Sprouting Plant Advocates

Every growing season our four children choose which crop will be theirs to plant and tend in our vegetable garden. It doesn’t make my work easier. But this tradition helps them understand how intrinsically connected we all are to sunlight, soil, and the lives of growing things.

Claire always insists on sugar snap peas. They grow quickly enough to gratify her restless nature and besides, they’re fun to eat fresh from the vine. Her three brothers aren’t as opinionated. They choose something different each year. Last year Benjamin had a great crop of sweet corn, buzzing with honeybees and taller than his pre-teen shoulders. Little Samuel’s green peppers struggled—perhaps too close to the shadowing tomato plants, but still they produced a gratifying harvest, heavy and large in his preschooler’s hands. Only Kirby’s chosen crop, watermelons, disappointed. He’d picked them out of the seed catalog based on claims of huge size and juicy red flesh. He took personal pride in the resulting vines stretching vigorously across the garden. Yet the flowers never fruited. Instead they turned brown and curled up.

This winter, before we’ve even ordered our spring seeds, Kirby’s second-grade class begins a unit on botany. He comes home and tells us that everyone got to write his or her name on a Styrofoam cup. Then they filled the cups with potting soil and each planted one white bean. Although he’s seen this miracle happen over and over at home he’s excited about the project at school. Daily he supplies progress reports while unloading his book bag containing carefully drawn worksheets with terms like root, stem, leaves, pistol, and stamen.

For nearly a week the cups show only dirt. Then one day Kirby eagerly hurries from the bus with wonderful news. A bean has sprouted! Emily’s cup is the first to show life. “It’s like a little bent green rubber band,” he exclaims.

Every day he reports whose cups are bursting with growth. It has become a competition. Emily’s plant, at first the class wonder, is now no longer the tallest. For a few days Jason’s plant is the tallest, then Kerri’s, then Christoper’s plant takes the lead. Only a few cups show no visible progress. Kirby’s cup is one of those. His enthusiasm is not diminished. He’s seen what happens when a seed awakens, splits its shell, pushes through the dirt, and stands upright. He trusts in the life force of each seed.

That Friday there’s a teacher study day. A three-day weekend with no one at school to water those little cups. I find myself wondering about the tender green beans lined up in the cold window, dry and struggling to live. I’m almost afraid to send my trusting son off to school on Monday.

But Kirby returns home with a shy grin, as if he can hardly believe a long-awaited hope has come true. “It’s this big!” he says, stretching his thumb and forefinger apart. Apparently his little plant mustered up some courage during the long weekend alone. Not only has it burst through the soil, it’s already competing with older seedlings in height.

A few days later I volunteer in the classroom and notice the progress of the seedlings. Standing up from cups – children’s names scrawled proudly across the front – they appear to have identities of their own. But they’re getting gangly, leaning on the window or neighboring plants. They need to be put into bigger pots or, if only they’d been planted at the right time, into a garden. It seems an ill-timed project.

The next day, coming in from errands, I’m disconcerted by a terse phone message from Kirby’s teacher. Something about non-compliance. The teacher wants me to call back to help her determine an appropriate punishment. I can’t imagine what might have gone wrong. I start to call her back, but then I hear the school bus rounding the corner. I’ll wait to hear what Kirby has to say first.

There’s a look children get that’s hard to describe. They appear so full they may burst, but they don’t know if they can let out what has them so overwhelmed. The adult world has them confounded. That’s the look Kirby wears. Misery, anger, guilt, petulance, and defiance as well.  There’s so much emotion on his face that I can only give him a big hug and ask him to tell me.

He can’t sit. He paces as he starts to explain. Today in class his teacher had each pupil take his or her plant, sit at their desks and…. for a minute he can’t go on. He tries again. Finally I understand. The ultimate purpose of the seedling is to serve as an example of plant anatomy. “She wanted me to kill it Mom!” he said, wide-eyed at the injustice of it.

It seems Kirby took the plastic knife he was given but just sat there. He wouldn’t take his plant out of the dirt, he wouldn’t cut it apart. While the other children followed instructions on their worksheets the teacher scolded Kirby.  Then took his plant and put it back on the windowsill where it sat alone, nearly tipping over without other seedlings to lean on. My son waited, knowing he’d done something wrong.

It’s too soon to plant the bean plant in the garden. Repotting might not give it a strong chance either. I have to tell him the truth about his plant’s chances. But I explain that I’m proud of him for doing what he thought was right. The world needs more people who listen to their hearts.

