The Great Turning

I’m thrilled to offer a guest post by Ellen Rowland. This essay is adapted from her recently published book, Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Living and Learning. 

I sat at the small table by the kitchen window this morning thinking about hope. The news was bad. Again. Acres of majestic trees destroyed by fire, hurricane devastation, floods and loss, missiles and political misfires. So many people in need of each other, divided by both real and imagined borders. Yet in that quiet moment as my children still slept, I felt a strong pull to lean into the beauty around me, the calm, to focus on the small acts of kindness that don’t always get talked about and believe in their power. Did I have a right to be hopeful when the world was so clearly hurting?

If you’re deep ecologist Joanna Macy, and others like her, the answer is yes. Not only do you have a right to be optimistic, but an obligation to unearth that hope, spread it around like topsoil, and help something infinitesimal or resplendent grow. I stumbled upon an article recently by Macy about the book, Stories of the Great Turning, which helped validate my stubborn penchant for hope. It celebrates the ever-growing movement of individual action through a collection of stories about grassroots activism taking place around the world.

A few days later, my family and I watched the French documentary Demain (available with English subtitles as Tomorrow) by Cyril Dion and actress Mélanie Laurent. It takes us all over the world to introduce us to people who are finding creative solutions to the world’s problems and putting them into action on an individual and community level. The film shows us the positive global strides that are being made in the areas of agriculture, energy, economy, democracy, and education. The examples convey the idea that, while we cannot deny the global problems we’re facing, we can choose to focus on the change that is already in motion.

These aren’t merely messages of hope. Neither are they a call to action. Both Stories of the Great Turning and Demain are telling us something we deeply suspect but desperately need to know — that all over the world, in hidden corners and small enclaves, people from all walks of life are already creating lasting positive change.

Because these thinkers and doers of seemingly small acts are not celebrities, politicians, or industry giants; we may not hear about them in the mainstream media. In fact the gentle propagation of these tales usually gets done the old-fashioned way — by word of mouth, or as my daughter says, “on the wings of dragonflies” — which is testament itself to what Macy calls the “remarkable expansion of allegiance beyond personal or group advantage.”

In other words, we lead, or participate, or engage, or invent, or inspire without caring if we ever get recognition or reward. We do it because we feel in our very souls that it’s the right thing to do. Even if our efforts ultimately fail, the lesson lies in the attempt.

Joanna Macy writes in her introduction,

“This wider sense of identity is a moral capacity more often associated with heroes and saints; but it now manifests everywhere on a practical and workaday plane. From children restoring streams for salmon spawning, to inner-city neighbors planting community gardens, from forest defenders perched high in trees marked for illegal logging, to countless climate actions to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, an undreamt-of wave of human endeavor is under way . . . (The Great Turning’s) three main dimensions include actions to slow down the destruction wrought by our political economy and its wars against humanity and Nature; new structures and ways of doing things, from holding land to growing food to generating energy; and a shift in consciousness to new ways of knowing, a new paradigm of our relation to each other and to the sacred living body of Earth.”

All this just makes me want to run outside and whoot with joy! But for most of us it’s hard to dig our teeth into the potential collective outcome of all these scattered individual efforts. Especially when we are bombarded on a daily basis with mindless listicles on one hand and horrific world news on the other. At any moment the global bubble of doom and fear might pop right over our heads. Can we really make a difference?

Well, yes, especially when “we” becomes “WE,” which happens quite naturally when individuals come together to provide support, collaborate, share resources, and work as a unit while maintaining individuality.

The paradigm of positive change taking place isn’t just about the environment. It’s about accepting the notion that in anything in life that’s worthwhile, there exists polarity. It’s about accepting and embracing each other’s differences. It’s about mutual respect and compassion. It’s about taking risks and daring to think differently. And it’s about learning differently. I can’t help making this leap because it’s really only a small stepping stone from one to the other. How can we distinguish between the consciousness we hope to awaken on behalf of a suffering planet and the world we want to open up for our children? They are the same.

