Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. -Socrates
Normally I ignore the school announcements as they ramble over the intercom. Pretty much everything they announce has nothing to do with me as a sub. But I did catch the quote of the day. I know I’ve heard it before, and I almost passed it off as cliché. Almost. Then I realized how sad that is, because I also know how true that statement is. We all have our struggles. We all have our battles. Most of them are secret, simmering underneath the surface of smiling faces and polite attitudes. It’s so easy to believe the facades, to think that others don’t struggle as we do, but that’s just not true. We are all fighting a hard battle of some kind or another.
So I looked out over the teens in my study hall today and wondered. What are their battles? What secret weights are each of them carrying that they hide from the world? I’ve written about my own adolescent struggles enough, and I remember pieces of what my friends went through, too. However, it’s disconcerting how little I actually know about their specific battles, all things considered. I know about the bullying, depression, alcoholic fathers, broken homes, and financial struggles. I know they existed, anyway, but I don’t know how good of a job I did at coming alongside my friends and supporting them where they needed it the most. I cared about my friends; I really did! But I have to admit that I wrapped myself up in my own battle so much that it was sometimes hard to see past myself into their struggles.
In my defense (and I might go so far as to say “in everyone’s defense”), it’s hard to empathize with a battle you don’t understand. It’s easy to care from a distance. It’s easy to offer sympathy and tell your friends you’re praying for them. It’s even easy to try to talk away the pain with them, to say that you’re sure it’ll be OK. But all of that keeps their real battle at arm’s length. All of that still leaves the individual to fight alone, if in a friendly environment.
Some of my most powerful memories from high school come from the times when someone left the facades behind and came alongside me in my battles. Some of those moments came from my closest friends, but just as often, help and kindness came from sources I didn’t expect. These memories stand out in greater clarity than all the hours we spent in conversation, all the flattery and praise doled out from teachers and strangers alike, and all the tears shed into my journal. I’ve mentioned some of these moments on this blog before, but they’re so valuable, they’re worth mentioning again.
The moment the class clown let down his mask and let me see his battle.
The moment a girl in the grade below me insisted I punch her in the arm to expel my pent-up tension.
The moment a friend realized how much the class gossip was hurting me and found an excuse to get me out of the room.
The moment a respected classmate outside my circle of friends looked me in the eyes and seriously asked me if I was OK.
That last one especially. The memory of that moment still blows me away. He didn’t have to say anything, but he did. That one brief conversation has stuck with me with stronger clarity over the years than anything else. I wish I’d told him the truth. I wish I’d told him no, I wasn’t OK, that I was terrified and lonely and carrying a weight that I never should have tried to carry alone and didn’t know how to ask for help. But how do you say all that in the few moments before 1st block AP History? And honestly, how are you supposed to form coherent thought at all when a guy has looked far beyond the image you presented to the world and expressed concern for the deepest, weakest part of you?
In that moment he lived the simple truth of Socrates’ statement, as did my other friends who found ways to support me. My battle was hard, and everyone I knew had their own battles to fight, too. It was easier for all of us to keep to our own struggles than to truly take on each others’ as well. But I was given valuable moments in which someone crossed the barrier of facades and didn’t keep my battle at arm’s length. I hope and pray that sometimes I was able to do the same for them.
If one moment could be so powerful to me, what can I do to give it to others? I am now sitting in a room of 81 students. There’s no way I can see what each one of them is fighting, what internal struggles live behind the make-up and t-shirts. Even as a full-time teacher, my opportunities to see that side of my students were few and far-between. But I like to think I made a difference when I could. I like to think that a few students saw me as an ally, someone who gave them permission to be weak and hurt and admit that everything’s not OK for a few moments. I remember how powerful his eight words were to me, and I hope that my few sentences here and there have had similar effect on others.
So take a moment to look around. Be kind to the people in your sphere, because all of them are fighting a battle of some kind. Yes, some battles are harder than others. I’ve known teens who faced circumstances so much more painful than mine. Some of those teens have been in my classroom, and some read this blog. I do not pretend to speak for you or know how you feel. My heart breaks for the weight you’ve had to carry. But that doesn’t mean other people’s battles go away, either. Even as a teen I knew that just because people didn’t understand my pain, that didn’t mean they didn’t feel their own.
And to the rest, who have been spared the weight of tragedy but still fight other, more hidden battles, let’s all take a moment to come alongside those that we can help. The fallen nature of the human condition mixes so horribly with the identity struggles of adolescence. No one escapes that. No one is without their battles. It can make a world of difference if we just notice and reach out sometimes.