Sometimes I look at my classroom of college students and wonder what happens to shape some twenty-something-year-old faces into smooth lakes of calm with nearly perpetual smiles, and others into relief maps with worry-lined foreheads and mouths that look like they haven’t laughed in weeks. What events and habits of life and mind have already formed such young faces?
In his new book, A Restless Age: How Saint Augustine Helps You Make Sense of Your Twenties, Austin Gohn compares the twenties to a kind of decade-long Amish rumspringa. “You’re less certain about the certainties you’ve been told to believe your whole life and you start searching for answers in other places. You’re starting new habits and quitting old ones as you try to figure out what kind of person you want to become.”
He knows, because he’s spent much of his twenties as a minister to that demographic. He cares about them individually and as a generation, especially because of studies from neuroscience tell us that puberty through the mid-twenties is “a developmental sweet spot, which your brain hasn’t experienced since you were a toddler and will never experience to the same degree again.” It’s a time of rewiring, a window of opportunity “to start new habits and quit old ones.” And, he says, habits set in our twenties, whether intentional or not, often set lifelong patterns.
Today’s young people have some worries that I didn’t. Yet there’s nothing new under the sun. This book takes the common longings of current twenty-somethings and addresses them through the filter of a similar fourth-century restless wanderer, Saint Augustine.
It’s a brilliant concept, to appeal to young adults by marketing Augustine’s relevance. Thanks to Sarah Rudin’s recent, refreshing translation of his Confessions, that connection seems fresher than ever, as Gohn discovered the second time he read the book, while in seminary.
“I remember thinking, Augustine could have been someone in my young adults ministry. I felt like I was reading the most relevant book about young adulthood I had ever read. He was asking the same questions as the young adults I knew, sharing the same fears and struggles, and worrying excessively about work and love. I didn’t just feel like I was reading about the young adults at my church, though. I felt as if I was reading about myself.”
Those who have heard Gohn preach (in person or via podcast) know that he has a gift for making cultural references that are more apt than hokey. Take the book’s opening sentences: “Saint Augustine’s Instagram would have been crushing it. He lived in Carthage, Rome, and Milan before he was 30—urban centers that would have made any Internet listicle of top ten cities for young adults.”
The book spends a chapter each on five common longings: Searching for Answers, Searching for Habits, Searching for Belonging, Searching for Love, Searching for Work. And the introduction, “The Search Under the Search,” (spoiler alert!) begins with Augustine’s oft-quoted phrase: “[Y]ou made us with yourself as our goal, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” to make the point that the other searches, while important and good, stop short of their destination.
This is not a how-to book. Gohn offers what Augustine’s mentor Simplicianus provided: not the step-by-step solutions his listener might have wanted, but stories—something to awaken and feed the imagination, which can carry us farther than facts, memory verses or pat answers.
Gohn is a natural storyteller. Along with paraphrasing events in Augustine’s life, he uses stories, even some confessions, from his own—getting caught shoplifting, being rejected from a collecting club, adventures in dating, getting bitten in his part-time job at a used bookstore, and more—to illustrate those longings, the pain of some losses and the occasional lessons in redemption. Some moments in the book are touching; some are hilarious. Several times I laughed out loud, hard. And a time or two, I was moved to heart-softened tears.
Along the way, he quotes such diverse voices as C.S. Lewis, Seth Godin, Alan Jacobs, Timothy Keller, James K. A. Smith, David Foster Wallace, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Aziz Ansari, Henri Nouwen, The Atlantic, The Economist, and other sources.
And, like Augustine, he continually points to the source of rest at the end of all restlessness: “We will never find rest in trying to change our- selves or in refusing to change ourselves, but only in the God who has arrived to change what we cannot.”
My twenties ended long ago. I see now that some of the habits I would like to change had origins back then. Would the book have made a difference if someone from the future could have sent it to me?
That’s the wrong question. Here are a few more: Does this book hold something for people over thirty? Knowing what we know now of the brain’s neuroplasticity, can we change some habits formed long ago? Yes, and yes. But it won’t come from lessons learned or will power. It will come from looking charitably at our own perennial restlessnesses, recognizing the dead ends they lead to, and reacquainting ourselves with the ultimate source of rest.
Warning: as one book often leads to another, the Confessions excerpts will make some readers want to find Rudin’s translation. While I’m waiting for a copy from the public library, I’m trying the “homework” offered in the back of the book. Each chapter has five study questions, for discussion or journaling. And an appendix walks readers through how to use colored sticky-notes to make a timeline of our lives, realize turning points, and write a micro-condensed version of our own Confessions.
* The print version of A Restless Age: How Saint Augustine Helps You Make Sense of Your Twenties publishes Tuesday, March 19th, and the Kindle is available now by following this link.