When the horror of September 11th came upon the United States my friends with children fought vigorously to keep their children away from the television screen. Others even fought to keep themselves away from the images we know all too well from that day. Many wondered what to tell their kids when they returned home from school and some even hoped that their teachers hadn’t spilled the beans.
I wondered to myself if this were a healthy approach? It makes sense that we don’t want people, never mind children to be exposed to horrible images that could have traumatic effects on their psyche. But what about telling them about what happened? It seems that many of my friends tried to seal the information from their kids for at least some time, usually before one of their friends remarked about the dreadful news.
I started to think about other things that people don’t tell their kids because they don’t want them to worry. Finances are hard. Mom’s got cancer. There was an accident. Your dog went to heaven. It seems anything that is bad is taboo for children at times and people only tell them things that they need to, only when absolutely necessary.
Slate had a great article today that got me thinking about this. They claim three real reasons that college students (and the rest of us, they claim) are more stressed out than ever before. I’ll riff on each here and add a fourth that stems from them and will add some thoughts about what I see amongst my own students and colleagues.
The first is a lack of community. One colleague of mine said: “I knew there was trouble when I found two student residents in their room arguing with one another–but they weren’t yelling at each other, they were TEXTING and IMing while in the same room! I put a stop to that and made them hash it out.”
Human contact and kinship help alleviate anxiety (our evolutionary ancestors, of course, were always safer in numbers), yet as we leave family behind to migrate all over the country, often settling in insular suburbs where our closest pal is our plasma-screen TV, we miss out on this all-important element of in-person connection. As fear researcher Michael Davis of Emory University told me: “If you’ve lost the extended family and lost the sense of community, you’re going to have fewer people you can depend on, and therefore you’ll be more anxious. Other cultures have much more social support and are better off psychologically because of it.” Another factor that adds to this problem—especially among young people—is our growing reliance on texting and social media for community, which many psychologists say is no substitute for real human interaction. When you’re feeling most dreadful, you don’t run to your Facebook profile for consolation; you run to a flesh-and-blood friend.
I think about my own students with this one. One of the most popular clubs on campus is our Christian Life Communities, a weekly prayer group of sorts that invites people to do a short form of the Ignatian examen in community. We discuss the highs and lows of the week and provide a meditation and a time for affirmations and prayer requests. It’s one of the times in my week that I feel I can really connect with our students and I start to hear just what people are carrying around with them. This is safe space and sometimes when I hear what people are dealing with I’m surprised they are walking and talking, never mind getting a degree. I feel the same way about the students I’ve seen in spiritual direction. And I often feel that they are unprepared for all that life is offering them and impressed that somehow they are still able to function at such high levels.
Professionally, I notice the texting more amongst outside younger colleagues than amongst my students at Canisius. I communicate with many people via text. And sometimes it’s inappropriate. There are some who try to conduct business via text when it would be faster and easier to call and have a conversation. Indeed texting is somehow more efficient but then again, it can lead to problems. My staff does this well. We text when necessary. When we need to get a message to someone quickly and think they are in a meeting or can’t talk. Or when the message is a quick one that requires some kind of action “Can you grab cider for the meeting?” would be an example.
The second is information overload which I discuss at length in my book, Googling God. There’s so much information out there that you can’t possibly consume it all. Our students often ask for bullet points and other quick soundbytes of information and I often give it to them because they just don’t need one more thing to read and information is bombarding them at high rates all the time. I don’t ever not recommend reading and I give them plenty to chew on when I think there’s a book or an article that is worth their time, but I also try to encourage that there’s not a rush to consume this information–to savor the reading process and to enjoy reading and gaining information. I often feel that college would be more enjoyable if we just let students finish when they finish. Now that’s an impossible business model to sustain, but from my own perspective I was able to work and do two graduate classes per semester and I enjoyed that immensely. I found it difficult to take 5 undergraduate classes and hold all that information together while working at the radio station and socializing and all of my campus ministry involvement.
I find my present students are great at balancing their time. Many are involved in much and have heavy duty science majors or are working on a big time business degree. I never knew how the medical students kept up at UB and the pre-meds are just as impressive at Canisius. But I do notice their anxiety. I do notice that it is not easy for them. And I do see them when they get overwhelmed by their to-do lists and the pressure of being good students and having a social life and trying to figure out what they would most like to be and do with their lives.
Some are brilliant: They’ve realized that they are never going to know everything that someone else thinks they should know. It took me years to get that idea through my thick skull.
Finally here’s the last major point:
Put simply, Americans have developed habits for dealing with anxiety and stress that actually make them far worse. We vilify our aversive emotions and fight them, rather than letting them run their own course. We avoid situations that make us nervous. We try to bury uncomfortable feelings like anxiety and stress with alcohol or entertainment or shopping sprees. Psychologist Steven Hayes, creator of a highly effective anxiety treatment formula called acceptance and commitment therapy, told me that we’ve fallen victim to “feel-goodism,” the false idea that “bad” feelings ought to be annihilated, controlled, or erased by a pill. This intolerance toward emotional pain puts us at loggerheads with a basic truth about being human: Sometimes we just feel bad, and there’s nothing wrong with that—which is why struggling too hard to control our anxiety and stress only makes things more difficult.
Amen! We protect ourselves way too much. And we protect others from our sadness and what we perceive is their sadness way too much.
Interestingly enough, comedian Louis CK hits the nail on the head with this: (warning: vulgar at times).
Perhaps our call is not to remove our student’s sadness or stress, but to help them more appropriately deal with that. We often do this in community on retreats, prayer groups, spiritual direction and on more than a few occasions by collaborating with our counseling center.
Our students need us and more importantly, they need community, they need time to chill to detox from information and they need to share their fears in a safe space where they can actually feel their emotions and be supported by peers and ministers.
In a world that is marked by terrorism all too often, anxiety is ever present globally and we have fewer resources to turn to because everyone is so busy that we have a hard time paying attention to those who need us. Older Americans might note that they were afraid of the Russians or of the bomb–but their community structure was much more intertwined with one another than our students’ lives are today.
This is our call as higher ed professionals and as Catholic Campus Ministers. As Pope Francis put it in the recent interview in America Magazine:
“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”
Heal the wounds… the wounds that are felt deeply and all too easily pushed away. Help people to feel their wounds and then to not be afraid to place your hands in the wounds of Jesus, like Thomas and allow the healing that God has to offer to take place through you, even in small and simple ways. This is ministry.
And it is where we always encounter God waiting for us and asking us to heal wounds.