I feel compelled to write today for two reasons. First, I want to address a controversial Netflix series that has become a topic of conversation among school leaders across the country as well as among some of our own students. Second, I want to share some information and resources regarding some of the topics and issues raised in this series
The Netflix series is called 13 Reasons Why, and is based on a novel of the same name written in 2007 by Jay Asher. Rated TV-MA (reserved for programs specifically designed to be viewed by adults and “unsuitable” for children under 17), the series focuses on a young girl named Hannah who makes the decision to take her own life, but not before leaving behind thirteen audio tapes—one for each of the persons she feels has played a role in her decision. The creators’ stated intention is to begin a much-needed national conversation about the issue of teen suicide. However, mental health professionals have not only given the series largely negative reviews, they have also provided serious criticisms of the program as a whole for glamorizing suicide, portraying adults as feckless bystanders in their own children’s lives, and for displaying in graphic detail not only suicide but other topics such as rape, intimidation, cyber-bullying, and shaming.
The National Association of School Psychologists has written this about the show: “We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters or develop revenge fantasies. While many youth are resilient and capable of differentiating between a TV drama and real life, engaging in thoughtful conversations with them about the show is vital. Doing so presents an opportunity to help them process the issues addressed, consider the consequences of certain choices, and reinforce the message that suicide is not a solution to problems and that help is available.”
Having now watched the series myself and discussed it with colleagues in the mental health field, I believe the many warnings about the show are warranted. Make no mistake, the TV-MA rating is justified. There are graphic and gratuitous depictions of drug use, underage alcohol use, and sexual assault to go along with rampant profanity that is often degrading to women and demeaning to people on the margins of society. Put simply, children the ages of our students at PS should not be watching this series without an adult. If your child has already viewed the series, or if you are planning to view it with your child, please follow the guidance of mental health professionals and talk directly with them about their perceptions of what you are watching. Make sure they know that they have adults in their lives with whom they can talk honestly, directly, and purposefully…about anything.
Criticisms of the show aside, it is an excruciating tale of adolescent pain. That children feel this depth of pain at times is indisputable. To propose (as I believe the series does) that these same children are virtually alone as they try to navigate this pain is irresponsible, in my opinion. At PS we try very hard to represent and promote a community focused on uniting in the education and support of each child, and we are called to provide daily reminders to our children and to each other that we are not alone…that our children have us and that we have them—no matter the circumstance, no matter the situation. At the same time and as people of faith in that same community, we are also called to remember that we serve a loving God whose compassion knows no bounds, whose forgiveness is limitless, and whose grace defies understanding.
The vital importance of a supportive community coupled with a sustaining spirituality are two very important ideas that are completely absent from the Netflix series, and these omissions are the two reasons why I'm not willing to buy into the narrative it's trying to create.
Here are some helpful and informative resources that we hope can guide you in your conversations with children about the issues raised in this series:
“13 Reasons Why: Should Parents Be Concerned About This Netflix Series?” by John Ackerman, PhD: http://700childrens.nationwidechildrens.org/13-reasons-parents-concerned-netflix-series/
“13 Reasons Why Netflix Series: Considerations for Educators” (from the National Association of School Psychologists website): http://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources/school-safety-and-crisis/preventing-youth-suicide/13-reasons-why-netflix-series-considerations-for-educators
“13 Reasons Why: Talking Points for Viewing and Discussing the Netflix Series”: https://www.jedfoundation.org/13-reasons-why-talking-points/
The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting and Health for Lifelong Thriving: http://www.lisamillerphd.com/
In the program for today's service, my talk is called a "meditation," which, for our younger students, is really just a fancy word for "something to think about." So, let's all start this meditation thinking about one of my favorite songs from musician Ben Rector. It's called "More Like Love"...
Now, listen to this Scripture passage from John’s Gospel:
Jesus Washes His Disciples’ Feet
13 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 12 When Jesus had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
What does love look like and, more importantly, how can WE look more like love? Have you ever thought about that? Have you ever asked yourself those questions? If, like the song says, we want to look more like love, we should have an image of love in our minds that we can emulate in our lives, right? Too often, I think we want love to be BIG and momentous, like Easter and the resurrection. Most of the time, though, love really appears in small acts at seemingly insignificant times…like washing feet and Holy Thursday.
Jesus gives us a pretty challenging answer to this question about what it means to look like love, doesn’t He? He says it looks like washing your friends’ feet…at the end of the day…when they are the dirtiest and grimiest and smelliest…when you probably least want to wash them. That, Jesus says, is what it means to look like love.