Which is why those of us who foster interest-led learning, who have lived through learning and learned through living, need to keep sharing our individual and collective tales as part of this Great Turning. And we don’t need to shout. As it is, many of these stories naturally intertwine children’s exploration with a love and respect for Nature. They demonstrate the innate consciousness that children have toward creatures and the compassion they hold for others. Many homeschooling families are already living with “our sacred living body of Earth” in mind through lifestyle choices. Sharing these tales is not about bashing the institution of school or judging parents and children who choose to attend, and it’s not about imposing or insisting on change.

If I understand it correctly, this movement, which Macy calls “the essential adventure of our time,” is about individuals inspiring change through positive action and example. And sharing our stories of gratitude and hope. The shift may come about slowly. But it’s coming. I can hear the wings beating.

 

Ellen Rowland Ellen Rowland is the author of Everything I Thought I Knew, a collection of essays about living, learning, and parenting outside the status quo.

Her writing has appeared in Life Learning Magazine, The Homeschooler Post, Otherways Magazine, The Washington Post online, More Magazine, and Natural Life Magazine.

After spending 15 years in New York City, where she built a career in art and design and met her French-born husband, she and her family moved to Senegal, West Africa when her children were three and four years old. They built an earth house, lived off-the-grid, grew their own vegetables, and began the journey of learning through living. She and her family currently reside on a small island in Greece where they plan to restore a goat barn and call it home.

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14 Ways to Give Kids the Confidence They Need to Shape the Future

Raising confident kids who will shape the future.

As each generation does, our children will grow up to shape the world. They need plenty of creativity and enthusiasm for the task ahead. Nurturing them in loving relationships with plenty of freedom to play is wonderful preparation. Here are some other positive ways to foster their confidence as they grow.

1. Encourage make-believe worlds. Give kids plenty of unscheduled time where they’re free to daydream and play. Sometimes their make-believe is constructed of nothing you can see, sometimes with blocks or dress-up clothes, sometimes it’s under a blanket thrown over a table. Make-believe builds a connection from the world that is to the world that can be.

2. Tell family stories. Share funny, silly, and hopeful stories of long-gone relatives. Tell stories of your childhood and young adult years, especially the mistakes and hard lessons kids can identify with. Tell them about their own earliest days including what they were like as babies and toddlers. Kids who  know such stories develop a strong sense of belonging, which researchers call best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

3. Read stories. Through fiction, children imagine themselves living the lives of characters and begin to grasp what it’s like in different places and different circumstances.  This practice of recognizing other worldviews helps to develop tolerance and empathy.

4. Point out what people are doing every day to bring about a brighter future, both in good times and times of great difficulty. Note your own positive choices — perhaps contacting your legislators, planting a garden, walking instead of driving. When a sudden crisis arises in your area, a house fire or flood, point out how quickly people work together to care for one another. We humans tend to show the best of ourselves in the worst of times.

5. Let current events become a regular topic. Just as you’d bring up any other subject that interests you, talk about topical issues in front of your kids. This is easy to do informally while driving or sitting around the dinner table. In addition to being more aware of issues, studies show that kids develop better reasoning skills when they grow up in families where social and political issues are common topics.

6. Welcome young people’s opinions without overemphasizing your point of view. Dissent equips kids to think for themselves. As they get older, help them see that using facts and approaching discussions logically can help convince others. (Here are some logic resources.)

7. Hang a laminated world map on the wall. Notice where news happens, where friends travel, where their favorite movies and music comes from. Mark places you’d like to go. Whiteboard markers wipe off this surface, so it’s easy to write directly on oceans and continents. (This is also a subversive way to advance geographical knowledge.)

8. Embrace kids’ interests and let them see you pursue your own. Many of us are raising young people whose passions aren’t remotely similar to our own, yet these very passions help advance the possibilities we bring to the future.

9. Get kids to predict the future. This not only provides insight into their hopes and fears, it’s a way of talking about the kind of future they want to live in and what steps can be taken to make it happen.

10. Stay tuned to what’s positive. Avoid a heavy media diet of news or crime shows. Even as little as a few hours a day can result in drastically increased cynicism, fear, and lack of trust in others — what’s been called mean world syndrome

11. Bring quality media into your kids’ lives with magazines such as MuseSkipping StonesOdyssey, New Moon Girls, and Kazoo. Get updates from KarmaTube and Good News Network. Talk about what kids have seen or heard that makes them feel optimistic. For age-appropriate news sources try Scholastic NewsDoGo News, and the similarly named GoGo NewsKid’s Post (offered by The Washington Post), National Geographic KidsNews-o-Matic, and Time for Kids. Teens are likely to enjoy the news-based wit of The Daily Show  and Last Week Tonight.

