Five Walks: Walk 2
you are not alone
Five Walks: Walk Two
You are not Alone
In this walk we talk about the 'others' in your life. Other people in your groups, and other people outside of your groups.
One of the toughest things for a lot of teenagers is finding where you belong, where you fit in. This second walk follows on very obviously from the things we were discussing on our first walk. I hope you have started to realise that you can solve problems with action, and I also hope you have begun to understand that part of choosing a course of action is seeking out the ideas and experience of others. This second walk is about those OTHERS.
One game I have used successfully as a Drama teacher for many years is a mixing game I call “Find your group.” It’s really simple but kids have great fun playing it. Everyone walks randomly around the space. I call out the kind of group and everyone rushes to find their partners and sit down.
I might call out “Find everyone with the same number of letters in your first name”. And off they go, chaos and screams, settling into little circles on the floor as everyone finds their group. Usually we have a giggle at students sitting on their own because they have only two letters in their name, or ten! Then it’s everybody up, and we mix again. I might call out suburbs or number of children in your family, or eye colour, or football team. I have dozens of different ways to form groups.
Of course, like a lot of good Drama games, underneath the fun, there is a serious purpose. I like to use my mixing game early in a new year with a new group of kids. It is one the games I use to try to break down the existing groups in the room. You know, kids stick with friends, girls stick with girls, the cool confident kids grab each other. A lot of adults behave exactly the same, by the way. Each round, I ask those sitting in each group to exchange names or test themselves on each other’s names. It doesn’t take long before every kid in the room knows many more people and starts to realise that she has a lot more in common with others in the room than she realised. I love watching the reactions. I had no idea you barrack for the Tigers! Oh my god are you an only child too? Hey, we redheads have to stick together!
This simple game is a reminder for us and it is the subject of our second walk. I think that one of the toughest things for a lot of teenagers is finding where you belong, where you fit in. You might feel this at school; some feel this at home; many are starting to think about the bigger world out there in your city, your country, your society.
I want you to try something for me. It’s good to do this on paper, but you can try it in your head if you want. Draw a small circle in the middle of a page. In it, write “me”. Draw a slightly larger circle around this circle. Label it “closest family / friend”. Who would you put in this circle? Try to limit it to one or two names. Next, another larger circle. Label it “close family / close friends”. Here you might place four or five names. These two circles are mostly people you have known for a long time. People you trust. People with whom you have shared personal details of your life.
Next circle out should be labelled “family / friends”; then the next, “associates”. By associates, I mean the people you know and spend time with, but you wouldn’t really call them friends. Classmates, people on your school bus or in your sports team. Neighbours. This is a big category and you won’t be able to list them all, but pick some obvious examples. Next circle, label “professionals”. In this circle, name any adults you know of who are experts in an area of your life. For example, you may have a family doctor. You know a range of teachers. Many schools have a nurse. You may know a counsellor or a religious guide. Finally, I want you to label the area outside the last circle “unknown”. I prefer this title to “strangers” and I will explain why on Walk Three.
If you have attempted this exercise, then what you are looking at is a kind of map of the people in your world. Using the circles in this way, you get a picture of who you feel close to and this is often connected to how much time you spend with different people. But it is also about the kind of time you spend with these groups. You might see some kids every day in your classroom, but you wouldn’t call them friends.
Now I’ve called this walk the second walk because I think it follows on very obviously from the things we were discussing on our first walk. I hope you have started to realise that you can solve problems with action, and I also hope you have begun to understand that part of choosing a course of action is seeking out the ideas and experience of others. Well, this second walk is about those OTHERS.
I need to break this walk into two parts: let’s call part one “others in your group” and part two “outside the group”.
