As we all watch the unfolding COVID-19 situation, I am struck by the fact that it will undoubtedly be a significant period effect, especially for Generation Z (b. 1996-2012). Period effects are events or circumstances that significantly influence aging cohorts at a point in time. I have been considering how we, as leaders, mentors, teachers, and parents can seize some of the opportunities that it presents for equipping and encouraging the young people in our lives to thrive even amid difficulty.
While there are very real threats and cause for concern with this global pandemic, I am convinced that there are also opportunities that come with adversity and uncertainty. As we consider what they might look like for those of us who engage Gen Z students and young adults, I think there are several important skills that we can focus on modeling and instilling in the young people around us in the days ahead:
Coping with stress, fear, and anxiety
Often we do not fully experience the stress our kids feel, for example, with cyberbullying or the pressure to score well on tests. The COVID-19 situation, however, is one that we are all facing together. It provides a unique opportunity for us to walk alongside the young people in our lives through an uncertain time and model healthy coping strategies and behaviors. Here are a few ways we can do that:
o Talk about what we are feeling and do some fact-based research together to understand what is happening. Discuss how our faith and values help us navigate situations like these.
o Identify productive projects we can focus on if we have unexpected downtime, for example, learning a new skill (ie. playing an instrument, sewing, drawing, cooking), completing an unfinished project, cleaning, organizing, painting, or writing!
o Find ways to enjoy nature and get exercise. This might be discovering a new workout routine, going on a nature walk, riding a bike, or visiting a state park.
o Invest in important relationships and meaningful interactions. Call grandma, video chat with a sibling, or chat with your neighbor.
Guarding what we listen to, watch, and read
There is increasing research that correlates depression and mental distress with social media use. That was before the world found itself battling a pandemic. Scrolling social media and news feeds right now does provide some helpful information and connection, but it can also contribute to anxiety, fear, and frustration. This does not help our emotional and mental health during a crisis. As a result, it can be helpful to set healthy limits. For example, I am limiting my own checking of social media and news to once or twice a day right now. This allows me to catch up on important updates and messages from friends. I am prioritizing other things to read and listen to...my kids, podcasts, and books that have been on my list for a while. These give me valuable information and are feeding my heart and mind with creative ideas and hope. By modeling this, I can also help my kids create healthy guidelines for what to read, watch, and listen to in their extra downtime.
Caring for others
It is easy amid a crisis to get consumed with our own well-being. I don’t know what my children may face in their lifetime, but I want them to be thoughtful, compassionate, and generous regardless of the circumstances. The COVID-19 situation provides many opportunities for us to model and teach these characteristics through our own responses and behaviors.
With the young people in our lives, we can find ways to consider what others need in this difficult time. For example, making cards and gifts for friends in a senior care facility, doing yard work for neighbor, or taking a meal to a shut in. There are many people working hard right now to serve their communities. Find ways to express appreciation; maybe that is simply smiling at the store associate who is working on their day off to stock shelves.
Amid difficult circumstances, it is usually normal people doing selfless and generous acts that helps everyone navigate the adversity. May we equip the young people around us to make that kind of contribution!
Most of us are interested in ways to decrease stress, improve sleep, and stimulate brain growth and memory. And yet, research shows that silence does all of this and more. In a world where we carry our favorite music in our back pocket; engage in long-distance conversations anywhere, anytime; and listen to podcasts, audio books or funny Youtube videos on demand, silence is often elusive.
A recent study indicates that not only is silence difficult to find, but we actively avoid it. In an experiment where individuals were given the choice of sitting in silence with their thoughts, or inflicting an electrical shock upon themselves, the results were surprising. Even though participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked, 67% of the men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than sit quietly and think for 15 minutes.
While it can be difficult to carve out or choose time for silence, solitude and reflection, there are a few key reasons for us as leaders to do so:
1. Healthy Relationships
Relationships are critical to our health and wellbeing. In today’s busy, digitally-driven world, our longing for deep relationships is greater than ever. Often we substitute noise and a sense of connectedness for true relationships. Writer Johnathan Franzen describes that “our infatuation with technology provides an easy alternative to love.” Ironically, it is often silence and solitude that allow us the understanding and peace to engage in deep, caring, healthy relationships more regularly. Thomas Merton, in No Man Is an Island, explains: “The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God. Such a one is alone with God in all places, and he alone truly enjoys the companionship of other men, because he loves them in God.”
2. Effective Leadership
Leaders today are confronting increasingly complex problems in ever-changing environments. More than ever, we need time and space to clear the clutter from our minds and focus on the challenges we confront. Author and speaker, Sarah Ban Breathnach, explains, “Usually, when the distractions of daily life deplete our energy, the first thing we eliminate is the thing we need the most: quiet, reflective time. Time to dream, time to contemplate what's working and what's not, so that we can make changes for the better.” Kate Murphy, in her article, No Time to Think says, “You can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.” I would add that sometimes the answers are whispered in our heart. When we fail to listen, in silence and solitude, we may miss the best answers to issues we are facing.
3. Identity and Purpose
In a study by anthropologist Emily Martin, an eleven-year-old girl from a broken home, who bounces between three households, explains that in each of these households the rules are different and so is she. Her identity, like that of many of us today, is defined by an external context. This translates easily into the virtual world, where our identities can be fluid and adaptable. Unfortunately, this also makes us vulnerable to confusion, depression, and a lack of confidence. Silence and reflection is the space where we can listen to our own heart and identify our identity and purpose. Carl Sandburg describes this beautifully when he says the following: “A man must find time for himself. Time is what we spend our lives with. If we are not careful we find others spending it for us. . . It is necessary now and then to go away and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and to ask, 'Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?' If one is not careful, one allows diversions to take up one's time—the stuff of life.”
As leaders, may we prioritize silence and reflection, benefiting from the rest and understanding that come from these disciplines. More importantly, may we model these critical practices for those younger than us who are in danger of living lives full of noise and distraction, without understanding the beauty and healing of silence and solitude.
For the next generation,
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!