A long time ago we stopped exerting any energy convincing others of the necessity and value of being able to regulate one’s emotional state. Everybody knows what stress is, how it feels and that it is not good for them. Many think that stress is “just how life is”, that we need to accept it, live with it and get on with it.
They are not completely wrong. Not all stress is bad. In fact stress is a necessary and integral part of life. In essence it is simply the body’s response to a change. Any change. Real, imagined, dreamt up, past, present or future, it matters not as the body responds as if it is happening now.
That automatic response can either be a burst of energy in fight (eg, swearing at the taxi that pulled in front of you) or flight (disappearing to the loo when you see your boss come around the corner); or it could be freezing in position (you hear the voice of the very person you do not want to see: you stop what you are doing, your fingers hover above the keyboard, you strain your ears and hold your breath). All rather mundane and fleeting, which is good.
In reality, however, our stresses happen all too frequently and compound because we don’t have enough time to process the event, release the hormones and chemicals brought on by the stress response and come back to balance. This is when things start to go awry.
The way we feel impacts
The way we feel impacts our ability to be present, alert, and ready to learn. It was on this subject that we recently presented to a group of educators. Their students come from under-resourced areas, where the environment adds further challenges to the students’ capacity to study.
Emotional wellbeing and mental health are often overlooked at schools but concerned educators everywhere are witnessing the impact of a growing body of young people struggling with chronic anxiety, deepening depression, untamed anger and suicide ideation.
We have a solution that talks directly to this need. It is called the Superpower programme and this year we are facilitating it for the entire Grade 10 group at the Ikusasa Lethu Foundation. 75 students will be going through fourteen weeks of learning about their emotional state and practising tools and techniques to help regulate how they feel. All of this with the aim to support them in their desire to perform better, feel better and thrive in often adverse circumstances.
The educators were interested, engaged, asked questions and wanted more information. As we were nearing the end of the presentation one last attendee raised her hand.
“I have a concern,” she said, “Maybe I missed it, but are we taking into consideration the fact that all these kids are black?”
She went on to infer that maybe we were viewing these young people as too fragile. She suggested that our focus was too white and Western. She said that she had been taught how to manage her emotions through her culture and wondered if we included this African informed perspective in our work.
“You are really lucky to have been taught how to deal with your emotions,” replied Chantal, “We have worked with hundreds of young black African people and in our experience they have not had the benefit of this knowledge. Please let us talk after this. We would love to know more.”
It’s great to see and reconnect with smiling friends!
A dissenting voice
We always appreciate a dissenting voice. It is useful to have someone that has a different view from ours so that we can check our approach and adapt or include new perspectives. Sadly, our dissenting voice had left as soon as the presentation was finished. We lost the opportunity to engage further.
“It’s a bit rich to throw a curveball into the auditorium without having been awake and present for most of the presentation,” said Matthew.
This attendee had had her eyes closed much of the time. Matthew said she had been asleep. Chantal felt that maybe she had been meditating, possibly praying, or resting her eyes? Could we have been that boring?
We specifically evolved our work with the African context in mind. And far from viewing these young people as fragile we are routinely amazed by the level of resilience they display. The fact remains, however, that few young people, in particular these young people, have had the support, education and understanding of what they can do to manage their state better in a chaotic, pressure cooker of a world.
After the presentation was finished, several educators came forward to engage with us. They were thirsty for more information, for themselves, their students and even their families. One gentleman who also taught at a very resourced private school related how the teachers he worked with just did not know what to do in the face of the ballooning problems that young people are dealing with.
Avant-garde chilli pepper art with peppers from our food garden. Framed versions available, as is a jar or two of the most delicious relish!
Who can be fully present?
Our dissenting voice had not been fully present to understand the big picture. What she had heard had possibly triggered something in her as a consequence of her own beliefs and biases. She had made some assumptions as a result. Sadly she had not stayed to interrogate those with us later.
Jumping to conclusions based on preconceived notions stimulated by incomplete data is a societal pastime. How many of us can honestly say that we are fully present to the information coming at us? Be it through conversations, presentations, videos, or any other variety of media we select to consume? How many of us selectively scan the communication and dive in on something that grabs our attention like a silver fish in a running stream?
Our society has lost the skill of listening to understand, rather than to respond. Otto Scharmer calls it “listening to download”*. It’s the type of listening that judges what is heard based on what is already known or believed to be true. You cannot be really present at this level. Not much can be learned and conversations are not that productive.
We want productive conversations about this epidemic cutting through our youth. We want to face the taboos, slice through misinformation, normalise our humanness that rests on feeling and provide skills that improve the capacity of these young people to thrive. Often what they need most is the courage to voice their hurts and concerns to someone who will listen to them and acknowledge that they matter.
Many moons ago, we took a cutting of this beautifully scented plant called a Moonflower. After surviving hail and snow it is now putting out these exquisite flowers.
See the light
Before we could even start our programme with the Grade 10s, we were informed that one student coming into that grade had committed suicide. We don’t know if she had voiced her hurts or been heard. We don’t know whether she had been told that she mattered. But we do know that she had not been given the opportunity to know that there was another way.
There is always another way. There is always hope. And we are big on hope. Desmond Tutu is widely attributed as saying,
Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.
Being present to witness the darkness is necessary too. Being present to the tears, the sobs and the despair and still being able to hold up the light. It may only be a flicker at first but a flicker cuts through the darkness.
We, Matthew & Chantal, choose to bring the light, to show that there is light, to guide others to find theirs, so that hope grows. Not just the hope of the youth, but our hope for a better world, for is that not what we want for our children?
Our January seedlings are sprouting! The beans in the foreground were grown from seeds collected from last season. It’s very rewarding to be more aligned with natural cycles of renewal.
Until next time.
Yours in feeling,
Matthew & Chantal
*Scharmer, C. O. (2016). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges: The social technology of presencing. Berrett-Koehler.
About the author
5th Place is a dynamic organization that's passionate about emotional fitness. We're the creators of Shape of Emotion, a revolutionary tool that's changing the way we understand and manage our emotions. But we're not just about theory - we're about practical, tangible change.
We offer Emotional Fitness Classes and courses that help individuals, from children to adults, build emotional resilience and well-being. For our younger audience, we've created the Vibarealm, a vibrant universe that encourages a healthier interaction with emotions.
Join us on this journey to emotional fitness and let's make the world a better place together.