Part one – others in your group
One thing you can be pretty sure about is that just about all people need to feel that they belong to a group. In fact most of us try to belong to a number of groups. What do I mean by a group? Well a group is a unit of people who share common connections. Your family is a group. That group might include aunts and uncles, cousins you see only once or twice a year. Your family might have a strong sense of history linking you back many decades. Your family might have connections through a family home or a family business. Families are connected through a blood-line and the mysterious magic of genetics. If you’ve ever seen photos of your parents or grandparents when they were your age, you might experience that rather spooky recognition that they look very similar to you. It happens a lot!
Family is one special kind of group, but there are all sorts we can discuss and as you will see, the same lessons come from all of them. A team is a kind of group. If you’ve ever played sport in a team, you’ll know what I mean. You share a uniform. You train or practice together. You get used to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. You encourage each other. You share the excitement of winning a game or support each other through a loss. Over time, you welcome newcomers and say goodbye to those moving on. Sounds a bit like births and deaths in a family, doesn’t it? When you are a part of a group it mostly feels pretty good. Why? Because you have people who share your interest, because you have people around you supporting you through difficulties and because you have a group ready made to celebrate with you the victories and good times. I think the most successful families work just like a sports team. But more of that later.
A local Church is a group. So is a youth club. A gang is a group. So is a football club. If you think about the way people behave in these groups you will start to see how a group helps a person to feel good, to feel useful and important, to feel connected. I love to sit in a football crowd and watch the way people from totally different areas of life sit side by side and call themselves family. Doctors sit beside bricklayers, teachers sit beside truck drivers, gardeners sit beside accountants, old beside young, Muslims beside Christians and Hindus and Jews and atheists. And when a goal is scored they all leap to their feet and cheer together, smiling and slapping hands with each other. All of their differences melt away.
Being a part of a group can make you feel bigger, more powerful than you could ever feel on your own. This is a very important point. I can think of many examples of groups achieving things no individual ever could. A football club needs many thousands of members to support it financially if it is going to pay top athletes and build good facilities. I have seen a school community of hundreds of parents, students and teachers work together as a team to raise money for a charity. Everyone involved felt a part of that achievement. None could have managed it on his own. A group can be enormous. Greenpeace and The Red Cross have world-wide networks of supporters. I remember as a teenager joining the Fund for Animals and feeling connected with others who cared for and wanted to help animals in danger.
So the first part of this walk is about getting you to think about all of the different groups you already belong to. Your school, your class, your family, sports teams, your circle of friends. Now I know that some of these groups, you didn’t choose. You are stuck with them. Family is the classic example. Your school class is another. But that doesn’t matter. When you start to recognize the many groups you are a part of, some important benefits start to flow. Now I would like to talk about these benefits and how you can make the most of them. So what are the benefits of groups?
1. A group can achieve things that an individual can’t.
How many examples would you like? Think of the hundreds of people who work together to raise a skyscraper! Look at any of the world’s great buildings, bridges, enormous dams, incredible tunnels. Ordinary people achieved these. People just like your parents. Not alone, that would be impossible. They did it as a group. Okay, what about a brilliant film you’ve seen recently. Stay and read the end credits next time. You will count literally hundreds of names. People involved with lighting and costumes, props and special effects, catering and feeding the cast and crew, managing the money, looking after the health of animals in the film. The list goes on and on. In the end, you can bet that all of those people felt good about being a part of that project. Not everyone wants to direct or be a star or a leader. Many people are very happy just to be a part of something big.
Let’s think a bit smaller. Many students get involved in school productions. And mostly, this is a really great experience. Because you become part of something big, a team effort, mixing with people, getting to know them as they get to know you better. And you are making something, something to share with a community, something people will enjoy. More and more schools are finding other kinds of projects that take a different course. My daughter’s primary school entered a state-wide challenge to race a human-powered vehicle for 24 hours. This involved months of planning and training, designing the pedal-car, looking at safety and aerodynamics, and finally travelling to and camping at the venue for three days as a team. It was huge. There were about forty schools involved. And there were hundreds of kids giving their all to cheering crowds and feeling good because they were part of a group. Many of these kids would never want to sing or dance in a school musical. They had found a different kind of team effort that suited them far better.
