Vulnerability & the strength to move forward

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Consider this:

You have finished high school, and the world is at your fingertips. The last day of high school is a sunny afternoon in May. Friends and family rally around you to celebrate your success. They lavish you with gift cards and money. You earned your diploma. Life is good!

Naturally, people will ask what your future plans are, and you’ll respond with a practiced answer that sounds way more impressive than the reality. College, the land of opportunity, is just around the corner. Natasha Bedingfield’s words, in all their early 2000s glory, echo in your mind as you mount those steps to receive your certificate, “Live your life with arms wide open / Today is where you book begins / The rest is still unwritten.” A smile spreads across your face as your parents snap pictures. You can be anything.

Insert record skipping noise here.

Fast forward to the ensuing fall semester. Textbooks are more than $100 each. Tuition is thousands of dollars. Financial aid helps, but you still wish you had asked for savings bonds for Christmas when you were twelve like your dad recommended. How much are appendixes going for these days? You consider selling yours just to pay for your meal plan.

Despite all of your Hallmark graduation cards telling you to dream big, you discover that college is complicated. Many of your classes don’t seem applicable to your major. If you want to go into nursing, why must you suffer through statistics?

Speaking of majors, you’re beginning to doubt yourself. What if you end up hating your job and become the cynical old adult you always swore you’d never be? What if you’re stuck with a boss like Michael Scott from “The Office” because you can’t escape your chosen career field? Or worse yet, what if you’re the next Jerry Gergich?

Three people I know have admitted that they were severely depressed during their freshman year at SVSU. But this is by no means a phenomenon unique to SVSU. We have all heard the words “I struggled with depression” come out of a loved one’s mouth. Several of us, if we’re being honest, have even gone through it ourselves.

Mental health struggles are common, especially in the United States. Over a third of college students say they experienced depression so severe they couldn’t function.

Yet, struggled is the key word in that statement. Very few people have the bravery to say that they struggle in the present tense.

Why do so many students go through this? What can universities do to prevent this epidemic? Most faculty members suggest plugging into campus organizations that spark your interest.

Clubs are fantastic. Fraternities are fantastic. The presidents of these associations genuinely love their areas of study and care for the well-being of incoming freshmen. But there’s one question that all freshmen really want to know: how in the heck am I going to make this crazy alien place my home for the next four years? Sure, the campus is small and you see familiar faces often; however, truly “plugging in” must be more than clicking a button on OrgSync.

Connection is much harder than a quick greeting. Whether you’re from a small town like Sebawing, a bustling city like Grand Rapids or even a country overseas, adapting to a new social scene is difficult.

Professors advise reading the syllabus, studying often and taking advantage of office hours. Alumni recommend their respective clubs and sports.

Brené Brown says that vulnerability is the key to connection.

Brown is the bestselling author of “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead.” Her Ted Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the top 10 most-viewed Talks in the world. She spent years studying the relationship between shame, courage and connection.

What Brown found was a good definition for shame. The people she spoke with that struggled the most with depression and self-doubt were those that feared disconnection. When these people couldn’t connect with others deeply, they felt ashamed and their self-esteem continued to spiral downwards.

Even more shocking were the stories of those who had healthy interpersonal relationships with their friends and family. Brown found that those who were more vulnerable felt more worthy of love than those who lacked this quality.

Joseph Weaver teaches a section of Psychology 100 this year. On the first day of class, he smiled brightly and wore a bowtie. Just like the other professors, he asked us our names and majors. Then he went further and asked us our strengths. Then he asked about our weaknesses, our “academic hurdles.”

We all wrote different things for our strengths, including eating donuts, being creative and making others laugh; many of us shared similar weaknesses like time management, distractions and negative attitudes.

So, what does vulnerability really mean? Brown reported that the people she interviewed who felt worthy of love were also emotionally open. They confessed that they had hurdles they needed to overcome. They were independent, but they knew when to ask for help.

Brown concluded that there was power in being vulnerable, in sharing our struggles. I’m inclined to agree with her. Admitting my fears in my class alleviated some of the pressure. I’m grateful to Weaver for creating such an open learning environment.

Freshmen are told to join a club or activity to feel emotionally healthy. Still, if all of our social interactions are in the interest of an organization, it’s easy to feel like all you are is a list of titles. You spend hundreds of hours at events with people you don’t know so that you can establish a little common ground. You can see why many feel purposeless and hopeless.

This is why it’s important to do more than just sign up. When you walk into your first meeting with Delta Sigma Pi or your first practice with your intramural volleyball group, really try to connect with people. Don’t just say that someone is awesome; show them they are by personally investing in them.

Meaningful relationships take effort from both sides. They’re messy and awkward, and most of them don’t beef up your resume. But they’re the authentic human interaction that we all really crave. Without them, we feel isolated.

Now, I know I’m not a researcher or a professor. As a college freshman, I feel the weight of my inadequacy to write about heavy topics like depression and hope. I’m a storyteller if nothing else. As renowned author Frederick Buechner once said, “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”

I write this because I believe there’s healing in telling stories. I hope that throughout this school year, we won’t let pressure crush us. May the student body at SVSU have the courage to be vulnerable and the strength to keep moving forward.

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