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The Problem of Experience

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Many people keep a box of mementos from their childhood and fill it with things that help them recall fond memories or important moments from their youth. When young adults head off to college or start their first real job, a new phase of their life begins. At this point, nothing more is likely added to that box of memories and it is stored away as a new experience begins.

Thus, this cycle often continues and each experience is compartmentalized until one’s life becomes a stack of metaphorical containers, separate and unique, but not wholly unified.

How often do we hear the exclamation, “What a great experience”? The word “experience” is often used to refer to something that has occurred in the past or will conclude, something that can be summed up and added to a plethora of other experiences. But have we really considered how these experiences shape us as persons – as sons and daughters, as friends, as future spouses and perhaps fathers and mothers, etc. – or do we become so caught up in each experience that we lose a sense of who we actually are and want to become?

One example of this is “The College Experience” which is marketed to students and parents alike as an experience that can be had, possessed, and ultimately consumed for a price. Because of this consumerist mentality toward experiences of this sort, there is particular pressure for people to conform to the predetermined standards of that experience, to “fit in” or “get their money’s worth” so to speak, leaving little room for authentic personal formation.

The problem with this approach to experience is when one’s identity becomes so caught up in each experience that the individual person’s identity seems to be lost/muddled underneath a façade that fits the experience. In this way, taking on more than one such identity at a time seems daunting and incompatible with what is demanded by each. And when a transition is made from one experience to the next, there is little to no continuity. The compartmentalization of experiences doesn’t allow one to be formed by the collective experiences of a lifetime. Rather a person, in this case, must temporarily conform to the expectations of each passing experience.

To allow ourselves to actually be formed by our experiences requires vulnerability because we are no longer in the position of the consumer, the position of power. It can be delightful to be formed by certain experiences, but it can also be painful. Allowing for this formation through the fluid interaction of our experiences and our person shapes us into persons who are more capable of being fully present, as ourselves, to our current experiences.

When an experience no longer functions in the past tense but as something that participates in one’s ongoing formation, then one’s identity need not be singularly bound to a particular experience and one is freed of the walls of compartmentalization. So perhaps each new phase of life doesn’t require that we cap off a previous experience in order to begin a new one. And perhaps, as we continue to grow and be formed as individuals, we will be more equipped to enter into relationships that need not be restricted to particular points in life where experiences are shared.

When experiences are no longer something to be frantically gathered up for ourselves, we can let others walk with us in our journey of formation, allowing them to enter into our delight, our suffering, and even the mundane. Maybe then the brevity of life can be filled with accompaniment and communion.

Madeline Running

Madeline Running is a senior studying Theology and Catholic Social Tradition at the University of Notre Dame and an undergraduate fellow with the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.