I call his teacher. I try to explain that my kindhearted son felt he was sticking up for a friend of his, that sometimes following the rules doesn’t always serve the higher good. The teacher doesn’t agree. The next day Kirby is punished. He is learning that rules, even the ones we feel are wrong, bear consequences.

Although his bright green plant isn’t likely to survive, I suspect that, this year, Kirby will decide to plant green beans in our garden. He’ll grow them in memory of his friend and of the fallen green comrades who gave their lives for second-grade science.

First published in Green Prints, a loooong time ago!

We Have Room

 

refugee children, host border children, welcome the stranger, angels unaware,

All images thanks to wikimedia commons.

There may be no more powerful image in art, no more important message in scripture, than open arms. Welcoming the stranger is a basis of civilization, especially if that stranger is a refugee and always if that stranger is a child.

“You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Christianity, Deuteronomy 10: 19

“Charity—to be moved at the sight of the thirsty, the hungry, and the miserable and to offer relief to them out of pity—is the spring of virtue.” Jainsim/Kundakunda, Pancastikaya 137

“When the Holy One loves a man, He sends him a present in the shape of a poor man, so that he should perform some good deed to him, through the merit of which he may draw a cord of grace.” Judaism. Zohar, Genesis 104a

“One should give even from a scanty store to him who asks.” Buddhism. Dhammapada 224

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Christianity. Hebrews 13.1

“Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (ye meet) and what your right hands possess: For Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious.”  Islam. Quran 4:36

“A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu.” Nelson Mandela, discussing the southern Africa tradition of Ubuntu

“See to it that whoever enters your house obtains something to eat, however little you may have. Such food will be a source of death to you if you withhold it.” Native American religions. A Winnebago Father’s Precepts

“`0 Ke aloha Ke Kuleana o kahi malihini. Love is the host in strange lands.”  Hawaiian saying

Relieve people in distress as speedily as you must release a fish from a dry rill [lest he die]. Deliver people from danger as quickly as you must free a sparrow from a tight noose. Be compassionate to orphans and relieve widows. Respect the old and help the poor. Taoism. Tract of the Quiet Way

 

child 2

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Whether scripture or statue inscription, we all know it’s easier to state our principles than adhere to them. I’m as weak as the next person in actually living up to what I believe.

I’ve vowed to keep politics out of this site, so I won’t be talking about lies fostered by divisive media or shockingly cruel attitudes toward refugees of any age. I’ll only say that it takes an extraordinary act of love to scrape together the coyote fees to send one’s child away in hopes of a safe haven. It takes inestimable courage for that child to walk through deserts, ride the tops of trains, and face down thieves along the way in hopes of real freedom.

My husband and I did some soul-searching. We talked to our kids. And we decided we cannot stand by while refugee children turn themselves in at the border only to be treated like criminals. We have room to host refugee children.

We applied to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. We were told placements might be for a few months or they might be permanent. So we re-imagined our lives. Now that our kids are college students and young adults we thought we were done raising children, but we can go back to homemade popsicles and toys on the floor and books read aloud. We have our own problems with unemployment and a not-remotely-profitable small farm, but what we have can always stretch. There’s a place in our home and our hearts.

That doesn’t mean we have a greeting card view of this. These children will be traumatized, experience culture shock, and face learning a new language. We’ll have plenty of adapting to do as well.

Lately before falling asleep, I look ahead to rows of family pictures stretching into the future. Those pictures seem to hold two dark-haired faces newly dear to me, and eventually, more of their relatives joining them and becoming part of our extended family, on for generations, with babies in arms growing to stand tall, my husband and me fading into old age and beyond. It’s a good vision.

Right now it looks like that vision won’t come true. I just got an email from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It said, in part, 

After exploring the nationwide LIRS foster care program network, I am sorry to share with you that LIRS does not have a foster care program in the geographic area that you are located. If at a future time an opportunity arises, we will reach out to you at that time.

I wrote back, asking if there was some way I could help set up a program in our area. Apparently the only option is applying for a grant through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, which I admit is probably past me. So now I’m applying to other agencies.

I only mention our quest in hopes that someone out there may qualify even if we don’t. Here are resources to investigate.

