A high school student voluntarily came to see me for counseling. He is a senior in high school and the middle son in a family of five. He describes himself as an average student, a competitive athlete and a decent human being.
When he first connected for counseling, I asked him what was his presenting issue - his reason for coming. He hesitated and said he was battling depression. I took his family history and asked about his relationships with his siblings, his peers and his parents.
He characterized his relationship with his sisters and brothers as normal. He stated, "He loves them to death, but at times they fight and bicker." He indicated that he feels close with his parents, although at times he feels they are too controlling and a little overbearing. He indicated that he can share more personally with Mom, but feels a closeness with Dad.
In the arena of friends, he indicated that he has many social acquaintances and a few close friends that he trusts unconditionally.
After that rather extensive family history, I asked this high school senior what was the real issue that was troubling him. Again, he hesitated and attempted to sidestep what was bothering him.
All of a sudden, he started to talk about a face of peer pressure that few young men ever address, and that was gossip. He went on to say how it troubled him that one of his buddies' reputations was being slandered by a few other students who did not like him. They were blatantly spreading lies that were definitely blemishing his reputation.
His friend claimed it was no big deal, but the real truth of the matter was that it was a very big deal. The student in question was withdrawing from friends and a lot of school activities. When he was asked about that, he made excuses and played it off as no big deal.
The circumstance that created the major conflict erupted at an unsupervised party. He was with a girl. They left and went off by themselves. Upon their return, things were said about what went on while they were away.
The boy in question was horrified by the so-called truths that were being circulated. He was disillusioned that his friends would participate in circulating such nonsense. He was also upset that the young lady involved also spread some half-truths that he felt were pretty damaging and hurtful.
However, there was still more about this story. It didn't just have to do with his friend. There was clearly another piece he was leaving out.
With some additional pressure, he finally brought up what was really causing him to feel depressed.
JC is a big, strapping football player type. He can be very aggressive. But there is also a very soft and gentle side that he often hides or denies. He acknowledged that when he watches a sad or emotional film, he gets emotional. However, he always tries to hide his feelings and emotions. His girlfriend once said, "You are too emotional for a guy." He has had a hard time letting it go.
His Dad is in the military and has said to him repeatedly that "real men don't cry."
When playing ball, if he has a weak opponent, he does not give his whole self or ability. Some of his teammates have called him a sissy or girl, which makes him nuts.
He then shared a confrontation he had with another athlete who was picking on someone else. The other student was weak and a bit of a geek and JC stood up for him. A lot of unpleasant words were exchanged. JC took everything to heart. The other boy accused him of being gay because he had a tender heart and was super sensitive.
JC does have a tender heart and will admit to being super sensitive. He was devastated that this other student was spreading rumors about him because he had the courage to defend another student who was being viciously attacked.
Probably what was most devastating for JC was that someone would purposely try to malign another's reputation and blemish one's character and integrity.
When it comes to gossip and character assassination, it does not matter what your sexual orientation, religion or economic status, lying is lying and still hurts deeply, especially when it happens among your peers.
Our good name, reputation, character and integrity are the most important values that we hold. They define who we are. Most of us spend our lifetime protecting them and strengthening them.
Sometimes, we fail to realize that our words and our stories do more damage than a punch in the face or a fistfight.
When we physically hit another, it is usually forgotten shortly after the pain of the encounter goes away. Unfortunately, hurtful words sting and too often infect us for more time than we want to admit.
If someone has made a crude remark or put us down and we don't let it go, we too often dwell on it and beat ourselves up with those hurtful words. Those who are sensitive, torture themselves. Young men who are prone not to communicate just let it fester and replay the encounter over and over until the emotional pain becomes too great. If we are lucky, we might have a friend, a parent or a teacher to share with.
Unfortunately, too many young people, especially male high school students, have no one. Guys are not conditioned early in their development to share and express their feelings.
JC was open to talking after he expressed what was making him feel down. He appreciated having a place to let all of that stuff out, but also acknowledged that he felt he was too sensitive and wanted to change.
After future conversations on that point, I urged him not to change his sensitivity, but rather not to personalize every time someone attempts to put him down because he cares about other people's feelings. I suggested that we need more men with tender hearts and sensitive feelings. It is okay to cry and feel for others, even though it might not be popular.
It is also important to be mindful that gossip, half-truths and negative story telling are very lethal, even if they are just in jest. Words hurt. Too often, we remember that which we should forget.
No one likes to be ridiculed for taking a positive stand for someone who seems to be weak and defenseless. We need to encourage people to stand up, step out and speak up for what is right and just.
Gossip is destroying the texture and color of our human landscape.