Performance Anxiety

There was a short article in the New York Times today about an experiment at Yale Law School in which a sweet, hypoallergenic therapy dog named Monty will be available for students to check out from the library for 30 minute segments.  (Read it here.)  The idea behind the "dog lending program" is to provide students with an antidote to the stress of being a Yale Law student.  The law school will be looking for feedback from students after a few weeks to see what they think of this initiative.

Animal therapy is not new, even for universities (the Times article mentions the University of Wisconsin as another dog-lender-for-stress school).  Therapy animals (usually dogs, but not always) visit hospitals and nursing homes and work with autistic children as well as emotionally disturbed children and adults.  Studies show that petting an animal lowers blood pressure and brings on feelings of well-being.  As I write, my cat is curled up beside me, purring, without a care in the world.

People are stressed out in our society, that's for sure.  I see it in my own family - my mother frequently tells me about people who live in her retirement complex who spend a great deal of time worrying.  Worrying about their health, about mobility issues, about adjusting to living without a car, worrying about money.  I know she worries about those things, too.  Our children worry about school performance and the pressure to decide what they will be when they grow up and worry about their relationships with friends and family.

The pressure to achieve in school, to get into the right classes and the right programs that will lead to the right college and the right graduate program starts at the pre-school level and goes on for twenty or so years.  It is the rare young person who can remain relaxed about school and performance pressures while still being engaged in his or her own life.  More often they become either caught up in the pressure or decide to reject the whole program and drop out or deliberately underachieve to get the monkey off the back.

I wish that I were seeing the church playing a larger role in this major life issue for young people, but then again church often doesn't play that large a role in their parents' lives, particularly if it is seen as a "membership" issue rather than a community of and for transformation.  For some kids, church does offer an alternative story and the opportunity to just be instead of to perform or compete.  But I often see kids who sign up to become acolytes or sing in the choir because they are "resume building" for college, not because they find peace and pleasure in serving during worship.  Sometimes I hear about a teen who went on a mission trip and came home having had a truly transformative experience; more often I hear about how someone's mom or dad made them sign up for the mission trip.  There is a tension here as well - serving during worship, going on trips, activities through youth group require showing up, knowing what someone wants you to do and doing it - and yet just "sitting and being" is likely to be characterized as boring.

Life is both being and doing, of course; the wise person knows that both are part of life and can discern (often with help) which one is what's called for at any given time and place.  Lent is a good time to think about that.

Taking the dog out for a run is a good thing to do, as is lighting a candle and sitting in the dark listening for God, as is being in relationship with others who help us find our way through the stress and fear and the confusion.  I'm glad that the folks at Yale and other schools are trying to assist young people in finding ways to counteract all the pressure they feel.  But I can't help but wish that our world (and I must include myself here) were not so bent treating on performance and achievement as its savior.   We work so hard for it and yet it will not love us.

This is another thing I repent this Lent - my own buy-in to the performance/achievement model.  Living into what God made us to be is not the same as climbing the ladder to success, even if some of the steps look similar.  God grant me the wisdom to know the difference.


Perpetua said…
A very thoughtful post, Penny, one I shall return to and mull over. Thank you.
Lovely. The only way I can break free of the performance/achievement/anxiety thing is to put the area I am anxious about into God's hands, and leave the results (success or failure) of the whole enterprise to him. And oddly, once I have done that, I can produce more work, with the anxiety and fretting!!
Thanks, y'all.

Yes, Anita, leaving it at the altar is always a good thing. We are invited to do so at any time. And yet... it's like exercise. You know it's good for you and the thing to do but it's hard to actually do it.