Office of Refugee Resettlement

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Bethany Refugee Care

Texas Interfaith Center
refugees, host border children,

 

Angry Stranger’s Gift

angry stranger, gift of impatience, tolerance, soul moment,

Years ago I waited in a convenience store line in complete desperation. I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter and needed pads. The customer ahead of me was working her way into a snit because the store was out of an item she wanted. She refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her (and failing). She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothes and fussily styled hair, but what really defined her was the kind of self-absorption that turns a minor inconvenience into a personal offense. She demanded someone check the back room where she was sure the product languished due to employee laziness. She demanded to see the manager, who wasn’t there. She. Wouldn’t. Leave.

I was so exhausted that I simply wanted to curl up on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed for more than a few minutes. My newborn suffered from a serious malady that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. She was increasingly losing weight and vigor. All the while I missed my three-year-old fiercely. I hadn’t seen him for days aside from brief hugs in the parking lot. I spent all my time by my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Sleep deprived and terrified for my baby girl, I clung onto hope like a parasite.

The customer ahead of me was now yelling. I assumed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but she had less maturity than my firstborn who knew enough to respect other people and more importantly, to care about them.

I’d been in the hospital environment for so many days that simply driving to the store was a sensory overload. Bright sunlight, traffic, people engaged in daily activities were all so overwhelming that I felt like a tourist visiting for the first time. Maybe that’s why I felt a sudden tenderness for the customer ahead of me. It was as if some surface reality melted away to expose this woman’s beautiful soul. I didn’t know if she was going through a difficulty that left her frantic to have her needs, any needs, recognized. Or if she had experienced so few difficulties that she hadn’t developed any tolerance for disappointment. It didn’t matter. I saw her as utterly perfect. In that moment I felt nothing less than love.

Just then she whirled around and left. I exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, made my purchase, and drove back to the hospital. That encounter not only gave me a powerful surge of energy, it also boosted my spirits in a way I can’t explain. It was a boost that lasted. All these years later I remain grateful.

Witty Bitching

witty bitching, creative complaining, complaint choirs,

Image: tarelkin

I write a lot about mindfulness and gratitude. These are survival skill for many of us. I’m all about being positive, but I like to kvetch as much as the next person. It’s cathartic, necessary, and downright fun as long as it’s done with good humor.

Witty bitching, expressed with some measure of sensitivity, is actually one of the many ways nonviolence works. It’s a creative way to ease tension. More importantly, it humanizes us to whoever is annoying us while not denigrating the annoying person.

Let’s start with the easiest method—swearing. Apparently swearing is a good idea. Studies show that it can help relieve pain, but only for those of us who don’t swear often. It can also reduce stress, elevate endorphins, even promote group solidarity

I don’t swear often. I lean more toward creative cursing, you know, when you string together words that don’t usually go together for a specific-to-the-situation denunciation. Better yet are those phrases unique to your friends and family, memes within boundaries of shared experience, that are not only inside jokes but useful forms of communication. We have dozens of them. “You no see big thing like train?” is one. I’ll explain.

A friend drove a truck for a business started by an immigrant whose English wasn’t easy to understand. The business made money mostly because of the owner’s extreme frugality — he barely even maintained the truck. One day the friend was making a delivery when the truck’s brakes failed. Unfortunately they failed as he was approaching railroad tracks where a train was stopped. It was a heavily loaded truck and much as he tried he only managed to slow down. He crashed into the train. He was fine, the truck was not. He called his boss to explain. The boss yelled, “What, you no see big thing like train?” This line has proven itself handy in many circumstances, thankfully none involving real trains or failed brakes.

benefits of swearing, why swear,

Then there are written forms of bitching. I indulge in it regularly. For example, a few years ago a publication that had asked me to submit an article didn’t respond. It’s hard to remonstrate the very people who are supposed to pay you. So this is what I emailed.

Dear ___,

I can take rejection, really. But it’s nice to finally get rejected. I sent as requested  _________ on ________. I know, I know, I should have given up by now but hope is a feisty creature, not easily strangled by silence.

In case the clarity and understated wit of my piece knocked an editor to the floor, unintentionally hurtling my submission under a desk, it is attached again for your perusal.  Less dusty this way.

ever optimistically, Laura Weldon

They sent a very charming response that didn’t end up quite as I hoped. Turns out they were going out of business. (Story of what I call my writing career…)

Kvetch notes can be used to great effect on a neighbor’s door, the office coffeepot, and elsewhere.

kvetch, funny complaint, witty bitching,

Then there’s singing. In my family we tend to burst into spontaneous songs with made-up-in-the-moment lyrics. A mini opera about dog poo on the floor, a whining country-ish ditty when someone uses up the milk, a warbling ode to overflowing laundry baskets. Even Mozart wrote satirical tunes, including “Leck Mich Im Arsh” which, if you can’t tell, translates to something like “Lick my ass.”

