Stress and the Buddhist Nun

(Editor’s note: During last Monday’s assembly, the Venerable Robina, a Buddhist nun, and former Sacred Heart sister, spoke at length about her personal philosophy. When a befuddled adult asked her a question about applying this philosophy during the Q +A, Robina responded by saying, “HAVEN’T YOU BEEN LISTENING?)”


Forgive me if I start to sweat and stutter more than usual this morning, but this stage brings back a semi-traumatic memory from just a week ago, when our guest speaker, the Venerable Robina, shamed me here in front of 700 people.  (You know you are having a bad day when a Buddhist nun takes you out in public!)

I deserved the hammer, of course, because in a particularly inarticulate way, I was trying to get Venerable Robina, who had done a fine job of explaining the Buddha’s philosophy, albeit in a somewhat racier fashion than might be the custom here in Laidlaw Hall, to apply her thinking to the life of a typical student. I wondered how the Buddha might help the boy?

I raised this issue because, when I meet with parents, they almost always ask the same 3 questions:

  1. “Why aren’t there more teams in the Upper School (so that my kid can make a team)?”
  2. “Why can’t you target your communications? My son is in the band, why do I have to read about the jv basketball team?
  3. “Why are so many of our boys so stressed out?”

It is that third question that I’d like to kick around with you this morning.

First, let me suggest that part of this is historical: Lord Seaton wanted his school to create leaders, and not everyone can be a leader; by definition this process is competitive and exclusionary. Furthermore, our founder deliberately kept tuitions low, not for reasons related to social justice (he wouldn’t have known what that term meant) but as a way to ensure that UCC would be a place, not for the wealthiest, which was the tradition of private schools at the time, but for “the best and the brightest.” (How we define “best and brightest” is a topic for another time…)

From the very beginning then, there has been a profoundly competitive element in our institutional DNA, and you can see the echo of this in everything from the iconic Rogers Tower (What is the purpose of a school tower, by the way, other than to say, “We are here. We are significant. And let’s make sure that Avenue Road bends to our will!”) to our school motto, “Palmam qui meruit ferat,” which some scholars loosely translate —  much to Ms. Erb’s dismay —  as “Eat what you kill.”

Second, it’s clear that some stress springs directly from contemporary culture.  I once worked with a woman who had been a cheerleader during her years at Duke University, and she told me that the culture at Raleigh Durham meant that she might study until 5 am, as she often did, but she also had to be up, with her make up on, her hair blown dry, and looking her best for her 8 am class. When I suggested that this was just a Southern peculiarity, like dressing up to go to football games, she immediately stressed that at Duke no one ever talked about how late they had worked, or about how hard they had studied. For Dukies the goal was always “effortless perfection.” At UCC’s, with the exception of the occasional complaints about “hell week,” our own mantra might be, “Never let ‘em see you sweat.”

This culture of high expectation isn’t limited to just the Blues and Blue Devils. A recent survey of the Georgetown and Stanford student bodies, for example, reveals that 39% of these students are taking medication for anxiety and depression. It is no wonder then, that stress is an issue for so many students in highly competitive schools.  If you feel a high degree of stress, know that you are not alone. It is, in a way, the price of privilege.

Some people, by the way, believe that the stress level at UCC is particularly high because of the IB. I don’t.  While the IB is certainly challenging, if we put all of you in an AP school, the culture wouldn’t change. You would still work hard. You would still want to be the best. And many of you would still measure yourself against an unrealistically high standard.

So where do we go from here? Well, while we would all like to find a way to help reduce stress, there is no single solution or technique that will work across the board. Stress is like the weather; it is experienced by everyone, and it isn’t going away any time soon.

(An aside: During my first year in Toronto, I made the mistake of one day complaining about what was to my way of thinking,  a particularly late in the spring snow shower, when someone told me, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” That approach holds true for dealing with stress. It’s out there; the question is what can you do to deal with it? What is the proper footwear for stress?)

With this in mind, I went to my google machine and checked WebMD to see what the medical professionals had to say about all of this, and here is what I found:

  1. meditate
  2. breathe deeply
  3. be present
  4. reach out (to your social network)
  5. tune in to your body
  6. decompress
  7. laugh out loud
  8. crank up the tunes (soothing music)
  9. get moving
  10. be grateful.

There are lots of good suggestions, but it’s worth noting that almost of these recommendations are attitudinal in nature; they are things we CAN control. On this point, I am reminded of Victor Frankl’s insight. Frankl, who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a book about his personal experience of surviving and eventually trying to make sense of the Holocaust wrote,“ Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

That is a pretty lofty thought for a Monday morning, but you have the same choice and the same freedom. Stressful issues will be with you throughout your life. You can’t always control them. What you can do is manage how you look at them. You can choose your own way.

