Adolescent Abandonment: Navigating the Teenage Years

I noticed it was dark outside. Turning over the fifth page of my organic chemistry textbook, I decided to leave the empty lobby of East Pyne, where I was reclining on a leather armchair and beginning the first of many readings for my college career, and walk to Murray-Dodge. At the time, I was not aware that Murray-Dodge was the hub for religious life on campus, although I did know that there was a small prayer room for Muslim students on the hall’s third floor. It was my first week at Princeton, and the warm gusts of a typical calm September evening met the energy of a school year’s start.

“It’s been two weeks since I’ve prayed,” I thought to myself as I climbed the creaking stairs to the prayer room. “Two weeks times five times a day equals… seventy prayers.” I never liked leaving mental math unsolved. Two weeks ago, before all the orientation trips and activities, I had been home, eagerly awaiting the day I would load my mom’s car and be driven to a future more exciting than my humidly quiet neighborhood in Pennsylvania.

But missing prayers wasn’t something new to me. I attended a college preparatory school, where I boarded my senior year and learned how easy it is to immerse yourself in an experience while blissfully neglecting non-mainstream aspects of yourself. Sure, twice-weekly required chapel services and a mandatory religion class kept a reflective spirit alive within me, but they could not make my spiritual identity crystal clear to myself. Indeed, it is not uncommon – perhaps it is expected – for teenagers to push questions of who they are far from their heads and hearts. The impetus to pray felt strong only when I was home during breaks and my parents were home to convene the family, typically for the sunset prayer.

It was the same sunset prayer for which I spontaneously paused my homework and walked to Murray-Dodge to observe. I made the required ablution and stood on one of the colorful prayer mats in the prayer room, reminiscent of the ones I grew up touching my forehead to, and performed the sunset prayer. I sat on the ground after I finished, trying to find the words with which I could talk to God. But it felt like that moment you call a friend after months of not talking, and you do not exactly know what to say and where to start. My eyes wandered left and right, and they caught a small cylindrical beige box with a printed sticker reading “Donation Box.” I remembered what my dad told me when I was young about always making a donation at a mosque when you pray there for the first time. I dug a five-dollar bill out of my pocket and deposited it in the box, hoping that the investment might lead to a return. 

I am not an expert on teenage development or “adolescent psychology,” or on whatever else people claim to be experts. But what I do have is experience. 

What makes my encounters with faith and being a minority in high school unique? Well, one salient aspect of my teenage journey is my status as a minority. My nationality is Indian, and I identify religiously with Islam. While there is a substantial number of Indian Muslims in the world, that combination of nationality and religion makes me a minority no matter where I go on this planet – something that has come to excite me. The second thing to keep in mind when I pen, as anecdotal evidence, my stories of tribulation and faith is that I had a strong religious upbringing. I grew up in a household in which I was taught, like many Muslim children, that God is #1 on the list of priorities and life goals. (#2 is becoming a licensed US physician…) 

Both of these experiences are not rare to millions of first-generation American children and/or religious minorities in this country and abroad. They are what shaped the unique obstacle course of my adolescence.

You don’t have to run this obstacle course alone. Never forget that. And after reading this piece, you won’t have to run it advice-less. Here are my tips for navigating a spiritual journey through adolescence and life. (I’ll keep you updated as I myself continue to navigate that latter thing.)

1.     The importance of community.

 Finding a community means finding people who reassure you that you are not alone. It means finding companions who influence you in the direction of not the tide of your surroundings, but rather, in the direction of your dreams and of becoming the best possible version of yourself. These are people who value and help you honor your commitments – whether these commitments be to your cousins, geology, Sherlock, feminism, lacrosse, sustainability, Aristotelian philosophy, Latin American culture, or God.

 An ideal community is one where you can thrive in the fullest sense of the word “thrive”: live, grow, become more self-aware, and find what makes you happy now and in the long run. A strong community should also make you feel welcome always. If you cannot find a community like this, you are then tasked with building one. The reward will only be that much greater for you. You will become an individual dedicated to carving your space in society. The spirit of an American is that of a pioneer, and that spirit is alive in you. I know it. Trust it.

