November 2008 - Vol. 24

The Double Life Syndrome

recognizing the challenge youth face

By Mike Shaughnessy

The double-life syndrome says that youth live one way in a one context and quite differently in another. How accurate is this?

Some youth want to be Christian. They live a double life because they don’t know how to handle the challenging, secular situations they must be in, like school or work.

Some youth are nominally Christian at best . They act Christian when they must, such as at church or youth group, but only in these situations. They may not say it, but they probably want out.

Some youth don’t know what they want. They flip between these two modes constantly. The double-life behavior they manifest is similar, but the underlying realities differ.

The Fractured Life
The double-life paradigm also fails to capture the fact that youth live in multiple moral worlds. Theirs is a fractured life not just a double life. They encounter many moral environments daily and each has its own values for behavior: community, neighborhood, youth group, work, sports teams, family and school (with its own set of multiple classrooms, peer groups, etc… ) Every youth must learn the expected behavior for each
environment if he or she is to fit in – and fitting in is incredibly important in the teenage world.

"I live out my life in different ways – a different way for each context. Parts of my life I keep hidden in each context. Only I know the real me."
– Carl age 16

Even Christian environments give conflicting moral signals. My family's approach to dating or media may differ from that held by my church, my youth leader, my Christian friends or school, or another Christian family. So, who is right?

Christian youth face constant moral pressure: to live a consistent life in environments they do not choose or govern.Unlike adults, youth have little say in their moral environments.

I won't say ours was a tough school, but we had our own coroner.
- Lenny Bruce

They are just expected to get along – nor can they simply leave the moral environments they don't like.

What Can We Do?
Let's start by recognizing the challenge youth face. It is tough living in a fractured moral world where they are expected to fit in everywhere. It's not possible. So, it helps if we express a bit of understanding.

Next let's equip our youth to handle well their multiple moral worlds. Let's help them see their challenge and then work through any specific situations with them.Let's provide more help, not more pressure.

Personal moral integrity – the ability to act the same in every environment – is important. It is part of growing up. It is a sign of maturity. It is gained in the fiery furnaces of everyday life. It is that inner strength to be right from the inside.

[Mike Shaughnessy is an elder in The Servants of the Word and the Director of Kairos in North America. Kairos is an international federation of outreaches to high school, university and post university aged people.]

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