Challenge Day has always been an enigma to me. Past attendees would only say, “You cry a lot.” On the announcements, there is little information about what actually happens or the goal of the experience.
The ambiguity surrounding the day made me skeptical. I thought that Challenge Day was for people who needed help with their family, mental illnesses or depression.
I consider myself very lucky, which is a glorified way of saying that my life is good — I have unbelievably supportive parents, a good relationship with myself, I don’t have to worry about money. So, if this Challenge Day was supposed to help people heal wounds and feel like they weren’t alone in their hardships, how was I supposed to take anything away from it?
Yet, I failed to understand that when you’re surrounded by people willing to lay themselves bare in front of strangers, it does something to the atmosphere of the room. Hearing people share who they are, in their entirety, showed me a spectrum of hardship: shared stories encompassed everything from test anxiety to domestic violence.
And I saw that I fit on that spectrum. Everyone does.
Encouraged by the strangers around me, I found myself digging into my thoughts, the ones that circle deep within and are never shared. After all, Challenge Day is a buy-in experience. You have to want to be there, and to open up, and you have to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. So I did. Sitting in a circle of plastic folding chairs, with five strangers, I shared a part of me that I’ve never told anyone.
One of the Challenge Day facilitators, Katie, worded it best: “Being a human being is hard.”
She’s right: being human is universally hard, and I failed to truly understand how much hardship prevailed in the people around me. Hearing people open up about their lives, and seeing how many people were affected by things like suicide, poverty and discrimination, I understood why Challenge Day is so indescribable.
The experience cannot be fathomed into words. The way I felt, the way the different activities made me aware of my own life, the way talking to other people about their life experiences humbled me: these are feelings that can’t be advertised on a poster or fully explained to a friend.
What hit me the most during my experience was when we were asked to share our stories with small groups, and Katie told us to only listen, and not provide advice to the people sharing. Because, she said, “nobody’s broken.”
How could nobody be broken? I felt like everyone was broken by something, whether it be pressure from parents, an illness or feeling lonely. Because I believed this, I would always try to give people advice, no matter how small or big the issue was. I thought that I had the power to erase their hardship, and I tried. I thought I could fix them.
But when forced to sit in silence while people described the struggle in their lives, I saw the power of listening. I saw how human beings are not in need of fixing — that’s not what they need. What they need is someone to listen to them, to know that their story is heard and that it is shared by other people.
In a perfect world, we would be able to openly share our hardships. We would be able to visualize how everyone around us is going through things that we can’t even imagine, pushing us to be compassionate listeners and better people. When you really boil it down, these lessons I took away from Challenge Day are perhaps things that people can learn through life experience on their own.
But the fact is that humans are incredibly self-centered, and we need the push that Challenge Day provides. In order for us to learn those lessons, we need to be forced to talk to one another, and really listen, so we can see the humanity in the people around us. Only then will we realize how united everyone is in hardship.
I know this seems really kumbaya — I made Challenge Day sound like some alternate reality with unicorns and rainbows that erases your problems — but it’s not. It’s just a day that gives you the humbling opportunity to see your peers in their entirety, and reinforces the lessons you’ve been learning your whole life.
As Katie said, being a human being is hard. And what we don’t need is someone telling us it’s easy. We just need someone to be there, to listen.