(This was originally published in the December issue of "ChurchActs" the official newspaper of the Diocese of WNY)
I only caught a glance of them. Two young men out in the woods firing what looked like some heavy-duty weapons. They seemed pretty pleased with the destruction they were causing. A chill ran down my spine when I realized those same young men with those same weapons walked into the high school in Columbine, Colorado a couple years ago and opened fire. It was a videotape that was found a couple months ago and shown on national TV.
Those images nag at me. Images of youth so alienated from themselves and their community that this seemed like a good idea. As if in addition to the omnipresent school backpack they carried a psychic backpack. One so filled with rage and anger and hurt that it shattered them. How heavy did that backpack have to be?
Social stress is never higher than in Middle school and High school. It’s a time when we feel weird about ourselves. It is a time of experiment and change. Embarrassing yourself is the worst thing that could happen. The entire world seems to judge you. Many of us seem to fall short of the mark. Out of that environment grows frustration, anger, self-doubt, and depression. The emotions bubble up inside of us seeking relief. If you’re young you don’t quite know what to do with it. You end up yelling at family and friends. Sometimes you act in ways that afterward just don’t make a lot sense even to you. It all makes you feel worse.
At that moment what would you really like to happen? When I was a teen I struggled with the same frustrations. I wasn’t particularly athletic, I was terminally shy, and I was branded one of the “brains”. I became the pet target for a variety of people to rank on. The popular girls snubbed me because I was skinny and awkward. The jocks occasionally used me to bounce off lockers. The kids who didn’t like school mocked me for getting good grades. And I got mad. Too many days at school just made me feel foolish and clumsy and strange. When the weather was warm I’d walk up the hill in our back yard to a little grove of trees. There I’d find a stick of just the right length and suddenly I had a sword. I wasn’t the resident geek anymore. I was Conan the Barbarian and my foes fell by the dozens. What can I say, I had an active imagination.
But in the end that’s not what I really wanted. What I wanted was someone to listen to my feelings without criticism. I wanted someone to reassure me that I wasn’t going be like this forever. I just wanted people to be nice to me. On those occasions when one of the popular girls smiled and said hello it was a great day. When someone came to me with a question because they knew I knew the answer I felt great. Looking back it’s amazing how simple the answer was. As Christians it’s set out quite simply with Jesus’ “new” commandment – Love one another.
Loving one another means accepting that not everyone is like us and that’s OK. It means remembering that the geek and the jock and the popular and the weirdos are people. Every single person in your school is part of God’s creation. The next time you walk into school you can control how you treat others. All of them have their own psychic backpack filled with pain, worry and fear. The question for you is are you going to give them more to carry in that backpack or less? Smiling and saying hello to everyone, treating everyone with respect and refusing to allow disrespect to happen around you will certainly gain you a reputation. Plenty of people will think you’re weird. Let them. Continue to fulfill the commandment and many more will begin to realize that around you their backpack is lighter. Along the way you may discover that you’ve picked up some “strange” friends. Good. Most days some pretty strange people surrounded Jesus. Most days He sought them out.
Look around and watch for others whose backpacks have begun to burden them. Lighten their backpacks.