Recently in school, we were learning about stress and stress management, and we took this inventory survey that was supposed to give us a general numerical answer that clued us in a little more clearly to the ins and outs of our teenage minds. There were all sorts of events and items on the list, and they were all assigned a number, which you would then total up at the end to get your average stress inventory score. I was 270 points above the highest level of stress one should have.
Now, that's not astronomically surprising to me, and I definitely was not the only one in the class with levels that high. But, it was enough to stress me out even more.
I have a pretty loose definition of stress, but it usually falls somewhere between seeing a cute dude in the hallway and knowing he will never speak to me, and planning for the longevity that comes with knowing that, at some point soon, I'm going to be at another stage in my life where I know absolutely nothing at all -- adulthood. I keep getting the vibe that everyone who has to make their own dinners and pay their own rent knows little to nothing about living on their own. Sure, there are successful philosophies and moments of deep clarity, but, other than that, there really isn't any assurance that we'll be able to distinctly do the right thing with our lives.
I consider myself a relatively optimistic person, and I'm very much privileged and well-off in terms of the future. I know mostly what I want to do (print journalism), I have a list of all the places I want to go (Seattle, every nook and cranny of the UK, New York Fashion Week), I know the names of my future pugs (Clementine and Diane Sawyer) and I feel prepared (I really do). The thing is, I absolutely can't help but feel jittery and apprehensive about the various dimensions of the future. I have my own personal struggles, bumps in the road and general teen angst, but there's also a feeling of insecurity that makes me want to pop out of it.
It just seems so apparent to me that I've put so much effort into sculpting an architectural masterpiece, only to realize that it will face decomposition in the next five years. In fact, I remember thinking on my sixteenth birthday "I'm five years away from being a twenty-something." It seems like I've put so much thought into the resolute idea of my future, simply to be clothed in the stress that everything I know is at a constant rate of change.
What I'm trying to get at is: How do we know how worthy something is of our stress? What makes the cut? Like, what pushes us to the edge to care so much about certain things, to dwell on them like we were never sure of anything other than their existence in our lives? Where do we get the feeling to look at certain things or speak to certain people to become connected, obligated and empathetic?
For a second there, I thought I was describing love. But, this is something entirely different than affection. It's still a passion so broad and so bold that we have no other option but to confront it, but it's also bitterly enjoyable like eating ice cream in the middle of February. So, what is it behind our stressors that feels so awkward in the moment, yet tastes so delicious in hindsight? What pushes us into the category of caring so much it hurts, or stressing out so much it becomes a tattoo on our day-to-day lives?
These questions were really starting to bug me, so I did some research, and I have concluded that it might have something to do with our brains at this point in life.
I came across this article by David Dobbs of National Geographic, and even though it's from a few years ago, Dobbs gives a really rockin' depiction of the honesty and biology of the teenage brain.
So here's the deal. There are teenagers making mistakes, and there are teenagers who think they are bad people because they make those mistakes, but the way they do it is so sincere, so specific to that time in life where the cerebral cortex isn't developed like we want it to be. I believe really heavily in the idea that there aren't any bad kids in the world; only curious ones who have trouble phrasing questions. It's become a real reoccurring theme in my environment to be scoffed at for being under the age of 18 and itching for all your dreams to come true. I can't tell you how many times I've been ashamed to go to Starbucks, open up my laptop and order a drink with way too many syllables because I didn't want to be accused of being a mature-for-my-age-teenager.
I know there are way more problems in the world; bigger, more painful problems in the world, than the misunderstanding of adolescence, but I feel so strongly that if most people took a step back, developed the next generation a little more lovingly and let us all get off on a better foot, then we'd be at a much lower risk for all those back-stabbing, stomach-piercing issues in the universe.
A majority of that article discussed risk-taking, in fact. Dobbs detailed studies and researches that have resulted in theories that believe the young, maturing brain is much more of an adaptive and analytical phenomenon than just a sketch of what we want our masterpieces to be. The studies showed dramatic happenings in social rejection, risk-taking and many other facets that usually seem to be the butt of every teen-related joke. The best part was the message that clearly and respectfully stated that it wasn't that teenage-hood should be used as an immediate excuse or clearance for those issues, but that it made sense to let things run their youthful, and potentially troubling, course.
One of the more notable parts of the theory showed that teenagers balance risk at a different level than most fully-grown adults. It isn't because young people are ignorant of the consequences, or that they think they're invincible against the laws of logic, but that the risk is seemingly much more beautiful than the consequence. Teenage brains are stirred by risk as much as they are reliant on friendships and feelings to get them through the most experimental, interpretive time of their lives. In summary, it isn't a matter of staying alive anymore, but learning and challenging how it is we survive.
When I came to that realization myself, it felt like such a Hunger Games kind of thing to me, that my biological destiny was to be naturally trained to survive. I wanted to simply be, to take a risk by freeing myself of the teenage label. And then it became how clear it was that having those youthful, vulnerable characteristics is unavoidable. It isn't an option whether or not we change in our teenage years, but how willing we are to play the odds that lead us to our futures.
I think that's the answer I was looking for. I think the value of stress in our lives depends on how beautifully we see the risk of the outcome. It's not really something you can denote like currency or insurance rates, but, the vulnerability we unleash to the world and to ourselves is something that has the ability to pay for every moment and every movement in our constantly up-and-coming lifestyles. The stress and the deliberation of the future is just a little sliver of the great things to come, and I have never felt more like a million bucks.