We wear our stress until our stress wears us out. The physical toll, unmistakably draining, exacts its punishment mercilessly. Yet we persist in carrying that weight under the misguided impression that we were meant to bear it alone. We shelter others from what we shoulder as though we prove something about our worth in doing so. We exist within community but refuse the benefits of becoming an actual member of that community. We deny support. We deny outreach. And in doing so, we deny our best life. Sleep eludes us; irritability invades. We become merely a shadowing our possibility. We grow weary and feel heavy.
I can discern simply by looking at my high school students where their stress levels are–and a lot of times, I find myself concerned. I do not mean to imply that they should be shielded from discomfort or that they have nothing to learn from it or that sometimes they don’t create it themselves. A healthy amount of intermittent stress and learning to manage it and to cope with it possess the potential to hone life skills in meaningful ways. What worries me is when my kids turn that stress inward and refuse to speak its truth because they think they should simply tough it out. What worries me is when their stress becomes their shame because what they learn in those moments is to feel less than and unworthy…isolated and singular.
So today, I wore the hat of relatively corny principal/English teacher–but I hold no humiliation in actions I think could remotely help even one of my kiddos. As they filed in for assembly today, I asked that each kid grab a rock from a collection that had been scattered on a table. I began by asking how many of them ever felt weighed down or heavy from holding onto their stress. Hands flew up. Then, I explained that sometimes in community, we forget that that we share the space so we can share the burden as well as the bounty. Sometimes we get a little lost and a little blinded to the help that surrounds us. I told them that a visible reminder that they didn’t have to be alone in carrying the heavy seemed like it could be helpful. Then, I asked them to write their stress on their rock and when they felt ready to share the gravity of that burden, to drop it in a back pack that I would carry around school as that reminder–a reminder that, in fact, people were all around them ready to listen and lighten the load.
There were some very to be expected eye rolls:) But I fully admitted that I didn’t care how silly it seemed, we were doing it because they and their well being are important to me. There was also concern over my carrying a bag with 150 rocks in it, but I told them that I could manage the weight without wavering…not to worry.
At some point today I opened the bag to shift the rocks a bit and saw some of the stressors written on them. The rocks may have been small, the words written flatly across them, but the immensity of what these kids are walking through life with was unmistakable. Part of teaching the whole child, or of seeing the whole human, is owning a willingness to witness the reality of their existence. What may come across as a kid overly concerned about good grades could really be deeper stress that is fed and fostered by something much darker, something much more difficult to manage. And there is no way to know this by simply looking at the surface. We have to be willing to open the door to conversation, to trust. We have to be willing to put on a backpack full of rocks if even for a second it alleviates their weight and allows them to feel seen and loved. We have to be willing to see past our own discomfort to understand that of others.
And not for reward, but simply because this is what we do in community.
We live in relationship with one another.
Hard to be in relationship if we live alone in our own heavy.
(Day 20! That’s a lot of days in a row:) )