How do you want to be or, We share this struggle in common

I had the honor and privilege of being invited by Bangor Daily News to speak at the One Life Project’s Youth Voices event (I was the voice of an old person). The event was built around starting frank conversations about addiction and substance abuse here in the state. I spoke broadly, basically, about the things that make life hard and how, at the most fundamental level, we share that in common.

This is what I said.

I want to be careful about how I offer this — I remember events like these; I remember looking at the speakers offering whatever feedback or insights they’d prepared; and I remember glazing over because I was certain that they knew nothing about me.

And it’s true; I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know anything about your life, your upbringing, your situation with your friends, how you’re doing in school or any of that.

I do, though, vividly recall my own high school experience. And I am a staff member at a program called Maine Youth Leadership, which I initially attended as a student when I was 15. The name is misleading — “leadership” can initially have stereotypical or icky implications — and it’s important to note this before I lose you. It’s a 4 day long program in which one student from every school in Maine is selected, and they come together and do all of these volunteer and team-building activities, and to meet all of these other students. When you get there you think it’s going to be incredibly dumb because you don’t know anybody there and change is annoying, but you leave bonded with all of these new friends. Again, the name is misleading because you hear “youth leadership” and you imagine a very specific sort of student, right? They probably get straight As, they’re probably athletic, and they’re probably involved with a lot of student activities.

What I didn’t know going in is that every school picks their student for all sorts of different reasons, and yes, there are a lot of “leader” types who go to the program, but some schools pick students they think might benefit from the program’s atmosphere because maybe they don’t have all of those other things going on for them.

When I was 15, my parents were divorced and I was being raised by an elderly father who was in poor health. I was a prolific shoplifter and thief. A few days after my 13th birthday I accidentally set a building on fire that some other kids and I had broken into.

So, if you’re a religious person, by the grace of God, or if you’re a bit more of a secularist like me, with many thanks to the Universe, I was in the “other” category for Maine Youth Leadership selection.

I came to two life-changing realizations that stuck out in my own experience at MYL, and as a staff member who returns every year, I am fortunate to be reminded of them regularly.

The first is that everyone — everyone— is incredibly anxious and dealing with their own internal messes. Everyone. The students like I was are dealing with whatever number of problems and resultant behaviors, but the same goes for the students who on the surface appear to be on top of the world, ready to take it over. We all might show it differently, or process it differently, but we all are dealing with something and, more likely than not, many things. What I hear from students of all backgrounds how daunting the pressures they face can be, and not exclusively by friends. There is pressure from adults and parents to perform, pressure to get into the right schools, pressure to be perfect. I know one young woman who is now into her 20s — she is by all accounts successful — and when I met her as a teenager, she was carrying the weight of her mother’s alcoholism on her shoulders, feeling like it was on her to keep her family together. Another young woman of a similar profile missed weeks of school due to debilitating mental health issues. So you see all of these students who appear very different in all of these ways — from the young arsonists to the future politicians — but they are united in that they are all dealing with some heavy, heavy shit.

What’s our first impulse when we have a problem? We tend to tell ourselves that nobody gets what we are going through. Nobody understands. Nobody could possibly understand. We tell ourselves this when it is in fact the possession of these struggles that unites us most, if not in the specifics then in the way those specifics are affecting our lives.

And what do we do when we feel under pressure or anxious? Some people act out — in my case I stole a lot of stuff, but I also did a lot of other stupid things too. I still do stupid stuff when I’m under pressure and anxious; it’s just changed form over time. Some people bottle it up and it becomes a problem somewhere down the line. Sometimes we do things to shut off the feeling, like drink to excess or get high. Sometimes we take it out on other people because it makes us feel bigger, if only temporarily. Sometimes we conform by doing things we don’t want to do, or being ways we don’t want to be, or giving away pieces of ourselves we don’t want to give. A lot of all of this stuff comes from the same place, and this is the place I’ve learned we all have in common.

So the first thing I learned at MYL is that we share this place in common; the second, I think, is the secret to confronting these struggles that unite us. At MYL we do everything possible to create a judgment free zone. We work to ensure people can share without being judged, be themselves without facing ridicule, be vulnerable without fearing recourse, and so on. This is ultimately how we get to the place where students who appear very different on the surface begin to see what they have in common. You watch them come to this realization over the course of a few days and it is so beautiful, and then it’s heartbreaking watching them reconcile the fact that they have to go back to school. That’s where so much of that pressure lives, and where judgment can feel like a currency — like a way of life. All we can do is to remind to bring with them the lessons living with open hearts brought to them and to encourage that they bring that approach back to school.

It feels impossible, sometimes, because our entire realities — especially as teenagers — can feel rigged against us. All of the anxiety we feel, and our hope to live free of it, helps to line other peoples’ pockets with cash. From drug dealers who sell what we think will help to shut it out for a little while, to corporations that make a lot of our money selling cheaply made stuff we don’t need on the promise that it will make us feel cool if only for a little while, to everything in between.

In these ways, and countless others, that desire to shut off this thing we all have in common is just making people who don’t know or care about us rich by encouraging we buy into stuff that will further knock us out of control of our own approaches to life. And it’s driving us all who share this thing in common further apart.

