Editor’s Note: Patrick McNamara was president of the YOU (Youth of Unity) chapter at Unity of Independence, Mo., for 2 years (2002-2004). He was also the chair of the International YOU (IYOU) Restructuring Committee which met at the IYOU Summit in 2008. Unity Leaders Journal engaged him in a Q&A session.
ULJ: Do you feel spiritual renewal is important for teens?
PMcN: When you enter your teenage years, you’re just beginning to create your own identity, to be your own person. Until that point, your thoughts and opinions were largely dictated by parental guidelines and influences. As teenagers we first become aware of the bombardment from all around us about how we should act, how we should think and that we have a choice in those things. And not only are you now identifying with things such as “I like this kind of music,” but you start delving into uncharted waters with questions like, “What do I believe?”
Finding out what spirituality means to teens for the first time is almost like being thrown into the advanced class in life and the only barometer for whether you’re sinking or swimming is whether you feel happy and fulfilled. So while I don’t want to punt the premise at the beginning, we should recognize at this age that we’re all just beginning to develop our own view of the world.
ULJ: When you were in YOU did you find rallies and conference spiritually renewing?
PMcN: Rallies were spiritually renewing every time I went. For many people rallies were why they came back to YOU week after week, year after year. We explored the spiritual and metaphysical world in an open environment that encouraged us to express ourselves in ways we wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable or be allowed to in our daily lives. Yes, it was a safe space, and this is perhaps the time in our lives where that sort of environment is not just helpful, but necessary.
This also meant rallies could be used as a crutch, a place set apart from the rest of the world. YOU and Unity cannot merely serve as an avenue to retreats and conferences to socialize; they must allow us to enhance our spiritual selves by learning from those around us and further the goals of our community. But for YOU specifically, it’s perfectly acceptable for a primary purpose to be helping people find their spiritual selves at a time of such social and physical change.
ULJ: What were some of the most spiritual events that you had at rallies?
PMcN: Some people are inspired by the music of LeRoy White or the power of silent time, but for me the most spiritual events were always the more intimate moments in 1:1 conversations or Family Groups. These were the times I pushed my spiritual boundaries through new experiences the most, where I really stepped outside of my comfort zone. As a teenager with everything in my life changing, it was easy to fall into a routine. However once I started meeting so many new people and expanding my understanding of the world around me, I was hooked.
A meaningful example of a life-changing event for me was in 2013 when I ran for South Central Regional office. All “Regi” candidates shared a family group, and at one point someone shared something extremely personal, which led to them starting to cry. After a while, a second and third person began crying, and after a while every single person in the room was crying their eyes out and embracing in what can only be described as a ball of emotional energy, release and support. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life, something I’ll never forget and it has bonded that group in a way I never thought possible. I can feel that all of us in the room that day (sponsors included) still feel the bond from that moment.
ULJ: Was YOU helpful in connecting with your spiritual self?
PMcN: I would say YOU was helpful in helping me identify and shape my spiritual self. At no point did I think of my spiritual self as this static entity but something that was constantly being shaped by the people I met and the experiences I had.
ULJ: What advice would you give teens today?
PMcN: To the teenagers of today, I urge you to push your boundaries. Explore new cultures and perspectives that allow you to form your own spiritual worldview. At the same time, there is value in silence where you can connect with yourself, not just those around you. There you can allow your heart, mind and soul to process and deepen your perspective.
ULJ: What advice would you give parents of teens today?
PMcN: I say this: The Kids Are Alright. Every generation has trouble identifying with the generation that comes after it. They see the new generation as lazy, self-centered, sheltered, etc. It’s incredibly easy to find an article about how Millennials are doing [blank] so much worse than [insert your generation here] and are doomed to [blank]. But I have news for you: today’s teens are better than you.
Since 1991 the CDC has conducted the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey. It shows that teenagers today are less likely to drink, smoke, use drugs, attempt suicide, have sex and participate in violent acts. They’re also more educated, more inclusive and more likely to make the right decision with things like guns and seat belts. By nearly any measure they’re “better” as a generation than any before them.
I can hear the parents patting themselves on the back as they read this, so here’s my second message to them: teenagers need to take risks, they need to explore the world around them, they need to push their boundaries and get out of their comfort zone to find out who they are, where the gray lines of morality are and what happiness means to them. They need to know what it’s like to push through adversity and do things they didn’t know were possible.
Most importantly they need to fail. And no, I’m not saying you should let your kids use drugs or drive around without their seat belts on. I’m saying you need to let your kids be like baby birdies and leave the nest (you may never be ready). The one thing I can tell you for sure is this: they will fail at some point in their lives. The question is whether they learn to get back up when you are around to support them or if it happens years later when the stakes are higher. This is how I learned critical life lessons, this is how my parents learned them and it’s what makes them stick.