I had an opportunity to attend a group therapy session for troubled teenagers this week. It lasted about two hours and included teens, parents, siblings, and a team of session leaders. There were approximately thirty people. The team asked each person to draw a fantasy island with crayons and colored pencils. The island had to include images of things you could not live without.
Over the course of the session, I discovered the following.
One, I am not an artist. Everything I drew was vaguely phallic. Coloring it in made it even worse, so I passed when it was my turn to share.
Second, although it is easy to make fun of this kind of therapy, everyone took it seriously and had insightful things to say about themselves and their families. I was the only one rolling his eyes. I stopped when I saw even the most recalcitrant teen pick up a few colored pencils and produce a work of refinement. Sure, it had a soda waterfall, but what do you expect?
Third, I was surprised to find that most of the teens had things on their island: music, guitars, books, trampolines, nail salons. Few had people. One included her family and another placed her mother by name so they could get their nails done together. That was it. But everyone knows that relationships and friends are at the top of the list for teens. I would think that teenagers who have gone through hard times would be especially sensitive to the need for relationships. So, why the focus on things?
The short answer is I don’t know. It could have been due to a number of things, from my misread of the situation to the wording of the team’s instructions. Admittedly, I wasn’t paying attention. But as I listened to each person explain their drawing (one girl drew her island in the shape of a cat, because she feels close to them), I couldn’t help but think about faith. Religious faith.
Except for one Hispanic mother, nobody mentioned God or faith. “Meditation” was as close as anyone would get. Everyone seemed to be stumbling around on their islands with no fixed point or relationship from which everything else in their lives flowed and made sense. Without that basic relationship, however, one that not only defines who and what we are but moves us beyond ourselves (think of Dante’s reminder that we are made for eternità), we are left with nail salons and lemonade lagoons. We are adrift, which is exactly what I saw in the session: families adrift, islands adrift.
I am a catechist by training, experience, and temperament. I understand that the crises revealed in this session cannot be solved by telling people that Jesus loves them. Still, I have to ask, where is the church? The contemporary world is passing us by with only a cursory nod in our direction.
It is neither the teens’ nor their parents’ fault. I think we have failed to give witness in ways that make people take notice. Witness is the greatest form of catechesis or formation in the faith. But it takes courage to profess one’s faith and share what you believe in a world of disbelief and cynicism. If you do, you are liable to be ridiculed. In a place like Syria, you are liable to be martyred.
I am not talking about a crude evangelism or proselytizing. That would do violence to these teens and their prospects for the future. Rather, I mean an acknowledgement that faith is not irrelevant but love made real in nearly every aspect of domestic life. This, despite failure, hypocrisy, and imperfection, maybe even because of them. That’s what teens want to see and what we are not showing them.
So, it turns out the trouble with teens could be us. Realizing that has been very therapeutic.