An Open Letter to Anxious High School Students

Original Artwork by Julia Shi ’16, used with permission

Dear Anxious Students,

What if your daily life could be marked by freedom and joy? I don’t mean constantly being able to do whatever you want, and I certainly don’t mean being annoyingly cheerful all the time. I mean, what if you could go through your day without anxiety, worry, and dread, without that feeling like at any moment your life could tear apart at the seams? What if you could walk through your day confidently, with purpose, and without anxiety and distress weighing you down? If that’s something you desperately want but don’t know how to get, this letter is for you.

Before I begin, I need to acknowledge that I risk oversimplifying a complex problem. Some anxiety results from chemical imbalances. When that is the case, advice of the sort I want to offer will be insufficient. You should seek medical attention. Some anxiety results from traumatic experiences and abuse. When that is the case, advice of the sort I want to offer might seem dismissive and offensive. You should seek counsel. But a lot of the anxiety I see my students experiencing I think comes from false judgments about life, from a failure of imagination. You need wisdom, and that is what I hope to offer here.

Many of you will tell me that you are anxious or stressed out because the SAT is looming, or college applications are due, or you have a really long essay to write. Or perhaps you have relationships stressors. You are dealing with a family crisis, or you are fighting with a friend, or struggling to keep up with all that is happening on social media.

No doubt those are real concerns, but I want to take a step back from the stuff that is right in your face and think about the big picture. I think many of you are anxious because you’ve allowed your imagination to be squashed and molded by an unimaginative culture. I know this because when you aren’t anxious, you’re bored, and in some cases, it is your boredom – your sense that this game you are being asked to play is meaningless – that is making you anxious. By imagination, I’m not talking primarily about day-dreaming or creating novel ideas, though those activities are related to what I have in mind. What I mean by imagination is the capacity to frame and make sense of reality. Weak imaginations simply adopt the images handed to them. Strong imaginations foster wonder.

What I see from those of you who are anxious is an inability to see your reality differently than the way your culture sees it. How does your culture tell you to see yourself? According to the dominant culture, the point of your life is to gain wealth (acquire lots of stuff), power (beat the competition), fame (please other people), and pleasure (do what feels good).

To get wealth, you need perfect grades, a perfect SAT score, a bunch of leadership positions and awards so you can get into highly selective college, so you can get into a great graduate school program, so you can get a job that will pay you well.

To get power, do whatever you can get away with to assert yourself. Don’t be vulnerable. Don’t let people see your weaknesses. Make other people feel small.

To get fame, draw attention to yourself. Take a lot of selfies, but make sure  you only post the good ones. Write crazy things on social media you would never say in person. Be stupid, silly, seductive, or slanderous. Get as many likes, shares, and retweets as you can. Push your popularity meter to the max.

To get pleasure, experiment, try everything. Nothing is off limits, nothing sacred, nothing out of bounds. Ignore consequences. Indulge in the immediate. Numb whatever guilt you feel. Use and be used, so long as everyone consents. Have fun. Live for the weekend.

Put together, the picture of life you get is incoherent and unfulfilling. You know there has to be more to life than working hard so you can play hard. You know money won’t really make you happy and that power for its own sake is pointless. You have learned by now that fame and pleasure are fleeting and fickle, that they constantly demand more of you to maintain them. Pursuing them is exhausting, and the fear of losing them is crippling.

So here’s my advice: Rebel against this way of looking at life. It is exhausting, pointless, and destructive. This view of the world promises you freedom, but it puts you in chains. It promises fulfillment, but it leaves you empty. It promises you joy, but it makes you miserable.

This can’t be the whole story. There has to be something more.

And there is. God made you with a nature and with a purpose. Your nature is such that you have to deny yourself if you want true joy. You have to serve others to be fulfilled. You have to love if you want to live.

Freedom comes from being who God intended you to be, and he made you to be so much more than a test-taker, a grade-earner, a money-maker, or an attention-getter. Stop letting foolish people tell you who you are. Most of the people on social media are foolish. Most of your friends are foolish, too. You are probably a fool at this stage of your life; I know I was. If all you do is listen to fools or try to figure life out on your own, you’ll never gain wisdom. And if you don’t become wise, you’ll never be free and joyful and capable of making your life count.

It doesn’t make sense to start over with every generation, to turn your back on the inherited wisdom of those who have gone before you, of those who have been teenagers and have made it to adulthood. Listen to those who live life well. Read old books. Talk to wise people who know and love you. Open yourself up to a wider world, a world of purpose and mystery, or truth, beauty, and goodness, of hope and joy and freedom. No doubt the realities of the world will push against that image, but God has called you to participate in his restorative and redemptive work in this messy world. If you stay focused on your personal problems or on pursuing the images your culture has set before you, you’ll miss the opportunity to join God in an amazing, fulfilling, exciting, and inexhaustibly interesting work.

Pax Christi,

Dr. Riley


One comment

  1. Thanks for this blog post. The advise is much needed for us at this stage of life. I really appreciate your straightforwardness.


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