“Miss, at what age did you feel that you had your life together?”
I had to smile and it’s a good thing I was wearing a mask. I have been asked this question over and over since I started teaching at the tender age of 21. At that time I felt as though I knew nothing about anything, and some days that was true. Now, I like occupying the space between young enough to be relatable and old enough to be wise.
My answer has always been the same internally – What? Me? Put together? – but I’ve gotten better at articulating a message. It’s important to appreciate the intent behind such a question, which is not to find out about my life. Rather, these students want to know how to manage their own lives. They are uncertain and want to know that there is hope for a time when they will not feel uncertain.
I’ve been given the honour of speaking at graduation and I think the speech will include a part about the uncertainty of one’s life path. But when I was talking to this student yesterday, I answered her question in way that actually got me thinking and perhaps there’s something to that.
Context is important here. The student who asked me this question has been in my Advisory for the past two years, and while I haven’t taught her in a class, I am privy to her difficulties managing time, getting along with teachers, and living away from parents. I know that she has had a hard time; she was the happiest I’ve seen her when she spent our online learning period in her home country. The other two students in the room were also not students I have taught, but who I know a little bit about. They were listening as I answered, especially the quiet young man in the back of the room who even raised his face from his laptop for a moment. I looked over at him and he knew I knew.
“Miss, at what age did you feel that you had your life together?”
“Well, I guess the question is what it means to be together. We only see what people show us externally, right? We don’t know what’s going on inside. And I think a lot of the time we put on an external face but inside, we’re in pieces.”
“But how are you able to do that?”
“To appear like everything’s fine?”
“I think that’s something we learn to do. We all have coping mechanisms, right? You know when you’re having a bad day but I might not. And sometimes you just put that bad day in your pocket and go about your business until you get home and then you can fall apart. But I think we forget that other people are doing the same thing because we don’t see them like that. We only see what they show us, so that’s all we know of them.”
Perhaps not the answer the student was hoping for, but the most honest one that I have. This is a student who is obviously struggling and doesn’t see, when she looks at everyone around her, that she’s not the only one. And so she feels alone. I know this because we have talked about it.
For me, this raises a few questions about cultural context and about social media. My school is highly westernized, a pervasive problem among international schools. (Danau Tanu’s book Growing Up in Transit is a stunning exploration of this and it led several colleagues and me to a crisis of being earlier this year.) The way a student might have been enculturated to respond to problems, then, quite possibly does not match the dominate narrative of our school, which leads to further confusion. Additionally, social media is highly westernized, and social media in American English presents a dominant narrative of what “okay” and “not okay” look like. (I am indebted to Lisa Feldmen Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made, which I’ve mentioned before. I cannot recommend this book enough.)
Putting this together, it is no wonder that this student is struggling to cope. She belongs to a culture that has a different mental health narrative than the educational climate and social media context in which she spends her time. This might seem a bit abstract, but I think this problem is clear in a very concrete way in social media narratives. Overwhelmingly, social media does not portray people who are not okay. We’re supposed to be happy. And we’re supposed to post photos demonstrating that we are happy. And we’re supposed to “like” or “love” or “react” to other people, whether we know them or not, to reinforce how happy we are that they are happy.
This is clearly not healthy. And so I have more questions. What was the world like before social media took over? Were people more open with each other? More honest? Did young people have a more realistic sense of what real life was like? Were young people actually in the world instead of hidden and sheltered from it?
I suspect that in some ways, questions like these have always been asked across generations. And young people have always grown into functioning adults. I just hope that the conversations we have with them, and the way we treat their concerns, help them grow in ways that are adaptive rather than giving them a false sense about what it really means to put our lives together. (Hint: There is no celebratory medal announcing that we’ve got it right.)
So when I did I have my life together? I’m not sure what “together” looks like. But I know I am livingmy life and that, in and of itself, is enough.