The pinnacle of witty bitching? Complaint Choirs. The concept was dreamed up by Finnish artists Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen and Tellervo Kalleinen. Now people all over the world are putting their daily grievances to music. Their collaborative performances aren’t just hilarious, they build a sense of community. 

It’s all too easy to get mired in life’s minor irritations. A little witty bitching helps us move through them. That’s a survival skill too.

Hijab Games & Pink Shirt Days

bystander effect, stand up for others, hijab soccer, pink shirt day, anti-bullying,

“Whenever one person stands up and says, “Wait a minute, this is wrong,” it helps other people do the same.”  Gloria Steinem

A high school soccer referee barred Samah Aidah from her March 12th game because she wore a hijab, even though the association that governs soccer internationally had already lifted rules preventing players from wearing head covers.

Samah’s teammates responded. At their next game, every single girl wore a hijab in playful solidarity with her.

bystander effect,

Samah Aidah and her teammates smiling together at Overland High School in Denver, Colorado
(aquila-style.com)

These girls took action rather than letting oppression go without comment. Whether they knew it or not, they followed a basic principle of nonviolence— that problems are most easily reversed at the early stages. If ignored, issues can become progressively more difficult to stop as they spiral to ever more intense levels. That’s the case whether we’re talking about so-called non-physical forms of violence such as humiliation, harassment, and prejudice. It’s also the case with physical forms of violence, from domestic abuse to war.

When people don’t intervene, assuming others will step in, they become bystanders who “permit” violence to happen. Studies show if an emergency unfolds before a group of people they’re less likely to take action, basing their decisions on the behavior of those around them. This is called “diffusion of responsibility.” If that same emergency presents itself in front of one person, that person is more likely to take action. We’ve all heard of these situations precisely because they’re so heinous.

Social scientists who study intervention in violent situations know that when others object or actively get involved their efforts tend to slow or stop the violence. Dr. Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule, reports in The Roots of Evil that genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Nazis in Germany started with prejudicial statement and small acts of repression. Oppressors test the response, only escalating to greater atrocities once they determine that bystanders will allow to them continue. It requires the willingness of uninvolved people to step in, advocating for the victim or victims, in order to halt the escalation of violence and to uphold the common good. Such actions empower the victim and reduce the power of the aggressor.

We tend to believe that we’ll have the moral courage to speak up and help when someone is suffering. But when something happens we usually have only an instant to respond, either we listen to our doubts and turn away or step outside our comfort zone to intervene. What makes it more likely that we will help?

1. A sense of commonality with people who are unlike us is important, letting us see beyond “us versus them” and prompting us to act with empathy.

2. Past experience reacting positively in a crisis leads people to do so in the future. In that case, the girls wearing the hijab to support their teammate not only made the current situation better but also primed themselves to act compassionately next time it’s necessary.

3. People who feel freer to defy the norms and who are able to think for themselves are more likely to help. Pluralistic ignorance (going along with the crowd) dampens a person’s compassionate response.

That’s why learning about nonviolence is so important, because it gives us a background on which to base our actions.  For examples of individual bystanders who stepped up to make a difference, check out the heartening real-life examples in this piece:

How To Get Involved When It’s None of Your Business

And let’s enjoy another example of young people choosing to go beyond being bystanders.

A few years ago a new freshman arrived at a Nova Scotia high school on the first day back to class. He was wearing a pink shirt. Several students mocked him and threatened to beat him up.  No one intervened. But two senior boys heard about it and decided to respond. They bought dozens of pink shirts at a discount store, emailing their friends to let them know they’d be handing them out the next day. The news spread and hundreds of students showed up the next morning already wearing pink shirts.  The bullying stopped and now Pink Shirt Days are held yearly in many schools to spread awareness about bullying.

