Being with Youth Through Divorce

Hollow.

That single word has haunted me for three weeks now. Three weeks ago I read Andy Root’s article “Young People, Divorce and Youth Ministry.” Whether by design or nature, Root’s candid description of being a child of divorce and the hollowness experienced by his childhood friend Jake has gripped me with all those emotions and fears that I’ve never wanted to remember.

Hollow.

That blasted word has pounded my imagination. It has brought back to the forefront the episodes of my parents’ fighting. It has rung in my ear until I wept over my 15-year-old depressed self. And it was as I remembered how thick the reality of hollowness was to me in those days, I cursed Andy Root for speaking the words that elicited the pain that has defined me.

In the wake of my personal struggle of hollowness, I’ve begun asking the question of what Andy’s article means for me and my relationship with young people. As I have lived with the article for a brief period and took it with me to a youth speaking engagement and a counseling session with a young person going through parental divorce, there have emerged three counseling implications: Deflection is natural; dasein is only hinted at in our feelings of mitsein; and a “this people” can heal “this person.”

Deflection is Natural

I recently traveled to a speaking engagement with several teenagers. During the first service, I shared my story of my parents’ divorce and how that experience sent me searching for love, security and identity. After the service, a youth worker approached me and asked if I would speak with one of his teens. He told me that the young man, Tim, was going through the divorce of his parents. So I agreed and set up a time to meet with Tim.

At our scheduled time, a scrawny preteen boy walked up to me. In a confident, prepubescent voice he said, “My name is Tim. My youth worker wanted me to meet with you.”

We exchanged pleasantries and then walked to a quiet place to chat. I asked Tim to share his story of his parents’ divorce. He began to explain how his parents had informed him and quickly turned to describe how the divorce was affecting his siblings and parents. Following my own personal experience and Andy’s article, I identified Tim’s initial comments as a natural deflection of his experience. Though Tim had the filter of a confident preteen, he didn’t want to share his feelings about his parents’ divorce because doing so would bring him face to face with the hollowness that comes with losing love, security and identity.

Dasein in Our Feelings of Mitsein 

Following Martin Heiddegger, Andy provides a practical description of a philosophical anthropology. He explains that, similar to a theological anthropology rooted in the imago Dei, Heiddegger understood that our being is bound together in our connection. Specifically, our dasein (being) is mitsein (being with others).

As Tim and I continued to talk, I invited him to share more of his feelings about his parents’ divorce. And he opened up and began to share that he hated the thought of going home. His mom cried all the time, and his sister lived with them, but she hated being there too. He went on to share that he was jealous of his older siblings because, from his perspective, they had gotten the “good” parents, who were there for them all through their childhood and teen years but that he was stuck with “crappy” parents who were divorcing and not going to be there for him.

I recognized that what Tim was sharing with me was his mourning of the loss of his dasein. Tim hated being with his mom and sister because he didn’t know how to be with them anymore. The person Tim was up until this point was created to be with a mom who was interested in Tim’s needs above her own concerns. The existence Tim was formed into was one with a father who was present and engaged in Tim’s life, and he was angry that he was losing that existence. In short, Tim was mourning the loss of his identity as he expressed his feelings regarding the loss of being with the people who gave him his identity. Or, in Andy’s words, Tim was expressing the rupture of his ontological security.

“This People” Can Heal “This Person”

Andy goes on to explain that identity is divided in children of divorce. This crisis of identity is created by the brokenness of the primary community of young people. Andy suggests that youth workers and faith communities can provide another “this people” who can be a place where healing can happen to the “this person” in the name of Jesus Christ.

As my conversation with Tim began to progress into video games, school, friends and church, I asked if he had three to five people who can help him live through the pain and hurt of his parents’ divorce. Tim named five people who were close to him. I was pleased to hear that one of those people was Tim’s youth worker in his local church and three of the five people were from his local church. Tim described how those people had already spent time with him playing games and talking about his parents’ divorce. It signaled to me that Tim’s faith community was already a “this people” who could be with him as he faces the pain and suffering of his parents’ divorce in the name of Jesus Christ.

This was my experience of church. In the wake of my parents’ divorce, I was introduced to five Christian friends who helped give me the identity of Christian. They gave me a new way of being in the world that included faith practices and acts of compassion and justice. They called me to teach and led me to see that it was God’s calling upon my life. That group of Christians saved the “this person” that I am becoming by God’s grace.

Being with Youth

In the midst of all this esoteric language and theological reflection, the greatest insight I had to offer Tim in our conversation was, “That sucks, and God hates that this is happening.” In recognizing that divorce causes an ontological crisis for young people, as a youth worker, the only words we have are those of recognizing the pain and making youth aware that God is with them in the midst of it. However, the hopeful reality is that we have the opportunity to be with youth in the midst of their suffering. We are given the great gift of being a “this people” who can give the security that young people need to heal their divided identities.

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Paul Sheneman
Paul Sheneman is an author, speaker and youth pastor. He serves with the Macedonia Methodist Church in Ohio. He drinks way too much coffee for his own good. His main interest is exploring Christian formation. You can follow most of his ramblings on his blog at www.discipleshipremix.com or on Twitter @PaulSheneman.

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