I know very few people who entered college particularly comfortable with their religious identity. I knew - and still know - disillusioned atheists, people who felt trapped in the tradition they grew up with and some who were engaged in a particular faith but still wanted to go deeper. I, for one, knew I was uncomfortable with my Christian heritage and had a longstanding interest in Judaism but didn't have the knowledge or confidence to explore Penn's Jewish community right away upon my arrival here.
By the end of my freshman year, though I was still confused, I realized that developing my spiritual identity during the formative years of college was just as important as which major I chose. Though our parents may disapprove of how infrequently we attend religious services, and pundits may condemn our generation's "lack of morality," I believe many college students - especially at a place like Penn - are sort of like me: We come to college confused about our spirituality, but we're interested in learning more and figuring out something that works for us. Whether we choose something different from what we grew up with or rediscover our parents' tradition, we'll be more confident in and engaged with our particular system of belief. And that can only be a positive thing.
"The vast majority of people I talk to are in this process" of spiritual exploration, said Rabbi Mike Uram, the associate director of Penn Hillel. "My experience is that college is a time of hyper-exploration, especially at a place like Penn where people are intellectually curious. People seek to become . religiously self-actualized, to become empowered."
It doesn't make sense to me that in a population that is so concerned with choosing the right major or internship, the right romantic partner or the right group of friends would act any differently. But it can be hard to get people to open up about these very private matters, and at times it seems like no one else is thinking about these issues.
I've had the privilege over the past several months to encourage these surprising and challenging discussions with people I know. I've been in the process of converting to Judaism, and as it comes up in conversation, people are incredibly engaged, asking about my thoughts and experiences and sharing their own. I've had conversations with professors about favorite meditation techniques, with classmates I don't even know that well on what makes for a really good religious service (energetic singing appears to be essential) and with close friends about very personal spiritual decisions. One response I've never received is indifference.
"Unlike their parents that were cynical, this generation is critical in a healthy way," said Father Charlie Zlock, chaplain-director of the Newman Center, Penn's hub for Catholic students. "They're searching, but there's material out there and they are going to find it and be fine." Rather than rejecting all spiritual traditions after a bad experience, he continued, we are willing to experiment, think and try to look at it from another angle.
"People are looking for a spiritual life, and that means many things to many people," said Rabbi Uram. I certainly have many friends who are active in organized religion, and I've chosen that path for myself as well. But I know just as many people who take the time to treat their bodies well, make art, take naps, see friends and work to make the world better from a more secular perspective, and I believe those actions are spiritual in their own way too.
As Father Zlock says, "there are nonmaterial aspects" of human beings that need to be "fed" in the same way our physical bodies are fed. It's hard to carve out time for any type of spiritual life when we are so busy that we barely have time to eat. But I've found that even 10 or 20 minutes of prayer, reflection or meditation a day is just as satisfying as a good meal.
Yes, college is about academics and developing the skills to succeed in the job market. But it is also about beginning to create an identity that will carry us through life, and that identity is incomplete without attention to our emotional and spiritual selves.
Meredith Aska McBride is a College junior from Wauwatosa, Wis. Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Radical Chic appears every Tuesday.Comments powered by Disqus
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