You want smaller? Okay. A few years ago, a couple of senior students at my son’s school were complaining that they hated all of the camps that were offered in the middle of the year. The school had a program where kids balloted for camps that were cross-age. Horse-riding, skiing, driver-education, dance production. You get the idea. These kids wanted to travel, but not another outdoor experience. They said why can’t we go to another city? See art and plays and films. So I said, look, if you can get a solid group together, get your parents’ support, and go to the principal yourselves, you might just pull it off. My feeling was that their principal would be more impressed if students showed the interest and the initiative than if parents went to him. And guess what? They did it. A group of just five or six students rallied the support of parents, a solid group of interested students and several teachers who were willing to run the camp, myself included. Over the next few years, these city camps became so popular that they had to pull names out of a box to see who would get to go. People power. The power of a group. I really could fill this book with just the stories I know of ordinary people achieving amazing things by forming a group and pulling together.
Pick up ten or twelve sticks and tie them in a bundle. The strongest man in the world could not snap the bundle with his hands. But if you untie the bundle and give twelve people one stick each, the sticks are broken easily. This is the secret strength of the group.
2. In a group no-one has to be good at everything
This is so simple, yet so profoundly important. A lot of stuff still goes on in schools that seems to teach you that you are on your own. You have to improve your Maths or your English or whatever. If you don’t improve, you will suffer, you won’t succeed. You know the drill. But this is a strange lesson to teach kids. Because most of the things you do as an adult involve working in a team. And what happens is, you do the things you are good at, while others do the things they are experienced with, and together, with everyone playing their part, big or small, you achieve your goals. Look at me. I’m very confident in front of a class. Happy to organize and run a camp. But don’t ask me to help if a student is seriously injured. And I’m not much chop on a working bee while others are chain-sawing trees or building beautiful outdoor seats and tables. Forget it. I’m no good at that stuff. But the neat thing is, I don’t have to be. No-one expects me to be good at everything. And there are plenty of people who would never want to get up in front of a group of teenagers and they are very happy to leave me to it. They appreciate me and I appreciate them.
Once again, I invite you to look at any group you wish and you will see the same truth. Whether you look at a sports team or the team who create a new blockbuster movie or a simple group like a successful circle of friends or a successful family, the same ideas apply. Let each individual contribute where they are most capable, don’t expect everyone to be strong at everything, some will fill the gaps that others leave, appreciate the strengths others have that you lack, and enjoy your successes together.
Just to really stir you up, imagine how successful you would be at school if you could form a team of five or six students and work towards a group result for Year 12. Wow, what a concept! Why couldn’t we do it? What would happen if school was not about individuals competing against each other? For one thing, the universities would go into melt-down! How would they decide who was suited to further study?
I can assure you that many teachers think about these issues. A lot of schools have done a great deal to make more of your learning at school co-operative and group based. But for now, we seem to be stuck with a system that makes your final two or three years pretty competitive, and that creates a lot of stress and some unnecessary sadness. For some students, it means feeling less and less happy with themselves and this worries me a great deal. But more of that soon. For now, think about my point here: when you are a part of a group, you get to add your contribution, while others do their bit, and everyone gets to enjoy a kind of success not possible on your own.
3. Being on your own too much is bad for you
There is nothing wrong with time on your own. I recommend it. You get to clear your thoughts, you get to relax and unwind. You don’t feel judged or scrutinized. Spending time on your own is a part of a healthy balance. Like eating fruit.
But if you are spending a lot of time on your own, I don’t think this is so healthy. No dietitian would recommend that you eat mostly fruit.
People who spend a lot of time on their own don’t start off choosing to live that way. They get hurt, they get rejected, they feel unwanted or they feel they don’t fit in. Some of us have a tough time in our early years of school. Some people get hurt by stuff that happens at home. With some kids, it seems like their brain just works in a really different way to most and they can’t connect with others easily.
