My last post on the Helping Youth Thrive blog was written in March 2020, a month and year that I suppose I will remember vividly the rest of my life. It was a funny time for me anyway to begin with, as I was ending my sabbatical and beginning my new special assignment as the Director of Youth Development Research and Practice with National 4-H Council. Having worked remotely for 10 months prior, and beginning work with an organization on the other side of the country meant that I was pretty well set up to work from my home office, so my day-to-day work routine was not disrupted in the way that others experienced.
But I do recall those early days of the pandemic when lock-downs began in earnest, and friends, colleagues and strangers shared what information they had about the virus and how to avoid it. Early mornings in March in Western Oregon are often quite dark, and I recall more than once driving across town in search of an open Starbucks when my neighborhood cafe closed indefinitely. For a very rough patch I even had to make my own coffee at home after returning from walking the dog without a fresh cup in my hands. More than anything, when Starbucks closed I lost my branch office – the place that for years I tucked away to mid morning, or late afternoon, to think and write. The place where almost every blog post, and most academic papers were drafted and polished. The place where the steady hum of people, espresso machine, Spotify playlists, and cheerful conversation allowed me to dive deep in thought and expression. I lost that place. And it has yet to return, but I am hopeful.
The funny thing is, that when I lost my place to write, I lost my desire to write, despite having so much to write about as the pandemic closed in around young people, interrupting every aspect of their lives they once called “normal.” Instead of writing I found myself attending multiple webinars every week, listening carefully as leading experts in education, youth development, and mental health described the impact of the pandemic, and later the impact of inequity, disparity, racism and social injustice, on youth. In an rather painful irony I found myself with more things than ever that I wanted to write about – to share with my friends and colleagues as we crafted our professional approach to helping youth thrive at this moment in history. But I didn’t write. I couldn’t. So I didn’t.
Have you ever experience not doing something? And for a while it is still possible to do it, even though you may or may not? Like writing a thank you note that is best written as soon as possible, but a week later would still be okay. After two weeks there is a discomfort about the delay, by week three you begin to wonder if you will ever write it. By week six you know it is just too late and your embarrassment begins to take hold. After two months you know it will never happen. And you feel badly about that for a long time. It as not because you were not thankful, but for some reason the note did not get written.
So, I will start the blog again in September, you know, after this pandemic quiets down and we are back to normal. Or October – yes, October the start of the new 4-H year. Okay, how about January so we can start 2021 afresh. In March? We could celebrate a year of all this. But now it is May. Now it is June. Fifteen months have gone by.
This morning, on what promises to be the first of a long stretch of hot summer days in Oregon, I walked to Starbucks and considered that I could sit outside and inch my way back into blogging. After all, so much is happening in the Helping Youth Thrive project that I want to share! So I did sit down with my coffee and dog in the early morning light and opened up a new book that I have been waiting to read: Whole-Child Development, Learning and Thriving (Lerner, Cantor, Pittman, Chase, & Gomperts, 2021).
In the opening pages of the book the authors share the important distinction between resilience and thriving. Resilience is adaptive functioning in the face of high risk or adversity – meaning a response that manages to cope despite the challenges. A key point is that this response is between the person and setting that caused the adversity. This describes how many of us have faced life and work during the pandemic – coping and adapting despite the challenges that I know for many youth development professionals were at times overwhelming.
But thriving, ah, thriving is different than resilience. Thriving is a more than coping with adversity and overcoming incredible challenges despite how difficult the situation is. Thriving is about optimal development- about being the best we can be in our whole selves. In our minds, and bodies, and spirit. Thriving means having the skills and support to do well regardless of the situation we find ourselves in. But a key point about thriving that is worth underscoring is that thriving is not a state – as in I was thriving yesterday, but today not so much. No, thriving is a process of development that takes place over time as we gain the social, emotional, cognitive and spiritual qualities that help us optimize who we are as human beings.
A few weeks ago I was interviewed for the podcast PYD in 3 about the 4-H Thriving Model. I love the format of this podcast, which is produced by Maria Walker and Ashley Benes of University of Nebraska 4-H. After the interview the hosts reflect on what they heard and learned, and during this portion of the program Maria pointed out that the principles of thriving that we want young people to develop are not just helping young people thrive as teens, but building skills for life-long thriving.
Resilience in the face of adversity is important. And thriving helps all of us not just meet and survive challenges, but continue to become our best selves despite the challenges. As we get ready to work with youth more in person than we have in the last 15 months, how will you use the concepts of the resilience and thriving to help young people meet challenges and develop skills for life-long well-being?
Be well, and thrive.
Dr. Mary Arnold is a Professor and Youth Development Specialist at Oregon State University, and is currently on special assignment with National 4-H Council as the Director of Youth Development Research and Practice. Dr. Arnold chairs the PLWG Helping Youth Thrive task force, which is working to advance high quality positive youth development theory and practice across the 4-H system.