Talk with a high school sophomore, junior, or senior about college applications. Or talk to a middle schooler about how many likes their last Instagram post received. Or ask them about the teachers who don’t like them. Sit back and listen, and you will hear in their responses a desperate clamoring for status and attention.
I am a released minister at West Hills Friends in Portland, Oregon. I have been released to work with a group of about 20 adolescents at our meeting. I have been working with teenagers for the last decade. During that time, I have personally witnessed the frenzy we have created for young people. As of late, I think my ministry among them is simply to hollow out a handful of hours every month where they can find sanctuary from competition and where they can rest.
Recently, I found myself hours away from a high school gathering without a plan. I was exhausted. I sat back in my chair and thought about the teens coming into our youth room. For the last few weeks they have come in, found a spot on a second-hand sofa, and curled up into a ball. Their eyelids were heavy. One yawn set off a chain reaction in the room. I yawned just thinking about it. Just then my old golden retriever sauntered over to me and put his head directly on my knee, wagged his tail, and gave me those classic puppy eyes. Spirit just arrived.
I attached his leash to his collar and led him to my car. That week, when the teens came into the youth room, they had the happiest of greetings: an exuberant dog, happy to see them and just dying for them to snuggle. That night I watched the ministry of a golden retriever on a group of exhausted and weary young people. That was it. That was all I did that night. I brought my dog.
The most frustrating thing for me, as a witness to their exhaustion, is that it doesn’t really need to be this way. In fact, it isn’t generating all that much hope, excitement, or life in young people. At the heart of their academic work is the pressure to outperform their classmates, to get the GPA up, to not disappoint parents. The main motivation behind their extracurricular activities is puffing up the college application. It’s only secondarily about a love for music, theater, or a particular sport; it is about signaling to institutions: “I am active! Look how busy I am! Look how much I love working!”
They don’t love it.
But they could: they could love their work. They could fall in love with the arts. They could see hope-filled potential in their own callings, and see in their peers opportunities for collaboration, creativity, and excitement but not when everyone around them is seen as a threat to their own success and when their peers are one A+ grade away from getting into a more-coveted school.
The pervasive culture of competition that teenagers find themselves in, as I see it, also maintains systems of power and privilege by reinforcing the idea that success comes through domination, while also perpetuating the lie that if you just work harder, your dreams will come true. Some of the hardest-working people in the world will often toil their entire lives while also surviving the oppressive crush of poverty.
What if we acknowledged the incredible presence of Friends in our communities whose contributions are not praised, but are just as essential in forming and maintaining the beauty of our communities?
The Quaker model is revolutionary and infectious precisely because it emphasizes the power and beauty of collaboration. Within our meetings lives the possibility of counter-cultural action in the world, and our young people are ready and energetic to tap into that possibility. I am deeply interested in the ways that we make this possibility known—in fostering opportunities for young people, and in trying out collaborative models of organization in their communities.
Parents know that the best teacher is modeling. How are our Quaker meetings modeling collaboration instead of competition? I’ve always squirmed over the special designation we give to “weighty friends.” Yes, we have voices in our communities full of wisdom: voices we trust. That is good. But the “weight” these people often have in our communities can make our spaces feel more claustrophobic than open. Voices on the margins may notice this lack of space, or feel like their light has been shadowed by the gigantic presence of these Friends in our meetings.
What if we acknowledged the incredible presence of Friends in our communities whose contributions are not praised, but are just as essential in forming and maintaining the beauty of our communities? Maybe we are already doing this well! Are our young people noticing it? Are they experiencing it?
We aren’t consumers of this thing; we are co-conspirators, participants, creators, shapers, imaginers, and dreamers. This is built into our tradition.
I think the Quaker hesitation around competition must stem from the idea that we receive a fuller picture of God and the Spirit’s leading when we do the work of listening and discernment collaboratively.
Each person is a miraculous opportunity for deepening a Quaker community that knows that we are better and more vibrant when we get to see what God looks like in the eyes of every single person on this planet. They are not a project or they are not a person in need of saving; they are not someone to be dominated or put in their place; they are not a potential writer of a check or a future volunteer; they are carriers of the light of God. It’s a missed opportunity for all of us, if we don’t get to see that Light!
This is why Quakerism is so radical. We aren’t consumers of this thing; we are co-conspirators, participants, creators, shapers, imaginers, and dreamers. This is built into our tradition. Do you know how lucky we are? We don’t really need to fight against the pressure of hierarchy or of not ticking off the higher-ups. We have something to show to our Christian friends in other denominations: the future of the church should look a whole lot like the foundation of the church: collaborative, alive, dynamic, and wild.
That kind of church is infectious. It is teeming with potential. It is looking around and seeing opportunities. It is invitational. It is always dreaming and evolving. If we can shape our communities around this vision, we won’t need to fret about outreach or declining numbers. Our communities will be naturally magnetic. I know I can’t be the only one excited about this, right?
It is a balance for me. I want to create restful space for the adolescents in my care. They need these competition-free spaces to take a break from the pressures of performance. I also want to create radically collaborative spaces for them. I want them to see the alive, dynamic, and wild nature of Quakerism. They are not our future leaders; they are our present leaders. They will know that is true when we show them the open doors. They will know that is true when they see the adults in their lives creating space for marginalized voices.