I’m not so interested here in the reasons for being alone. I am interested in what can be DONE. See? There it goes again, that simple strategy that moves us forwards and stops us from getting stuck. What to DO…
If you feel that you spend a lot of time on your own and you don’t really like it, then the simple way to bring more happiness and more balance into your life is to join some groups. You can even try to start a group yourself if you feel confident. But joining some groups that already exist will be fine to begin with.
If you have a good idea of what you are interested in and want to do with your time, then you can easily go in search of others who do these things. Your school and your local community will already have hundreds of groups running.
Physical and sporting groups: running, martial arts, gym, body building, tennis, squash, basketball.
More unusual sporting activities like archery and fencing, lacrosse and javelin.
Outdoor stuff like camping, bush-walking, white-water rafting, sailing, kayaking.
More unusual outdoor stuff like volunteer fire-fighting. Parasailing. Caving.
There are many artistic groups: painting, sculpting, drawing, writing, dancing, gymnastics.
More unusual arts stuff like circus skills, busking, mime, stand-up comedy, D-J’ing.
Book clubs, stamp collecting, restoring wrecked cars, scuba-diving. Computers, movie making, animation, claymation, manga. Fashion design, jewellery making, raising chickens.
Reptiles, cooking, poetry.
Skateboarding, trading cards, fishing.
If you feel shy or lacking confidence, you might join a large group. Large groups can often welcome and absorb a new person faster and easier than a really small group. But that is not always true. Sometimes a small group is really pleased to have a new member show interest and strengthen a small endeavour.
On the other hand, if you are a bit of a loner because you just don’t fit in with a lot of mainstream stuff, if you’d rather be dead than on a basketball team or a school play, then your trick will be to find those really weird groups. And believe me, they are out there and they are really out there!
There are groups that dress up and act out medieval battles. There are groups that watch really old, terrible horror movies and laugh themselves sick. There are groups that visit graveyards and take photos of tombstones.
My point is that if you look around you at teenagers and at the adult world, you will see some of the signs of people who have fallen into the trap of spending too much time alone. Alcohol is a trap when it becomes an escape. You don’t need to be a genius to see why some people turn to alcohol to escape feeling bad or feeling alone. Getting drunk deadens your feelings and takes your mind away – for a time. Until you sober up and your feelings and problems are still there. So it’s back to the alcohol. The worst part is, once you get caught in that trap, other people are not going to want you in their groups if you can’t make a contribution and if you are hurting their work.
Marijuana and other drugs are crutches too. A bunch of people smoking pot is not a group, because they are not actually achieving anything. To call yourselves a group, you have to be doing. They are really being alone together. And that doesn’t feel so good.
So my advice to you is to consider whether you need to belong to more groups of your own choosing. School and family are probably not enough. You might know other people who need this advice, maybe more than you do. See if you can encourage them to join a new group. Maybe you can join with them.
Now think of those circles we drew at the beginning of this walk. One of the great benefits of joining many groups is that the number of people you know and are connected to grows enormously. This is good. This is a really healthy sign. Because many of these people will support you when you need support. These people will help you to achieve things because you are in their groups and because you help them achieve things.
In the end it is like crowd surfing in a mosh pit. All these hands holding you up.
Alcohol, dope and harder drugs, sniffing glue, cutting yourself, running away from home, attempting suicide… none of these things is going to move you towards a better place because they don’t really support you, they don’t hold you up. They are like building a boat out of cardboard. It might look good and feel good but it’s not going to go anywhere.
Part two - Outside the group
I said earlier that I needed to break this walk into two parts. If you think back to that diagram using circles to map the kinds of people in your life, you will remember that the outermost ring is labelled “professionals”. We place these people furthest away from you because they know you least well. They may not know you at all, yet. You might never have met them. But they are out there and some of these people can be very helpful to you at this time in your life. I am one of these professionals and I am enjoying the fact that I might be helping you right now.
