There are two hikers in the woods, and they come upon an enormous, terrifying bear...or, how to manage your worries

English teacher Kurt Bennett speaks in chapel about beginning-of-year dreams and worries, and how they relate to "fellowship and camaraderie"

Good morning.
It’s good to see you—really; These first few weeks can be tough, between  classes, study hall, sports, friends, girlfriends, boyfriends—these are a challenge for anyone to juggle, so the fact that you’ve survived and are sitting in front of me--kudos to you.

I actually love these first weeks, though, and I think that’s because in these early stages, to steal from a popular song, anything can happen.

But it’s true--within this unknown, this space of limitless possibilities, we’re allowed to dream about potential best-case scenarios, no matter how unlikely they are.

Perhaps you are thinking that this is the year you will be valedictorian. Perhaps this is the year you think you’ll get into that school with a seven-percent acceptance rate. Perhaps you are thinking that this year you will be the state MVP in football, or field hockey, or swimming.

As teachers, we, too, have our own grand dreams, which are also often incredibly exaggerated. Every year, I think I’m going to be the best teacher Peddie has ever seen. My Seniors’ theses will all get published in The New Yorker, and my freshman will all go on to write Pulitzer-Prize winning novels, in which they will write, “Dedicated to Mr. Bennett, for teaching me how to read and write.”

Now, no offense to anyone in my classes, but this is unlikely. And perhaps your dreams are more possible, but let’s just say that at the very least, they’re difficult. 

What’s so great about the beginning of the year, however, is that there’s nothing to say definitively that your dreams or my dreams won’t happen, precisely because nothing has happened yet. To paraphrase the famous statistician Lloyd Christmas, “so you’re saying there’s a chance…”, and so we live off these exhilarating possibilities.

So that’s why I love these first few weeks. But, for the exact same reasons, I dread these first few weeks more than any other time of year. Let me repeat that: for the exact same reasons, I dread these first few weeks more than any other time of year. This is because just as everything could potentially go perfect and wonderful and better than I ever imagined, everything could also go horribly, horribly wrong. And what’s worse, like our daydreams, our nightmares are also ridiculously, ludicrously exaggerated.

Here’s an example: you might worry that if you don’t wear the right outfit on the first day,  people won’t think you are cool, and because people don’t think you are cool, you won’t have any friends, and because you don’t have any friends, you won’t have anyone to hang out with in the spring, and because you won’t have anyone to hang out with in the spring, one fateful day in May, when everyone else is out playing Kan-Jam and volleyball and coming up with excuses to not wear sleeves, you will be at home, sitting in the corner by yourself, crying as you eat ice cream straight from the carton, all because you wore the wrong outfit on the first day of school.

I can tell you from personal experience that we as teachers exaggerate our fears in the exact same way.

Here’s an example: I worry that if I ask the wrong question in class, my students won’t think I’m a good teacher, and because my students don’t think I’m a good teacher, my students won’t respect me, and because my students don’t respect me, I’ll lose control of the class, and because I lose control of the class, on one fateful day in May, when all the other teachers are preparing for AP’s and handing out finals, my class will be chaos—Kenzie Skerrit will be shooting spitwads across the room, Jimmy Schwartz will be sending paper airplanes out the window, Adam Labban will be spraying graffiti all over the walls—and me? I won’t even be there. I will be back at my apartment, sitting in the corner by myself, crying and eating ice cream straight from the carton, all because I asked the wrong question in class.

These fears are absurd and laughable, yes, but they also point to a problematic truth, and I would urge you to pay close attention here: our deepest fears are often incredibly, deeply selfish. Think back to the examples I gave: when you’re worried about what you’re going to wear on the first day, you’re worried about you. When you worry about how many goals you’re going to score, or if you get valedictorian, or who you go to prom with, you are worried about you. Similarly, when I worry about how much my students like me, or how cool they think I am, or how I compare to other teachers in the English department, I’m worried about me.

It’s not surprising that we do this, for self-interest in the face of fear is a basic human instinct. There’s a joke about two hikers in the woods who come upon a great and terrifying bear. One hiker starts to run away as fast as he can. The other hiker shouts after him, “Are you crazy? You can’t outrun that bear!” His companion looks over his shoulder and says, “I don’t have to outrun a bear! I only have to outrun you!” This joke is funny, yes, but like many jokes, on a deeper level it’s troubling: by fleeing, the hiker turns his back on his friend, not unlike the same decisions we make on a daily basis.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that anyone should feel guilty for feeling any of the desires I mentioned, for as I said, this selfishness in the face of fear is a natural response hard-wired into our genetic code as a survival instinct.

So it’s not going away. But just because this need is permanent doesn’t mean you can’t constantly be aware of it, or that you can’t work against it. We can’t leave these fears unexamined, because left unchecked, these fears destroy communities just like the one that sits before me now.

Any coach will tell you that teams full of players who want individual success will inevitably lose; any faculty member who only wants to be the coolest or most popular will produce cheap, shallow pedagogy, and a campus full of students who want to be the best-looking, or the most popular or the smartest, will inevitably be a contentious, cliché-filled place devoid of any real, meaningful relationships.

The nice thing about our brains is that they can only hold a limited cognitive load; in other words, we can only focus so hard on so many things at one time. (You’ve probably noticed this when you’re trying to read The Scarlet Letter and your news feed at the time.) But this also means that for every amount of consciousness you direct to the needs and concerns of others, it’s that much less that can expend and waste on yourself. It’s liberating, and you don’t need to do anything grand or revolutionary to accomplish this, but instead just need to focus on forcing your mind to do so in small, manageable ways.

The next time you feel like worrying about individual stats, worry about the entire team’s record, or the new players struggling to feel at home. The next time you feel like worrying about your class rank, worry about your friend that is falling behind in English, or your teacher, who is having trouble controlling the class. The next time you’re worrying about your prom date, or what kind of tuxedo you’re going to wear, worry about the kid that doesn’t get asked to dances, or the kid who’s planning on making a bad decision there. While your selfish worries might not be within your control, the energy and importance you give to those worries IS in your control, and by consciously shifting your focus away from those thoughts, you are able to slowly move towards greater awareness of the world that exists everywhere around you.

I’d like to return, then, in closing, to my joke about the bear and the two hikers, but this time, I’d like to change it so that it carries a different moral:

There are two hikers in the woods who come upon an enormous, terrifying bear. The first friend begins to instinctually run away, but then realizes he’d be sacrificing his friend in doing so, and so he consciously forces himself to stay. The bear isn’t used to this happening, isn’t used to people refusing to back down to him, and so slowly, slowly, the bear begins to back up, and, with the courage that only comes with camaraderie and fellowship, the hikers begin to take back ground, step, by step, by step.

Thank you, and Ala Viva.