All of us hit some sort of shipwreck in our 20s. Sharon Daloz Parks, a scholar and researcher in the field of young adult development, calls this shipwreck a metaphorical coming apart, a crash that rips through the very fabric of our identity. She describes shipwreck as the experiences that devastate our “assumptions about [our] self, how the world work[s], and even [our] sense of God.” In other words, they crumple us.
I hit my shipwreck at the age of 22.
Shipwrecks can happen for any number of reasons. They can be triggered by all sorts of life circumstances: our fiance or serious partner breaks up with us, the career we thought we were made for collapses in front of us, we get seriously ill or injured in a way that devastates our future plans, a cause we’ve dedicated ourselves to collapses, we make a choice that irrevocably changes our life, our community betrays us or we simply discover that the intellectual constructs that held up our worldview no longer add up. On the whole, shipwreck sucks.
My shipwreck hit when the doors to the career I had dreamed of and worked toward for nearly a decade, shut in my face. From the age of 12, I had dreamed of working in the film industry and I pursued that dream into college, majoring in film, then studying at film school. I even managed to convince my husband to pack up and move to Los Angeles with me after we got married. In other words, I poured everything—my life, my faith, my marriage—into this dream.
In her book Authoring Your Life, nationally recognized scholar on student development, Marcia Baxter Magolda, says that we are at a turning point in history. Life is not working the way it used to, or the way we think it should. And young adults have become the litmus test of this change. As Baxter Magolda puts it, “The twentysomething years are among the primary hinge moments in the human lifespan, a time when a person may be recomposed.” She goes on to write that it is during these “in between years,” the years when we are no longer a child or adolescents and also not quite yet an adult (roughly 18-32), that we begin to see that things are are not quite unfolding as we thought they would.
Never have truer words been spoken; Life did not work out as I had thought it would. Dwayne and I emptied our savings account, said goodbye to friends and family, and landed in LA—only to be greeted with disappointment and disillusionment.
Los Angeles is where we both hit our individual shipwrecks, but it’s also where we found our way home.
I love how Parker Palmer puts it in his book, Let Your Life Speak. He writes that the path of our life is full of hardship but “challenges … largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge.” It was in the journey out of my shipwreck that I was forced to let go of everything I thought defined me. I had to let go of control, and in the process I discovered what Palmer calls, “the grain of my soul.” I discovered who I was truly created to be. And that is the beauty and heartbreak of shipwreck. It tears us to pieces, but it forces us to lay claim to our lives, our self, our personhood in a way we’ve never done before.
After three years of working through my shipwreck, my old dreams opened up before me. As swiftly and mysteriously as they had shut, the doors to the film industry swung open before me. I began working at a film financing company, swept up in the glamour and pace that can only be afforded by the marbled, cool glint of Beverly Hills. This was exactly where I had always thought I wanted to be.
But nine months later, I quit.
My journey into and out of the film industry, and my consequent journey into and out of my shipwreck, is many layers deep. It’s a story I’ve taken a whole book to write. But I can tell you here, in this short space, that I walked away from the film industry and my dreams of working in it, because I finally learned to listen to what Baxter Magolda calls the “inner voice.” I learned that life was more complex than I expected, that dreams don’t just unfurl seamlessly and that meaning and significance lie around the periphery of heart break. I realized that everything I truly wanted was right in front of me: my marriage, my faith and a new craft to pour my soul into—writing.
In the end, the journey of shipwreck is the journey of coming home. Through shipwreck we discover a deeper, more nuanced view of life. And though the new discovery does not mitigate the pain and loss wrapped up in shipwreck, “we do not want to live in a less-adequate truth, a less viable sense of reality, an insufficient wisdom,” writes Daloz Parks.
In the end, we cannot get to the beauty and hope that waits for us without first risking shipwreck.
Christin Taylor lives and writes in Bellingham, WA, with her husband, Dwayne, and two little ones, Noelle and Nathan. She just completed a book-length manuscript about her personal shipwreck and the research she discovered around young adult development. You can read more about her and the book at www.myshipwreck.com.