September 4, 2018
September! New notebooks, the prospect of crunchy leaves, switching iced drinks for hot ones, school clothes, and school. While I am not heading back to school this fall, I am overrun with thoughts of those who are.
School is hard. Teen suicides and suicide attempts jump every September, remain at somewhat steady rates through May, and then sink during the summer. You can read about the studies that confirm this here and here, and you can read a little more about the stressors that students face here and here. While teens are at the center of the stress cesspool, younger students also face the stress of academic pressure, behavioral mandates, and, most significantly, social cruelty. The last article I linked to above discusses bullying “to scale” via social media, and many articles have been written about the ramifications of beings subjected to this culture. Whether an individual is subjected to bullying directly or not, simply knowing what cruelty exists is enough to control behavior and to cause intense anxiety and fear. Add to all this the fear for physical safety that is now part of every school day for every student (and teacher. And family member of a student or teacher) across our country. Rebecca Solnit closes her brilliant essay about high school suffering: “Every time I drive past a high school, I can feel the oppression. I can feel all those trapped souls who just want to be outside…I always say aloud, ‘You poor souls.’ ”
Part of what is so unbearable for teens is the lack of perspective: in adolescence in the US, we are generally isolated within pods of adolescence. We struggle to see or understand that there is anything meaningful beyond what exists right now, in our adolescent social circles and our adolescent hierarchies of success according to generally arbitrary standards enforced by adults granted a lot of power. Adults often joke about teens being so self-centered, and I wonder how much broader adolescent worldviews might be if they were invited to participate in activities that weren’t limited to the under-18 crowd.
It is debilitating to feel like you are all alone in your agony. Our cultural narrative around high school involves a norm of comfort and safety, exploration and excitement. A recent example of this is the film Love, Simon, in which the protagonist twice repeats a monologue that begins, “I’m just like you,” and continues to outline how safe and supported, comfortable and happy he is.
One of the most liberating lessons of growing up is that no one is just like you. Another is that everyone experiences agony.
In Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach explores the path to cultivating compassion for oneself. She confronts the delusion of the suffering self, discerning between personal experience and universal. She says, “We begin to see [anger’s] universal nature–it’s not our anger, it is not our pain. Everyone lives with anger, with fear, with grief.”
In honor of this back to school season, could we all take the opportunity to offer up some love and compassion to those young souls and their struggles? In addition to current youth, consider connecting with your own adolescent self: what pain from that time still plagues you? What disconnect or isolation hurt your heart? What doubt was overwhelming? To that part of yourself, offer these words: May you be safe and protected, free from harm; May you be happy and free.
If you are looking for something meatier to use as you offer compassion to the isolated and scared, Brach shares a lesson that I offer up to any who suffer.
Overcome any bitterness that may have come
Because you were not up to the magnitude of the pain
That was entrusted to you.
Like the Mother of the World,
Who carries the pain of the world in her heart,
Each one of us is part of her heart,
And therefore endowed
With a certain measure of cosmic pain.