But, as you might expect, Jesus doesn’t stop there. Our Essential Question this year is “How Will I Lead” . . . What Jesus goes onto say is that when we look like love we’ll be answering this question, too. When we look more like love, we’ll be leading. Jesus is telling us (as responses to the song’s lyrics) …
It’s not about “having all the answers” or “knowing I’m right” all the time…It’s about LOVE.
It’s not about “climbing higher than anyone can climb” or being the best…It’s about LOVE.
It’s not about “getting what I want” because that will never be enough…It’s about LOVE.
This next observation is oversimplification, for sure, but aren’t most things on Pinterest oversimplified? In any event, I saw this posted on Pinterest the other day, and it resonated with me as I was thinking about this talk and as I was thinking about love: “The Buddah wasn’t a Buddhist. Jesus wasn’t a Christian. Muhammad wasn’t a Muslim. They were all teachers who taught love. Love was their religion.” And guess what…the Buddah, Jesus, and Muhammad also taught (again, in response to the song) that love is “the one thing around here we don’t have quite enough of.”
So, how can you look more like love? How can we all look more like love? Whether you are the smallest Kindergartener here, you can look more like love, can’t you? Whether you are the oldest eighth grader in here, you can look more like love, can’t you? You better believe that as the Headmaster of this school, standing way up on high in this pulpit, I can certainly look more like love…and my Easter prayer for all of us, myself included, is that we will begin very seriously and very earnestly to look more like love…and not in BIG, momentous ways, but mostly in small and seemingly insignificant ones.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
Our essential question at Presbyterian School this year is, “How will I lead?” and the ways we talk to our children about the answers to this question have never been more important. One of my favorite essays is Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Begun on the margins of a newspaper and then finished on a pad his attorneys left him, King’s Letter is a timeless commentary on power and leadership. Some of my favorite lines appear above. At PS we must read these lines from Dr. King as a challenge focused on what it means to be a leader in confusing and self-centered times.
As resources all over the world reside in the hands of an ever-shrinking few, my generation especially is coming to grips with the reality that the paradigm of “leadership through strength” is something for a bygone era. New research suggests that Machiavellian paradigms of power and leadership have less staying power than those focused on stirring others to make a positive difference in the world. At PS we call this new “power paradigm” Servant Leadership.
Where are the examples of Servant Leadership in our world? Don’t look to the sad and divisive campaign for President of the United States to see them, that’s for sure. Therein lies all the evidence you need of the antithesis of leadership through service, leadership by advancing the good of others, leadership that embraces integrity, or leadership that builds bridges between opposing viewpoints or perspectives. If the adult leaders we are offering our children can’t or won’t live out the answer to the question of what leadership really means, then how much more difficult will it be for our children to rise above the flawed answers shown them?
Since the training and lessons our students receive—or do not receive—during their years with us will have an impact on their character and their choices well beyond their time here, this year I invite you to join our own authentic conversations about what it means—what it REALLY means—to be a leader in our world today.
We should be talking to our children openly about the dynamic and diverse society in which we live, but impressing upon them the responsibility that comes with living in such a society. It is a responsibility rooted in respect for others’ differences—whether those differences come in the form of appearances, opinions, or backgrounds. It is a responsibility rooted in educating ourselves about others’ ideas, cultures, or beliefs before making decisions or judgements about them. It is a responsibility rooted in a faith that teaches us that all those who work together in the service of a forgiving God in order to create greater justice and love in the world... are equal to one another in His eyes.
In the end, our responsibility is to see this world as the poet Maya Angelou writes in The Human Family:
I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.
Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.
The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.
I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.
I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.
Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.
We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.
We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
Let’s take as our focus this year the “alikeness” that we all share as members of “The Human Family,” and then let’s propose to our children examples of leadership that acknowledge that we are, indeed, “tied in a single garment of destiny” whether our world’s leaders realize it or not.
I love the Olympics. Every four years, I move my favorite chair into position in the living room of my house, I get an extra, extra large cup of Diet Coke, and I settle in to watch any and all of the events that come on TV. In fact, when my brothers and I were kids, my mom would let us stay up to all hours of the night as long as what we were watching was the Olympics. Ping pong at 1:00 in the morning? I’m there! Equestrian horse jumping at 2:30 in the afternoon? I’m there, too! Gymnastics and swimming in prime time? Of course!
It goes without saying that I love the Olympics so much because of the excitement and the pride I feel especially for the USA’s athletes, but this year I’ve found myself loving the Olympics even more because of our school’s essential question along with something a friend of mine wrote in one of the best books I’ve ever read. As we do every year, we ask an essential question as a way of challenging ourselves as a community to think about big ideas and the opportunities those ideas present to us. This year we are asking, “How will I lead?”
