What a group of middle schoolers are teaching me about holding space

There have been more than a few things as of late that have led me to grow concerned about the increasingly rare ability to demonstrate compassion. I volunteer at my church as a small group leader for middle school boys. They’re going through a myriad of changes physically, mentally, emotionally. It can be a tough season of life (I remember from both experience and also now as a dad raising a middle-schooler). I’m just trying to hold space for us to all figure some things out, together. I like that imagery, holding space.

Over the past month we’ve been discussing how to make a difference, and more concretely, how to be a difference maker by offering what we have, whether it be time, talent, or treasure. During a recent conversation about big problems that it seems like it’s hard to make a difference, someone mentioned homelessness. One of the kids made the comment, man, come on bro, whenever I see a homeless person I’m just like, get a job bro! There’s so many jobs available now. To be honest, I was pretty surprised about his strong opinion on the issue, so I pressed him and asked, do you think it’s that easy? That we can just shout, get a job to people experiencing homelessness and the problem would be solved? He admitted that this is actually just something he’d heard his parents say (go figure), which got a few head nods from a few other guys in the group. Turns out, when you have little experience with experiencing homelessness, you’ll probably make assumptions that are counterproductive to actually making a difference.

One of the things I love about volunteering with this group is that I do get to hold space for them to figure some things out. Our entry point is faith, but as I always say, faith is more about the questions than the answers. And often what we end up doing is simply creating space for the fellas to name and challenge their assumptions they’re holding. For example, someone raised protests as a thing they wish they could change. Full disclosure, this is a mixed race group of young people, coming from mostly middle and upper middle class backgrounds. So, clearly their race and class experiences inform their conditioning. One student says, I wish we could end all the protests. Another student says, perhaps if we addressed the things people are protesting about, we could. I’m not here to offer an opinion on the “right” answer, but I was pretty proud that at least in this space, we’re having the conversation.

This is what so disappoints me about the conversation we’re attempting to avoid right now over how we teach history in context. We’ve failed to appreciate the collective benefit in creating space to expand young people’s minds. But I think it goes beyond simply not wanting to learn hard truths about the world we live in. Something powerful happens when your assumptions about the world you live in are challenged. Sometimes they’re affirmed, but more often than not, with additional context and experience, your perspective shifts.

I used to believe that young people could effortlessly get this, that they’re more naturally inclined to offer compassion and display empathy. But I’m not convinced people are born understanding how to hold space for one another. Or at least we’re not proficient at it at first. Like any other important life skill, we have to be taught how to hold space for one another, how to truly see one another and appreciate what we see. Rather than creating spaces that reinforce our assumptions about one another, as adults we should be championing opportunities to shift our own perspectives. I’m convinced the future of our country depends on it.

Every-time I judge someone else, I reveal an unhealed part of myself.– Unknown

Holding space for one another is how we participate in our own and each other’s healings.


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