Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Hope in the darkness

The last week of March 2017 was a big one for podcast and Netflix viewers because two wildly popular shows were released. On March 28, “S-Town” podcast was released—seven episodes chronicling three years of research on an eccentric and brilliant man who lived in Woodstock, Alabama, or as he calls it, “S-town.” On March 31, Netflix released “13 Reasons Why”—thirteen episodes about a teenager who makes audio cassettes and sends them to 13 people who wronged her. Both have similar themes and both leave the listener and viewer with haunting thoughts, unanswered questions, and many ideas to discuss and ponder. Spoiler alert—please do not read this if you have not listened to or viewed the shows. I will be giving away some key points, though most of what I will discuss is already out there in the media about these shows. Both shows have gained nationwide attention. In fact, S-Town is the most downloaded podcast of all time. “13 Reasons Why” has school districts around the country sending out warning letters to parents. Both shows cause the viewer/listener to seriously consider how we treat others, the cause and effect of our actions, and how we view relationships, life, and death. Heavy topics, I know. Over the next two blog posts, I will share my thoughts (without giving too many details away) on these two shows. Because blog posts are supposed to be quick reads, I chose to write these posts in two parts. One will focus on “13 Reasons Why” and the other on “S-Town”, with the second one pulling the two series together in a summation of theme. “Binge watching” is a newly coined phrase that has only been around for the past several years. It comes from the changes in how we watch television series in the 21st century. In the “old days”—as in the 1980’s according to my kids—we watched a TV episode per week when it came out. Now, because of the rise of Netflix, whole series are released at one time, allowing us to stay up ridiculously late watching shows because we simply cannot stop. “13 Reasons Why” came out as a series with all thirteen episodes ready to watch. My 16 year old son came to me the day it was released and said, “Mom, there is a new show on Netflix that just came out and everyone is watching it.” He told me that he was already on episode four. He said, “You should really watch it.” Okay, invitation to join in on the discussion. I will take it. He then told me the premise of the show. “It is about a girl who commits suicide and leaves tapes for all the people who wronged her.” Oh my, I perked up a bit. My child is watching this up in his room at night and all his friends are talking about it. I decided I needed to get in on the teen culture and be up on what was such a big deal to all of them. I immediately read a few articles about it, went to Netflix and started it, and…..couldn’t stop watching. It is based on a young adult novel and is obviously geared for teens. It has some very stereotypical characters and scenes, plus some clichés and predictable parts, but it does have some element of mystery and surprise which is why you want to keep going when each episode ends. It attempts to meet teens where they are because it addresses almost every teen issue out there such as family conflict, lack of communication with parents, sexual identity and exploration, cliques and groups, and feeling lonely and ostracized. It deals with drugs, alcohol, teen stress and anxiety, and rape. Many critics have condemned it because it has a graphic suicide scene and rape scene. I tried to watch it through the lens of my teenage son, and tried to understand what he and his friends were thinking or discussing. He was always a few episodes ahead of me, and we were able to discuss what was happening in the episodes (thank God I have a son who communicates with me about these things—I know that many parents don’t have this type of relationship with their child). One of the things about binge watching is that even though you are disturbed, you keep going because you want to find out what happens. You need to get to the end. While I wanted to know WHO would get the next tape, I also couldn’t get past the fact that Hannah (the main character) had planned this suicide and these tapes very specifically and carefully. When the show begins, she is already dead, and the show revolves around each person getting “his/her” tape and then we view flashbacks of scenes involving the dead girl and this person who wronged her. Each tape comes together to string a story of what happened over the course of a year in high school, with small pieces of the puzzle revealed through each tape. All the kids involved wonder if they will get a tape, and they begin to freak out—all their thoughts and discussions center around this dead girl who is now stalking and haunting them with these posthumous tapes. This is where I get deeply disturbed. She is getting all this attention after her death. Like most teens who endure the high school years; it is clear that she was seeking friendship, loyalty, security, love, and attention. She, like all people, wanted to be loved unconditionally, to be accepted without judgment, to be truly KNOWN. Through a series of hurtful relationships, rumors, and heinous acts against her, she comes to the conclusion that there is no way out of this situation. As the viewer, and anyone who can be objective, we know there is more, that she can and will get past this. She had parents who loved her, she had friends who cared, she knew others who identified with her, but in her isolation she could not see past the darkness and pain. There have been debates on social media on whether this show glorified suicide. I believe it did. A young girl is the center of attention as audiotapes circulate through the high school. Everyone is talking about her. All of a sudden she is known. She is popular. She is feared. But, folks, she is DEAD. What is the one thing teens and young adults fear the most in the world? Not death, not public speaking, but the fear of being alone. This series focuses on the loneliness that one teen encounters—her desire to find security, love, and attention. She feels that she can’t ever attain those...so in despair, she kills herself. Young viewers might think that they too can find attention or love by committing suicide, without realizing the finality of it all. So, if your child is viewing this, (and probably already has), get in on it, start viewing it, and be ready to have real and honest conversations about some tough, but real topics. Our teens need to know that we are aware, that we are here, that we love them. They need to hear from us that there are other ways to resolve these teen issues than taking your own life. I must pause here to position myself as a mom, teacher, counselor, and Christian mentor. I must pause to reflect through the lens of my Christian worldview. This series is clearly secular as most tv and radio series are. There is no mention of help or hope in the form of religious or spiritual counseling or of seeking God through guidance and prayer. This is what I find is sadly missing from these shows that want to display teen loneliness and angst. God is clearly absent. And when God is absent, the seeking and yearning that these teens have within the depths of their souls will continue and their hearts will not be fulfilled. As we seek solutions as a culture to help with the prevalence of suicide, bullying, isolation, and sexual assault, we continue to keep Christ out of it. There are many incredible agencies that help teens navigate their world, and many organizations address these issues, but if we don’t offer the hope of Christ to these teens, then they don’t know all the options. I am not saying that we force Jesus down their throats or lay down religious law, but simply offer them Jesus. Let them make the decision. They can turn him down, as many people have chosen to do. But they can accept his offer of unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace. Let me be clear, there are many people who know and love Jesus who are searching, seeking, and yearning. There are many Christians who have committed suicide. There are many Christians who suffer from mental illness, depression, anxiety and isolation. Knowing Jesus doesn’t take the pain of this broken world away. But knowing Jesus gives us hope in the darkest of times. Knowing Jesus gives us a community of believers who support us. Knowing Jesus gives us solace when things are crazy around us. Knowing Jesus gives us security that there is more to this life than we can see in front of us. Knowing Jesus gives us hope in the future, both on earth and in heaven. In “13 Reasons Why” a young girl can’t find hope and takes her own life. She was never offered the hope found in Jesus. When I talk with teens about all the darkness of this broken world, I want to at least offer them Jesus. I want them to know that the darkness ends, not in suicide, but in Jesus. When I write my next blog, I will share the similar theme found in “S-Town” where the players are not teens, but adults. Adults who seem to have given up hope in a dark and narrow world. “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” --- JESUS

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