UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – It’s never going to be OK

“Life is managed; it is not cured.”

Each fall in the early weeks of school, I read to my class a list of “Life Strategies for Teens” from a book by Jay McGraw. The book is a collection of contemporary folk wisdom and pop psychology from the son of television therapist Dr. Phil. The list is an amusing little bell starter, and I talk up the book, warning my students that I might recommend it to their parents. I also jokingly tell them I’ll encourage their parents to purchase two copies, “so you can read it together and discuss it over dinner.” 

Each strategy is a chapter in the book, and the aphoristic nature of the list includes insight such as “You create your own experience,” “Life rewards action,” and “There is power in forgiveness.” Many of these ideas are simple platitudes and cliches, the kind found on posters hanging in classrooms and board rooms and gyms and doctors’ offices. Yet, they also contain the sort of bumper-sticker logic which can provide brief moments of insight and even inspiration.

The one piece of McGraw’s guidance I like to emphasize is the statement that opens this column: Life is managed; it is not cured. I like the blunt honesty of that statement. As I explain McGraw’s point, I reveal, somewhat regretfully, to my students the most important lesson we can ever learn — it will never be okay. It’s never done, never finished, never perfect. Life is a continual process of rises and falls with many lateral movements, and some time after early childhood we reluctantly realize it as we begin to experience the harsh realities of life’s fickle, ephemeral nature. However, in a naive desire to return to that mythical time of innocence when everything was all right, we set arbitrary milestones and finish lines for ourselves. They are almost always fleeting and unrealistic.

It usually starts around early adolescence and middle school when most of us first begin to deal with the “stuff” of life that isn’t so pleasant. In the face of each disappointment, we tell ourselves that if we can just get through this moment and on to high school, “it’ll all be okay.” Once in high school, when the messy frustrations of the teen years close in again, we tell ourselves, “I just need to get my license, and then it’ll be better. It’ll be fine when I have more freedom.” But of course, the stuff closes in again, and we repeat the cycle. Once we graduate high school,  every-
thing will surely be much better. 

We constantly have internal conversations where we make deals with ourselves and the universe. “I just need to get through this week of tests,” we say, “and then I can get organized and focused, and I promise I’ll stop procrastinating. I’ll never fall behind again.” And, then it becomes, “I just need to turn eighteen, just need to get into this one college, just need to turn twenty-one, just need to get my degree, just need to get this first entry-level job, just need to move out, just need to get my own place, just need to graduate, just need to get a new job, just need to get this one promotion, just need to get to that next level … and then it will all be okay. Then I’ll be satisfied. I swear. Then I can relax. Then I can calm down. Then I can stop worrying.”

But it will never be okay. It is never going to be all good, all right, all settled. And, the only disappointment in our life comes from believing we can get to a certain point, and one achievement, one job, one house, one thing will fix all that ails us. But that’s just a fairy tale we tell ourselves, often ironically to our own detriment. Life is managed. Everyday is a new task, a new situation, a new something. Life is constantly in flux, moving and changing. And, when things are going well, we can be fairly certain they will eventually go south, or at least sideways. And, when things are really beating us up and dragging us down, we can also be fairly certain the hard times won’t last forever. It will get better, if even just marginally.

It’ll never be okay. And when we finally realize that, it really is going to be fine.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com