“Useless. Tiring. Boring.”

I had asked for feedback on Chapel – not based on a single gathering, but the whole term. The grade six to eight students arrived to find colourful index cards on their seats. On one side, they were asked to write three words that captured their experience of the programme.

Thankfully, this particular card didn’t represent a trend. Though unfortunate, the three words used to describe Chapel weren’t surprising. I recognize that at any event where attendance is mandatory, it’s unlikely that I’m going to meet the needs of every individual in the room.

On the opposite side of the card, the students shared their observations on (1) what was working well for them and (2) what they found challenging. The author of my unhappy card was succinct.

“Nothing. Nothing.”

This I did find disconcerting. With the double-barreled response, my young author chose to throw aside an opportunity to impact her/his sad state. In saying that “nothing” was going well and “nothing” was going poorly (better, perhaps, than “everything” going poorly), there’s little chance that the student’s suffering will ease.

I fully realize that the author might have been showing off for friends or temporarily feeling at odds with the world or simply taking a stab at being funny. Whatever the motivation, the tween-aged author has plenty of time to figure out how such opportunities for input can be embraced and leveraged.

But what if that growth doesn’t happen?

Well-seasoned adults find themselves in jobs, marriages, and/or communities that they view to some degree as useless, tiring, and boring. It’s easy to slip back into the mentality of my comment writer. We know we’re not happy, but there’s “nothing” that can be done because we’re somehow trapped in our situation. With more years under our belts, we’re so much more adept at explaining why we can’t build on what’s going well or change what’s holding us back. We become skilled at convincing ourselves and others that even our framing of situations is determined by facts rather than being fluid. We point to the incompetent boss or the demanding spouse or the less-than-satisfying neighbourhood, as if such factors negate our own agency – our power to shape how we experience life.

This is not to say that real challenges don’t exist. Rather, it’s to say that somewhere in the midst of the worst circumstance, there are always choices we can make. Given the relatively minor struggles of my own journey, I don’t look to myself for confirmation of this idea, but rather to those who have endured far more substantial challenges. After spending time in concentration camps, Viktor Frankl famously wrote,

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946)

All this to say that when we arrive at our desk, dining table, or local coffee shop and find a metaphorical, brightly coloured index card on our chair – we can write whatever words are true for us on the front, knowing there will always be actions that we can put on the back to improve our reality (especially if it’s useless, tiring, and boring).

I’ll let you know how it goes with the Middle School when I report back on their ideas. The Nothing-Nothing card will serve well as a great opener.

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