12. Think globally. Notice where toys, clothing and other household purchases come from, perhaps locating the place of origin on a map. Focus your attention on a specific area in the world that interests you, paying attention to the news, weather, and celebrations taking place there. If at all possible, host an international visitor.

13. Travel and immerse yourselves in local communities as much as possible. Get off the main roads, eat where the locals eat, walk or bike as much as possible. Skip hotels, instead staying in homes through Airbnb, Home Exchange,  or other such programs. According to The New Global Student by Maya Frost, travel provides extraordinary benefits, especially as preteens and teens are forming their identity and sense of agency in the world.

14. Volunteer. This  is a pivotal way to shows kids we can make a better world, right now, directly in our own communities. There are all sorts of ways kids can volunteer, from toddlers to teens.

How do you help kids become world builders?

 

Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning.

House Undivided

political opposites get along

This isn’t an accurate representation of the house I’m describing! CC by 2.0, photo by Michal Osmenda

When I drive into town, I go past a house that never fails to interest me. The house itself is entirely ordinary. I’ve never met the inhabitants. What’s fascinating is the dichotomy on display out front.

Take the driveway. Most evenings a pickup truck with mud streaks from off-roading is neatly parked next to a fuel-efficient hybrid.

Or take the landscaping. For over a decade and a half, the garden bed under the front window has sported a perennial planting — two equally large logos for rival teams Ohio State Buckeyes and University of Michigan Wolverines. This is a brave statement here in Ohio.

But the lawn is my favorite. Each presidential election season a competition is waged right there on the grass. A regular-sized Gore/Lieberman sign appeared close to the street in early autumn of 2000. The next time I drove by, a Bush/Cheney sign was placed directly in front of that sign. As weeks went by the signs were moved like two parrying chess pieces until a much larger Bush/Cheney sign appeared. That was followed by a larger Gore/Lieberman sign. A similar dance of political signs took place for the Kerry vs Bush race, the Obama vs McCain race, and the Obama vs Romney race. (This year, two very small signs….)

The couple in this house surely eat at the same table, sit on the same couch, flush the same toilet, and sleep in the same bed. They’ve managed to live together all these years while holding widely differing opinions. I thought I lived in a household of contradictions but these two are an inspiring example of publicly embracing their differences.

We’re told we live in an ever more divisive country. We tend to choose news sources that amplify our own worldviews. We tend to delete social media friends who don’t share our opinions. We tend to live in areas and move in social circles with people very similar to us. Yet insulating ourselves from those who are different just strengthens the perception that we’re irreconcilably different.

Research shows us that diversity sparks more innovative and energizing approaches to building strong communities and successful businesses.  Diversity can lead to some invigorating soul-searching  and growth on a personal level too. One of the main principles of nonviolence is finding common ground with each other. Across all so-called divides, we truly want the same things. Things like safety, freedom, individual purpose, a sense of belonging, hope for the future, a say in decisions that affect us. We may believe there are different routes to achieve these goals, but the goals are darn similar. That’s common ground.

This house reminds me we can express our differences and still laugh.  We can challenge each other and in doing so, learn from each other. We can get beyond the urge to assert the superiority of our viewpoints by respecting each other, helping each other, and collaborating with each other. This house is who we really are as a nation. May it be so.

“Society evolves not by shouting each other down, but by the unique capacity of unique, individual human beings to comprehend each other.” ~Lewis Thomas

Be Pollyanna

Image by Healzo

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments

when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”  ~Thornton Wilde

 

The word “pollyanna” is defined as:

  1. an excessively or blindly optimistic person
  2. unreasonably or illogically optimistic

but the character by that name, in the 1913 book by Eleanor H. Porter (and in the 1960 movie version), is far wiser than this.

Pollyanna was the daughter of an idealistic missionary who, in his dying days, taught his daughter the “glad game.”  The game is simple. In a situation that seems unpleasant, even dire, find a reason to feel glad. It’s a courageous way to face overwhelming circumstances.

