College Students: Courageous, Not “Crybabies”

Surprise, surprise. Another “open letter.” This time, it’s a business owner’s bitter diatribe written in the New Boston Post “on behalf of CEOs across the country” when he describes a so-called “wussification” of college students (AKA: “crybabies”), and proceeds to insult their intelligence and values by using condescending and assumptive language throughout.

Well, excuse me, Mister CEO. But you do NOT speak for me.

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For starters, telling a college student that “The Business World Doesn’t Give A Damn About You” is problematic. As an aunt to a college freshman and a business owner—who, in fact, has hired both a high school age intern and millennial college students—I DO give a damn. I have seen the passion, drive, and courage in these individuals and others of their age. And I believe in the power of positive reinforcement to help them work through their struggles and meet their goals, both with me in my business and wherever their lives might take them. But any successful CEO knows the importance of positive reinforcement… right?

Sadly, writing an open letter to categorize an entire age group would be close-minded; such assumptions only divide individuals and breed hatred within companies, societies, and nations (just look at the state of our political system—amirite?). But a CEO of an organization consisting of cooperative employees would know that such language has this effect… right?

Plus, telling a budding businessperson that their career will not be a “safe place”? Some of the most happy, successful workplaces have been built by organizations who believe in creating environments that are both challenging AND safe/supportive. (Note: the two are NOT mutually exclusive.)  But a CEO of a thriving business knows the importance of its company culture… right?

I believe that each young person has individual strengths that must be cultivated. Not to mention, success is a process—one that requires a lot of hiccups along the way (even amongst the blessed CEO class). And, truth be told, some of the most so-called “successful” CEOs we can think of were/are also considered colossal failures in their personal lives—depriving family and friends of their valuable time and attention, all for the benefit of their companies. But a shrewd, and balanced CEO realizes this… right?

While there were certainly valid points in this letter, they were administered in a manner that would likely not be received favorably. Reading through it sounds—quite ironically—like a crybaby CEO’s experience with a few bad apples, in addition to a lazy attempt to make sense of a changing world. He oddly failed to mention one detail about this new generation of young adults: that they’re/we’re frustrated by seeing our own parents devote their lives to a system that has broken many of its promises. And y’know what? We’re afraid. We’re afraid that the educational/political/economic system is going to let us down. But any insightful CEO would recognize that and use words of understanding and encouragement… right?

To the professors, business owners, and mentors in this world who DO use words of understanding and encouragement: THANK YOU. You believed in me, and you believe in our current generation of college students, because you dispense advice that comes from a place of wisdom, self-reflection, and hope—sentiments that are, sadly, lacking in this letter.

And now, dear college students: please remember that challenging the status quo is HARD. But doing so doesn’t make you a “crybaby”—it makes you courageous. And I’ve seen your courage. In an age of information overload, you’re dealing with technological stresses and demands never before seen by earlier generations. And recently, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State found anxiety and depression, in that order, to be the most common mental health diagnoses among college students. I’m sure Mr. CEO might dismiss these diagnoses as “wussy”, but the rest of the thinking world recognizes them as very real, and very prevalent, and very dangerous, as this New York Times article about the link between college, perfectionism, and suicide points out.

But you are working through your struggles with anything but “wussification”—that kind of tenacity takes heart and a hell of a lot of patience to deal with widespread dismissal of your values. Please also remember that, despite this silly man’s bitter diatribe, you should keep pushing for change, and keep striving for success in your own life, whatever that means for you.

And keep listening to those of us who are proud of what you’ve become—and even more certain of your coming greatness. We believe in you. ❤

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Finger-Pointing and a Well-Aimed Slingshot

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ― Anne Lamott

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about kindness and compassion—both how easy it is to forget the importance of these qualities and how quickly we remember them when we’re on the receiving end of harsh words or behavior.

Much of this frustration came to a head over the weekend when I ran into an old friend at a local beer market. We caught up over a quick conversation—only to have one of her short little crones… er cronies… approach, point a finger up into her face, and angrily say, “YOU should NOT be TALKING to her!” (Capitalization used to indicate the shrill inflection characteristic of a convincingly repugnant movie witch.)

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Here’s the thing: I had never seen this woman before in my life. And she didn’t know me; she only knew what she had learned from her companions in my absence. But there’s a reason for this behavior: I left their religion. Five years ago.

Now, that may not seem like a good reason to outsiders, but it’s their reason, and these individuals are entitled to behave in whatever manner they see fit, just as bakeries in certain states can refuse to provide wedding cakes to homosexuals. It may not be just or kind, but it’s their right.

But when I saw that unfortunate woman’s furiously plump red cheeks and fleshy finger shoved into this poor woman’s face—and the insinuation that I was a disease-ridden monster to be avoided and abhorred—something in me snapped.

