Here’s a story you may remember. The Israelite army were facing the Philistines – again. They’d been fighting this battle for a long time, and even though they’d taken ground and seen moments of victory, they were exhausted. And now a new foe had emerged – and its power was mostly in their minds. Goliath was intimidating, looked terrifying, and he relentlessly attacked them with words and threats of what might be coming next, stirring up dark predictions and a suffocating whirl of anxiety and fear in minds that felt they had no capacity or energy left with which to fight such things. On paper they should have been confident – but in their heads they were defeated.
But one man seemed unaffected. David was the least likely warrior, not even a soldier, the boy who only came to deliver bread. And he stood tall, confident, in front of the giant, armed with his trusty slingshot. Why? Because he knows how this story goes. He’s seen it play out before – not with a giant, but with wild animals who threatened his sheep. He knows how this ends – and that gives him the courage to stand – even against what feels like impossible odds.
21st century giants
Today’s teenagers also face giants – but they look and feel a bit different. Right now, the battles of everyday life are leaving many of this rising generation just as full of anxiety, exhausted, struggling with their mental health and feeling like victims as they face things they feel unable to manage. The pandemic has piled pressure on pressure and produced a relentless succession of media reports predicting gloom and misery for their future. It’s all resulting in soaring rates for referrals to mental health services for young people struggling with issues like eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
But the truth is, the help so desperately needed is not often easily found. Mental health services, already struggling to manage the level of need pre-pandemic are now overwhelmed, meaning vulnerable and distressed young people may be placed on long waiting lists, or simply told they are not (yet) unwell enough to access support, leaving youth workers, teachers, parents and anyone who loves them desperately trying to hold the balance, often watching them struggle and becoming more unwell or entrenched in their illness.
A free resource hub
So how do we support young people in the midst of these challenges? In tough times and continuing uncertainty for their future, is it possible to help them to manage the messy world they’re growing up in without it making them ill? How can we support them – hearing their struggle and understanding how tough things are – but also equipping and enabling them to overcome the things they face and to live life well? Can we turn around a story that threatens to limit a generation and create so much pain?
"BRAVE is a call to challenge the stories young people are hearing about people like them, thinking about what it might look like to journey through life’s challenges instead of being floored by them."
And of course, the truth is we’re not immune from this stuff ourselves. BRAVE is a series of resources covering four key topics and challenges that young people face in today’s world – issues that can underlie emotional illness if not tackled, talked about and understood well. It’s a free library of information, videos and articles – helping YOU as a leader to create safe spaces and good conversations where the teens and young people you’re supporting can process and ponder the challenges they face and find confidence to get through them. But it’s also about helping you to understand your experiences after 18 months which have produced some of the greatest and most unexpected challenges and changes most of us have ever faced. BRAVE is about explaining why these issues are so difficult – and about empowering you and your young people to recognise and release inner strength and capability, building confidence and resilience to help you and them to stand tall against the giants life so often brings up.
Telling new stories for young people
At its heart, BRAVE is a call to challenge the stories young people are hearing about people like them, thinking about what it might look like to journey through life’s challenges instead of being floored by them – how they might find victory in a story that starts with them feeling like a victim.
Because David’s experience shows us how the stories we tell really matter. Stories – whether from our own history or things we read or hear, shared by others – help us to understand and frame our experiences and understand how things might turn out. They teach us about the endless possibilities of twists and turns, highs and lows, and happy endings, snatched from the jaws of tragedy. Stories capture our imagination in drama and fiction, catch in our memories as we remember and retell things we have heard and focus our attention when there are things we need to know or learn from.
Stories have power. They connect us instinctively with our own choices in life – our sense of direction and whether or not we hold out much hope for where we’re headed. They teach us and influence the things we believe about the world we live in – what we think is possible, and what isn’t, whether we believe we have the power to change our story or whether it’s a waste of time trying.
And of course, story is at the very heart of our faith. The whole Bible is a big complicated story – the story of God interacting with a particular group of people over hundreds of years. God speaks, God directs, God rescues and leads, God intervenes, God doesn’t intervene, God is ignored, remembered, ignored, remembered. And then shows up in flesh and blood. The story is epic and moving, frustrating and confusing, but it’s a story that loads of us feel we belong to, somehow. A story that frames how we understand our individual stories.
Faith for tough times
BRAVE kicks off this week thinking about tough times – the unexpected, painful or dramatic shock twists that take our own stories somewhere we never wanted them to go.
How do you get through traumatic or painful times, and what do they mean for you and your place and understanding of life and the world? Whether it’s the pandemic, or the more personal impact of things like bereavement, bullying, and illness – what do you do if life leaves you reeling, shocked, exhausted and cowering? How do you get back up after a fall? And how does faith find a way in in dark times? Where is God in the difficult chapters – when prayers aren’t answered and the worst does happen, or life changes in a moment and it feels like there is nothing you can do about it? Whether you’re an adult or a young person – these things are awful if you face them yourself.
Working with young people offers so many amazing opportunities and privileges – along with the inevitable frustrations. Perhaps in our current world it also presents a profound responsibility: to speak better stories over and for our young people. To help them see in their own future not just pain but possibility. To teach them how we find meaning and light even through dark times. To grow their ability to carry life and hope in their own stories but also to brighten and lift the lives of the people around them. And to help them in the moments they feel caught in a tragedy to turn it around, a chapter in a bigger, better story full of God’s love and grace interwoven between and behind the lines.
As the always brilliant Brené Brown once said: “We’re all afraid. We just have to get to the point where we understand it doesn’t mean that we can’t also be brave.”
We've just launched a whole library of youth work resources as part of BRAVE – check it all out here.