such as intrusive parenting and the instant gratification promised by technology, has led to a decline in “frustration tolerance”: “This is how we handle upsetting situations, allow for ambiguity and learn to navigate the normal life circumstances of breakups, bad grades, and layoffs.”

    You do mention the “virtue of patience,” but can we go further and say that the church might be a place where “frustration tolerance” is effectively learned?

    2. The rising rates of depression among millennials might in part be a response to the terrible job market, as well as other economic conditions. Of course, the church cannot immediately change the unemployment rates confronting young people. On the other hand, the belief that external forces control one’s life seems to be linked with depression, and such a belief is likely more common during a prolonged recession.

    Can the church be a place in which, for a variety of reasons, a crushing job market can be navigated and (as much as possible) understood and critiqued?

    Just stray thoughts. Thanks.


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