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When Life Loses Meaning for Our Young: Healthy Competition and Balance

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Consider this: Every 100 minutes a teenager suicides. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those between the ages of 14 and 25. Ten percent of US college students have admitted serious thoughts about suicide, and 7 percent have had a plan to end their lives. More than 30 thousand Americans suicide each year and five thousand of these are teenagers.

Here in my hometown of Philadelphia we mourn the recent loss of Penn football co-captain, Owen Thomas, a native of Allentown, and a student at the highly demanding Wharton School. This death is sadly reminiscent of the suicide five years ago of Penn football player, Kyle Ambrogi, a senior running back from Havertown.

Every cause of suicide is unique and excruciatingly complex. And no one but one who suffers enough to consider taking his or her own life can begin to explain the personal abyss that leads to such an act of hopelessness.

However, there is one general theme in our society that I am told again and again by the young clients I work with which contributes to a\their feelings of doom and hopelessness. This theme is the obsessive need to Compete, which is sadly seen as synonymous with Winning.....with being Crowned as Number One.

Some examples: the 20-year-old Ivy League student turned down by the campus sorority of her choice, where all the "beautiful winners" are, and who came to my office labeling herself a "complete looser and misfit;" the seventeen-year old prodigy who arrived at college to find that there were others with even more brainpower than his own, and who told me, "I am a nothing if I am not number one;" and the struggling student "ashamed to admit" that he needs help. Why? "Because in this world, not being the best means you are trash."

Consider also the 23-year-old grad student who explains: "To this day my Mom brags that I spoke earlier than any of her friend's kids, and my Dad brags that I was adding by age three. I cannot remember one moment in my life where I was told it was OK to just relax. I drink and use drugs to turn my brain off for just a few hours of peace. Without these crutches, I can never stop pushing myself to work, work, work. My anxieties about doing it all and being it all are endless and relentless."

Again and again in my hours with college and grad students I learn of families who stressed excellence in achievement above all else. "Even when my parents went out with friends, they only cared about those who could help them advance and feel important," explained one distraught, overwhelmed grad student. "So I am not attracted to people who are just decent and kind. I only want 'important' people in my life. I am a horrible snob, and I hate myself for it."

Again and again I meet students who were programmed to extremes with lessons, classes and parental determination to be the best (as they defined it) at all times. Free time to think, to be, to rest, to decompress, to just relax and have fun, was never part of their lives.

This is a horrific mistake. All young people need to learn about balance in life, and their most crucial teachers are parents, teachers and family members who not only speak about, but demonstrate the importance of SelfCare, of balance of academic, social, emotional, physical, and spiritual expressions and fulfillment in how they live.

At Baltimore's Goucher College, where I am a trustee, the concept of Balance, and the understanding of the dangers of student stress when balance is not achieved is a vital part of the community. To demonstrate this commitment, on April 24th, during Alumnae/i Weekend, a permanent Labyrinth was dedicated on an exquisite area of campus. While a Maze connotes unsettling challenges in knowing how to walk and exit to freedom (which we all surely know about in life!), the path of a Labyrinth, combining myriad ancient human symbols, including the circle, spiral and meander, is one without tricks and hazards. The quiet and peaceful journey of the Labyrinth represents the journey inward to one's true self and back again into the everyday world.

What does all of this talk of Balance have to do with the stress of Competition, the notion drummed into our kids' heads from Minute One in their lives that they have to be the Best, the First, the Greatest? Here's what! There is only one kind of healthy Competition. It is a determination to do our very best, and learn from our mistakes without gauging achievements by how others are doing.....without feeling "less than" when another achieves differently (seemingly more) than we do. Our young people can best believe in themselves when they learn that life is a journey with twists and turns and that when one does one's best, cares well for oneself, and accepts that mistakes and failures are part of life, the journey in the long run will bring deep satisfaction and fulfillment.

Without this understanding, and the important of Balance and Contemplation in a life of meaning and substance, our kids are in the gravest dangers of Burning Out before they even have a chance to begin to live.


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