The World Breaks Everyone

Youth Specialties
July 11th, 2016

Ernest Hemingway had a character say,

The world breaks everyone and afterward
many are strong at the broken places. [1]

What a great line … Hemingway, as far as we know, died too soon and by his own hand. But he imagined a character who knew something about strength from brokenness. His character understood something Mr. Hemingway must somehow have understood too—as a writer, as a human being—that, ultimately, no one gets out alive, and sometimes it’s in our brokenness … sometimes it’s in the healing of those shattered bones … that we find strength to lift up another person. Somehow we find strength through pain to help other people survive.

Most adults mean well for kids, or at least they mean no harm. And, especially if they’re parents, they do the best they can under the circumstances they’re in. But, it should be said, the circumstances they’re in may be less-than-ideal. Conditions like …

    • mediocre to lousy preparation for their roles
    • occupational and financial stress
    • personal unhappiness
    • weakness
    • brokenness
    • distraction
    • addiction
    • confusion
    • misinformation
    • fatigue
    • anxiety
    • immaturity
    • poor relational skills
    • spiritual rootlessness
    • naïveté
    • arrogance
    • fear
    • ambition
    • mental illness
    • wishful thinking

… you know, the usual stuff.

And what’s true of adults is, of course, also true of teenagers. You won’t find many teenagers who have gone very far down the path of addiction—they’re young, after all—but in every other way, teenagers tend to have a lot of overlap with the adults around them.

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Of course we have to acknowledge the other side as well. Many of us … adults and teenagers alike … possess an abundance of

    • courage
    • grace
    • intelligence
    • skill
    • compassion
    • experience
    • understanding
    • wisdom
    • endurance
    • patience
    • resilience
    • forgiveness
    • love
    • hope
    • and who-knows-how-many-more wonderful character traits.…

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From the moment they roll out of bed in the morning, until their heads finally hit the pillow again, everybody I know is nothing more, or less, or other than completely human—with all the good and bad that goes with that condition

    • Some people are relentlessly self-absorbed; but most are not
    • Some people are unreasonable; but most are not
    • Some people view others with contempt; but most do not

This means there are always at least a few other adults and at least a few teenagers who are willing to collaborate with you in preventing and responding to crisis. They just have to know they can trust you and take you seriously when you ask for assistance. They’ll believe this if you are honest and open and humble and know what you’re talking about (including recognizing when you’re in over your head, and freely admitting how you’re coming to be healed in your own broken places … how far you’ve come … and how far you still have to go).

This virtuous circle of brokenness and healing and cooperation was well known to the 1st-century writer who came to be known, simply, as Paul:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. [2]

It seems simple: Anyone who has faced trouble can help anyone else facing trouble. But this connection between suffering and support creates a dilemma because comforting others this way is a choice. Helping someone dig through a crisis to uncover an opportunity may require us to reveal how we dug through our own crisis … and some people don’t want to do that. 

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Paul seems to be saying that one value of living through a crisis is that we can learn to give as good as we got—and by we, I mean youth workers, teenagers, the whole lot. This calls on us to admit that whatever we know about comforting friends in crisis is the result of having lived through a crisis or two ourselves. If our favorite Bible verse is, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” [3] admitting we have troubles of our own is likely to make us nervous.

Which reminds me of something else that’s (almost) in the Bible:

You will know the truth,
and the truth will make you flinch
before it sets you free [4]

Why are we—a lot of us … not to mention the teenagers we lead—afraid of being revealed as, you know, human? Why is a deep look in the mirror about as likely to make us frown as smile? Why does the truth make us flinch? And why, knowing what we know, do we hide behind curtains of self-assurance, defiance, or who-the-frack-cares? Doesn’t that teach teenagers to hide out as well? Doesn’t that just make it harder to recognize a crisis when we see one? 

Contrary to popular belief, many signs of crisis are visible to the naked eye if the naked eye learns what to look for. Teenagers don’t have to be experts to spot signs of crisis in someone they know. In fact, they don’t even have to be expert in order to offer real help.

This is because, when a person is in crisis, relational trust matters more than just about anything. You can’t fake that … well, you can, but we’ve all seen that go horribly wrong, so.….

When someone risks admitting she’s in trouble, who her friends are as friends … and the sense of trust and connection that comes with that … is the first essential factor that makes it possible for one teenager to help another. Maybe this is an alternate way of saying that being experts on their friends counts for more than being experts on any sort of crisis.

Once upon a time there was a hospital administrator named Bob, who knew quite a bit about people in crisis. Some might have called Bob an expert in crisis, and he might not have disagreed. Then one day Bob faced a crisis of his own—and the whole thing got very real.

Following his own crisis, Bob thought a lot about how people deal with hard times, and why some folks appear to recover more quickly and bounce back more completely than others. So Bob—his last name is Veninga—interviewed people who survived crisis to see what he could learn.

And, what do you know, Bob uncovered a secret in the stories he collected. Here’s how he summed it up:

Almost without exception, those who survive a tragedy
give credit to one person who stood by them,
supported them and gave them a sense of hope.

How about that….

One person.…

And what did that one person do for the person in crisis? Fix him? Fight his battles? Solve his problems? None of that: Those people’s one person stood by them, supported them and gave them a sense of hope.


If one person can make the difference for a friend in crisis,
no reason your teenagers can’t be the one person
for someone they care about.

It’s perfectly fine that teenagers aren’t pastors or mental health professionals. That doesn’t disqualify them from being the one person who helps a friend through a rough patch.

Chances are, before everything is said and done, somebody in the role of pastor or mental health professional will be part of helping a teenager resolve her crisis … and before we’re done with The Teenager’s Guide to Helping Friends in Crisis, you’ll show your student leaders how to connect their friends with one of those folks. What’s important is not what caring teenagers aren’t, but what they are: True friends who come alongside to do all they can, for as long as they can … not because they’re experts, but because that’s what true friends do.

If you help teenagers become the sort of people who see what they’re seeing, and care enough to stand by  friends in trouble, when the time comes, they’ll have what it takes to be the one.

[1] Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, New York. Scribner Classics edition, 1997, p. 226. Hemingway goes farther, but I think it’s worthwhile to consider that fragment on its own merits.

[2] This passage appears early in the first chapter of 2 Corinthians, quoted here in The New International Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1984

[3] It’s not in the Bible; it’s from the Wizard of Oz, who tried very hard to hide the truth that he was only human.

[4] Robert Veninga, A Gift of Hope: How We Survive Our Tragedies, New York, Ballantine Books, 1996, page 60

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jim hancock

@JIMHANCOCK writes books, designs curricula and makes digital movies for youth workers, parents and teenagers. A lot of his work is at THETINYCOMPANYCALLEDME.COM. Jim attended his first National Youth Workers Convention with Youth Specialties in 1980. Since then, he’s missed just three conventions.

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