Under Pressure: Youth Sunday

1st Homily “Burnt Out” by Kolya Souvorin

150 years ago, American philosopher and psychologist William James said “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” (pause) Wow! If only fighting stress was that easy! All jokes aside, even the most ordinary events of life can start to add up and weigh us down. Now I know that everyone in this room faces stress everyday. After a while though, that can start to add up… and you begin to feel burnt out.

  1. Wait, what exactly is “Burnt Out?” There’s a thoughtful anecdote I read in English class that explains it really well. So there’s this professor who’s giving a lecture to his students on stress management. (whip out glass of water) He raises a glass of water and asked his students, “How heavy do you think this glass of water is?” The students’ answers ranged from 4oz to 12oz. The professor then laughed, and told his students the absolute weight doesn’t matter. The weight depends on how long you hold it. Let’s say I hold it for a minute, I’ll be OK. If I hold it for an hour, I will have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it for a day, y’all will have to call an ambulance. It is the exact same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes. If we carry our burdens all the time, sooner or later, we will not be able to carry on, the burden becoming increasingly heavier. What you have to do is to put the glass down, (put down glass) and rest for a while before picking it up again. We have to put down the burden periodically, so that we can be refreshed and are able to carry on. That feeling, when you are trying to keep holding that glass up, that’s burnt out.
  2. When I try to find what’s causing that burnt out feeling for me, I always come back to school. I was talking to one of my friends in English class just last week about next year’s schedules. He proudly asserted “I’m taking 7 AP classes next year as a junior.” I was struck speechless. How could a person spend every hour of the school day taking the hardest classes possible, only to apply to a school two years later that didn’t even accept them? And even if their university did take those classes, that’s two years or so of time gone missing from his college life. That’s years of childhood gone to speed up the process of becoming an adult. It’s the pressure of High School and College squeezed into a shorter time period than I thought anyone could. He seemed unfazed by it all, despite the fact he was already swamped from just a couple AP classes this year. His solution to burn out: keep the fire going.
  3. It’s easy to say “Well, I guess we should just not do difficult things! Then we’d avoid burnout! So turned to the people I know who do the least possible work: the stoners. On the surface, they seem like they’ve figured out how to beat stress: smoke weed and do the bare minimum. However, each one I know personally hates their parents, and their parents don’t trust them back. They have fewer good friends, and in general end up with even more problems than me. And in the end? They have the same burnout issues as the AP kids, without the resume fodder to stipend it.

I’m a smart kid. I score in the 99th percentile on my PSATs, I get A’s and a couple B’s in school, and I’m even volunteer at the Y for 15 hours every month. I’m still getting a lot of pressures though from homework, issues with my friends, and trying to become an adult in a strange, strange world. It’s just as easy for stress to accumulate for me as anyone else. How do I fight it? Surprising myself. One morning while waiting for class to start, I decided to climb to the top of a building to enjoy the sunrise. While driving home I’ll take a road I’ve never been on and see if I can navigate out of it. I’ll take an urban hike around a park or lake at 4 o’clock. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much as what I am doing as much as what I’m not doing: breaking the routine. You see, I believe that it isn’t what you do that’s stressful and causing you burnout, it’s that you’re doing it over and over. It’s that glass of water I held up earlier, it alone wasn’t heavy, but the longer I held it the harder it weighed on me. When you spend a moment or an hour or a day to snap that routine, it breaks the cycle of ordinary stress that is unavoidable, no matter what the life path you choose. That’s my strategy to avoid burn out.

2nd Homily “Expectations” by Eric Broner

Starting in about mid-Januilyary, almost daily, I’ve received the question, “Where are you going to college next year?”

My response has always been, “I’ve only found out from a couple of places, I find out from the rest in late March.”

“Wow, isn’t that really late?”

No! It’s not! That’s the normal time!

Of course I never react that way, at least not vocally, but the frustration is there. I know these people maybe don’t know that the majority of seniors don’t make their college decisions till April of senior year, and that their interest is genuine, but it is so frustrating! I’ve spent all this time just preparing the applications to the 9 universities I applied to, I’m in the midst of all the waiting anxiety, and they had the nerve to ask me where I was going to college next year?

And this, I think, is burnout.

It’s track season right now, and it’s actually uncanny how similar the processes of running a mile around a track, and going through high school are. The first lap, freshman year, is always the easiest. You’re feeling fresh, you go out fast. The second, sophomore year in our analogy, isn’t too much harder. You’re maybe a little more tired, but overall, you’re fairly early on in the race. The third lap is the worst. You enter the lap realizing you’re only halfway through the race, with no end in sight. This is where people struggle the most both in track and in high school. The final lap, you’re soaring. You know this is it. You kick things up. You’re sprinting in.

And suddenly, as you’re coming down the last 200 meters, you see one of your community members on the sideline and they ask you what time you’re thinking about finishing in.

That’s at the back of your mind, to a degree. You’re just thinking about how fast you can move your legs. It’s a race, and you’re sprinting in, even though your legs are hurting like they never have before.

And so, this, I think, is burnout.