For a long time, I’ve decided not to share certain things about my life publicly, due to fear of speaking ill of my former friends, being labeled by them, or disregarded further by the few beautiful people (out of thousands) who still maintain even sporadic contact with me.

However, partly due to keeping pseudo-religious posts to a minimum, my blogging has come to a standstill. I now know I was doing a disservice to myself and others by writing about only cheerful and superfluous topics—without also sharing that which is honest and real. It was almost as if I was on a pathway leading into a verdant forest, but blocking my way was an enormous rocky crag, and the only way to move forward was to make a long difficult climb over it.

I’m beginning to realize that moving forward in life requires saying the hard things, and having difficult conversations that might hurt people. And, when I look ahead at my life, the risk of not saying them poses more harm than keeping them inside.

While I certainly have no desire to point fingers because that would be unkind (does anyone else see the irony here?), it’s worth acknowledging that the majority of this post is fueled by the brilliant Anne Lamott quote at the outset. So I won’t use names, but I will use examples. In honor of moving forward, it’s time for me to climb over the hard things that stand in my way.

I’m tired of protecting people who engage in shunning and ostracism because they believe they are representing the will of god.

I’m tired of making excuses for people who will go out of their way to greet my friends when I am in their company but simultaneously pretend I do not exist.

I’m tired of protecting people who hide behind religion as permission to administer so-called street justice in the name of their faith.

I’m tired of remaining silent about the people who heartlessly divided up and distributed my personal belongings amongst themselves during a drunken house party before my divorce was final.

I’m tired of defending people who blamed me for the same or similar mistakes they themselves have made throughout their lives.

I’m tired of defending a religious band of glorified frat boys who jeered and yelled at me one night as I walked along one of Boise’s busiest streets after having dinner with friends.

And as of Sunday, as I watched that sad little finger wagging in the face of one of my most favorite old friends, I’m tired of defending people who continue to deprive me of my basic human right to be acknowledged and to take up space on this planet.

Frankly, I’m also tired of making excuses for “nice people” who have not been all that nice to me. Throughout history, so-called “nice people” have committed terrible atrocities in the name of religion.

Ever read Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer? It will give you a whole new (and terrifying) perspective about churches that favor personal revelations and messages from god. And lately, if you’ve been watching the news, you’re likely tired of hearing about religions that deprive their children of proper medical treatment in the name of faith—but are defended by certain legislators who deem them “nice people”.

For the record, the intent of this post has nothing to do with religion. It’s not about god, or politics, or even activism. It’s about compassion. It is about the basic tenet of treating humans with compassion and dignity—and if that’s missing from your religion, you have some serious spiritual problems to address.

It’s sad to admit that I’ve learned as much about compassion in the last five years as I did in the decades previously. That may be partly because my former religion preaches that the “meek will inherit the earth”—while smugly acknowledging their own meekness will win them salvation (and simultaneously pointing both figurative and literal fingers in people’s faces).

Most importantly, I’ve learned what meek people (or “nice people”, for the non-zealots) look like. But strangely enough, they are some of the same people I was too busy judging in previous years that I failed to see their contribution to humanity. Here’s what one of them looks like:

 

Today, a Facebook friend shared the above video of the sweetest old Greek grandmother who accepts refugees in need with open hands and an open heart, when many in the world consider them a burden (or worse).

While I can’t relate 100 percent to the devastating plight of humans on the run for their lives, I do know what it’s like to be treated like a subhuman species by a large group of people which places more value on judgment than on human kindness. And it seems to me that this world would be a lot better off if we all tried to be a bit more like this grandmother.

Yet, some are so worried about protecting their own rights that we justify hurting people (or at least not helping them), simply to make a statement. When did being right come at the expense of others’ wellbeing?

Lately, I’ve been asking myself some big and very tough questions: ‘How do I treat people? How do they feel I’m treating them?’

But maybe more specifically, ‘How do I treat well-arranged and beautiful living sculptures of bone and sinew and flesh, with their very unique backgrounds, life stories, pains, heartbreaks, and daily struggles?’

And that’s when I know: there is always room for more compassion.

Noted Scotsman and author Ian MacLaren once said, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” Isn’t that the truth? Sometimes I think humanness is synonymous with weakness; there are days when just living can be a challenge.

But there is a power transfer that occurs during acts of kindness and compassion. Doing or saying nice things hurts no one. In fact, it can change the world. And it definitely can change our relationships.

Occasionally, old friends and family members will ask why I don’t return to my former faith, in a tone that often borders on pleading. Part of me understands the desperation—many of these individuals honestly believe that I’m as good as dead, at least until I am properly disposed of by their supposedly loving “god”.

