If Jane Goodall Were An Alien

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Imagine someone with Jane Goodall’s observational powers coming from outer space to observe us for a few days.

Let’s narrow this alien’s study down to something relatively simple. Our imaginary alien doesn’t have time to report on Earth’s progress toward peace, justice and environmental balance. Our imaginary alien doesn’t even have time to cast her gaze across the whole planet.

Instead, the alien watches a few children in a typical American suburb before filing this report. (Disclaimer, in alien language, notes the report isn’t representational of all humans or all time spans on Earth.)

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How to Impede Humanity

Each human is born with vast potential which unfolds in ways unique to that person’s talents and experiences. Human culture starts immediately to prevent that newborn’s potential from being fully realized.

The smallest humans are kept for much of their waking day in devices called car seats, booster seats, high chairs, playpens, cribs and strollers. Without sufficient and varied movement, learning can be impeded.

They are kept indoors most of the time. This limits their vision, their sense of connectedness, and their happiness.

Instead of foods harvested directly from nearby sources, the taste preferences of these small humans are developed on diets of lower nutrient but more expensive packaged substances. The health effects of these foods is beyond the scope of this report. It is, however, noted that transporting and purchasing these foods has an economic impact on the families of these small humans.

Humans are a people of story and image. As small humans get older they more readily absorb the lessons surrounding them from such objects as billboards, magazines, television, video games, and toys. These stories and images teach humans that success and happiness come through power, the right possessions, perfect appearance, rare skill, and of course, wealth. Small humans learn this quickly.

For example, appearance. They are repeatedly exposed to images of impossible bodies.  Note evidence—-a process called retouching applied to human Jennifer Anniston and to humans Twiggy and Keira Knightley.  As a result, five year old females judge their bodies harshly. By what humans call adolescence, 92 percent of females are unhappy with their bodily appearance.

Males also experience self-loathing due to impossible body images and behavior of heroes in movies, video games, and comics.

Movies, television, politics, and pundits teach small humans that the world is more violent than it is and games teach them that aggression is the best response.

The whole market-driven culture pushes materialistic values on young humans, which can leave them depressed, anxious and unhappy when they most need the powerful boost of optimism.

Even though young humans are perfectly suited to learn in ways matched to their abilities and interests without coercion, even though humanity has evolved throughout time by learning directly from wisdom-bearers in their own fields, these youth are put in institutions called schools. There each young human is judged by pre-determined standards. A large percentage don’t measure up.

It has been determined that the primary need of young humans is for self-expression, reasonably consistent guidance, and what on Earth is called love.

It is beyond the scope of this field report to discuss all the factors impeding humans from providing this in full measure but this observer notes that the ongoing progress of humanity is due in large part to the overwhelming ability of human families to overcome limitations noted in this report through kindness, laughter and true affection. These behaviors observed every moment, shared freely. This seems to be the essence of this species, so the report overall views humanity’s progress as positive.

(We prefer, however, that humans stick to their own planet. See the following video update.)

Image courtesy of Jean Kern’s flickr photostream 

How to Make Spiders Your Teachers, Trees Your Guides

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Pay close attention to anything. In it you’ll find wonders.

Consider the spider.

We appreciate spiders in our family. A large orb weaver lives just outside the front door. Every night when we take the dogs out before going to bed we pause to appreciate the intricate web she’s rewoven. It has a lot to teach us about strength, symmetry, impermanence and beauty.

I probably shouldn’t admit it, but a spider also hangs out on the ceiling of our pantry. Its continued presence means there are enough insects in the vicinity to keep it fed, which logically means there are that many fewer beasties getting into our potatoes, dry beans, oats and other stored foods. It has a lot to teach us about interdependence. I’m actually cheered to see it up there, a quiet brown chap making a life for itself high above my canning jars.

When we find the occasional spider elsewhere in the house we move it gently outdoors, unless it’s winter in which case we move it to a large potted plant. (I prefer spiders be relocated to basement plants but I suspect my family members free them in more conveniently located houseplants.)

No, our home isn’t teeming with creepy crawlies. It’s the same as your house. We’re all part of an ecosystem beyond our awareness. Our fellow Earth inhabitants proceed with lives of purpose everywhere around us whether we know it or not. As an example, beneficial bacteria reside in your gastrointestinal tract, contributing not only to digestion but overall health. These microbes outnumber the cells in your body 10 to 1, their types varying widely from person to person—perhaps accounting for major differences in weight, energy and wellness.

No amount of clean living sets us apart from the wider ecosystem we’re in.

It’s easier to think of nature as “out there” in the pristine wilderness. But we’re a part of nature every moment. It is air we breathe, plants we eat, birdsong we hear, weather slowing this morning’s traffic, our very cells dividing and yes, that high pitched whine signifying a mosquito is hovering nearby.

Tiny creeping and flying things around us are the creatures we’re most likely to encounter, reminders that we share our ecosystem with others. It’s even possible to notice them with pleasure.

My kids particularly appreciate spiders so we pay closer attention to these creatures. I don’t know much about arachnids, but what I learn through my offspring helps me to see more complexity, beauty and worth that I could have imagined.

