Because life is a series of edits

David Brooks: “The Odyssey Years”

In Thought, Writers on October 10, 2007 at 6:20 am

My favorite New York Times writer, David Brooks, had an interesting piece Tuesday on a new stage of life he’s calling “the odyssey years”. While I didn’t pay him anything to write it, his is a fantastic endorsement of a certain book I’d shamelessly recommend. But I digress. He writes:

“There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.”

Actually, there used to be two: childhood and adulthood. Still, I do think his new categories (odyssey and active retirement) are accurate, and he’s spot on in his analysis of the particular contrast he describes young people experiencing during the first thirty years of their lives:

“You can see the spirit of fluidity that now characterizes this stage. Young people grow up in tightly structured childhoods…but then graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering. Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself.”

This “less permanent vision” is, of course, fed by postmodernism, which doesn’t really help in figuring life out, at least not by providing any kind of unifying, overarching narrative to fit into and make sense of things. The philosophical shift between modernism and postmodernism is real. Whereas the modern (a la Descartes) said, “I think; therefore, I am,” the postmodern says, “I doubt; therefore, I hope I am.” Try making concrete decisions about life from this particular vantage point – it’s difficult.

I appreciated Brooks’ perspective that people in their twenties are not slackers. My observations have been the same, and I marvel at times how hard-working young people going through this stage of life can be:

“The odyssey years are not about slacking off. There are intense competitive pressures as a result of the vast numbers of people chasing relatively few opportunities. Moreover, surveys show that people living through these years have highly traditional aspirations (they rate parenthood more highly than their own parents did) even as they lead improvising lives.

Brooks’ conclusion is that it’s time to recognize “the odyssey years” as a legitimate stage of life and to call it what it is – an odyssey:

“What we’re seeing is the creation of a new life phase, just as adolescence came into being a century ago. It’s a phase in which some social institutions flourish — knitting circles, Teach for America — while others — churches, political parties — have trouble establishing ties.”

I agree, both with the recognition of the stage, as well as with Brooks’ observation that the Church tends to have challenges in dealing with it. The key, however, is that we in the Church don’t ostracize and let alone twenty-somethings until they get life figured out. This was the mentality that fueled the whole separate youth group idea for adolescents back in the fifties and sixties, and I don’t think that’s worked too well, either.

On the contrary, we in the Church need to passionately pursue and include those in this stage of life as part of our congregations, our families, our personal relationships, living out the meta narrative of the Christian story, vividly contrasting its brilliance against the drab background of postmodernism, and making the “odyssey years” the most developmental years in a person’s life, which, I believe, they are.

But you can read the book (or at least the free sample chapter) for more about that…

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