Hours ago a young girl in our community took her own life. While her parents were devastated, they shared their story with the press as they were made aware of possible bullying in their daughter’s school. My heart breaks for these parents, and for many of the loving, caring teachers I know at the school she attended. I know they all wish they could turn back the clock and do something to intervene.
We have always had bullies. I have personally felt the excruciating pain of public humiliation by classmates who used me as a vehicle to prop up their own self-esteem. The dynamic of bullying is hard to explain. The abuse isn’t always consistent. It usually occurs when a peer group feels their social position is being threatened in some way, or when the victim of bullying experiences success. Everyone knows who the kids are who can be manipulated into this situation, and in a bizarre way, they become therapeutic punching bags for others who are dissatisfied with life.
The problem with bullying in our culture is the opportunity for creating pain in another person’s life has increased dramatically with the invention of social media. Even adults like to post their gripes online with back-handed slaps, indirect references, and specific attacks. When I see adults act this way, I know there is a bully lurking in their past. Bullying has a way of wounding us, and unfortunately our injuries can lead us to hurt others.
With this said, I have a greater concern. If bullies have always been around, and if their ability to hurt others is increasing with technology, the need for boosting the identity of young people (and adults) is growing too. Presently, I am aware of more young men and woman struggling with personal identity issues than I have known throughout my entire life. This includes my time as a Youth Minister and the years I moved in the circles of relationships created by our children. We are experiencing an identity crisis of epidemic proportions!
It is easy to come up with neatly packaged causes for these circumstances, or to place blame. That is not my intent. I simply join the chorus of other adults who want to find a way to help.
I believe there are some specific root causes that contribute to the problem. The disintegration of the family unit and the dismantling of faith-based values are at the top of my list. If our family gives us a sense of belonging and God tells us we are inherently valuable, we are going to suffer immeasurably when one or both of these foundations begin to crumble.
When we don’t know where we belong, or why we are valuable, then we let society answer these questions for us. We latch onto causes that give voice to our personal anger and pain, and we identify with anyone who reminds us of ourselves who appears to possess the power over circumstances we crave. These are two of the reasons young men join gangs and young girls run away from home to join terrorist organizations. In time, both may embrace the values and mission of the groups they join, but in the beginning, they merely want to be with people who appear to want and value them.
This is why young people sometimes become disoriented and believe their enemy is their friend and their friend is their enemy. It is why they follow those who are merely using them as vehicles and reject those who would do anything to help.
There is no simple cure for the epidemic, but there are some things all of us can do. We can…
Stop defining young people by society’s definition of perfection and start praising them for their unique gifts and qualities.
Stop defining ourselves by society’s definition of perfection and start seeing our value in light of our own unique gifts and qualities – otherwise we are merely reinforcing misperceptions in the minds of young people who look up to us.
Affirm every individual’s value as someone created in the image of God, and take every opportunity share this truth.
Promote a healthy balance between achievement and personal identity. Praise young people when they succeed. Honor them for the hard work it took to reach their goals. But remind them to be grateful for the abilities God has given them, even as they celebrate how they have stewarded what has been entrusted to them. This is why faith in God is so important in a young person’s life.
Be patient with young people who don’t know if they belong anywhere or have value. Some are misguided and have no rational reason to believe these things, but others have every reason to feel this way. Keep loving them and encouraging them, and don’t grow weary in the struggle.
We are in a battle for the hearts and minds of young people. They are under attack by those who would use them and abuse them. As life becomes cheaper in our culture and we lose sight of who we are and “whose” we are, it will become easier for anyone to slip into an abyss of meaninglessness and give up.
As believers in the Lord we have a light that can lead them out of darkness. Please let your light shine!
It might be the only glimmer of hope a young person sees.