For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. . . . So treasure every moment you have and remember that time waits for no one. – Alfred D’Souza
It’s a conversation better left un-had and it goes something like this:
“We missed you at the party last night.” “Yeah, I would have liked to have been there.” “You could have come.” “I wasn’t invited.” “Well, it wasn’t at a time that was really convenient for you anyway.” “I could have moved things around, or you could have moved the party an hour.” “We didn’t think you’d want to, and someone else was in charge of organizing. But you should have said something when you found about it.” “But I wasn’t invited.” “Don’t worry, it really wasn’t that much fun anyway.” “Okay.”
The point is not that the party wasn’t fun or that I couldn’t be there. The point is that nobody thought to ask. Nobody in the group of nearly two dozen people in two countries thought that the person farthest away, completely separated from everyone else due to the pandemic, might have wanted to be involved. And even if there was a momentary glimmer of thought, nobody spoke up and nobody asked.
It’s a little bit like the time several years ago when I heard through a friend that another friend was mad at me for not attending her wedding. My response was one of genuine amazement for I hadn’t been invited. Likely, I hadn’t been invited because I live overseas and the wedding was at a time when I could not have feasibly gone. But to be mad at me? If she wanted me to be there, she could have gotten married a month earlier when I was there, just like another friend did. Or she could have invited me and let me work it out. If you’re going to make a choice, at least own the choice.
And likewise, give me the chance to do the same.
A different example: Last November, a friend planned a birthday party over Zoom. She sent me the invitation and wrote, “I know you can’t be there but I wanted to invite you anyway.” I called as she was setting up and wished her a happy birthday and fun party. It really can be that simple to do the good thing.
The issue weighing on my mind is that people don’t think. They don’t think beyond what is immediately in front of them. And I don’t know why.
As a friend said over tea yesterday when I was agonizing over this for the second day in a row, “Just because we think about them all the time doesn’t mean they’re as focused on us.” This seems accurate. Having not seen my family in nearly two years because of the pandemic, and with the need to make decisions about my next move far too soon with so many variables in flux, I think about my family all the time. They are not together in the same place or even the same country, but they have time in common and I do not. This is why I make phone calls before work. This is why I watch the calendar and count hours to get everyone’s birthdays right in their time zone. This is why I send emails just to say hello.
When I first moved overseas, a friend had her watch set for the time in Glasgow, seven hours behind us in Malaysia. I asked why and she said that even after four years of living away, she had never stopped thinking about what her family were doing.
I have never been an adherent of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, and I fully understand the power of the contrary. However, I know a little bit about the power of shared experiences. People who spend time together deepen the connections they have with one another. This is among the reasons experiential education brings people together. This is why a late-night conversation is so often a turning point in a friendship or romantic relationship. When we no longer have things in common, it is easier drift apart. Our conversations remain superficial and it is easy to grow disinterested or disengaged. It is already difficult to maintain a sense of connection through text messages, email, and too-short phone calls. It is impossible when we are so used to others not being there that we neglect to include them at all.
It seems fitting here to mention the exceptions. I am very lucky to have friends with whom I can pick up after months of no contact, and it will feel like we last saw each other the day before. This is possible because our relationship was forged through years of shared experiences. In that sense, we have a reserve of togetherness that allows us to maintain close ties. We have done the hard work of becoming and staying friends, and this is significant. The bonds exist because we took the time and energy to build them. Exclusion does not allow for this, and so the cycle continues.
I wonder where this leaves us as humans. Are we so fixated on the present that we are unable to ask questions that look beyond? Are we too focused on feeling good about ourselves to remember that our choices impact others? How is it that we are so certain of our own wants and needs that we fail to consider that the wants and needs of others might differ? And do we make choices along the way that take away others’ ability to make choices of their own?
By no means do I need anyone to make allowances for the fact that I live on a different continent in a very different time zone from all family and many friends. This is an unreasonable onus and I understand that. But is it really so hard to meet me halfway? Is it really so hard to hold out your hand and ask?
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place