Pollyanna certainly faced tragedies. She lived in poverty with her parents and relied on the mercy of donated goods. When her parents died, Pollyanna was sent to live with her wealthy, disapproving aunt. The aunt decided her niece should reside in the stifling attic rather than be allowed to use any of the comfortable bedrooms that were available. When the girl opened an attic window to find relief from the unrelenting heat she was punished. But Pollyanna shared the glad game with anyone willing to listen. She explained to her aunt’s servant, Nancy, how her father started the game back when she’d hoped to find a doll in the missionary barrel.

“Why, we began it on some crutches that came in a missionary barrel.”

“CRUTCHES!”

“Yes. You see I’d wanted a doll, and father had written them so; but when the barrel came the lady wrote that there hadn’t any dolls come in, but the little crutches had. So she sent ‘em along as they might come in handy for some child, sometime. And that’s when we began it….The game was to just find something about everything to be glad about—no matter what ‘twas,” rejoined Pollyanna, earnestly. “And we began right then—on the crutches.”

“Well, goodness me! I can’t see anythin’ ter be glad about—getting’ a pair of crutches when you wanted a doll!”

Pollyanna clapped her hands.

“There is—there is,” she crowed. “But I couldn’t see it, either, Nancy, at first,” she added, with a quick honesty. “Father had to tell it to me.”

“Well, then suppose YOU tell ME,” almost snapped Nancy.

“Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don’t—NEED—‘EM!” exulted Pollyanna, triumphantly.

According to neuroscience, Pollyanna was on to something.

Being mindful of what we’re grateful for helps us pay closer attention to what’s beautiful and meaningful in our daily lives. There’s peace to be found in ripples of rain on a puddle, a neighbor’s smile, birdsong,  the smell of coffee brewing, a child’s hug.

According to research, the practice of writing a daily gratitude list boosts our sense of well-being and gives us a brighter outlook on life while also increasing our pro-social behaviors. An attitude of gratitude makes for happier kids and more satisfying relationships. Gratitude is correlated with more empathy, greater generosity, and less materialistic attitudes. It also helps us handle stress better, sleep better, reduces inflammation, and benefits our hearts.

The power of gratitude is so vast that it persists over time. One study asked participants to write down three things that went well each day, along with what caused them to go well, for one full week. They were only two percent happier that week, but follow-up tests showed their happiness continued to increase for six months afterwards. Symptoms of depression decreased even more, declining by 28 percent in that week and continuing to improve slightly over the next six months.

Even when going through overwhelming difficulties, being mindful of our blessings can retrain our brains to be more positive. Gratitude causes the brain to produce dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters related to pleasure and balanced mood. Focusing on appreciation tunes our minds to feel appreciative more often. As neuroscientist Alex Korb writes in The Upward Spiral

“It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.”

Unlike Pollyanna, we shouldn’t gloss over or ignore our difficulties. Research shows that consciously recognizing and naming our negative feelings actually lessens their impact on us, reducing our emotional reactivity to worry, fear, and despair. And there’s power in letting others know they’ve had a negative effect on us, even after significant time has passed.

Before things got better for Pollyanna, they got worse. A car accident left her in need of those very crutches and even her glad game didn’t save her from despair. But by then, her kindly ways had earned love from many people and the love they returned made the difference.

This week I am grateful beyond words. My oldest son had emergency brain surgery last week and after five days in ICU his prognosis is excellent. I’m grateful to live in a time and place when saving him is possible; grateful for skilled and caring medical people at Medina Hospital and Fairview Hospital; grateful for so many wonderful people offering their love, prayers, and help. Every single thing in our lives takes on a sort of luminous glow through the lens of gratitude.  As the mystic Meister Eckhart said back in the 13th century, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, that would suffice.”

Stories of Hope

aI asked people to share an experience they’ve had this year that’s brought them hope. Here’s what they had to say.

Emma Durand: It seems like a simple thing, but I planted pots of herbs, tomatoes, and flowers on our apartment balcony. It surprised me how actually attached I got to those plants. I got excited by new tendrils and buds!

Mark Wilson:  I work with high school and college-aged kids in a community program. They’re  good at dismissing bs and thinking for themselves. I can assure you, this upcoming generation of young men and women are making this world a more connected and accepting place already.