I’ll close this morning with two take-aways on how you might want to think about this:

First, Venerable Robina suggested that it is important to learn how to be a good friend. She advised us to be trustworthy, loving, nonjudgmental, and to love yourself as you would a friend. If you are ever overwhelmed, or if you have a friend who is in trouble, or if for any reason your “Spidey sense” starts to tingle, reach out to a teacher, coach, advisor, counselor, nurse, or any other adult you trust to help you get the help you need. Remember that “Never walk alone” is more than just a spiffy song.

Second, I know this is hard for some of us, but we need to get off the emotional roller coaster of life, the one where you are elated with good scores or results and devastated by setbacks. Think “long term and big picture.” School is a lot like a 9-month baseball season. Some days you may go 0 for 4. That doesn’t mean you are Minnie Mendoza. Other days you may go 4 for 4. That doesn’t mean you are Josh Donaldson. Some day, like Old Boy Kaleem Hawa, a 4th year University of Toronto student, you may win the Rhodes Scholarship, as Kaleem did last week. At other days, you may get dusted by a Buddhist nun. So be it. Just smile and wave and remember that things will eventually, over the long haul, balance out. Give it your best and let the chips (or in your case grades) fall where they may.

And remember George Will’s adage that you can’t play baseball “through gritted teeth.” The same holds true for  school and for life. Just keep swinging – and remember to wear your rubber boots!


18 thoughts on “Stress and the Buddhist Nun

  1. Really good stuff, Jim. It comes on a good day. I am going to pass this along to some people I know in the behavioral health and substance use programs as well. The holidays are filling all of our dance cards with lots of new clients, it seems.

  2. I think when persons first took train rides or air flights, they felt more stressed–time speeding up. More stimuli in one day than previously.
    Unplug, unplug, unplug.
    Help someone else.
    Gather with friends.
    go outside,
    make something that can’t be graded, judged,
    stop watching junk

  3. My initial reaction was thinking about something I read about how any married woman’s stress level lowered simply by holding her husband’s hand. And I remembered the time I was driving my mother one day through some county roads. She gently patted my knee, then said, “I’m not in any hurry.”

    Seems those we know who help, guide, encourage, even prod, gently, answer that question, “surely.” What treasures they are.

  4. One of my habits pitching for a minor league baseball team was to grit my teeth in the midst of my wind-up.

    Next time I see George F. Will, I will remind him that you can grit your teeth and play baseball!

  5. Your advice is spot on and I appreciate the reminder- it can be so easy to ride the roller coaster, miss the long game, and forget there is choice.

  6. I read your latest blog this morning, Jim. Your piece could not have landed on our door step at a better time. With a son who is not only up to his rubber boots but rather his waiters you certainly add a much needed perspective and context and he and I will be reading this together tonight.

  7. As usual, a beautifully written piece, with many enlightening and thought provoking reflections. Such timely words, and with your usual ‘stick in my mind’ take-aways onto which I cling after reading your posts.
    Attitude indeed – change in the world certainly does begin with and rely on change within each of us.

  8. MR. CHIPS,

  9. It’s really good.
    I think the one thing you missed is Nature.
    An intimate encounter with Nature — walking in the woods, examining the light bouncing off a dewy spiders web, or crunching through fresh fallen snow — the point of Nature’s power and vastness reminds us that we are tiny ants in the cosmos and no matter what grade we get or whether we scored the touchdown or fumbled the ball, the Earth keeps spinning through time and space and nothing we do will stop the falling flakes.
    I think city dwellers are more stressed and anxious because our relationship to Nature is narrow and forced.
    So I would add to the list of to do items….
    Be like Thoreau.
    Walk in the woods.
    Stare at the clouds.
    Stick your hands in dirt and plant something.
    Swim in a lake.

  10. The wisdom hits home, too. Quite close to home.

    My son drank too much one night in Montreal recently, and the cops got involved.

    Just university stupid stuff, but it looked very serious for a time, and it put my wife and me through a ton of stress.

    Our kids had spared us any such incidents—really, any trouble at all—until this. The fallout taught me two things, apropos of your talk.

    One. (Cliché alert) Trouble reveals your true friends (and true Christians, too), the people who immediately reach out.

    Two. I am not Viktor Frankl. He faced incomprehensible evil and horror with heroic moral courage. Under stress I’m, alas, more Woody Allen.

  11. Superb, as usual. I’m really going to miss your Power Points; always so well written with very witty and sage advice. This one is no different. It’s an important message for our kids to get. Good for you for helping the boys and the adults in the room to both understand we all go through it and how to manage through it when it does.

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