When I first heard about the Netflix drama Thirteen Reasons Why, I made a mental note to watch. When my eighth grade son said he had watched it, I queued it on Netflix. When the Arlington school district sent an email about this series that revisits a high schooler’s decision to commit suicide, strongly advising that young people should process it with trusted adults, I watched.
In the last week I’ve seen three episodes and paid attention to other commentary. Most of the public conversation has been about teenage suicide, and if the series invites dangerous copy-cat responses. In my own watching, I have been just as impacted by the portrayal of the angst-raising aspects of adolescence: alcohol and drug abuse, teenage sexuality and shaming, gender identity, sexual assault and violence, wealth disparity, personal identity and insecurity, racial and cultural divides, adults who seem clueless to help or respond – and how technology heightens all of this. The story brought back dormant memories of my own adolescent struggles, to the point that I can’t binge-watch; however, as we make ministry with youth and young adults a priority here at Western, I encourage everyone to watch at least a few episodes. Here’s a why and three how-tos:
You love someone who is a teenager – someone in your family, neighborhood or church. Even if your own child, grandchild, niece or nephew hasn’t watched Thirteen Reasons, if they go to school or use a digital device, they know about it. Their friends know about it. And at some level they are grappling with the same situations.
- Use the show as a springboard for listening to the young people in your life. Ask them how it compares to their own experiences, to what happens in their school or the people they see every day. Unless you know the rare young person who shares everything on his or her mind, chances are you need a catalyst for good conversation. And adults, unless you’re the outstanding exception to the teenage assumption that adults know how to talk better than they know how to listen, we all need reminders to listen well!
- Create some “teachable moments” – not the finger-wagging kind, but the “I wonder” kind. In one of the episodes’ crisis moments, what might have happened if one person or group had acted or responded differently? How might a character have better shown kindness – or courage, forgiveness, honesty, respect, compassion, empathy, or other value you admire? What values are important to you, and how would you, as a young person or adult, respond in light of that value? What are some good resources in your family, school, church, or community to support making better choices or building relationships?
- Ask where God is in the the drama. What difference does it make to believe in a God who created each of us in love, who loves us unconditionally no matter what we have done or failed to do, and who through the life of Jesus knows in God’s own self the worst shame anyone can imagine? What would our God say to Hannah or Clay or Alex or Jessica – or any other character? And then, what would you say?
Depending on your conversations or relationships with the young person in your life, you may want to imagine together thirteen reasons why suicide is never a good option, thirteen ways teenagers (and all of us!) can learn empathy, or thirteen healthy responses to a shaming, abusive, or hurtful situation.
In your own watching, of this show or any other controversial drama, may you come to a deeper understanding of yourself and those you love, and may we grow as a church that welcomes and encourages young people of all ages!
Grace and peace,