In my friend’s book, she answers this question by focusing on the choices that we make as leaders. As it turns out, these choices are a paradox . . . which is a fancy word for a puzzle. They’re a puzzle because on the one hand the choices seem pretty simple, even simple enough for a Kindergartener to make. However, as you dig a little deeper, the puzzle gets harder because we realize that we have to make these choices EVERYDAY, and they’re pretty hard . . . so hard that even an 8th grader might have trouble making them.
First, leaders choose courage over comfort. Think about that for a minute. Courage over comfort. As I’ve been watching the Olympics, I’ve been amazed at the accomplishments of all the athletes. But, did you know that the vast majority of competitors who go to the Olympics will lose? That’s right . . . if we define “winning” as coming in first or receiving a gold medal, only 3% of the athletes who go to the Olympics will “win.” There are only 300 gold medals and more than 11,550 athletes, and in some cases (like Houston’s own Simone Biles) some of those gold medals will go to the same people. Each and every one of those 11,550 athletes is choosing courage over comfort when they don’t go to the movies one night or they don’t go to the school dance or they don’t even drink that Coke or that Sprite so that they can hopefully achieve their Olympic goals. Training for the Olympics is hard, it’s time-consuming, and it’s even uncomfortable, but those 11,550 people choose to be leaders in spite of the odds against them and in spite of the difficulties that they will face each and every day. It’s courageous to train for the Olympics, but it’s also courageous to stand up for your friend on the playground when people are being unkind; it’s also courageous to ask for help when you don’t know the way, the answer, or the directions; it’s also courageous to try something new at school that you’ve never tried before or to be friends with someone at school that you’ve never met before.
How will we lead by choosing courage over comfort today . . . and every day?
Next, leaders choose what is right over what is fun, what is fast, or what is easy.
(From the New York Times): New Zealand 5000-meter runner Nikki Hamblin was lying on the track, dazed after a heavy fall and with her hopes of an Olympic medal seemingly over. Suddenly, there was a hand on her shoulder and a voice in her ear: “Get up. We have to finish this.” It was American runner Abbey D’Agostino, offering to help. “I was like, “Yup, yup, you’re right. This is the Olympics Games. We have to finish this,’” Hamblin said.
Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino set aside their own hopes of making the finals in their event to look out for a fellow competitor. In short, they chose to do what was right instead of what was fun, fast, or easy. Winning that race would have been fun, don’t you think? Winning is pretty much always fun, but that’s not what Abbey did. Running past Nikki would have been faster than stopping to help her up, but that’s not what Abbey did. Finally, it wasn’t easy at all to stop and help Nikki up, but that’s exactly what Abbey did. In the Olympics . . . with all her training and all her hopes and dreams on the line, with the whole world watching, Abbey chose to do what was right over what was fast, fun, and easy. You don’t have to be in an Olympic race to do what’s right, you know . . . you can pick up your classmate on the playground after a fall, in the classroom after a tough test, or on the stage after a forgotten line.
How will we lead by choosing to do what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy today . . . and every day?
Finally, leaders choose to practice values rather than just profess them. In other words, actions speak louder than words. The Olympic Creed says this: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” At the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea, Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux was moving along at a quick clip, even though the seas were very rough. About halfway through his race, he seemed to have a firm grip on the silver medal when disaster struck. Lemieux heard the cries of two Singaporean sailors competing in a different event nearby. One of them was clinging desperately to his boat, which had capsized under the six-foot waves. The other had drifted 50 feet away, swept off by the currents. Instead of staying in his race, Lemieux set a course for the sailors and pulled them out of the water. His hope for a medal dashed, Lemieux waited for rescue boats to arrive. By the time they did, he’d fallen to 23rd place. But Lemieux’s bravery did not go unrewarded. The Olympic committee gave him a special award for sportsmanship. It has been said that “what we do speaks so loudly that others can’t even hear what we say.”
How will we lead by choosing to practice your values rather than merely professing them today . . . and every day?
In addition to our essential question, we also offer a Scripture passage every year as a guiding answer for us to consider all year long. This year’s Scripture comes from the book of Titus and says this: “In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity and seriousness.” To be sure, the Olympics provide us with some pretty great examples of doing “what is good.” However, the best example by far is in the person and teachings of Jesus, who chose courage over comfort; who chose what was right over what was fun, fast, or easy; and who chose to practice his values over merely professing them when He sacrificed Himself for each and every one of us.
Now that’s an answer to How will I lead that seems even more challenging than training for the Olympics!
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