Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Gift of Crisis

As I have mentioned in a previous post, the college years can be a volatile time for students.  Late adolescents and young adults are caught in between two worlds - that of their youth, their homes and families, and that of their future, their developing selves and careers.  This time is marked by both great excitement and great anxiety, which is a recipe for emotional turmoil and crisis.  The excitement derives from a sense of increased freedom of choice and independence, as well as the invigorating challenges and risks this brings.  To students, the world can seem like a grand buffet and they are made dizzy with all the delicious offerings.  They set about sampling the world to see what it is like, what appeals to them, what fits them and what doesn't.  This sampling often frightens others, notably parents, but it needn't.  Most students figure out on their own what works well and what does not, because the world will let them know.  If one gorges on the buffet pain will be felt.

But there is also anxiety.  Increased freedom is often noticed by the student very early on, and there is much joy and revelry attending this realization.  Soon thereafter, and sometimes very soon, a sense of responsibility emerges which can be quite shocking and as heavy as a coat of lead.  It becomes clearer, because life itself will reveal it, that students ultimately cannot avoid being responsible for themselves, for their identities and choices, for the well-being of their friends and communities.  For some this journey is slow and painstaking; for others it is as quick and awesome as lightning.

It is in this cauldron that emotional or psychological crises occur.  At times the friction between these two forces becomes more than the student can bear, much as what occurs when two tectonic plates collide.  Something has to give.  The crisis is the equivalent of an earthquake, the means by which equilibrium is achieved and a new topography is born.  For many who interact with students there can be a very strong urge to dampen down the crisis, to soothe the eruption of emotion, to medicate away the discomforts, to relieve them of the responsibility to self and others.  While some students may need such interventions, because of the degree of their impairment, many, if not most, do not.  In short, the crisis needs to occur and if we prevent or distort it we are doing students and their future authentic selves a great disservice.  Growth does not occur without some pains, and sometimes the pains are quite intense and dramatic.

And so we find ourselves in a predicament of our own.  Using wisdom, good judgment and the best advice, we have to choose when and how to support the student.  We have to balance the need to soothe against the student's need to develop into a mature being.  This is admittedly not always an easy task.  Tragedies which have occurred across the nation have resulted in an attitude or climate of fear for some, and this can produce defensive responding when great patience and faith are needed instead.  Unfortunately the litigious among us, lawyers, and the court itself, can unwittingly reinforce this harmful posture through the apparent expectation of clairvoyance.  Growth occurs in the process of getting through the pain, not by going around it.

Many faith traditions include a prayer or edict about being thankful for suffering.  It is easy for mental health professionals to see why this is so.  This suffering is a gift, a way that our bodies and psyches tell us that change is needed.  All we need to do is listen to this inner voice, be patient and accepting in our comprehension, and respond.