Jenny Sundel arrived in New York last week to attend her brother's wedding. The former Hollywood entertainment reporter had spent the previous year in Paris, eating macarons and posting Hipstamatic images on her Tumblr account. If you type “jesus year” into Google, Ms. Sundel's testimony is what comes up first. Her restlessness has been optimized, which can't be dismissed at a time when significance is measured by how phrases are ranked by the leading search engines.
“It was one of those things you read – you don't even think it's going to be an important thing,” says Ms. Sundel, describing how she came to be a unlikely prophet for adopting the most significant year in Christ's life as a metaphor for personal growth. “I don't know if it was David Carr – I'm kind of addicted to addiction memoirs and I mix them up. Whoever it was, they kicked crack in their Jesus Year. I read it and I was like, Jesus Year? 33? That's how old I'm turning.”
She didn't think about it again until a week before her birthday. When she told a close friend she was turning 33, the significance was immediately dismissed. “Thirty-three is a nothing year,” her friend said. “It's not 30, it's not 35 – it's not even 40.”
“I told her, ‘Actually, it's a major year. It's my Jesus Year,'” Ms. Sundel recalls, stressing the importance of a concept she didn't fully understand.
At that moment, she decided to quit her job, sell her possessions on Craigslist and spend the next year in Europe. Eight days later, she was on an airplane with no clue what to do next.
So, what exactly is a Jesus Year? The term cropped up periodically on early blogs and Myspace pages, but only now appears to be gaining traction among those trying to make the increasingly difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood.
This is the definition found in the Urban Dictionary: “Time to get moving and get things done (maybe).” And one of the first mainstream uses appears in a 1996 Chicago Sun-Times article about Tennessee-born singer-songwriter R.B. Morris, who refers cryptically to having done a “Jesus Year” but offers no details.
Brooklyn-based artist Wayne Adams is more forthcoming. “Thirty-three is largely considered the age Jesus Christ was when His life and ministry were abruptly ended in His crucifixion,” he explains on the blog Curator, adding that, as he approached his own Jesus Year, “in the back of my mind, it seemed like there was a sort of historical/biblical precedent for being at the height of one's career, or at least doing something incredibly important at that age.”
But the impulse is more spiritual than overtly Christian. To paraphrase comedian Bill Hicks, who died two months short of the start of his own Jesus Year, we live in a culture that commemorates the death and resurrection of its messiah by telling children a giant bunny rabbit leaves chocolate eggs while they sleep. This is a generation of people obsessed with vampires and zombies who grew up in a world that prints more copies of the Ikea catalogue than the Bible. Is it any surprise that their search for meaning is being played out on social media?
A recent study by British social-networking site Friends United asserts that the year is the happiest time of our lives. “By this age, innocence has been lost, but our sense of reality is mixed with a strong sense of hope, a ‘can do' spirit, and a healthy belief in our own talents and abilities,” says psychologist Donna Dawson, best known as Company magazine's first Agony Aunt.
This interpretation doesn't, however, take into account the frustrations faced by today's thirtysomethings. “The basic milestones that young people of previous generations could expect to complete by the age of 30 – graduating school, leaving home, becoming financial independent and forming their own families – aren't necessarily occurring in that standard fashion,” says Barbara Mitchell, who teaches sociology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
“It's unprecedented from a historical perspective. On the one hand, they have all these opportunities and options. On the other hand, I can imagine they'd start to feel somewhat anxious about trying to transition into complete adulthood in an economy that doesn't allow them to do that.”
According to Prof. Mitchell, the Jesus Year phenomenon demonstrates how so-called emerging adults are trying to connect their own experience to something transcendental and more profound than mundane daily life. “They are trying to anchor themselves in something bigger than themselves.”
So, the Jesus Year has become a meme for dealing with, not a mid-life crisis but rather a stalled-life crisis.
“That's what really stood out to me – that there is a name for this early 30s malaise thing that I see in all of my friends,” Ms. Sundel says. “By 35, especially for women, you have to be married with babies; otherwise you kind of missed your time.”
She interpreted the Jesus Year as an opportunity for reinvention, a kind of bonus year off from the pressures of adulthood, and embarked upon a year of self-improvement and magical thinking. She travelled. She gathered her rosebuds. She took lots of photos and posted them on social media. For her, the Jesus Year is a bricolage of all the popular “years of” quests that came before – eating in Italy, praying in India, cooking all of Julia Childs's recipes, reading every volume of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Mr. Adams, on the other hand, became a vegetarian. “If Jesus was at the core, it seemed to make killing and eating His creation a bit more significant.