 

Resources

books

Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times by Zoe Weil

Keeping the Peace: Practicing Cooperation and Conflict Resolution with Preschoolers by Susanne Wichert 

The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to HighSchool–How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle by Barbara Coloroso

Why Good Kids Act Cruel: The Hidden Truth about the Pre-Teen Years by Carl Pickhardt

Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner

Calm and Compassionate Children: A Handbook by Susan Dermond

books for kids

Bystander Power: Now with Anti-Bullying Action  by Phyllis Kaufman Goodstein

Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig

My Secret Bully by Trudy Ludwig

Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy by Bob Sornson

Speak Up and Get Along!: Learn the Mighty Might, Thought Chop, and More Tools to Make Friends, Stop Teasing, and Feel Good About Yourself by Scott Cooper

other resources

Erase Bullying videos

Stop Bullying site

 

 

Lale Labuko: Cultural Superhero

Omo children, Lale Labuko, infanticide,

Images: omochild.org

An ancient tribal practice has killed tens of thousands of children over the centuries. I’m working to make sure my generation brings an end to it forever. —Lale Labuko

Lale Labuko was the first person from the Omo Valley to attend school. Each time he left his village for boarding school he walked 65 miles through desert wilderness, leaving a culture without written language in order to fulfill his father’s wish that he learn to read and write.

When Labuko was 15 years old, on a visit home, he witnessed an elder grab a two-year-old girl from her weeping mother’s arms. The elder hurried away toward the river and returned alone. Labuko asked his mother to explain. It was the first time he heard the word mingi. It was also the first time he learned that he had two sisters, both deemed mingi, who were killed before he was born.

Mingi is a term used by many tribes of the Omo River Valley in southwestern Ethiopia. It labels certain young children carriers of a curse. Babies can be deemed mingi for one of several reasons: they’re born out of wedlock, their married parents have not received the necessary three blessings by elders, or their top teeth come in before their bottom teeth.

Ancient traditions dictate that grievous harm will come to the village unless the mingi dies.

Labuko pledged to end this tradition. He’s doing so with respect for tribal culture while also changing ingrained fears. Several years ago he convinced elders to “Let me be the bush” as an alternative to leaving little ones in the bush, where they die of starvation and exposure.

Although a number of tribes continue to carry out the practice, Labuko’s tribe, the Kara, officially banned mingi in a 2012 ceremony. It’s said that if rains fall after any ceremony, the gods have bestowed their blessings. After this ceremony the rains were bountiful. And when the sun came out a rainbow appeared over the Kara village.

Labuko is now co-founder of Omo Child which works to end the horrific practice of mingi. His organization also rescues and cares for mingi children. So far they have saved 37 babies from death.  These children are being raised in a safe home and receiving an education.

National Geographic bio of Lale Labuko

Images of Omo children by photographer Steve McCurry

Get involved in the work of Omo Child

School Violence Led Us To Homeschooling

bullying leads to homeschooling, school violence, guns in school,

(Image: distorted-colours.deviantart.com)

We became homeschoolers suddenly. One morning my oldest son, a freshman in an award-winning suburban high school, called home right before the first class of the day. The teen who’d been harassing him had just showed him a gun, saying it would be his last day to live.

“Get out now,” I said. “Run home.”

I phoned the principal to tell him about the gun. I insisted that he not call the teen to the office on the intercom but remove him directly from his classroom. “Please,” I begged. “I’m worried about every other child still in the building.”

Throughout the school year my son told us what he heard about this youth and a few other kids. They’d sexually assaulted a girl in the school bathroom, broken the arm of a student’s father when he tried to reason with them, fought a gang-style skirmish near the football field with the assistance of older relatives. When I asked school officials about these allegations they scoffed. I assumed they were baseless.

My son’s situation was pretty standard. Honors student versus tough kid. My son used sarcasm as his defensive weapon. A few days earlier he’d retorted back to the taunting with, “Bad mood? Drug dealer not giving you credit?”

That morning the principal seemed only mildly perturbed by my frantic call. I insisted my son told me these kids stashed weapons in their cars. He seemed more interested in containing what he called a “rumor.” When the principal didn’t get back to me, my husband and I called the police. Detectives sat at our table and confirmed every story. The girl assaulted, the father’s arm broken, the gang fight. In fact area businesses had been warned to notify police immediately if groups of teens assembled, in case another gang fight was brewing. Parents were not informed.

I’d assumed that police had been called to the school after my report of a student with a gun. They weren’t. Instead, the student in question was summoned to the office on the intercom. Other students said he went outside to the trunk of his car before heading to the office.

I met with the superintendent the next day. In my work life I taught non-violence to community groups, including school systems. I told him I’d teach this program free of charge to staff and students in our district. The superintendent turned me down, admitting that it might be safer if we homeschooled. My son never returned to school.

