Sharing is not Daring

Let’s talk about millennials. Sure, we can’t paint an entire generation with a broad brush.  Some are deeply conservative, some deeply liberal.  Some are traditional, others much more progressive.  But we have some things in common.  We want to get involved in the political discussion.  We are full of energy.  We are highly tech-savvy.  And we, much like the generation prior, want to become agents of change.  We want to make our voices heard.  There is one unavoidable certainty: we are getting older.  And one day this country will be ours.

We want our voices to be heard. And who doesn’t?  We have opinions, just as Gen-Xers have opinions, just as the generation before them and so on and so forth.  The right to have, to express, and to debate opinions is a privilege afforded us by our founding fathers.  It’s a beautiful privilege.  And just as much as peoples’ opinions have outraged and puzzled me, they have shown me new perspectives and opened new doors in developing the way I think about issues.

Social media has opened up a new twist on sharing opinions, and it starts, quite literally, with the Share button. Websites of all natures, from network news stations like CNN and Fox to the Huffington Post, serve up buffets of biased articles, all for the immediate consumption of their many subscribers.  Additionally, sites like “Conservative Daily” and “Occupy Democrats” offer an assortment of articles, infographics, and memes for their single-minded consumers.  Herein lies the abomination of free thought.  When reading posts and seeing pictures, most of which are distorted in the interest of the author, readers have the option of the “easy button,” which allows them to share these articles with their followers without offering a word of their own thoughts.  The sharers are commonly repeat offenders who – just as they have their own fan base – rarely face disagreements or disputes.  Just like in the articles themselves, the sharers usually enjoy a comment section filled with dialogue supporting their stance and rarely opening up the floor for debate.

I don’t have a huge problem with these articles, despite their bias. Most are politically left or right, depending on the author’s vantage point, and I accept that.  And most do use facts (however distorted) to back up their opinions.  Also appropriate. After all, a large part of free speech is the ability to express one’s opinion; it’s the same reason newspapers have an “Editorial” section.

My problem is with the online world which social media users, many of whom are millennials, have created. Facebook transitioned from a playground of engagements and accomplishments to a landfill of political propaganda.  It has stripped us of our opinions because we are so busy sharing the opinions of others, and receiving back pats from our fellow followers.  Serious thought gives way to headlines and teasers, beckoning me to take the bait and I click.  I’m guilty.  But I can’t help but think there is a better way.  I want to read the thoughts and the revelations of my fellow millennials.  I want to know why people are voting or abstaining, how people feel about the system, what people think about the biggest domestic and foreign issues.  I want to know the issues and where the candidates stand, and instead get an overload of dirty laundry and scandals. When I read a shared article that bluntly exposes someone’s opinion – without a word of their own – I gain nothing.  Not only do I learn nothing, but I become turned off to this person’s position on politics and other issues because they are hiding behind a wall of aggressive rhetoric. We can brush this off by saying, “That’s just politics.”  But does it have to be?

It is worth noting that, in my opinion, in-person dialogue is still the most preferential form of political discourse. My displeasure towards sharing articles versus posting one’s own opinion is more of a “lesser of two evils” argument.  But we live in a world where the internet is a dominant force, especially in the spread of current events, and I use and overuse the internet.  I’m excited about the future, but I know that change is necessary.  I want thoughtful, progressive dialogue about politics and about controversial topics in America and around our world.  And we millennials will be a majority one day, and will have the means to change at our fingertips.  At our fingertips we also have the share button.  Let’s make the right choice.

You’re Talking to Me?

I always felt bad for those people.  You know, “those people.” The ones whose anxiety and depression struggles were publicized.  The people who had stories written about them on Facebook, detailing their years of struggle with nobody to turn to.  The people who were so mentally unstable that they had to see therapists.  The people who were embarrassed or ashamed of their internal psychological struggle.  In my life I struggled to relate, never having to resort to exercise or meditation just to maintain stability, never feeling so ashamed of something that I couldn’t voice it to others around me.  I counted myself lucky as someone who, despite infrequent bouts of nerves or slight depression, would never be considered to be one of “those people.”

After all, my “infrequent bouts” were few and far between.  Sure, I went to the nurse’s office every day for two weeks straight in the second grade because of an upcoming spelling bee.  I also spent many tearful nights over a college decision my senior year because I so badly struggled with separation from my family and a girlfriend at the time.  And yes, I was known to throw up out of fear before some important cross-country meets during my college years, to the point which I had to start occasionally seeing a counselor.  But even in these severe cases, I quickly reestablished my quality of life and returned to normal form.

