Learning from Sexting and Hockey

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One of the themes often discussed in this column is that of relationships. Life is ALL about relationships, and this has been true from time immemorial. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would disagree with you that the need for connecting with others is programmed into each person, and without satisfying that need on some significant level, human beings are more likely to engage in unhealthy or unusual behaviours as a response. My all-time favourite example of this comes from the movie Castaway, where Tom Hanks’ character Chuck Noland finds himself utterly alone on a tropical island, and eventually creates a volleyball “friend” by accident. This volleyball became essential enough that Chuck ultimately risked his life to prevent it from floating away!

This past week, it seemed that no matter where I turned, another example reminding me of the depth of this need presented itself. First was hearing of a young person I know who wished to quit a sporting activity, yet was afraid to do so because of the risk perceived to his own relationship with his father, who very much enjoyed watching his son play hockey at a high level. Unfortunately, this young person continued playing hockey for an extended number of years, largely out of fear of his father’s response if he were to quit. The real tragedy in situations like these (and I have seen so many) is that an otherwise-healthy relationship can be poisoned simply by failing to have a serious conversation about an “elephant-in-the-room” topic. When we are afraid of discussing something because of a fear of another person’s response, often that important conversation cannot happen, and we choose to accept growing resentment and frustration in its place.

Next, I read a fascinating article in the Atlantic Monthly detailing a study on “sexting” within teen culture, in particular a county in Virginia that was chosen as a reasonably middle-class cross section of America. It found that about one-third of teens in this study, and potentially in the U.S. as a whole (though this is of course unproven) engage in this practice, where selfie photos in suggestive poses that would normally be very personal in nature are shared with one or more people, with the potential of becoming visible to an entire community through the use of photo-sharing programs such as Instagram. The obvious question that one could pose from this article is “why?” Is it because our society is home to many more predators out in cyberland than was once true? The answer, I suspect, is rooted much more in a need to belong and connect, and that there are times when membership in a group of friends, winning approval from a particular member of the opposite sex, and even a wish not to disappoint others can result in engaging in this practice. Again, relationship is a powerful motivator; if we sense getting this need met means to participate in sexting, or there is a perception we will be disparaged and marginalized by peers if we fail to participate, it can be shocking the actions young people in our society have the potential to engage in as a result.

My week was rounded out by a quote that both humbled and encouraged me however, and perhaps this is a good way to conclude this week’s column. It was given by Tom Perez, the Secretary of Labor in the U.S., in response to a working mother who wrote to him, describing how difficult it was for her to be able to make a living sufficient to raise a family, while living close enough to work to be able to share enough time at home with her family including newborn baby. Perez reminded me of how much we and those around us yearn for relationship, and connection on an authentic and deep level, with this quote: “Raising and supporting a family isn’t just a financial obligation. What’s important isn’t just being able to put food on the dinner table — we want you to be at the dinner table, too. The most important family value of all is time with your family.”

I was left with a thought to reflect on, that I will in turn leave with you: never stop seeking new ways to connect with those important people around you, and doing so in ways that honour yourself. If an issue is getting in the way, resolve it, even if it means an intimidating conversation must occur. If you are expected to make unhealthy choices in order to be part of a group or community, ask for advice and support from people you trust before you do something you wouldn’t want a best friend to see. And if your family needs you, remember that it isn’t just about money – it’s about time.

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