I’m not sure when it started happening, but I remember when I recognized a pattern. An adult acquaintance asked me how things were going in college, and I responded honestly. Swamped with papers, sweating through practice hours, running to and fro for rehearsals and concerts, and dealing with personal issues, I was seriously overwhelmed.
“Well,” she said, “try to enjoy it. These are the best years of your life.”
Outwardly, I conceded that, yes, college did present many opportunities that one might not have again, and that I was indeed actually thoroughly enjoying it. Inwardly, though, I confess to being much less agreeable. Am I a complete wuss for being stressed by all these apparently insignificant things? I thought. If life will only continue to get worse from this moment, I sure hope I don’t even make it to my sixties. But, at that moment, I saw the pattern. Simply put: At every stage of life, from the day you learn to hold a conversation, people will hasten to tell you that things will never be better than they are right now. Not all people – but just enough.
It even happens to kids. “You don’t know how good you have it!” Now, in some cases, this statement may be necessary…when, for instance, a kid complains that he doesn’t get enough candy, or that his friends have more video games than he does. Deal with it, kid. People are starving in Ethiopia. Sometimes, though, kids hear those same words when they’ve been shunned by a friend…picked last for the team…or simply frustrated by being unable to accomplish a task, whether it’s putting pants on the right way or building a block tower that won’t fall down. “Oh, honey, it’ll be okay,” they’re told. “Someday you’ll look back on this and wonder why it upset you so much. Life will be MUCH harder when you’re an adult.”
The trend continues as we mature. “You think high school is hard? Wait until college!” “You think college is hard? Wait until you have a job!” And then…you become a parent. And oh, that “you-just-wait” comment attacks you from all sides.
“Oh-ho-ho, look how cute and pleasant your baby is right now. Enjoy this time while she can’t talk, because as soon as she can, it’ll be nothing but backtalk until she goes to school!”
“You think three-year-olds are difficult? When they’re teenagers, you’ll want to ship ’em off to Ethiopia! And they aren’t even cute by that time!”
Here’s the thing: on a certain level, I get it. Eventually, most children figure out how to get their pants on correctly, and seriously, it’s just pants, not nuclear medicine. HOWEVER…it’s not just about pants. It’s about wanting to do something well, and feeling disheartened by repeated unsuccessful attempts…and don’t we all struggle with that? Whether you’re four or forty, it’s discouraging to feel like you can’t do something right. And does anything hurt more than standing on the field in gym class for what seems like an eternity until the team captain reluctantly calls you over because there was nobody left to pick?
Well…on one hand, yes. Since childhood, I’ve been experienced bigger and more lasting hurts than those inflicted in gym class. At those moments, though, my little elementary-school heart ached as much as it could possibly ache, and my capacity for feeling unwanted and inadequate was stretched to its limits. If my parents had told me, when I poured out my heart to them later on, that my problems were small and I was overreacting, those feelings of inadequacy and loneliness would have only intensified. I would have felt stupid for even having them. Moreover, I would have hesitated to share anything with them in the future, because I’d always have been wondering if I was just being childish and oversensitive. One of my favorite quotes concerning parenting addresses this concept:
“Listen earnestly to anything [your children] want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.” ~Catherine M. Wallace
In general, although I have occasionally heard children’s problems minimized by their elders, I think adults recognize this truth. The older we get, though, the more likely we are to hear that our current struggles are, in light of future events, not worth getting worked up about. I’m not sure why, and I think that analyzing it would require a whole other blog post; however, I will venture to propose that people often don’t stop to remember what it was like to be in the shoes of those younger than themselves.
When I was in college, it was harder than anything I’d done yet. Sure, I had some wonderful experiences, and loved what I was studying, but it was HARD. There was always something I needed to be doing, and I felt restless any time I was relaxing, because I knew I’d soon need to get back to practicing, get started on a paper, or study for an exam.
When I was teaching, it was harder than anything I’d done yet. I was responsible for more than just getting good grades; I was responsible for other people’s kids. I was earning a paycheck, I was in front of people constantly, and I couldn’t just slack off.
When I became a mother…my life turned upside down. I had never felt so exhausted, unsure of myself, and intensely desirous of doing things just right.
So yes, in a way, life’s challenges grow as we do…but here’s the key: we grow in our ability to handle those challenges. I’m not sure if college was much harder for me at age twenty than high school was for me at sixteen…and if it was, so what? High school prepared me for college. College prepared me for teaching. Parenting children is preparing me for parenting teenagers.
We are called to bear one another’s burdens, not to scoff at others’ burdens because ours are bigger. If you’re teaching right now, I might not offer to write your lesson plans for you, but I will listen as you tell me it’s been a rough semester. I will agree that teaching was, and is, incredibly demanding. And when my kids reach their teens, and a young mother confides to me that she’s barely making it from one day to the next with her little ones, I hope I will still know better than to offer some dismissive comment about how wonderful those years are compared with my current teenage-parent angst.
If I don’t, you can print out this blog post and hit me over the head with it. And that’s a promise.