Then recently, something happened.  I’m not exactly sure what.  I started having these panic attacks – so minor that no one needed to know.  I would throw up in a bathroom stall at the airport before a flight, or hit a spell of uncontrollable breathing before a big presentation.  Again, these were minor episodes – hardly anything that would liken me to “those people.”  These were minor hiccups in an otherwise normal routine.

Obviously, I internalized all of this.  Thing is, nobody would quite understand what was going on.  I had established a reputation for being the extroverted jokester of the office or social gathering, and I was not one to let on to any signs of concern or self-doubt.  It was better that I was not speaking to anybody about the feelings, so I would not tarnish this reputation.  I knew how people would react if I shared my struggle – they would certainly not believe me, and quite possibly berate me for it.  It’s not that I was embarrassed or ashamed.  I just didn’t need anyone’s help and I certainly didn’t need anyone’s sympathy.

So it got worse.  The panic “attacks” began to wage all-out war.  Tension burned in my body for days, as I awaited insurmountable tasks.  Thing is, these tasks were not insurmountable to the naked eye.  Sure, my anxiety flared up when I had an upcoming presentation at work or an exam in my class.  But these outliers gave way to minor everyday tasks.  I found that I had to mentally prepare myself just to take out the trash, read a chapter of a book, or do the dishes.  Most nights I wasn’t even up to the challenge that these chores presented.  It was an inexplicable, painless torture that gripped me from all angles internally while forcing me to look externally unblemished.  People at work saw my clean-shaven face, my gelled hair, and my color-coordinated clothing, but had no idea how much blood, sweat and tears had gone into these efforts.  I had a girl whom I was trying to impress which kept me stable, but as she moved on, my struggles rooted deeper.  I was on my own in a city far away from home.  To say I had no one was entirely untrue, but I felt painstakingly alone.

Then one Friday I hit a low point.  This was odd, because it started out on a particularly high note.  I ate breakfast with some co-workers, and spent it laughing and joking around though hardly touching my food.  As I walked through the office later, I greeted each passing co-worker with a friendly hello as my heart began pounding faster and faster.  I cracked up at a story my boss told as I began to feel silently and uncontrollably nauseated.  My world began to fade.  Colors blurred together, voices blurred together, my thoughts raced.  I feared eating lunch.  I feared the weekend.  I feared for the rest of my life.  I sprinted home over lunch and called my mother, breaking into pieces as she answered the phone.  Through muffled sobs, I expressed to her a realization just coming over me in that very moment.  I am not okay. I am one of those people.

I am one of those people.

The Facebook articles, the mental health magazines, the relaxation techniques, the therapists, they are all reaching out to people of my condition. They are reaching out to me. There was a moment in my suffering, and in my desperation call, in which I accepted for the first time that I suffer from a mental illness.  An illness.  All my life I’ve convinced myself and those around me that I am perfectly normal.  And I am normal in many regards.  I am a college graduate, I live in an apartment in a beautiful Central Pennsylvanian town, and I have a great job.  I also suffer from anxiety and depression.  And with the number of Americans affected by mental illnesses, even this distinction is not so abnormal.

The most important realization that I made was not that I have a true mental illness.  That was a big step, sure, but it was not the most important one.  The most important realization that I made was that having a mental illness is OK.  That it’s not my fault.  I had spent a long time silently condemning myself for being weak and helpless.  Truth is, I was embarrassed about it.  I still am embarrassed about it.

But I’m not weak and I’m not helpless.  For so long, I was stubborn about receiving help because I thought that seeking help affirmed the stigma that anxiety and depression are for weak people who can’t handle stress on their own.  This is so far from the truth.  I’m now seeking help, and I visit a therapist on an almost weekly basis.  I sometimes break down and have to call my parents or my close friends just to get some burdens off my chest.  I’m reading books about anxiety.  I’m exercising regularly (or trying to).  My hope is that those reading can learn from my story.  For those who do not struggle with mental illnesses, I hope this helps you to better understand the secret battle we have to fight, and realize that I can be at my worst when I appear to be at my best.  I don’t want to be treated any differently, I just want to be understood when I have to cancel on plans or step outside of the room before giving a speech.  For those who are battling some type of mental illness, any type of illness, I implore you to join me in the recovery process.  First, know that you are not alone.  It can happen to anyone (which I neglected to believe until it happened to me).  Talk to someone about it.  Tell me your story – I’d love to listen.  Seek a counselor and see them regularly.  Read up on healthy habits and tips for alleviating some of the difficulty.  Pray about it.  And most importantly, open yourself up to taking the first step of admittance and acceptance.  Because some day you might look up and realize that you’re one of those people too.  And that is perfectly OK.

