In Palo Alto, Ca, there are people who stand guard at the railroad tracks in order to prevent teenagers from jumping in front of the trains. The suicide rate in this affluent community is high among teenagers and one of the causes is attributed to the amount of stress and pressure they are under to achieve and get into Stanford. Recently, Stanford admitted that they only admit 5% of their applicants each year.
The title of this blog comes from a junior, Carolyn Walworth, who attends Palo Alto High School. The complete quote is this: “We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred and discourages teamwork and genuine learning.” She admits to panic attacks and feelings of despair as she navigates the system that has been embraced by the school, parents and community.
David Brooks writes in his book, The Road to Character, that he sees two sets of virtues – the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the ones we develop in order to achieve in the marketplace. These virtues seem to be the ones that teens like Carolyn work for everyday beginning in high school. Eulogy virtues are the ones that people talk about at our funerals. These are the virtues that build our inner character.
As a pastor, I can tell you nothing is harder than trying to do a funeral for a person for whom eulogy virtues were a waste of time. Plenty of people have impressive resume virtues to talk about but the look on the faces of loved ones as they struggle to talk about a person who was a work-a-holic, overachiever with no time for others unless they would further their ambitions husband/father/mother/wife, is heart breaking.
What are we doing as a society when we ignore the balance between resume virtues and eulogy virtues? As a coach what I see is a growing number of people for whom being overstressed is a way of life and a cause of illness, including mental illness. People can no longer step back taking in a bigger perspective. The body is on adrenaline overload pumping the stress hormones into the blood stream resulting in inability to concentrate, sleep well, eat right, make good decisions and set priorities. Everything becomes a priority if we fall into the trap of only ‘super’ humans succeed.
And in losing ourselves in this relentless cycle of produce and achieve, we also lose sight of others. There is no time for creating relationships, serving others, deepening our spiritual lives or playing. I really wonder when or if this loss of balance, self, and life-giving choices will end. Right now I don’ t seeing it ending well.
Life isn’t a competition. The bumper sticker may say the one with the most toys wins but I’ve never seen anyone take their toys with them in their casket. And yet, we devise more and more ways to turn living and learning into a competition.
Maslow said it well: “If the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, you will treat every problem as if it is a nail.”
Life isn’t easy. It is important to teach our children and to remember ourselves that life is hard. We need to be tough enough to handle the ups and downs that come our way. But, we need coping tools, character building tools and not just resume building tools in order to build a full life and solve the problems that come our way.
If we don’t slow this stress producing machine called society down a bit, I am afraid that the push to develop resume virtues will lead to more eulogies rather than eulogy virtues.