Into God's Light | Confusion: Who Am I? What Is My Path? - Seton Shrine
Into God's Light - Confusion

Into God’s Light | Confusion: Who Am I? What Is My Path?

Week One | An Easter reflection series with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton on the spiritual and mental health crisis afflicting young people.

Click here to read the Introduction to Into God’s Light.

Ethan is a twenty-year-old engineering major who works as a lifeguard at the university campus pool. His shift starts at 5:30 a.m. which means that five days a week he sets his alarm for 4:45. He can’t afford the upkeep for a car so he rides the two miles to work on his bike. He splits the cost of his one-bedroom apartment with two other students. One is a girl in her late twenties who works full-time and takes courses in the evenings. She sleeps on the sofa in the living room when she is home, which is rarely. The other student, Joe, is someone he met after advertising online for a roommate. Joe plays video games online for most of every night so Ethan gets very little sleep, which means he’s losing ground in his upper-division engineering classes.

Ethan’s parents have told him they want to help and he believes them, but they’re divorced and both supporting younger kids from other marriages. So Ethan feels like what happens next is totally up to him. The truth is, he has no idea how he is going to make it all work. How he’s going to get the degree, find a job, start an actual life. What an “actual life” might be, he’s not at all sure. In fact, he’s finding it almost impossible to think anything through these days. The combination of too little sleep and too much stress has thrown his mind into chaos. He’s afraid that he’s becoming like an old person with dementia: totally confused.


Young people today are offered a myriad of choices regarding vocation and lifestyle that didn’t exist a hundred years ago, when most people lived in the same town they were born in and worked at the same jobs their parents had. The array of options available to Gen Zers trying to build an adult life is impressive but can also feel overwhelming.

From earliest childhood, the guidance they’ve gotten from their parents almost always falls into one of two camps: Either, “we don’t care what you do—we just want you to be happy” or “get a job in Silicon Valley—that’s where the money is.” They’ve been taught to believe that the goal of life is self-fulfillment, reached via one of two routes: by pursuing an endlessly interesting, totally satisfying career or becoming rich enough to do whatever they want.

In a ruthlessly competitive society like ours, however, the youngest and least experienced seekers-after-self-fulfillment are at a serious disadvantage, which helps explain the harmful levels of confusion and stress Gen Zers are experiencing.

According to the American Psychological Association, “About two-thirds of 18- to 34-year-olds said stress makes it hard for them to focus (67%). . . . [on] most days, their stress is “completely overwhelming” (58%); it renders them numb (50%), and they are so stressed they can’t function.” Stress-caused confusion makes life difficult to navigate on every level. But it particularly impedes young people’s ability to make good decisions in a society that expects them to know exactly what they want and how to get it when they can barely pay their rent.


Elizabeth Seton understood just how quickly too much stress can lead to destabilizing confusion. When she is only a few years older than Ethan and pregnant with her third child, her father-in-law falls on the ice and severely injures his hip. An otherwise healthy man in his late forties, he cannot seem to heal. Seton owns and runs the family business, but though he’s been training his oldest son—Elizabeth’s husband—to someday take it over, gentle, self-effacing William is in no way ready to handle the job when his father dies.

Despite being twice-widowed and responsible for a large family of motherless children, William’s father has never gotten around to making a will. Overnight, Elizabeth finds herself responsible for six young orphans. And because her husband is struggling so hard to save the business, she takes on the additional role of scribe for the company. But this enormous burden of responsibility quickly begins to take its toll.

In a letter to a friend, she describes herself as “woefully fatigued. . . and unwell.” More, “I am so entirely occupied with them children . . . that I have no time to indulge reflection.” If she tries to grab a quiet moment, “I hear a half dozen voices calling Sister, or Mamma.” The stress of caring for so many in the middle of this constant whirl of confusion hinders her ability to think clearly.

Later, as a young widow, Elizabeth faces much the same situation. She is now the sole parent of five small children who require her full-time care, her financial situation is dire and, though relatives and friends are generous with aid, she must find income-generating work. Yet just when she needs to think as clearly as possible about the future, her mind is completely dominated by whether or not she should become a Catholic.