Hold the Door

I’m fourteen and I hate my parents.  Hate is a strong word you say.  Well it’s not strong enough.  When I come down for breakfast with my hood up or brush past them after getting off the bus, they routinely fail to take the hint.  And why talk to them?  Conversation rarely ends in my favor.  My mother and father systematically ignore all of my pleas.  They refuse to let me watch R-rated movies or listen to hip hop, despite the fact that I’ll hear far worse at school.  My dad drags me to CCD every week even though I never learn anything; and he makes us all sit in the front row at church.  And my mom is always on my case about something or another.  One week, she’s criticizing my responsibility because I refused to run the pointless errands she assigned me.  The next week, she’s up in arms because I didn’t hold the door for a girl at youth group.  Hold the door?  Why do they keep making mountains out of molehills?  I mean, am I always the most responsible or the most polite?  Probably not.  But I don’t need my stupid parents telling me what I need to do better; I have it together.

I’m sixteen and I hate my parents.  They are on some power trip, eager to tell me what I can’t do.  The worst is when they withhold my going-out privileges until my homework is finished.  They can’t grasp the fact that I will always manage to get my homework done.  And if it’s B or C quality, it’s B or C quality, but I can live with that.  And the privileges all my friends have are foreign to my parents.  I can never get access to the family van when I most need it, and they won’t let me drive it if they don’t know where I’m going.  I really thought sixteen would bring so much more freedom, but most of my freedoms have been stifled.  My mom never lets me go to my one friend’s house (let’s call him Eric), but Eric’s house is my key to getting in with a popular crowd.  I have angrily stormed away from my mom many times because “her gut tells her” there will be drinking (there will be) and marijuana (yep).  Their reasoning for suffocating me is always the same.  They are protecting me, guiding me to make good decisions.  I’ll understand when I’m older apparently.  When will they understand that I can’t stand them?

I’m eighteen and I hate my parents.  If I hear the word “perspective” one more time, I think I’m going to flip out.  Perspective.  I need perspective.  Need to think about the long term.  Where they miss the point is the fact that long term, my girlfriend and I can go to the same college and make it work.  It won’t be that difficult.  One roadblock: I was denied admission to my school of choice (too many Bs and Cs), but instead of consoling me, they have been preaching.  I need to work harder, I need to run cross country and track in college, I need to be more disciplined.  But running is a burden, and (this somehow makes sense in my present state of mind) won’t help me meet cool people.  And if my high school girlfriend is there with me, I will enjoy it so much more.  My parents are unfortunately so closed-minded, informing me that since they have been around much longer, they know that is not a good idea.  I need to instead go my own route and do some soul searching.  I can’t wait to prove them wrong.

       *                    *                     *            

I’m twenty-three and I love my parents.  I have shed my arrogant, senseless high school persona for a more esteemed, thoughtful one (OK, still a work in progress but you get the point).  I live about three hours away from my family, having started a new career out of college.  College, where I worked hard and improved my performance in the classroom.  College, where I ran track and cross country and made amazing, lifelong friends.  College, where I established a rapport with professors and faculty members, and held the door for people.  They think I’m polite!

“Eric” has had a few odd jobs out of high school, most recently working at a car wash.  I think the dude still smokes weed. Meanwhile I joined a local church and met some amazing people.  I’m so glad my parents instilled in me the value of going to Mass every Sunday.  Responsibilities are growing, as I now have to pay my own bills and schedule my own appointments.  Thank goodness they made me run errands and schooled me on financial responsibility. As you probably guessed, that girl and I broke up.   Once again, my parents were right.

