Last week’s helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others is a horrible tragedy for the nine individuals who died, as well as for the many who are mourning their deaths. While Bryant’s life and legacy are both inspirational and complicated in different ways, it’s also true that he was 41 years old and in the prime of his adult life. The death of someone so vibrant and active, who was just starting the second act of his life, strikes at the heart of anyone in touch with their own mortality.
This particular tragedy may have also served as a tipping point for some, as they may have experienced so many stressful events in their communities, country, world and planet in recent years that they had trouble handling yet another.
We all have personal stressors in our lives, and there are times when those stressors become true crises that profoundly impact our day-to-day lives. But even when there’s no crisis, and the stressors are manageable, there seems to be this underlying layer of despair in the world today. This can make it even more difficult to handle the personal and community struggles – because we look around and see so many problems tearing at the fabric of our social, political, ecological and cultural institutions.
Those who have been marginalized in society have felt this underlying stress every day of their lives. Those who are in positions of privilege may be able to look back on certain decades, such as the 1980s or ‘90s, with some degree of nostalgia. But the present century has brought with it so many widespread challenges to all of us: September 11. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Deadly hurricanes, from Katrina to Sandy to Maria to Harvey. Other climate-related disasters, from rising sea levels and record temperatures to massive wildfires and flooding. A global financial crisis. Mass shootings. The presidential election of 2016, and the pronounced polarization that has followed it. Mass migration, and the debates over immigration throughout the world. The shootings of unarmed people of color. Sexual harassment. Deadly viruses. A widespread lack of civil discourse.
Someone who is stressed about a loved one’s illness, while also dealing with daily personal, domestic and work challenges, might still find room in their life to take on a couple of these communal crises: Perhaps they are engaging in some environmental activism, and also reading about all the presidential candidates, in preparation for voting this year. They’re full to the brim with things to worry about, and are using their own version of the Serenity Prayer to stay on top of it all. And then, one Sunday afternoon, they hop online and see that, of all things, Kobe Bryant is dead. It can feel like one too many stressors, enough to bring us to a tipping point.
When Malcolm Gladwell authored The Tipping Point in the first year of this century, he ushered in a new era of social science books dedicated to helping us figure out how and why we do the things we do. With that book, Gladwell studied what he called “social epidemics,” and what causes a series of smaller changes to reach a point where a larger, more systemic change takes place. Two decades later, we are nearing a point at which our collective psychological well-being is near a tipping point.
As educators, one of our challenges is to help students and communities find a way to transcend and avoid that level of despair. Education can inspire us in that way. Social and emotional learning can inspire us in that way. And building communities of lifelong learners can inspire us in that way. We can’t control the overall stress levels of our students, but we can help them search for a way through the stresses by learning, processing, sharing and growing together.
It’s no coincidence that in this time period, many have turned toward the words of beacons of light such as Fred Rogers, Freddie Mercury, Michelle Obama, Bryan Stevenson and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The same mind that identifies overwhelming stress seeks out ways to manage and overcome that stress. We feel the despair in the traumas that surround us. But we also search together for ways to identify and feel hope in the midst of that despair.
During this century, no athlete has impacted the sports world more than LeBron James. Now a Los Angeles Laker, James found himself standing before the crowd at Staples Center on Friday in the Lakers’ first home game after Bryant’s death. As he held the microphone and spoke, James’ words applied both to this specific tragedy and to so many of the crises we all face.
“We’re all grieving, we’re all hurting, we’re all heartbroken,” he said. “But when we’re going through things like this, the best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family.”
When that tipping point arrives, James seemed to be saying, we don’t have to handle it alone. We never have to handle it alone.