It’s during these conversations (and especially while writing this) that I think of the words of Maggie Kuhn, a lifelong activist who fought for human rights, and social and economic justice:

“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind—even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.”

I don’t often share such raw, personal experiences. It’s scary and it’s very, very hard to do, especially in anticipation of the inevitable fallout, hurt feelings, and ridicule. But if “speaking my mind” means endorsing compassion over judgment, kindness over criticism, and love over condemnation, I will gladly bear my slingshot, and accept whatever punishment comes with it.

Ultimately, one major purpose of this blog is finding inspiration—and how can you and I be inspired unless we first climb over what stands in our way? So if sharing this writing with the world means it resonates with someone, then I have all the courage I need. Better yet, if it helps us understand one another, or empowers someone to have a conversation about something that’s been difficult to address, then I’ve done my job as a writer.

And if you need one, I’m happy to let you borrow my slingshot.

I Guess I’m Part of the Problem.

“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.”

There is a couple with a small child who frequently stand outside the Albertson’s near my house with a cardboard sign requesting help. They are always very polite and appear to have legitimately come upon hard times.

In months past, the husband/father used a walker, but upon entering the store the other day, I spotted him and his family in the checkout line buying groceries, and this time, he was in a wheelchair.

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The clerk—who very obviously had seen this family before—was lingering with them, speaking kindly to the parents and playfully interacting with the little girl, who sat on her disabled father’s lap. There was no line, and they stood there laughing with the checker for several minutes while I listened to their conversation.

The whole interaction was quite touching, because this woman could’ve simply bagged the family’s groceries and sent them on their way, but instead extended kindness toward people who clearly needed it—people others might have dismissed or even felt irritation toward.

This may not be the most popular thing to admit, but I have given this family money several times. And guess what? I will continue to do so.

Some may view me as “contributing to ~the problem~” or “not going through the ~proper~ channels” but before providing your holy critique, consider the possibility that those channels might not be working if a disabled man (of working age) can do little more to support his family than stand outside a grocery store and beg for money or food.

Call me crazy, but I’m not sure the guaranteed humiliation of engaging in such an activity would be worth any amount of money.

And guess what else? Even if they have made indiscretions with those dollars or decide to make poor life choices in the future (haven’t we all?), I don’t really care. Because I want to be the kind of person that believes in kindness, karma, and redemption—however a person chooses to earn money or on whatever they choose to spend it. And if that means being chastised for giving to someone in need, then so be it.

Every time I press bills into the hands of this struggling family, the man modestly bows to me and says over and over, “God bless you. Thank you. Thank you so much.” And recently, when the only cash I had on me was a ten dollar bill, I won’t lie—I was tempted to keep walking. (And there would’ve been nothing wrong with that. I’m definitely no saint.) But as I walked to my car with a newly rented Redbox video, my grocery sacks suddenly felt heavier than ever. I was bringing home luxuries—a bottle of wine, some interesting cheeses, a salmon filet, chocolate, et al. and for all I knew, this family had nowhere quiet to sleep.

In return for the ten, the father offered his appreciative refrain, and when he saw the bill, his eyes filled with tears. And in that moment, my begrudging turned to embarrassment, and I walked away a little teary myself. Because if I were ever to be in a situation (heaven forbid) where all it took to make me cry was a stranger putting a ten dollar bill in my hand, I would thank my lucky stars for the people who tried to make me smile in the checkout line, and for those who didn’t just walk on by.

I guess this is an admission of guilt. (I use the world “guilt” because lately, it seems that giving a homeless person a few dollars is viewed as shameful—for reasons alluded to earlier: “proper channels”, wastefulness, substance abuse, blah-blah-blah.)

But nonetheless, here it is: I can’t keep walking by anymore—no matter how many people think I’m contributing to a problem.

Part of being human means experiencing times of extreme need and distress, whether financial or otherwise. And I can say with a certainty that every time I’ve experienced loss, I was moved by the unnecessary kindness of a stranger. Yes, I have often made poor decisions that brought me unnecessary challenges. Yes, I have often learned painful, powerful lessons from my mistakes. But despite my own stupidity, there has always been someone who reached out their hand and offered exactly what I needed at the time.

When people are hurting or in need, sometimes they may reject help if it doesn’t come in the form they want. Maybe a loaf of bread isn’t what a disabled man needs—maybe he needs money to pay his medical bills. While I realize my experience with the homeless family mentioned earlier is likely an exception (I don’t deny that much panhandling occurs out of greed, can result in societal complications, and sometimes perpetuates substance abuse), I’ve begun to see people differently since interacting with this family. I’m not saying to pass money along to every person who asks, but maybe it doesn’t hurt to think about how difficult life might be without a roof overhead and food in the fridge.

Alright, I’ve said my piece. Unleash the trolls.