I’d always been committed to the idea of public schools. I believed it was not only right but necessary to work within systems to improve them. Plus, I had plenty of misconceptions about homeschooling. Yet I realized that school had never really “worked” for my kids. Our four-year-old already knew how to read but had to practice sight words in pre-school anyway. Our sweet but inattentive second-grader was deemed a good candidate for Ritalin by his teacher. Our fifth-grader could do college level work, but due to cuts in the gifted program had to follow grade level curriculum along with the rest of her class. And our freshman detested the rote tasks that filled his days and the hours of homework each night.

Overnight, I faced homeschooling kids who were eager to learn on their own terms. I learned right along with them. I learned how profoundly they are motivated by their own interests, and how those interests translate into advanced comprehension across a range of subjects. I learned how they sought out challenges and insisted on meaningful involvement. I saw what they gained from daily activities at home and how easily they could learn directly from people of all ages right in our community.

The ADD symptoms my third child exhibited at school were no longer present once we began homeschooling. The hurry-up days that roped my kids in from morning bus to evening homework were gratefully left behind. Instead we read books for hours, indulged in long-term science projects, went on adventures with friends, found role models in all sorts of fields, and let real learning unfold. The crisis that hurled my children out of school created a way of being far richer life than any of us could have imagined.

suddenly homeschooling, school versus homeschool, school violence,

(Image: artamusica.deviantart.com)

This piece originally appeared on Wired.

Politeness Recovery In Progress

 

politeness recovery, good girl syndrome, kind versus nice,

deskridge.deviantart.com

Politeness is the dodo bird of our times. No one is quite sure what killed off civility but it’s obvious that two-year-olds aren’t growing out of tantrums or a sense of entitlement. Instead they just get bigger, becoming toddler adults. They drive like idiots, foster workplace stress, simultaneously overindulge and ignore their own kids, feed on the negative energy of angry pundits, and blame everyone else for their own problems. They need to learn a little empathy, or at least the rudiments of feigned empathy we call politeness.

But some of us are way on the other side of the spectrum. We’re so empathetic that we tremble with concern for the feelings of other people. And animals. And plants. (I even tremble with empathy for spiders.) It wouldn’t occur to us to put ourselves first or to act rudely (although I can be really annoying despite my best intentions ).

Some may have been born this way. The rest of us were raised to be too polite for our own good. Right around the time we started crawling we were taught to be respectful and considerate at all times. No exceptions. If asked how we are, we learned the answer should always be affirmative followed by a kindly inquiry about the other person. Never mention any peril you may be in, the object is to focus on others. This means if you’re bleeding, you deny there’s any real problem (oh it’s nothing), don’t bleed conspicuously, and God forbid, don’t complain about whatever caused you to bleed. If you are offered a favor, graciously decline. Even if it’s chocolate. If someone is actively causing you difficulty, either put up with it without complaint or extricate yourself in a way that doesn’t embarrass the other person.

Maintaining this level of politeness rarely leads to an authentically lived life. It’s more like an affliction. We do our best to avoid winning games, getting the best grades, pushing ahead at work, sticking up for ourselves, saying what we mean unless it’s “nice.”  Being too polite actually put me in dangerous situations more than once. Nice at all costs has got to go. Kind, yes. Honest, yes. Nice, not always.

Politeness recovery is a slow process and often difficult. It’s complicated because I’m naturally opinionated, sardonic, and forthright. And sometimes silly. Suppressing that side of myself has never been easy. But I’m not giving up my polite side by any means. Politeness is essential if we’re to live together in any kind of harmony. I’ve found genuine politeness has a surprising way of bringing out the best in other people. It presumes they are basically good (a core principle of non-violence) and many times, that’s all that required. (Now, if only that principle were applied on talk radio and in snarky web threads.)

More importantly, I want to be authentic. Treating people with respect and understanding simply feels right. It comes from true compassion, far richer than any thin soup of poor self-worth. The generosity and love of kindness stimulates more of the same.

I aim to give up only the parts of my Good Girl upbringing that hold me back from my eventual goal of becoming a rowdy old lady. My politeness recovery is still ongoing but my friends are amazing role models. They’re well ahead, evolving before my eyes. Some days I’m swimming in the muck, other days I join them on land. I’m often awkward, occasionally splattering mud as I go, but I’m a creature in progress trying to be polite as well as real, empathetic as well as centered, serious but silly too. Like a dodo bird who hasn’t given up on her wings.

