The Biosphere 2 project was created as a research tool for scientists to study Earth’s living systems, and it allowed scientists to play with farming and innovation in a way that didn’t harm the planet. One of the most profound discoveries made by the scientists had nothing to do with a cure for some new disease or a new way of farming land. Rather, the discovery had to do with the wind’s role in a tree’s life. The trees inside Biosphere 2 grew rapidly, more rapidly than they did outside of the dome, but they also fell over before reaching maturation. After looking at the root systems and outer layers of bark, the scientists came to realize that a lack of wind in Biosphere 2 caused a deficiency of stress wood. Stress wood helps a tree position itself for optimal sun absorption and it also helps trees grow more solidly. Without stress wood, a tree can grow quickly, but it cannot support itself fully. It cannot withstand normal wear and tear, and survive. In other words, the trees needed some stress in order to thrive in the long run.
Recently we’ve had some excellent speakers come to campus as part of our Well Being Project, and they’ve directed our attention to stress and anxiety and the adolescent brain. We’ve heard about stress management and stress inoculation, stressful situations and stressful times of the year. We’ve talked about homework load and balancing life inside and outside of the classroom. What I liked most about one of our speakers, Dr. Rick Solomon, is that he encouraged us to change the conversation. Maybe even start a new one. Rather than look at what causes stress and figure out ways to avoid it, he encouraged us to engage with stress and learn to make choices.
This idea of a new conversation around stress reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Many people see this poem as stand on individualism, but it’s really about choice and sacrifice, and the idea that sometimes consequences are worth the choice. That’s where teaching our students to engage with stress, to manage the consequences of choices, is actually the richer, more fulfilling road to success. We must remind students that not every request, every assessment, every activity needs to be heard at the same volume. In the same vein, not every assignment they undertake must be given the same amount of effort. It is only when our students fully understand that it’s ok to say no and it’s ok to not do everything full speed that our students will learn how to strike a healthier balance between work and play and wellness.
As our community prepares itself for semester exams, I hope that we can all find ways to engage with stress. It’s not about teaching our students how to avoid stress or take on too much; rather, we need to encourage them to turn toward the wind, make decisions and learn to adapt. The more we teach our students about stress management, the better off they will be in the long run — the deeper their roots will grow, the stronger their skills will be, and the more successful they will become.