Dear Dr. Wes & Julia:
Why is life so sucky? And why is it so awesome?
Julia: I wish I knew the answer. I'd love to launch into a philosophical monologue about the essence of "sucky" and the history of "awesome" and how the two coexist ... but I know no direct answer to the overall question. It depends on your religion, your outlook on life, what goes down as "sucky" or "awesome" in your book, and other subjective factors.
My personal "awesomes" include cappuccino foam, good jokes, blankets and soap. Personal "suckys" consist of red peppers, rude clerks, tardiness and being ignored. These sorts of things register different levels of reaction in me, the "awesomes" and "suckys" canceling, adding and compounding, until my day has either had more "awesomes" - a good day, more "suckys" - a bad day, or nothing at all. Since I generally judge my day based on the number of both good and bad happenings, my assessment can be pretty sporadic. I can look back and say, "Man I had an awesome week. ... But Wednesday, jeez."
I think that spontaneity and impulse are the hallmarks of this generation, forcing people to be more extreme and forceful with their emotions. When asked how your day was, most people expect a short "good" or "bad"- polar opposites. There is rarely room for the explanation that goes with a "chill day," "a practical day" or a "mysterious day." People are already on to asking the next person how their day was. Of course, the more you say your day was "bad" the more evidence you will find that proves it, the more you will believe it and BAM, a reasonable day can turn into rather sucky one.
Sucky versus awesome? It's because of the speedier generation, it's because of young adult brain development, it's because one person may like a comforting smile more than another person ... really, life is what you make it and allowing it to be either sucky or awesome closes off any other new possibilities. Yes, have your "suckys" and your "awesomes" (I do) but don't forget to explore the "differents," the "marvelouses" and even the "off-limits" to see that life is not only sucky and awesome, it's a million other things as well.
Wes: I thought this pithy little note was one of the best pieces of teen verse I'd heard in awhile. All at once you've summed up the core duality of life for teenagers. While adults experience this also, the two ends of life's spectrum are never more in focus than when you are about 15. So whether you realized it or not, you hit on a serious piece of philosophical tradition that touches on the ever-present balance of things that are good with those that are not. The theological version of this tradition has for centuries considered what is termed "the problem of evil." Very simply put, this is the question of how evil can exist in the presence of a loving and all-powerful God. Since this is a column based on psychology, I'll leave it to you to seek out the philosophical or theological answers to that question, but your questioning mind should at least know that it exists. Let's just say that Julia's not the only one who has been baffled by this issue over many centuries of human existence. Though I think she's wrong on the red pepper issue.
Rather than dwell much more on the questions of "why," I'd suggest you turn your philosophical inquiry over to the question of "how." How are YOU going to act on your world to make it less sucky and more awesome? I realize that we are all products of our life experience, family, school and socioeconomic background, and none of us can go back and choose different families that have more money or less dysfunction. We can't force our peer group to act with greater empathy or our politicians to shut up about ridiculous non-issues and get serious about the genuine and frightening ones that do exist out here in the real world. Children from high-conflict divorces may try desperately, but in the end it's extraordinarily difficult to force parents to get along. Yet in the end we have to believe in free will and our ability to transcend the sucky nature of whatever hand we've been dealt rather than contribute to the overall level of personal or global suckiness. That's hard to believe when you're a teenager and feel you have no power over anything - but there is always something you can do to make a small change that may grow to a larger and larger one.
Instead, this is where kids - and quite a few adults - tend to derail. They get down about the many sadnesses of life, become disillusioned and begin to turn against themselves. No matter how sucky life has been, we still have choices that move in the direction of becoming awesome. The abused child does not have to grow up to be an abuser. The child of a person who committed suicide does not have to follow the same path. The young person who was molested can work hard to avoid sexually abusive partners in adulthood. The teen who made mistakes - even terrible ones - can make amends and grow up to be a fine and caring adult.
One of the really awesome things about life - at least in our part of the world - is that help is available for young people who want it. If your life sucks, go looking for an adult professional - a therapist, social worker, etc. - who should be well-trained to believe in free will and who can help you discover yours. Suckiness will be with us always - but if you seek the right path it tends to be drowned out by a much larger deposit of awesomeness.
Good luck on your journey.
Next week: My boyfriend doesn't understand my anxiety and depression.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.