It seems that everyone has an opinion about the recent tragedy in Connecticut. Some blame America's gun laws. Others look to the state of Adam Lanza's mental health, characterizing the shooter as reclusive and disturbed. Some reference back to Columbine and urge that we recommit to anti-bullying efforts and school safety.
I'm 19-years-old and I certainly don't claim to have the answer. I don't know if I will ever understand why Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 women and young children before shooting himself.
This is what I do know.
Even in more affluent communities like Newtown, Connecticut, or my hometown of Bettendorf, Iowa, (perhaps especially in these areas) teens feel an immense amount of pressure to succeed academically, athletically, and socially. Certainly by the time we enter high school, well-meaning adults have already given us the talk: "Everything you do from this point forward matters. Your high school accomplishments will determine whether and where you go to college. Where you go to college will impact your job opportunities when you graduate. You are the future. We're all counting on you."
While this pressure sometimes results in more successful teens, it almost always results in more self-focused teens. We question ourselves every single day. Do I measure up? Am I smart enough? Am I cool enough? Am I involved enough? We play the loser's game of endlessly comparing ourselves to our peers and, when we fail to measure up, we face unrelenting disappointment. Impossibly high standards coupled with the pressure to consistently meet them have led to an all-time high in adolescent depression.
So, before every school in America invests in more locks on doors and bars on windows -- measures that seek only to thwart the inevitable fallout of young people's rage -- we need to take a look at the culture we are creating within our schools. When teens act in response to pressure, we act out of a place of self-criticism. As teens involved in the business of constantly assessing our shortcomings, we leave little room for self compassion. And, when we don't feel compassion for ourselves, it's difficult to feel it for others.
Instead of judging the quality of our teens by their GPA and SAT scores, or by how many points they scored in Friday night's game, we need to refocus our attention on developing the qualities of compassion, acceptance, and leadership in our youth.
This issue is very personal for me. Four years ago as a sophomore in high school I too suffered from the depression and anxiety that plague so many teens. I found my way out of that depression not by studying for more hours a day or adding yet another extra-curricular to my schedule. Instead, I helped to create the first high school-based cheerleading team that includes students with disabilities. I didn't create the team in an effort to resolve my depression. I did it because my older brother has a disability and it seemed like an obvious place to volunteer my time. That decision not only changed my mental state; it changed my life. It wasn't until I invested significant time and energy into showing someone else their worth, that I found my own. In consciously working to make my school a more accepting and inclusive place, I finally understood the power that even the smallest acts of compassion have to change an entire school and community.
I learned that when we show others that they matter, we matter. I can't help but think that if we as a society are able to resist the temptation to batten down the hatches in the face of the Connecticut tragedy, and instead concentrate on creating opportunities for inclusion and compassion, we will fill in a piece of the solution puzzle that better gets to the heart of the matter. I know firsthand that it is almost impossible to give to others and obsess over your own insecurities at the same time.
Let's start now, because what those well-meaning adults told us is correct: today's teens are the future. I'd like to ensure that history doesn't remember my generation as one dedicated solely to its own success. Or, at least not one that defines our success by grade point averages and test scores. I'd much rather be a generation remembered for the ways in which we contributed meaningfully to others -- a generation that actively cultivates a culture where it's cool to care.
This post is part of a series co-produced by The Huffington Post and Points of Light to honor Loreal Paris' Women of Worth initiative. Women of Worth honors incredible women who are making a beautiful difference through their dedication to philanthropy and their passion for improving the world. The 10 women being honored this year were selected from thousands of nominations. Each of the honorees received $10,000 for her charitable cause from L'Oreal Paris. To learn more about Women of Worth or to submit a nomination beginning April 2013, please visit womenofworth.com.