A few weeks ago, a dozen or so high school students sat in my living room and discussed Looking for Alaska by John Greene. This book chronicles the relationships between a group of teenagers living away from home at a boarding school. In many ways, it's typical young adult fiction, filled with all sorts of teenage angst. Yet, it also addresses deeper themes, including death and the meaning of life.
During this discussion, the student leading it posed this question to the group: What do you envy about Alaska, one of the book's main characters?
For those who haven't read the book, what you need to know about Alaska is that she's deeply troubled. The death of her mom haunts her and she now drinks excessively and experiments sexually.
As I read the book, my heart broke for this character. At times, I pitied her. At other times, I sympathized with her. Never did I envy her.
Yet, when my student leader asked this question, student after student said they envied Alaska's ability to have fun no matter how she was feeling; Her ability to hide her feelings so that her friends never knew the depth of the pain she was experiencing.
As a youth worker, when I heard this, my heart broke. If this is what teens value, how can we possibly create real, authentic community in and amongst them? How can we truly teach teens to love and care for one another if what they value most is hiding their pain from others?
Moreover, as someone who's experienced the heartbreak of miscarriage this year, my heart broke even more. Time and time again this year, I've been so thankful for family that's surrounded us with love; For friends who've dropped what they're doing to be present in our pain and to tangibly care for us. I don't honestly know how we would have survived this year without them.
Yet, I also know it's no accident we have this safety net, this incredible support network. After all, we've intentionally taken time to develop it through years of conversations, in countless moments of choosing to be vulnerable and to let others know about and experience the painful moments of life with us.
I was reminded of this just this weekend. Ever since my due date came and went, I've been doing much better emotionally. Even so, I suspected the holidays would be hard.
Sure enough, on Thanksgiving, I experienced an emotional breakdown as I got caught up – just for a moment – in what could have been, what should have been our first holiday cradling a new baby.
The moment I felt the tears I faced a choice: Run to the bedroom, cry alone, and regroup in relative safety or cry in public, in the kitchen. I opted for the latter and in a matter of minutes, was joined by my husband and mom. They shared my tears and my pain in a moment that was truly sacred.
This is one of hundreds of moments like it I've experienced this year.
Having experienced first-hand the saving grace of moments like this, I want desperately for my students to learn that what is enviable is not masking our pain, but letting others enter into it; That it takes far more courage to show our pain to the world than it does to hide it; And that relationships are strengthened when we walk through the fire together.
I hope my life models this for my students. I pray that in me and others in our church, my students will see that Christ-centered communities don't shy away from pain, but rather, enter into and bare one another's pain.
In a culture that finds the masking of pain enviable, maybe that's the most countercultural message a church community can give; Maybe for this generation, it's the truest manifestation of the Gospel there is.