I think it’s easier to pay attention when we keep the joyous curiosity we’re born with but it’s possible to recapture it, to expand it into awe at the wonders everywhere around us.

Consider making a nature study of a something nearby. A tree’s lifecycle through the seasons, the activity around a wasp nest in the eaves, the behavior of birds at a feeder. We’ve learned some techniques for the amateur naturalist from Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s wonderful book Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness.

  1. Learn names, proper as well as colloquial. Learn details about habitat, health and interdependence with other life forms.
  2. Have patience. The practice of seeing, really seeing, takes more than time. It also takes cultivated watchfulness.
  3. Respect wildness.
  4. Cultivate an obsession. Let questions unfold into more questions and whenever possible, find a community of fellow enthusiasts.
  5. Keep a notebook. Writing observations and making drawings are wonderfully wider ways to learn.
  6. Maintain a field trip mentality. Keep up your observations wherever you go.
  7. Make time for solitude.
  8. Stand in the lineage. Vital knowledge has been gained by a long history of people no different than you, people who let the world around them teach its wonders to those whose eyes are open.

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Epidemic of Nearsightedness Has Startling Cause

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We don’t mourn the loss of what we don’t see.

In fourth grade I had no idea that the equations I copied from the board were incorrect, I only knew that for the first time my math papers were handed back with poor marks. And my grades kept getting worse. Although I wrote neatly and rechecked my work the teacher scrawled “careless mistakes” on my papers. I’d decided I was a mathematical dunce by the time my parents realized I needed glasses.

It was a revelation the first time I put on those glasses. I could see individual leaves on trees! I could see the faces of people passing by! I thought what I’d seen before, blurry images that resolved close up, was what everyone saw.

Myopia has risen to epidemic levels. In the U.S. young adults are much more likely to be nearsighted than people in their grandparent’s generation. In 1996, sixty percent of 23 to 34-year-olds were nearsighted compared to twenty percent of those over 65. Some Asian countries are seeing an even more alarming increase, up to 80 percent of young adults.

Reading too long, watching TV too close, even going without sunglasses have been blamed for causing poor eyesight. But the answer is much more interesting and has resounding significance for the way we raise our children.

The startling cause uncovered by researchers in three separate studies in the U.S., Australia and Singapore?

It has to do with the amount of time a child spends outdoors.

Yes, genetics still plays a part. Children born to nearsighted parents are more likely to need corrective lenses.

But researchers noticed an intriguing outlier. Children who devoted more hours per week to sports or outdoor play were less likely to develop myopia. Perhaps, it was speculated, they spent less time on close activities like reading. But further studies didn’t make that connection.

Perhaps, it was speculated, that sports and other activities made them more physically fit, somehow benefitting their eyes. But indoor sports were found to have no correlation with better eyesight, only those played outdoors. In fact, even completely inactive time outdoors was helpful in reducing the incidence of myopia.

Look at these numbers. A study of six to seven year olds (only of Chinese ethnicity to simplify comparisons) living in Singapore and Australia found marked differences based on outdoor exposure. Children in Singapore spent an average of 3 weekly hours outdoors, thirty percent developed myopia. Australian youngsters spent 14 hours outside each week, only three percent developed myopia.

No one is sure exactly what factors lead to better eyesight when children spend time outside. It may be related to the greater intensity of light or the natural spectrum of light.  Perhaps it has something to do with nutrient absorption related to light, as in vitamin D metabolism.

Or it may relate to peripheral vision. Without the limitations of walls and windows our vision can range across open spaces. This corresponds to findings that urban children, whose vision is constrained by crowds and buildings, suffer a greater incidence of myopia than rural children.

Whatever the cause, today’s children spend more time indoors than their parent’s generation. Actually, about 90 percent of their young lives are spent shut away from the natural light and wider view of the outdoor world.

They can’t miss what they don’t see.

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I Know You Are But What Am I?

Quick, describe your neighbor. The friend you just talked to on the phone. And one other person you know.

Tally up the negatives and positives. What do they indicate?

Actually, they say a lot more about you than the people you’re describing.

Sages, poets and mystics have told us all along that what we perceive is who we are. Research indicates they were right. Our perceptions of others actually say much more about us.

According to a study in the July 2010 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the tendency to assess people in our social networks positively is linked to our own

enthusiasm,

happiness,

kind-heartedness,

politeness,

emotional stability,

life satisfaction,

even how much others like us.

A lead researcher says, “Seeing others positively reveals our own positive traits.”

The opposite is also true. The study found that how negatively we view others is linked to our own unhappiness as well as a greater likelihood of problems such as depression, narcissism and antisocial behavior.

That explains a lot.

Sure, any three people we know are likely to have annoying traits. Who doesn’t? But as Carl Jung said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

Often people whose behavior is most challenging turn out, in retrospect, to bring out new strengths in us. They illuminate what we don’t want to see, make us more aware and teach us to be better people ourselves.  Perhaps we’re drawn to the sandpaper that smoothes us our own imperfections.

It isn’t reasonable to cast a wholly positive light on every person. But knowing that what we see is what we enhance in ourselves, that can make all the difference.

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A human being is essentially

a spirit-eye.

Whatever you really see,

you are that.

Rumi

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Art courtesy of SkyHorizon