I guess my parents’ words and actions just finally resonated with me.  They really WERE right, they really DID know better, and all through my dark teenage years I scoffed at them and opposed their authority.  Maybe because I’m closer to parenthood than I am to childhood now, I have begun thinking about this more.  But before facing the challenges of being a parent, I wanted to take a moment to say thank you.  Thank you Mom, for loving me when I failed and setting a great example. Thank you Dad, for pushing me to do my best and modeling the way to being a man.  Thank you both for sticking it out and being amazing parents.  Sorry it took me twenty-some years to come around.  But I’ve learned a thing or two for when I have kids.  My kids will be raised by the same values you have instilled in me.  And I will make sure they hold the door.

Be the Change

When I took the leap and decided to become a youth minister at my new church, I faced my own heavy expectations.  A cradle Catholic, I was certain my knowledge and faith would far exceed all of the other volunteers, many of whom are still in high school and recently went through Confirmation.  High school students, after all, are self-absorbed punks who have no respect for others and no regard for religion or morals.  Right?  From my own experiences, my image of the youth was considerably distasteful. I fully prepared myself to be the beacon of light, the change that brought these misguided high school youth “leaders” closer to Christ.

Is anyone really proud of their high school years?  Do any of you look back years later on high school and think, I really did have it all together back then?  If you answered affirmatively to that question, you are either lying or still in high school (and you will discover years later that you were lying).  My high school persona was as arrogant and foolish as so many others; I cursed too often, I drank, smoked, and disrespected my parents and other authority figures in general.  Many of my actions were focused on getting a rise out of my peers – most of whom shared similar unholy interests.  Seeing as how it has only been about five years since I graduated, I anticipated that most high school teens, including those in my new location, had the same morals and motives.  I was ready to use my own story, my own faith to set them straight.

As months of youth group meetings went by, I befriended many of the teens, but I was making little to no progress.  The youth group nights were going great, but my role was more reserved than I had intended.  Suddenly, it hit me.  These students were not in need of some faith transformation.  In fact, these “punk” teenagers turned out to be young men and women of such strong faith, capable of inspiring so many others and leading them to God.  Every Wednesday night, an atmosphere of community, hope, and love came to life in a large part by the twenty-two teenagers who willingly give their time to serve others.  They weren’t just outstanding youth ministers, they were outstanding Christians.  They weren’t just exceptional teenagers, they were exceptional people.  Their brains may not be fully developed – but their hearts certainly are.  I had failed on my mission to change these youth.  They had changed me.

We’ve all heard the age-old saying, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  I agree with this wholeheartedly; however, I would like to add to it.  When you see others creating positive change, stop and take time to appreciate them, to praise them, and to share them with the world!  I spent hours fretting over how I could “be the change” in an environment in no need of it. But there are many places that are in great need.  Anyone who regularly watches the news likely understands our world’s need for a positive difference in the limelight.  Amid the violence, racism, abuses and political differences facing our world, I have found a great beacon of hope, of truth, of positivity.  I hoped it might have started with me.  But someone already beat me to it.

Fellas: We’ve Lost Our Touch

When I was in kindergarten, a girl kissed me on the cheek.  I can barely even remember it, but I must’ve done something fairly sweet that won her over.  The entire fling was wrapped up in a child-like innocence, one that many teens and young adults would look at and chuckle.  But I would argue that these same teens and adults could learn something from what took place on that playground.  She was seven.  She liked me.  I liked her.  And she didn’t need the approval of all of her closest girlfriends; she didn’t need to chat with me online first.  She just acted bravely, and I think grown men, me included, could take notes from this unabashed seven year-old girl.

Nothing about the way our fling played out would be protocol in today’s digitalized era.  Along came computers, then the internet, then social media, and then we all put our guards up.  Dating stayed fairly the same; the steps leading up to dating took a turn for the worse.  I know “social” media has made us less social beings, and I don’t think anyone would argue that.  I certainly use it.  But there is a right and a wrong way to use social media to meet/talk to/observe women, and more often than not I think we men take the wrong way.

The old method used to be this: meet a person, get to know them, then add them as a friend on Facebook or follow them on Twitter once you have become friends.  Many people have put a negative spin on this, namely: see a girl in passing or come across a picture of her, add her on social media, talk to her ON SOCIAL MEDIA with “cute” messages, finally meet face-to-face.  A very observant individual recognized this trend and created the monstrosity that is Tinder, in which you determine whether or not you might want to “chat” electronically with someone based solely off of their photos.  I do not have the statistics, but the trend seems to be that more of the connections made on this app end up in one night stands and not dating.  And please don’t think that I am against dating websites like Match, because I am not.  Dating sites can be helpful for people in a rut, as long as they are honestly looking for a companion, someone they want to get to know better.  If dating sites end in face-to-face contact, where people do fall in love with others due to their personalities, I think that’s a plus.