“I don't know if all of this made me any more like Jesus, but I do think it has helped make me a little more conscientious in general.”
The feeling didn't last. He began his 34th year by eating meat for the first time in 365 days, a lamb chop. “And,” he concludes with more than a touch of irony, “it was good.”
A search for meaning
Ignoring the robust scholarly debate over how old Jesus was when he was crucified – or the fact that 33 was hardly young in 33 AD – the most profound reality of this age today is that it's the last gasp before you leave the valuable under-35 demographic. You are becoming less valuable to the marketing machine that had praised you since your teens. All the things you bought don't love you back. The rub, of course, is where do you turn instead?
“I just spent so many years talking to other people about their lives, I was kind of ignoring my life,” Ms. Sundel says. “I had absolutely no more heart left in what I was doing. I was really having a crisis of creativity, which sounds very pretentious. I used to be a creative person. I used to be a complete person. How did I get on this hamster wheel of work? How did all of my identity go into that?”
The quest for deeper meaning comes as no surprise to Mardi Tindal, the 40th moderator of the United Church of Canada. She suspects the Jesus Year speaks to a longing everyone has to be more than themselves.
“Those in their 30s now, as Douglas Coupland said, are the first generation to be raised without religion,” she explains. “If they turn to Jesus, it wouldn't surprise me. He was a model for living a life of transcendence.”
Happiness is very much on Ms. Tindal's mind at the moment. She recently returned from New York, having been invited by the prime minister of Bhutan to participate in a high-level United Nations conference. The goal? To find a place for a “gross national happiness” metric in a global economic system hell bent on gross domestic product.
“We're not talking about a superficial kind of happiness,” she says. “We're talking about a deep sense of well-being.”
That Ms. Sundel happens to be Jewish is a sign of the Jesus Year's widespread appeal. “Want to know what's weird?” she confides. “I was brought up more religious than your average Jew. Like my parents are the kind of people that will tell me that they're going to disown me if I don't marry a Jew. But they immediately got it – as did all their friends. In a weird way, their Jewish friends in their 60s in Florida are some of my biggest supporters. They saw it for the quest aspects and the discoveries.”
She pauses. She has the over-conscious sensibility of one who has become a believer – in something – despite her natural instincts. “I thought maybe I would be taking more heat from religious Christians, but in fact they're like, ‘I never thought about 33 as being such a special year.'”
Reinvention, it seems, is an incredibly powerful image. Even the strangers who showed up to buy her stuff off Craigslist expressed a surprisingly deep admiration for what she was doing.
When her grandfather died midway through her Jesus Year, she was alone in Paris, devastated. A guy from Canada she knew only as Joe contacted her, one searcher to another. “He said he wanted to be a kind of like an angel to me, to tell me that what I was doing was meaningful and that it had effected him,” she recalls. “Honestly, that moment alone was worth the whole year for me.”
A visit to Joe's blog, NoFixedAddress, reveals the epiphanies of a young backpacker out on a gap year. “I've learned that the world is full of people quick to tell you the things you can't do, the things you shouldn't do and the things that won't work,” he writes. “The instant you ignore them, you will meet the people who will tell you all the things you can do, all the things that are possible, and how to fix the things that aren't working.”
What would Jobs do?
It's not insignificant that on the last day of her Jesus Year, Ms. Sundel ended her blog post by quoting Silicon Valley icon Steve Jobs, who consistently interrupted his business ventures to embark upon spiritual quests: “You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
Ms. Sundel's epiphanies, sprinkled throughout the 33 – yes, 33 – pages on her Tumblr blog, are not unlike what you'd hear on a Sunday morning in any reasonable place of worship. “The ideas, I think, are in line with Jesus's teaching: to help each other, and try to see the good in other people. To have meaningful connections to other people, and not just superficial ones.”
The now 34-year-old is back in the United States and is pitching her Jesus Year project as a book, a sign that today's path to enlightenment has not only been paved by Jesus, but also by Eat, Pray, Love's Elizabeth Gilbert.
“I'm not surprised,” Prof. Mitchell remarks. “It's a trademark of today's technologically savvy, social networking young adult. They have to be creative and innovative in terms of thinking about the possibilities of earning a living.”
Chris Koentges is an award-winning Vancouver writer. Shelley Youngblut is western editor of The Globe and Mail, based in Calgary.