Exit Ramp: Anxiety nation
It’s the season when many parents across this great country will be packing cars and driving their kids to college, sending them off, perhaps for the first time, into their own futures far from home. A friend who was sending her first-born to college was anxious about the leave-taking; I suggested a gentle reframing. Aren’t you happy that she’s able to launch into adulthood? Isn’t that what you’ve prepared her for?
The answer to that question is not altogether clear. There was a time when no one would have spoken about parenting as a style, a verb, or an extreme sport. There was a generation of mothers and fathers whose parenting motto might best be described by the popular Yiddish expression: “Gai shlog dein kup en vant,” “Go knock your head against a wall.” While this may not have been the most compassionate phrase, it summed up a particular task and value we’re a bit short of these days in parenting: building fierce independence.
There’s a strange paradox in our society about raising middle-class children today. We tell our kids how wonderful they are — gold stars for everyone. Yet we give them extra coaching to “succeed” in math, in English, in piano, and basketball. We sit with them as they do their homework. We are on top of the requirements for the SAT, the ACT, and a host of other tests. Professor Annette Lareau in “Unequal Childhoods” calls this concerted cultivation. But when we give kids too much help — tutoring, pushing, prodding, and a mountain of unsolicited advice about adulthood’s requirements — we may unintentionally be telling them that they cannot figure out life on their own, that they have to be better than they are. They are not enough.
This dual, contradictory messaging is confusing at the very least and may be at the heart of an immense issue sweeping our country right now: anxiety. Speak regularly to people who work with teens like teachers, psychologists, and camp counselors, and the word “anxiety” keeps creeping into conversations. There’s test-taking anxiety, homework anxiety, social anxiety, and a generalized anxiety about fitting in and mastering the assembly line of responsibilities to get to the next level of life. This diminishes our capacity to appreciate the moment and stay in it, especially when it’s not clear what lies at the end of this arduous road called success.
Anxiety is hurting children and hurting families. If you want to test informally how prominent an issue is in society, do a search for it on Amazon. Drop in the words “books on anxiety” in the search engine box and 4,007 book titles show up. That’s a lot of reading for someone who’s anxious. And you can bet Jews, while small in number, are top contenders for those titles.
From an ancient spiritual perspective, anxiety is managed by ramping up one’s faith. “When I am afraid, I put my trust in You,” says the Psalmist (53:6). “Cast your cares on the Lord, and He will sustain you,” another Psalm (55:22) suggests. Give it up to God, and your worries will be carried away. Most well known in this category of religious life advice is the description in Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil. You are with me.” When we walk in that place of gloom and doom, we are not alone. We are loved. While this level of trust works wonders for people of faith, it can be very hard to sustain, and it doesn’t work for non-believers or those who struggle theologically to make sense of their hardships.
I’m comforted by another verse: “Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up” (Proverbs 12:25). This is interpreted in the Talmud as a mandate to share anxieties and thereby halve them. Anxiety has weight. When we make ourselves vulnerable to others, we lighten the load. But what if we’re actually creating it?
Dr. Jack Groppel, of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, believes we have to change the way we look at anxiety. “You have to invite stress into your life. A human being needs stress,” he said in a recent New York Times article (“How to Improve Resilience in Midlife”). Managing stress involves recovering from it incrementally the way one rests a muscle after lifting weights. We can’t eliminate stress, so we need better ways to manage it. If not, it controls us.
It’s a true blessing to launch children into the adult world. It involves letting go, watching kids struggle and even fail without doing their heavy lifting for them. Fierce independence is hard. It deserves a blessing. How about this one as you pull into a college parking lot, “Shehecheyanu…Blessed is the One who has brought me to this day”?