A lot of this comes from being taught to ask the wrong questions. This is especially true of our time in high school. There, the foundational question regarding figuring out how you will spend the rest of your life is “What do you want to do after high school?” It’s an alternate version of the daunting question we ask earlier — “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And it doesn’t end here. Starting in your early 20s it becomes standard practice to ask new people, “and what do you do?” This is the wrong question. We should start by asking, “How do you want to be?” This is what will dictate everything worthwhile about you and your journey. It is around this that you can shape everything else — job, career, temperament, character, charity, social engagement — and it is based on this that you will make an impact; how you will be remembered

When we imagine one asking how they would like to be, we don’t picture this person answering, “A shallow bully.” It’s not, “A person who’s worth was assessed entirely by what they wear.” Or “most racist” or “guy who makes women feel unsafe” or “person with the cleverest insults.” Because when you end up looking back on your life you remember these people as sad, both in the devastation for which they are responsible — from sexual assault to eating disorders to suicide — but also because it is so likely that they were struggling with the same crap we all are, and this lashing out, probably accompanied by other destructive behavior, is how they dealt with it. This is how they stuffed that unifying struggle down inside of themselves.

What do you want to do is a loaded question. First of all, it is a pass/fail test for which the stakes are unfairly high. What if you want to become a doctor then change your mind? Pressure! Failure! Regret! Sadness! Anxiety! And it also leaves us open to judge the worth of a person — and ourselves — on their job alone when we know that’s an insane measure. Pay scale and fame become our main indicators of value. And we know plenty of prestigious or well paid people who have proven themselves terrible and plenty of people in more common professions who are changing lives for the better every day. But again, if this is our primary fixation, when are we asking:

“Am I being a person that I like?”

“How will I be remembered?”

“How can I make things better?”

Largely, when our primary concern is which path we’ll take to get to which job, we are not checking in with ourselves in these ways.

(A note for all of your teachers and guidance counselors currently giving me the stink-eye: This is not to say that you should be unconcerned with your career, or what you will do after school, but that it should be considered in the context of a much broader question. It should be part of the question, not the whole of it.)

Now we all have this thing in common, this struggle, even if we’re not ready to say it out loud. If you help to make this world an easier place for people like us, you are doing great work. It might feel complicated and awkward, but it will be worth it, I promise. Step up if you see that someone is getting hurt. Ask the people around you how they are doing. Tell your friends that you are there for them. Set an example by being vulnerable. Be who you really are underneath every impulse to be something else, or look like something else. We really do share this experience in common. We imagine that we need to be super human to change the world, but it is really as easy as making today better which for some amounts to making it more livable. We will never be assessed by one big grand action or gesture — we will be remembered for the total of these actions that feel small but can mean the world to people having a similarly difficult time.

While almost every single thing about our daily lives can tempt us to do the opposite, it is the people who live in this way that we look back on and remember so fondly. And they are not always the people who could effortlessly say what they wanted to do after school.

When I was 12, I was at a small party with a bunch of older teenagers. Someone at the party offered me an Oxy — I did not yet know my own addictive tendencies or that these tendencies run in my family — and so I readily accepted. One of my fellow party goers, then in her late teens — emphatically interjected and told me not to take it despite being high herself, and she gave the guy who offered me the pill a heap of hell. This is 20 years ago now but I remember it like it was yesterday. Of everyone I recall being in that room, nearly every one of them went to jail sometime between then and now, the one who handed me the pill very recently lost his family to his addiction. Two are dead; one of them died last year leaving his 5 year old behind, while his wife died right afterward leaving the child an orphan. The woman who intervened on my behalf went to jail on charges related to drug possession. And she, the drug felon — without question — saved my life.

These are the people we look back on with fondness and love — the people who, despite what was expected of them, made life better for the people around them.

And if you feel like you are struggling — with anything at all — like you need help with anything, ask for it. Life is hard and we are not in this alone, I guarantee you. Look to your friends and if not them, your parents. If not them, your teachers. If not your teachers, expand the search. When I was a teenager I had a nervous breakdown after years of compartmentalization. My father wasn’t equipped to help me deal with my mental health and so I found a counseling center in town that offered services on a sliding scale. I am not making this suggestion specifically, but just letting you know that there are always options outside of going it alone.

Again, life is hard. It was when I was 16 and it still is. I’m not going to pretend like I came to these realizations — that we all share the struggle in common and that reducing the amount of judgment we put into the world — and that this was enough to make life’s challenges less intense. That said, trying to see where our experiences overlap, by approaching situations with love, by reminding myself that I am not in this alone and — even if a tiny bit at a time — trying to make the world an easier place to live in for people like us has definitely made the hard parts less hard and the better parts way, way better.

So I challenge you to remember this thing that we all share, that unites us. We are all under tremendous amounts of pressure. Some of us are scared. No matter how it looks on the outside, we’re dealing with a lot and we have that in common. Let’s make life better for people like us — be there — create space that feels safe — reach out — listen. If we need it, let’s ask for help. Let’s remind ourselves and each other that we are struggling together. Let’s not relent do those who try to sell us temporary fixes to these feelings; let’s not pretend that we’re bigger than going through some shit. Let’s not take it out on other people. Let’s be there for people who need us and build an environment where being ourselves is possible.

And so I challenge you to rewrite your future around this question, “How do I want to be?” And I encourage you to start becoming that person today.