2.     Embracing moments of insecurity and weakness.

…As opportunities for deep reflection and self-evaluation, and internal planning for progress. 

Those moments are often the most exciting, I have found – when you get to take a step back and truly think about why you do what you do everyday. Why you feel the way you do. Think about who/what are the forces that are suffocating you. And who/what are those forces that are, conversely, liberating you and helping you make your life your own.

Who or what is empowering you? Think deeply about this question in moments of self-evaluation and self-reflection. Enjoy the good times, but find the hard times even more exciting, and embrace the chance and challenge to transcend these hard times.

3.     Understanding the effect your minority status might have on your self-perception. 

You look around you, and you see a definition of success. That success is typically defined as the achievement of some worldly value – through money, social station, professional repute, a certain physical appearance, group memberships, etc. As someone who was taught to prioritize God above all things, I experienced a great deal of cognitive dissonance as I made my way through high school. Everyone seemed to care about getting into Ivy League universities, winning school awards, becoming first-class athletes, and acquiring social popularity. As a 13-year-old, I unquestioningly began to throw myself into it all, and I achieved a certain level of “success.” When I arrived at Princeton, however, I felt spiritually lost and, after four years of laboring for certain mainstream ideals, internally unsure of who I am and what I really valued anymore. I began to aspire for something else now; I made self-awareness my new goal in college. 

In addition to a misalignment of priorities that you might find between you and others, you might begin to feel that you are not cut out for success and happiness as a minority. Perhaps you feel too different from those who seem to enjoy life with no insecurities – different physically, racially, socioeconomically, ethnically, etc. Indeed, self-inadequacy can be one of the most potent sources of your internal downfall. Self-inadequacy is paralyzing; it weakens you and makes stability and security seem distant and unattainable.

What I have found to help best counteract this, comprehensively, is talking about it and embracing one’s vulnerability. I joined a student group my freshman winter called the Religious Life Council, which goes on an annual one-week retreat. Nestled in a renovated former-monastery in the Hudson Valley, we spend most of the week in silence in a single room while one member at a time shares his/her “spiritual autobiography.” The environment and prompt of the spiritual autobiography is unique. The entire retreat is prefaced with the fact that this week is a protected “safe space,” during which we are encouraged to be vulnerable and allow this setting to bring us closer. Indeed it did, and for the first time in my life, I was able to get a lot off my chest – years of self-dissatisfaction and guilt.

That initial point of reaching so far within yourself and extracting your deepest concerns is the beginning of your adulthood. I made the mistake of thinking my adult life begins with stability, unwavering direction, and a fully defined sense of purpose. Rather, I found, adult life begins with an internal quest that equips you with the capacity to achieve this stability on your own.

There is an account from the Islamic tradition of the Prophet Muhammad. The story goes that, when he was five years old, two unknown elders approached him, opened his chest, removed a black clot from his heart, and washed his heart with white snow. It is said that this purification of his heart is what set the stage for him to receive the revelation of the Qur’an later in life and ascend to the status of prophethood. 

Similarly, I like to think that we are all in the process, throughout the course of our lives, of reaching within ourselves and cleansing our souls. We remove from them the black clots of self-inadequacy, insecurity, propensity to do wrong, and unhappiness. These are the things that keep us from a state of pure happiness and comfort. 

I pray now. A junior in college, I know what motivates me, what compels me to new internal heights, and what gives me life. I became president of the Princeton Muslim Students’ Association in my sophomore winter, for that was the community I found most responsible for aiding the growth and empowerment I achieved during my assimilation to college and adult life. I know that every time I add a brick to the organization’s structure, I strengthen its ability to provide others with the same guidance I received from it not long ago. The path to happiness and full internal security is a long one for all of us, and perhaps the path’s asperity is most poignantly felt during those years of adolescence our parents tell us are so formative. But while you chug along on that journey, never forget that in your weakness there is great strength; in your uncertainty, tremendous wisdom to be gained; and in any dark situation, loyal aids and systems of support. And never forget that you are far from alone.

– Written by Nabil Shaikh (redefy mentor)