That being said, I think Tinder is toxic to our society, not only because it demeans someone to merely a picture or two, but because it reinforces some peoples’ idea that the right way to approach someone is via a screen where you work your smooth moves.  I have had multiple people tell me how confident and bold they are because of the clever innuendos they posed to a girl they are sending messages to.  I’m supposed to be impressed and praise them for how good they are with women.   Really?  Is that how we now define confidence?  Have we gotten to the point as a society where women fall for whoever has the most creative pick-up line on an app, or who sends them enough Facebook messages? Or where that is the perception at least?  What happened to approaching others in person, or meeting them through groups, clubs, church, or social events?  But many people don’t want to make that kind of time commitment.  And why should they when a gorgeous girl is right at their fingertips, just as long as they swipe right enough times?

I do not like the trend that I am seeing.  And as I have begun living on my own, I have found it difficult to meet young people.  The approach of meeting people face-to-face is difficult, and I am far from mastery on the subject.  But maybe that’s also what makes it so special.  I’ll be the first to admit I need to lay off the Facebook creeping a bit myself.  But let’s agree-as men, as women, as a society, to try to do a little better.

A Recent Graduate’s Guide to Being Alone

I hated college until the minute I left.  I then realized how much I had loved college.  Alas, I can’t go back.  Not to the fairy tale that was undergraduate at least.

Now many of my friends have taken completely different routes since graduating college.  Some are going on to further their education, some are staying at home for a while, others moving in to strange, new places for work.   Despite the different paths we are all taking, there is one common thread among us-we’re grown ups now.

It hit me especially hard.  I moved three hours away from home, three hours away from college, three hours away from life as I knew it.  And I am still learning every day how to deal with these new experiences as they come at me.  And I’ll be the first to admit I still kinda suck at it.  But based off of my experiences so far, here is a brief guide to living alone.

1. The first friend is the toughest

Friends do not come nearly as easy in the real world because it is so hard to find that starting point.  In college, you literally live in a network of people.  Everyone you meet in college is connected to dozens of other people the same age as you.  In the real world,  “networks” are very different.  Many of the people you meet are much more focused on caring for their families than making new friends.  You will have to put forth much more effort, and go out of your way to make friends.

2. Don’t hang around terrible people

If you didn’t learn this in college, congrats on your online degree.  Difference in the real world is, awful people become harder to avoid.  But don’t spend your time with someone who does not make you feel better about yourself only because you need a “friend.”  Take your time to develop positive, meaningful relationships.  Because for every awful person, there are ten wonderful people who would be happy to make your acquaintance.

3. Get involved, even if you don’t see an immediate payoff

I made the mistake of joining a running group only because I thought I could meet young people.  When, to my dismay, I realized that the demographic was 40-something year-olds, many of whom regularly ran ultra-marathons in double knee braces.  But the reward came in a different manner than I had expected; I gained new friendships and perspectives from a variety of people, despite the fact that there was barely anyone within ten years of me!

4. Treat people as ends, not means to an end

This lesson applies to everyone in any stage of life, but I think it has particular meaning for young people.  In my quest for meeting fellow youth, finding a girl who shares similar interests and having a group to go to the bar with, I found myself wondering how everyone could help me get there.  Who had friends they could introduce me to?  Who had a daughter who would like to meet me?  Who is close with this group of people?  This type of thinking is selfish and it can interfere with communication.  Form relationships with all your coworkers, group members, fellow churchgoers, even your neighbors.  Sure, they might not set you up on a blind date with the love of your life, but chances are some of them could end up being your best friends.

5. Learn to be comfortable alone

I’m still not good at this one-but it seems important.  It is extremely difficult to swallow your pride and go it alone in public-no headphones, no companion, nothing.  Society places so much importance on being “social;” social status, social media, etc.  Our natural reaction is to feel sympathy when we see someone walking or dining alone.  But I am willing to bet (though I’m not quite confident enough yet) that there can be great outcomes to learning how to feel comfortable in the silence.

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