High school, and college admissions, has become really tough. When I graduate, 15 of my 28 classes I will have taken in high school will have been college-level courses (that’s about 54% for those rushing to pull out their Ti-84 calculators). Beginning at the end of junior year, in addition to my school commitments, I had to begin studying for the standardized college entrance tests. The past three years I’ve played a varsity sport at least two out of the three seasons. This year it’s all three. I’m ranked in the top 10% of my class, I scored high enough in the 99th percentile on the ACT that they had to go into decimal places to get accurate. I’m a multi-sport Varsity athlete, a member of the National Honor Society, started the Decatur High School Investment Club, traveled to other schools to win awards in Model United Nations and Model Arab League competitions. For our Unitarian Universalist Association, I’m the Senior Dean of the Youth Caucus at General Assembly, leading a 15 person, multi-generational team in creating a week’s worth of programming for hundreds of youth. And I don’t say all this to brag, because despite all these accomplishments, I still wasn’t accepted to my top choice school in December.

And so, this, I think, is burnout.

Dealing with burnout is tough, and I wouldn’t say I’m always effective. There’s a social media trend of labelling pictures you emotionally identify with as “mood.” I saw a picture of a sign the other day that said “Well aren’t you a little ray of pitch black?”

Mood, for sure. I often joke with friends about how they don’t need to worry about hurting my feelings because I’m dead on the inside, but in all seriousness, I really do think that the stresses, pains, and trials and tribulations of being a high schooler of whom a lot is expected and demanded have been emotionally numbing. The other day a friend and I were talking about it and I reflected that my emotional states have been reduced to mild frustration, reasonable enjoyment, and neutral, with very little granularity.

And this, I think, is burnout.

I would say the one greatest things we can do, is to reduce the whiplash effects of burnout that we can cause in each other’s lives. Expectations in the office, like from a boss, are one thing. My teacher’s expectations about my schoolwork are one thing. But sometimes when I don’t do as expected on an assignment or a test, I can detect a sense of disappointment from my peers. And that’s a dangerously different scenario, because the expectations set by those around us have social weight. When you feel like you’ve let down those around you, even without impacting them, that can take the greatest toll. My biggest fear in not getting into some of the schools I’ve applied to, after everything I’ve put myself through, is not my own personal disappointment, but feeling like I’ve let down those around me.

And this, I think above all, is burnout.

So I have two recommendations. The first is to wait until about mid-April before asking seniors what their post-secondary plans are. But the second is to be careful about the implicit, unfair, perilous expectations we can set up for others in our social relationships, expectations which can be so destructive to self-esteem when they aren’t met because these can be the most frustrating elements of burnout. Because in order for me to look past them, I have to develop another layer of emotional security even more numbing than the last.

We can create the conditions for those around us to flourish, if we’re careful. But if we don’t pay too close attention, we can be some of the most terrible sources of burnout in each other’s lives.

3rd Homily “Stress-off” by Hannah Bowman

I want you to imagine a situation, and don’t worry; it’s probably one that you won’t have to work very hard to imagine. There is a group of friends talking, shootin’ the breeze. One pipes up  “Man, you guys would not believe the workload I’ve got.” Another interrupts. “Don’t even talk to me about busy, I am the King of Busy.” This becomes a “stress-off”. Each person tries to one-up the others in a mock competition of sorts.  I can’t speak to every generation, but this seems especially true of students nowadays. Something I’ve heard a thousand times, including from myself: “How are you?” “Oh my god, I have three tests tomorrow, soccer practice until six-thirty today, band rehearsal until eight on Friday, and club meetings every morning this week!”

This is an exaggeration for some, but for others it is a reality. For yet others, this schedule seems like a walk in the park. But does it really matter? And why, if we are all giving the same input, so much that we are all tired and burned out, why are we not getting the same output?

Let’s pause now, because I want to take a moment to explain the difference between stress and burnout, because they actually aren’t the same thing. It’s more that stress is the cause of burnout. The overabundance of stress specifically. As we take on more and more, our stress increases, until it reaches the breaking point- that’s burnout. That’s when everything comes crashing down, and you truly can’t take it any longer. That’s when you disengage, trying to get twice as much as you can and ending up getting none of it done.

This poses a problem if, like me, you have trouble saying no to people or commitments. It’s an easy trap to fall into, of course it is, we all have such varied interests, so many people we want to help, and if other people can do it surely we can too-

Until we don’t. Until everything piles up so high that it crushes us underneath its weight. It is agonizing to have to admit that you just couldn’t do something, you ran out of time, even though you know you wanted to do it so, so badly.

This is where self- doubt comes in. We begin to think that the problem must lie with us; that maybe we aren’t putting in as much as we can. That we ourselves are the failure.

I will not be talking about how many APs I am taking, or how I scored on the SATs, or my GPA, how many extracurriculars I have, because if I did, it would sound pitiful compared to what I’m sure we’ve all heard from someone else at some point before. And yet, I still exist as walking, talking mass of anxiety. I’m sure I’m not the only one. But there is not a single one of us who is “the best” at everything. Or even the best at one particular thing. And that’s okay.

Now, is this “stress-off” between people a horrible, evil thing?  No, not really. We all need our place to vent to, and it’s certainly a better alternative to bottling up our problems until we explode. The first step towards banishing our demons is to name them. However this can create an environment where everyone is on edge, smiling through the pain because they don’t want to be the only one with a frown.

There is a quote from one Edward Everett Hale, who was incidentally a Unitarian clergyman.

It goes:

I am only one,

But still I am one.

I cannot do everything,

But still I can do something;

And because I cannot do everything,

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

We shouldn’t try to do everything, but rather commit ourselves to what we can and rest when we are weary. This is, I believe, a cure to burnout.