Unlike today, when faith is considered a matter of personal preference, Elizabeth’s conversion will have painful practical consequences. Not only will it offend her generous relatives, it will affect her ability to earn a living by teaching the children of her Protestant neighbors and friends. But Elizabeth firmly believes that her choice will determine her salvation and that of her children. And so begins a year of agonizing confusion as she struggles back and forth between one option and the other.


Jesus’ disciples were no strangers to confusion. As the man for whom they’ve given up everything begins to reveal what will soon be happening to him, they react with understandable shock. He’ll be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes? They’ll arrest him? And kill him?

The vital center around which the disciples have organized their lives seems to be crumbling before their eyes. In their confusion, their most important relationships begin to fracture. They argue about who is greatest. They grow furious with the woman who kneels and washes Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. One of them becomes so disillusioned, he accepts thirty pieces of silver to betray the man he once admired beyond all others.

Though their faith may be naive and immature at this point, it is what finally allows the disciples to regain their footing. They remember who Jesus has promised will guide them in his absence: the Holy Spirit. The same holds true for Elizabeth Seton.


The confusing whirl of her younger years has turned Elizabeth into a spiritual seeker. She initially seeks God in nature, then in a version of Greek stoicism, and then in a version of the ecstatic prayer that is popular during the religious Great Awakening of that era. But the first inkling that Elizabeth has finally found what she is longing for occurs during her time in Livorno, Italy, when she attends Mass with her friend Amabilia Filicchi.

As Elizabeth studies the priest, she is struck by “his countenance on which Many lights from the altar reflected, and gave such strange impressions to my soul that I could but cover my face with my hands and let the tears run.” Here is simplicity, unity of vision, wholeness; here, she finds her ever-active mind slowing down and filling with new peace.

This glimpse of the light is what finally gets her through her painful year of confusion. Though she is still not sure about what to do, she is absolutely certain that something entirely outside her own mind—something holy and sent by God— manifested itself during that Mass in Livorno. To figure out what this means for her life, she must pray intensely, seek out wise advisors, absorb the words of the great saints, and immerse herself in scripture. Christian tradition calls this long struggle to make a good decision the process of “discernment.”

The Greek word for discernment is “diakrisis,” which means “to sort.” It begins with praying for guidance and direction from the Holy Spirit, then carefully attending to the thoughts and impulses that come. This can continue for a long time, but eventually, certainty dawns. Or as Father Cheverus, one of Elizabeth’s most important spiritual advisors, described it, “In the midst of the storm & when Jesus seems to be asleep, call upon him with earnestness, he will arise & everything will be calm within you.”


When Ethan’s stress-caused confusion finally becomes unbearable, he will likely seek help at the campus health center. He may be prescribed drugs for his anxiety and inability to sleep. Hopefully, he will also find a good counselor. The simple act of talking with a sympathetic listener should help counteract the sense that he is completely on his own with his problems. Perhaps the counselor can guide him through a secular version of the ancient Christian discernment process so that he can move on from this stuck place and start thinking about the future.

However, Ethan will not be seeking God’s will for his life. He knows nothing about God—only an ethereal something or “higher power” he can’t describe or define, that may or may not help fulfill him and make him happy. And though his counselor will offer her sincere support, she can’t shed much light. For the underlying assumption of the secular discernment process is that the point and purpose of Ethan’s life is entirely up to him.

To learn more about this series of seven Easter reflections click here.

PAULA HUSTON is a National Endowment of the Arts Fellow and the author of two novels and eight books of spiritual nonfiction. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories and in the annual Best Spiritual Writing anthology. Like Mother Seton, Huston is a convert to Catholicism. In 1999, she became a Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate and is a lay member of New Camaldoli Hermitage’s community of monks in Big Sur, Calif. She’s also a former president of the Chrysostom Society, a national organization of literary Catholic writers.