Good to Great, or Good Enough?

In light of the recent suicide of a middle school student at the Shipley School, this Sunday Rev. Peter reflects on the pressures we're putting on our children (and, often, ourselves) to excel, and the price we sometimes pay.

Reading

On Friday afternoons when I would arrive at my grandfather’s house after school, the tea would already be set on the kitchen table. My grandfather had his own way of serving tea. There were no teacups and saucers or bowl of granulated sugar or honey. Instead, he would pour the tea directly from the silver samovar into a drinking glass. There had to be a teaspoon in the glass first, otherwise the glass, being thin, might break.

My grandfather did not drink his tea in the same way that the parents of my friends did either. He would put a cube of sugar between his teeth and then drink the hot tea straight from his glass. So would I. I much preferred drinking tea this way to the way I had to drink tea at home.

After we had finished our tea, my grandfather would set two candles on the table and light them. Then he would have a word with God in Hebrew. Sometimes he would speak out loud, but often he would close his eyes and be quiet. I knew then that he was talking to God in his heart. I would sit and wait patiently because the best part of the week was coming.

When Grandpa finished talking to God, he would turn to me and say, “Come, Neshume-le.” It was his pet name for me, and it meant “beloved little soul.” Then I would stand in front of him and he would rest his hands lightly on top of my head. He would begin by thanking God for me and for making him my grandpa. He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true. Each week I would wait to find out what that was. If I had made mistakes during the week, he would mention my honesty in telling the truth. If I had failed, he would appreciate how hard I tried. If I had taken even a short nap without my nightlight, he would celebrate my bravery in sleeping in the dark. Then he would give me his blessing and ask the long-ago women I knew from his stories – Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, and Leah – to watch over me.

These few moments were the only time in my week that I felt completely safe and at rest. My family of physicians and health professionals were always struggling to learn more and to be more. It seemed there was always more to know. It was never enough. If I brought home a 98 on a test from school, my father would ask, “And what happened to the other two points?” I pursued those two points relentlessly throughout my childhood. But my grandfather did not care about such things. For him, I was already enough. And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so.


Sermon

Let me say at the outset that we have no idea why Cayman Naib took his own life earlier this month. From what the public has been told, he left no note, no posting on social media, no evidence of what drove the middle school boy to grab his father’s gun, to run out into the cold rain that evening, and to put an end to what appeared, by all accounts, to be a bright future. So, while circumstances surrounding Cayman’s tragic death provide the jumping off point for what I have to say today, I want to be clear that we will likely never know what pushed Cayman over the edge. Before I go on, I also want to express my heartfelt condolences to his parents and his sister, to the community of the Shipley School he attended, and to all those who are still grieving the loss of Cayman Naib.

It has been reported in the news that, shortly before Cayman committed suicide, he received an email from his school about an incomplete assignment. There is speculation – and it’s only speculation – that this email was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and that it compelled Cayman to do what he did. The speculation leads us – leads me – to consider how we are raising our children and the culture we are creating for their future.

You heard a few minutes ago from Riley – who is one of many outstanding youth in our congregation – what life is like for a high school student these days. I’d like to give you some more insight into what I’ve discovered since looking into this myself following Cayman’s death. Out in Palo Alto, California, between November last year and March of this, four high school students have killed themselves. While, as in Cayman’s death, we can’t be certain of the reasons, the pressure-cooker atmosphere of school seems to be at least a contributing factor. Carolyn Walworth, a high school junior, serves as student representative on the local school board. She recently delivered a speech to the school board that was reprinted in the local community newspaper. While we don’t live in Palo Alto, I believe her experience is representative of the students I’ve spoken to about these issues. Here are just some of the things that Carolyn told her school board just a few days ago:[1]

  • As I sit in my room staring at the list of colleges I've resolved to try to get into, trying to determine my odds of getting into each, I can't help but feel desolate.
  • My stress began in elementary school, where students were segregated into separate class meetings as "early" and "late" readers. Although we were just elementary schoolers, we perceived this as a differentiation between the less and more advanced students and either felt superior due to our intellect or shamed for a "lack" thereof.
  • A month or two into my freshman year, I felt the pressure building. It crushes you on the inside to see what appears to be the majority of your classmates acing tests with flying colors, while you're just doing all right. A piece of you cringes when you hear that your friend has been preparing for the SAT with classes since last summer, and that they're already scoring a 2000. (And what about that freshman who mentioned he was already preparing to take his subject tests at the end of the year? And the girl taking a summer immersion program to skip ahead and get into AP French her sophomore year? And that internship your best friend has with a Stanford professor?)
  • You can't help but slip into the system of competitive insanity related to college admissions to achieve social normalcy. You learn that it is okay and necessary to have great apprehension regarding your grades. You focus on getting straight A's. You go to bed at 1 AM every night, only to wake up a few hours later (earlier if you have morning practice for your sport) in an effort to get your excessive amount of homework finished each night. But at least you have the weekends to relax and pursue your own interests, right? No, there's another surfeit of homework waiting for you on Friday night, plus SAT practice. Of course, we're expected to maintain a social life and spend adequate time with our families as well.
  • Students are gasping for air, lacking the time to draw a measly breath in.
  • We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning. We lack sincere passion. We are sick.
  • Now that I'm nearing the end of my academic career in Palo Alto, I'd like to nostalgically look back and remember how much fun I had growing up, learning, and being a teenager in our city. I'm sorry to say I won't be able to do that even in the slightest degree.

All of you who are parents of school-aged children can probably relate to Carolyn’s experiences, as you watch your own children struggle to keep up. As you and they both struggle to keep up with the tsunami of assignments that crashes down on them week after week.

