I sit with my feet up on the empty bus seat beside me, my head resting against the cool window, as the Izarraitz Mountains of northern Spain roll behind me. I have at last cracked open the assigned reading for the trip, St. Ignatius’ Autobiography. It seems my procrastination has paid off: I need only lift my gaze from the page to see the very foothills through which French soldiers carried the young Iñigo López back to Loyola after his fateful, and nearly fatal, encounter with a cannonball in the battle of Pamplona.
It is the first sentence that will stick with me as I travel in the footsteps of St. Ignatius on America Media’s pilgrimage this November: “Up to his twenty-sixth year the heart of Ignatius was enthralled by the vanities of the world.” It strikes me that with the exception of one fellow millennial, all of the pilgrims on this bus can, like Ignatius, look back at their 26th year from a comfortable distance. I envy them. At age 25, my vanity remains largely intact and the prospect of a cannonball moment looms large.
Google “20-somethings” and you will be bombarded with countless lists of things my peers need to know, do, purchase—now—if we want to be happy, to be successful, to be married, to be...(fill in the blank). A small sampling of these so-called listicles includes: “The 100 Things Every 20-Something Needs to Realize,” “20 Things Every 20-Something Woman Should Own,” “15 Smart Things Every 20-Something Should Do to Get the Most Out of Life.”
Judging by the frequency with which these articles pop up on my Facebook news feed, there is clearly a hunger for some guidance. The problem is, I am fairly certain these creeds are for the most part written by other 26- to 29-year-olds working out of a warehouse-turned-office space somewhere in Brooklyn. Not exactly the best way for readers to gain a broader perspective.
It is an unfortunate fact of modern life that we are increasingly sorted by age; a 20-something can easily go through her week without deeply engaging with someone a decade or two older, beyond her parents or colleagues. For the shrinking pool of millennials still attached to organized religion, even going to church, a traditional mixing ground, means the Sunday evening young adult Mass and fellowship.
The wisdom that was once passed organically between generations in everyday interactions and social gatherings is siloed and often replaced by feelings of bewilderment or distrust. Baby boomers look aghast at the casual encounters among “kids” these days facilitated by dating apps, while young people create “safe spaces” to shield themselves from what they see as the unevolved attitudes toward race and gender held over from their parents’ generation. The spaces where people of all ages can spend time together, and hopefully learn from one another, are few and far between.
Which is one of the many reasons my time in Spain was such a blessing. For 10 days I helped my fellow pilgrims connect to shoddy hotel Wi-Fi and to share their experiences with friends and family back home through social media. In exchange, they shared with me the wisdom that can only come from many years navigating the peaks and valleys of life. I pried and probed the details of their education, careers and family life—You were how old when you went back to school? What brought you back to the church? How old was your daughter when she had her first child?—hoping to come away, perhaps, with the “Five Things Every 20-Something Needs to Be a Happy, Successful, Married Catholic.”
What I got was something much more complicated and far richer. They offered no checklists to follow, no “life hacks,” no guarantees of certainty about the path ahead. Instead there was the perspective of people who understand themselves as pilgrims, who could tell me how things look from a bit higher up the mountain. And what I heard them saying was this: You’re looking at the cannonball all wrong. For many people my age, the luxury of choice can feel more like tyranny; if only something would hit us, we think, even something painful, that would make our direction and purpose clear.
And the pilgrim, as St. Ignatius called himself until the end, responds in his Autobiography: Keep reading. Ignatius’ conversion might have begun with Pamplona; but the still-unfolding story of the Jesuits began with the 38-year-old pilgrim moving in with a couple of 20-somethings at the University of Paris.