Emerging Adulthood According to James Fowler: A Reflection on Calling

Becoming Adult Becoming ChristianLast week: a blog inspired by pop music. This week: inspired by personality psychology. Yet, they both manage to address central concerns of emerging adulthood — community and calling.

When I recently read Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian by psychologist James W. Fowler, I think I was hoping for a how-to guide. But it’s not. At all. Instead of prescribing how to become adult and how to become Christian, Fowler describes dynamic processes by which emerging adults can find our lives fitting meaningfully into the Christian narrative.

From Identities to Identity

We all have identities. The standard Twitter bio, for instance, contains a list of probably at least 4 unique identities (e.g. writer, minister, husband, dad, dog lover). I’ve read that millennials will hold, on average, something like 7 different jobs in 3 different career fields over the course of our adult lives.

But, having identities can be a problem.

I distinctly remember a brave psychologist attempting to figure out my personality when I was about 14 years old and pointing out that I seemed fundamentally happy in some settings and sad in others, shy in some settings and self-assured in others. She would ask convicting questions like “Who are you?” And I would give confusing answers like “It depends.”

A key task of young adulthood, according to Fowler, is forming an answer to the question “Who are you?” — specifically, an answer that does not depend on what setting we’re in.

To make this task somewhat more manageable, we might fill in the blank: “No matter what I’m doing, I am ______________.” (Personal example: No matter what I’m doing, I am a Christian and creative.) We can fill in the blank with any identifier/s that are non-negotiable to who we are.

From Identity to Vocation

Throughout college, the question became increasingly common: “What do you want to do for a living?” (Answer: shrug.) And it didn’t stop at graduation. No, the query just adjusted to “What do you do for a living?” (Answer: sigh.)

Questions about what I do make me feel like life is handing me a giant to-do list.

Questions about who I am, on the other hand, make me feel like life is handing me a giant invitation. And, once I’ve accepted the invitation, the to-do list can follow.

In short: what we do (vocation) should emerge from who we are (identity).

So, the second key task of young adulthood is applying identity to meaningful work. To use my personal example from above, I’m trying to apply my “Christian and creative” identity to the works of writing and young adult ministry. Sometimes I’m paid for these things; sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I’m in charge of my schedule; usually I’m not. But, always I feel comfortable that I’m called to these tasks. Because they emerge from who I am. They’re my vocation.

It’s been deeply challenging to look less at my to-do list and more at my invitation. But, it’s also been deeply rewarding. So, give it a shot and ask yourself: “Who are you? What are you being invited to?”

 

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