When we need help, we usually turn to people close to us. Adults do this too. After all, there is a lot that we don’t need to explain to a close friend or close family member. That saves time and obviously, because they know what you are like and know personal details about your life, they can offer advice and help you make decisions.
However, there are limits and there are dangers. Someone close to you may care about you very deeply, but might not have the experience to advise you. I see parents and friends advise teenagers about school subject choices and universities when they really don’t know enough about what is on offer or what each university course is focused on. They mean well but their advice is not helpful. In fact sometimes it creates new problems. People close to you still have their own beliefs and feelings. A close friend who is very strongly opposed to smoking is not going to be neutral about your boyfriend who smokes.
So if we are talking about the people in your life and the groups you belong to, I think it is important for you to identify those people in your life who you can turn to for help and advice. Now for one thing, if you take my advice and stay healthy by making connections with a range of different groups, then half of your problems will melt away. You will automatically feel supported by the many people in your life and many of the day to day ups and downs we all experience will be easier to cope with because you will be sharing the load with others in your groups.
However, remember the rollercoaster. Sooner or later, you will hit bigger problems. That’s just life. And what I want you to remember, when you do hit a big problem, is that it is probably better for you to go and speak with a professional. I want to suggest three reasons:
1. A professional is experienced
Remember my washing machine repairer? His area of experience was faulty washing machines. Twenty-five years of experience. Can he advise me on subject choices or domestic violence? Maybe, but he wouldn’t be the first person I went to. Fortunately, there are adults who devote their lives to working with teenagers. Teachers, of course. Some psychologists specialise in adolescents. There are adults in your community who are experienced with drug-related issues. Mental illness. Crime. Grief counsellors who help people deal with death. Family counsellors who are experienced with home issues. You might be surprised how many experienced adults are out there.
A girl who is pregnant and terrified of her parents’ reaction has quite a number of professionals who can give her really helpful advice and guidance. A local doctor would be a good start. A school counsellor would be pretty helpful and they would not go phoning the parents! A boy who is feeling depressed and thinking about suicide has many experienced adults he can turn to. Any medical doctor or psychologist would take action very quickly. So would an experienced teacher.
One great thing about experienced adults is that they know a whole lot of other experienced adults. So is doesn’t take long before you are plugged in to a whole network of experience. Remember my student who was cutting herself? One of the first things I did after seeing her wounds was go and speak with one of her school’s counsellors. I didn’t even use the girl’s name. I just wanted some input from an experienced adult about the way I had handled the talk. You see? I went to someone in my network, someone with experience that I lacked.
It is natural to feel afraid and a little lost when something serious is going on. What you need to remember is that there are experienced people out there who really want to support you and can probably be very helpful. This might be the first time that YOU have had to deal with this particular problem but you can be sure that experienced professionals out there have worked through these things many times before.
2. A professional is neutral
Big problems can be hard to share even with close friends because they can be very personal. If there is violence in your home, you may feel too ashamed to talk about it. If you have issues or confusion about your own sexuality, you might feel too shy or embarrassed or afraid to talk to those who are close to you. How will they react? That is the worry.
One of the great things about talking to an experienced professional is that they are good at remaining neutral. This means, they do not judge you. That is part of their training, and it is something that comes with experience. If you go to a doctor because you are worried about pregnancy the doctor is not going to give you a lecture about how you should not be having sex. I am willing to bet that any experienced doctor will ask you some questions to get a clear picture of what you want to know, then he or she will explain to you the choices available and talk you through the consequences of each choice.
If you go to a school counsellor because things are really bad at home, the counsellor is not going to tell you what to do or call your parents in or phone the police. The counsellor is going to ask you questions to get a clearer picture of what is going on. Then he or she will talk through some of your options and how you can change your situation.
