Wednesday was just one of those days. You know, the kind that happen and you wonder, “Why?!” or “WTF?” It started out as sort of a bummer. I woke up late, had part of a cup of coffee, which is terrible, because I always need a whole cup or more. Then I went to work without breakfast, so I had a combination of chex-mix, and salted nuts, which got me through till lunch. But the work was piled high, so I worked through lunch, left a little late and raced home for an appointment. It was then that I found out the bad news. For the third, or maybe fourth time in the last 12 months, a high school student in my small town had committed suicide.
I’m a youth adviser for the high school kids in the local Unitarian Universalist church, and I immediately thought about the kids, who would be most affected. Then, I felt all my energy drain and I settled into a sort of mental and physical depression. My appointment was with a therapist, so I talked a bit about how this all felt, that didn’t seem to be productive, so I switched topics to how my oldest kids had just experienced a break through in their relationship and our house was no longer a constant battle ground. After therapy, I brought my youngest son to his basketball practice, which was fun to watch, and then I went home and began to wonder about this rash of teen suicides we’ve been seeing.
So today, a full day has passed, and comments about this suicide have been planted on facebook, from them, conversations have grown, which have included insightful commentary as well as simple blame for society, or television, or bullying, and as I’ve watched this transpire, I’ve wondered what there is to say. So now I’m banging out a blog post on the topic, but just like yesterday, I still don’t know what to say. I could try to talk about love, or inherent worth and dignity. I could try to talk about taking a breath and getting through the hard times, or how I’ve wanted to take my own life in the past. I could talk about all sorts of things, but somehow they all feel flat right now.
I think the problem is bigger than any of that. I think it is something that encompasses all of that. It is the air we breathe, the thing we’re not really aware of. It lives in our community and our conversations. It breaths every time we look at someone and think, “wow I wish there was something to do, but they don’t want to change. All we can do is feel sorry for that person,” If we’re really honest, isn’t that last sentence a little more like, “I really feel sorry for that loser?” For the past day, I’ve been wondering what we are doing wrong? Why are our teens killing themselves? What is the source of their overwhelming stress, or their feelings of worthlessness, or shame, or lack of hope? Why can’t they imagine a future that needs them and that they should live to experience? I’ve been asking these questions and it just occurred to me that maybe its because our society has a deficit of meaningful compassion. That people are so quick to say, “laugh, and the world laughs with you, but cry and you cry alone.”
Last week my kids took a course in San Francisco and on the last day of the course, the parents were asked to come sit in another room and participate in what is called a parent coaching session. The coach asked for two volunteers, whose job would be to write what we said on two chalk boards. The first chalk board was to be filled with parent statements about what we’re worried about with regards to our kids. The second chalk board was what qualities a perfect parent has.
The first chalk board was filled with worries about things like our kids being lazy, or slovenly. About poor grades, or a lack of respect. About being argumentative, or defiant, or bullies. At some point, while we were calling out things that we are worried about, I gasped and realized that all of those worries are caused by our love for our children. So later that evening, when our kids came into the room with us, the leader asked if there were any parents who wanted to share something with their kids. I raised my hand and stood up. I took the microphone, looked at my kids and described how we had filled a chalk board with complaints and worries we share about our kids. I admitted that I had contributed heavily to the list. I said that some how some wires seem to have gotten crossed in my head and that while I was getting angry and being pedantic. While I was being frustrated and upset, complaining to my kids about their grades and telling them that they are being lazy. While I was hurling various insults, what I really meant to say was, “I LOVE YOU! I love you more than anything you could imagine. I would do anything for you. I want you to be safe and grow up to be happy people. I love you and I apologize for telling you instead that you are flawed and can never be enough.” I stood there crying in front of 50 teenagers and all of their parents, and admitted how horribly I had failed to communicate what I meant.
I told them that they could count on me to remember how to say I love you and that they could count on me to look for how they are right, for how we could be a happy family, and how we could increase the love we all have for each other. I’ve had an increase of moments like that recently, but that one just flooded my mind and it makes me think that there may be something important in that story.
Maybe the important thing is actually a simple thing. I’ll start by saying that today is the last day of Hanukkah, and yesterday, my little town was shook by tragedy. But Hanukkah is a time for miracles. So I submit that maybe a huge component of what we’re doing wrong is simple to address. The most important thing that my kids taught me the other week, is that they aren’t defined, nor is their value assessed by their grades. They are perfect, and my job is to see how great they are and encourage their greatness. This isn’t always easy, and I’ve already failed countless times. But in the end, nothing great can be accomplished without lots of failure. So maybe our focus has been wrong, and that is why our kids feel hopeless. Maybe our job is not to direct them into a future where they’ll have some 9-5 office job and bring home a good pay check. Maybe our job is to see them as miraculous and trust that a miracle always has a bright and inspiring future, which may be hard to imagine to an observer.
Maybe we need simply to give freely of our love and when we offer guidance or criticism, to offer that feedback from a place of love, rather than anger or frustration. Maybe we need to teach our kids that it is more important to help our fellow human beings than to be successful in business. Maybe we’ve been trying to solve a spiritual crisis with educational theory, and intellectual band aids.