Then we compound all this with the pressure of standardized testing. Programs like “No Child Left Behind” and others on the state level like the PSSA’s here in the Commonwealth have created a test-crazy culture. One report last year found that, in an academic career from third grade to the end of high school, students will take an average of 113 standardized tests. 113! This same study found that students in grades 3-8 take an average of 10, and in some school districts as many as 20, standardized assessments each year.[2] And that’s in addition to the pop quizzes, the midterms and the finals that each teacher imposes on our children and youth. With its “Keystone Exams,” Pennsylvania is among at least 36 states that require or plan to require high school end-of-course exams in a variety of subjects, as a condition of graduation. Preparing for, taking and retaking these standardized assessments not only eat into valuable class time, but they layer stress upon stress, anxiety upon anxiety, for our children.

And, of course, we know that stress and anxiety don’t come to a blessed end when our kids graduate from high school, or from college. When we pause to take a look at our own lives, at our culture of consumption and achievement, at simply the myriad of choices we face when we walk into the average supermarket, we realize that anxiety is the very air we breathe. Stress is the very water that we’re swimming in. Every year the American Psychological Association conducts a sort of “stress test” in which it evaluates the levels of stress that we face. The latest assessment found that nearly half of all Americans suffer from some form of chronic stress. Following its 2013 study, the APA declared that chronic stress — stress that interferes with your ability to function normally over an extended period — is becoming a public health crisis and that America is at a critical crossroads when it comes to stress and our health. Money, work, and the state of the economy are the biggest stressors in our lives, followed closely by family responsibilities, relationships and health concerns.

Instead of making our lives easier, technology seems to be contributing to our stress and anxiety levels. “Corporate Wellness” magazine, reporting on the phenomenon of “Cultural Stress,” tells us that “the ‘freedom’ to work and communicate anywhere, anytime, 24 hours a day, keeps America the land of the constantly “logged-on” workforce. Americans,” it tells us, “work longer hours than nearly anyone in the developed world. For many professionals, the 40-hour workweek is history. Sixty to eighty hour work weeks are now the norm.” It’s estimated that Americans leave a massive 169 million vacation days unused each year, and that the amount of vacation we take is at a 40 year low.[3] While there are many reasons we don’t take all the vacation that we’re owed, principal among them are stress about falling behind and anxiety over being replaced.

I would be shocked if anyone here is shocked by any of this. You probably didn’t need to come to church today to learn about how stressed out we all are. But, as the song says, this isn’t just about us. It’s about our children and what we’re teaching them. Not just in our classrooms, but by how we live our lives. We’ve got to teach our children well, and I’m afraid we, as a culture, are failing them. When school children are killing themselves because, at least in part, they are afraid of falling behind or not getting into the best colleges or letting down their parents, we’ve got to sit up and take notice. If this is the “Year of the Child” in our church, when a youth in our community takes his own life, we’ve got to stop and pay attention. Perhaps Cayman had mental health issues unrelated to stress. Maybe he had significant conflicts within his family. Perhaps he experienced rejection from someone to whom he was attracted. Maybe he was bullied at school. But whether or not any of these things led him to do what he did, we can’t deny that we are creating an atmosphere of achievement and excellence for our children that is unhealthy and perhaps even pathological. It is killing our children and killing us, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

I don’t claim to have the answer to this problem. It’s too big and too complex, and it’s going to require a shift in our culture and our ethos. But I think there’s a way to begin to push back, if just a little bit. And it’s captured in one word. It’s a word you heard in our reading this morning, the story of how, as a young girl, Rachel Naomi Remen would be blessed by her grandfather. She wrote, “For my grandfather, I was already enough. And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so.”

It is this word, “enough,” that we must reclaim. While society pushes all of us to be not just good, but great, it’s time to say that good enough is good enough. That we are enough, that our children are enough. That we are blessed and we are a blessing. That our children are entitled to be children and that we, like them, are allowed to breathe. To play. To live life. To love life..

I recently came across an article whose title threw me for a loop: “If a Job is Worth Doing, it’s Worth Doing Poorly.”[4] How about that idea? Completely countercultural. The premise of the article is that if we are constantly seeking excellence, if we’re always in search of the great, the wonderful, the perfect, we may miss out on opportunities to get something done, even if it’s not done well. We fear failure so we fail to act at all. Another way of putting this is “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

I am not promoting mediocrity in all things. I am not suggesting that we become a nation of underachievers. But what I am offering up is that we be more selective in our striving (and our children’s striving). We don’t have to seek to be the best at everything all the time, nor do we have to impose that standard on our kids. In many things, good enough is good enough. This is what our Universalist heritage taught us and what the First Principle of Unitarian Universalism tells us: We are all good enough. We are made good enough. We don’t need to be the best, to be perfect, in everything we do. We are allowed to be who we are, and we’re not required to conform to some externally-imposed, standardized-test-evaluated ideal.

I don’t know whether hearing, and believing, this message would have been enough to save Cayman. But maybe it’s enough to help some of us get through today.

This day, and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.
 

[1] Walworth, Carolyn. "The Sorrows of the Young". Palo Alto Online, March 25, 2015 <http://paloaltoonline.com/news/2015/03/25/guest-opinion-the-sorrows-of-young-palo-altans>

[2] Kamenetz, Anya. “Testing: How Much is Too Much?” November 17, 2014 <http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/11/17/362339421/testing-how-much-is-too-much>

[3] White, Martha C. "Not Taking a Vacation.." Time, November 3, 2014 <http://time.com/3552007/not-taking-vacation/>

[4] Owens, Roger L. "If a Job's Worth Doing, It's Worth Doing Poorly". Faith and Leadership.com, January 27, 2015 <https://www.faithandleadership.com/l-roger-owens-if-job%E2%80%99s-worth-doing-it%E2%80%99s-worth-doing-poorly>