Think of my student who showed me the cuts on her arm. I was certainly surprised. Maybe even shocked. But I didn’t react because it wasn’t about me. Here was a teenager who needed some neutral support from people with experience. People who wouldn’t shout at her or over react. People who could listen to her, not just do all of the talking. She didn't even come to me for help but when I started to talk with her she trusted me enough to listen and share.
The good news is, there are many experienced adults around you who will be neutral. They will not judge you. They have seen this stuff before. They will have some useful ideas that will help you.
3. A professional is distant
Finally, it is kind of nice to know that when you go and talk with a professional about stuff that is very personal, you are not going to be reminded constantly afterwards about the things you have been discussing. If you see a doctor, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, you probably won’t ever see this person anywhere else in your life. But even if, let’s say, you go to a movie with friends and you see your psychiatrist standing with a group outside the cinema. He is not going to shout and wave, “Hey you’re my patient that cuts herself! Hi there!” No, part of being as professional is being discreet. My bet is he will show no sign that he knows you. If you are the one to say hello first, he will give you a smile and brief reply, because you have chosen to acknowledge him. But that’s all.
If you have a religious background, remember that priests and rabbis and imams are experienced professionals who I would expect to be just as neutral and discreet as other professionals in your community.
In many countries now there are all sorts of privacy laws in place to protect people like you. Professionals are not allowed to share personal details about you without your permission. Even members of your own family may not be allowed to know personal details without your permission. Any experienced professional knows these laws very well.
So we come to the end of our second walk. I hope you can see how it flows on from the first. You can be pretty certain that your life is going to be a rollercoaster, but the good news is, there are all kinds of support structures around you. You should never feel that you are alone. Look at the different groups you belong to. Go out and join more groups. People who share a common interest with you, people who share a common purpose or goal, will support you, and you will support them. It turns out, that feels pretty good and I can promise you, you will find real friends, even lifetime friends in the groups you join.
You are lucky that you live in a time when the internet and mobile phones make it easier than ever to find groups, make connections and stay in contact with people in your groups. Remember that your parents didn’t have any of this, so you might have to educate them. Maybe it’s time that they became more involved in more groups themselves!
I want to leave you with one final thought. As children, we are all dependent on adults. For food and shelter, for clothes and the comforts and safety that money buys. For advice and guidance. As we move into our teenage years, we often push away from those things. Many teenagers really hate the fact that their parents still have a lot of control and a lot of say in their lives. Money is a big issue. So is freedom of choice. But as you get older, you are moving away from dependence towards independence. Doing for yourself. Relying on yourself. Most people would agree that this is normal and healthy. And some adults seem to think they are finished growing when they are independent. Hey, I can do anything I like, and I can do it all myself. Great!
But there is one more stage of development that I think we should be talking about more often, and that is what I would call interdependence. To me, this is the highest stage of development. This should really be the goal for all of us. As I said earlier, some of this stuff is going on in schools, but not enough.
What is interdependence? That’s when a group of people rely on each other to succeed. Like a house of cards or a pyramid of oranges. Each individual piece holds all the others up. Remove any one piece and the whole lot comes down.
Interdependence is the key to a successful football team. It is also the key to a successful marriage and a successful family. In an operating theatre, a team of doctors, nurses and specialists can save a human life (using amazing equipment that other teams have designed and built). The taxes our parents pay out of their wages have also contributed to the cost of that hospital, by the way.
A friend is someone who is there when you need them; you will prove you are a real friend when someone in your group needs you. People who build a friendship over many years keep showing that they can depend on each other and lean on each other in times of need. They can also celebrate each other’s successes. That is interdependence.
It turns out that interdependence feels a lot better than simply being independent. I know too many adults who are independent but alone. Surprise, surprise; they are not all that happy.
I read a comment many years ago from an experienced psychologist which has stuck in my mind: how hard is it to lift up a car with your bare hands? It depends on how many others are lifting with you! In groups, the impossible becomes possible and the difficult becomes easy.