 

Who We Are In A Crisis

how people act in disaster, survivor, true survivor behavior,

Versions of Survivor are watched all over the world. Forty-five countries have pitted contestants against the odds and shows are still filmed in Denmark, Croatia, Italy, Norway, Serbia, France, India, Israel, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the U.S. These series drop people in inhospitable places with minimal resources and ask them to cope successfully with unexpected challenges. It’s called “reality” television, although people in the real world face harder challenges every day.

Survivor shows have to be carefully structured with authoritarian rules and imposed competition. Otherwise contestants might resort to a very natural state. Not Lord of the Flies levels of cruelty and exclusion. No, something far worse for ratings. Cooperation.

In our non-reality TV lives we don’t live as separate entities battling for limited resources like wanna-be stars on an island bristling with cameras. We humans are wired to live in interdependent networks of people based on mutual support and compassion. Ninety-nine percent of humanity’s time on earth took place while we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, a time when we did not make war against each other. Anthropologists tell us that our species never would have survived without structuring our lives around sharing food and resources. This responsive caring is basic to who we are.

But somehow, after years of schooling where collaboration is redefined as cheating and recreation where play is turned into supervised competition, we adopt the idea that people are essentially selfish. Popular culture feeds this concept by elevating what’s superficial and materialistic, the better to shape us into perpetual consumers. Worse, we seem to think that selfishness can easily erupt into brutally dangerous behavior when disaster strikes. According to a remarkable book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, the opposite is true.

Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after these horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary. People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the most horrific misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. As Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

Disaster is often compounded by those who believe that human nature is selfish and cruel. In many cases this is the drumbeat sounded by the media and acted on by authorities. An analysis of disasters shows that official efforts to deal with disaster tend to focus on this aspect, suppressing the efforts of ordinary people to help one another while increasing militaristic control. This deprives people of helping one another and compounds the crisis.

Solnit says that the enlivening purpose that truly comes to the fore as a result of disasters tells us something about ourselves. “Each of us enlarges the world by idealistic passion and engagement. Meaning must be sought out; it is not built into most people’s lives. The tasks that arise in disaster often restore this meaning.”

No one wants their blessedly ordinary lives wiped away by something unimaginably horrible. But it’s good to know, as Solnit says, who we are in a crisis gives us a “glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”

who we are in a crisis, humanity at its best in crisis,

This article first published in Wired

Natural Antidote To Bullying

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Children are drawn to challenge themselves. They need to take risks of all kinds—physical, social, emotional, intellectual—in order to grow into mature self-reliance.

Where do such challenges most naturally occur? Outdoors. As detailed in Last Child in the Woods, when children spend time in natural areas their play is more creative and they self-manage risk more appropriately. They’re more likely to incorporate each other’s ideas into expressive make-believe scenarios using their dynamic surroundings—tall grasses become a savannah, tree roots become elf houses, boulders become a fort. Their games are more likely to incorporate peers of differing ages and abilities. Regular outdoor experiences not only boost emotional health, memory, and problem solving, they also help children learn how to get along with each other in ever-changing circumstances. Free outdoor play with others, especially when it’s not hampered by adult interference, teaches kids to interact with others while also maintaining self-control. Otherwise, no one wants to play with them. It’s the best sort of learning because it’s fun. Sounds like the perfect way to raise bully-proof kids doesn’t it?

But the opportunity for free play and risk is funneled into very narrow options for today’s children. They are shuttled from one adult-run activity to another. Time between these obligations is often spent indoors. And children’s outdoor play is restricted by excessive rules designed to keep them safe from dangers out of proportion to any real safety issue.

So kids don’t get natural challenges like climbing trees, exploring fields, building forts. They are deprived of the rich lessons of cooperation and self-control found in free play. And they don’t develop biophilia, that essential sense of connection with nature. Then we expect them to get along and recognize real risk. Any wonder that bullying is a growing problem?

Here are examples of playground designs that, in institutions like schools and daycare programs, foster free play using natural materials. Sensory play, places for solitude, and opportunities for physical risk are built in and, no surprise, children get along better.

It’s a step in the right direction. A few steps farther and we’ll let kids back in nature herself, playing in woods and fields and beaches. Too bad all the money thrown at anti-bullying programs aren’t used to fling open the doors to the natural world. “Go out and play,” may very well be the best anti-bullying advice yet.