Because I currently live with two teenagers, I am fascinated by every use of “grumbling” in scripture. Every depiction of surliness serves as a window into the reality of my life right now. This week’s readings feature grumbling Israelites and a “hangry” Jesus—a veritable jackpot for parents of teens everywhere. We know these reactions intimately—the daring not to ask why Jesus is doing something (in this case, talking to a Samaritan woman), the “couldn’t someone have brought him a snack?”—because they constitute our daily life with grownups-in-the-making.
We might conceive of adolescence as the slow and often-grumpy process of becoming an adult in the world. Some aspects of adolescence are dramatic: the hunger, the growth spurts, the way the kids will wake up one day too large for their shoes, pants, sweaters. Others, particularly the psychological ones, are more subtle and need careful navigation. While caricatures of teenhood talk about moody, odiferous, impulsive, emotionally volatile, expensive people living in your home, the reality, like all realities, is much more complex. Everything about teens is larger, including the stakes in their relationships, their risk-taking, and the dangers they face. In fact, psychiatrists tell us that adolescence is a time when teens’ brains are developing nearly as rapidly as their limbs. But a companion kind of development is also happening: a pruning of neural pathways that are no longer needed, in order to forge new pathways, particularly between the systems that control memory-identity and the prefrontal cortex, which dictates impulse control, or “puts the brakes,” on all that impulsive behavior.
In short, there’s a lot more going on in those growing, changing bodies than irascibility and unpredictable emotionality. Those of us who deal with adolescents, who love them, sometimes have to look beyond the rejection and the gruff attitudes to see the concomitant growth. They are, after all, learning how to be people. This is big work.
Lent invites us to continue the big work of becoming Christians in the world. Like the process of moving from childhood to adulthood, it’s rarely something we feel as complete: the process of conversion, of metanoia, takes a lifetime. Like the Israelites in the desert, the Church is also on a long journey, and these journeys are not without moments of grumbling about thirst, needs, desires. Pilgrimage rarely comes without pitfalls. Like the Israelites, we may be tempted to ask, “Is the Lord in our midst, or not?”