Niki Weldon: My mom’s group gives me hope and strength. We relate, share, grieve, love, care, help, and generally create a village.

I hope we as a parenting society we can return to a time where we can watch out not only for our own kids but for each others’ kids in a way that lets us get to know our neighbors again. We all are going through life and can do something as simple as helping a stranger carry bags to their car since you only have one bag and they are about to drop their milk.  I think maybe that is what is missing in our immediate society now. It is very much I, I, I, and not enough community. But my mommy group gives me hope that maybe we (as a society ) are coming full circle back to that.  (She also shared a link.)

Bernie DeKoven:  People playing playfully. Games, maybe, or rolling downhill or naming clouds or skipping. Whenever I see people playing – families, kids, adults of any age – I feel something very much like hope for humanity. 

Loving, too. It does very much the same for me, restoring hope. Loving their pets, their kids, their world.

Kimerly Wagstaff:  Every time I hear a child’s laughter; the words ‘thank-you,”I love you,’  ‘I’m sorry.’  Every sunrise and sunset…all these give me hope.

Charles Rogers:  My daughter-in-law and son’s Christmas gift was a sonogram of a 9 week fetus! 

Tobias WhitakerI think it is all around. It is easy to find yourself sidetracked by a very small but vocal minority that has dictated the American (global) consciousness because of the narrow scope of the media. But I have found that I get along very well with my neighbors even though we may have some very different views politically and philosophically. I think that when you talk face to face about what you have in common all the other nonsense drifts away. You may be surprised, or maybe you wouldn’t, how many people in my neighborhood stop by to chat with my children while they are walking their dogs or out for a stroll. How many people want to talk gardening or engage in friendly chatter when we both know that if we compared notes on religion or government we would be on opposite ends of one another. But we respect one another and that gives me hope.

With that said I find hope and inspiration in my children’s laughter, they remind me to be present, that this particular moment is what matters most. I find it in the resurgence of wildlife around my home, for example in the 40+ years I have lived in my town I only began seeing bald eagles about 5 years ago, somewhat regularly. I find it in the people (right-wing and left-wing) embracing traditional agriculture in a hot zone for natural gas extraction. There is hope in the endless opportunity of the internet to communicate with and influence people of good intention. There is hope simply in the fact that conversations such as this exist!

Though I am very realistic about the urgency of some issues I do believe truth has awakened. I believe, personally, that is why the toxic members of our global society have gotten so vocal. They see their ability to manipulate slipping away.

Martha Eaton: The fact that the Ohio state board of education is rethinking the number of standardized tests given to children attending public schools. While the early changes are far from substantial, this discussion gives me hope that teachers will be allowed to make instructional decisions based on developmental characteristics instead of what is going to be on the test.

Kevin VincentOne refugee child was safe somewhere in our world.  My hope is that our hearts will have empathy for the little ones. 

Ali Baylor: I am an ecotherapist/nature educator in Florida. Our farm is closed over the holidays, so our weekly homeschool kids have to miss out on a few weeks of nature classes. One mom told me what her child said a few days before Christmas, “Mom, I can’t wait for the holidays to be over so we can go back to Ms. Ali’s farm!” Wow. Nature (1); Santa (0)! There ARE families rearing their children to be conscious.

Ann Krier:  Watching my son attempting to diaper his one year old. I almost did not give birth to him, but that’s a story for another day.

Katherine Clark:

The FBI has made animal abuse a federal offense.

Because of cell phones (which I usually hate) police abuse has been filmed and, slowly, I truly believe the system will change.

A socialist is running for the Democratic nomination and doing really well. He might get it. Who would have thought? 

Lauren Seaver:  Gathering with a tribe of other unschooling families for a weekly potluck always feeds my soul. In addition, spending every morning with an amazing group of 3, 4 & 5 year olds at our pre-k co-op is the most heart-lifting part of my day. 

Amy Chan  I’ve been having a rough time this year due to losing my job on top of getting a divorce. You know what brings me hope? A two-year-old mixed breed dog I adopted from the shelter this year. He gets me out to the dog park in just about any weather, gives me a reason to talk to people, and teaches me to live with enthusiasm. Now I see what unconditional love really is.

Leslie Boomer:  Because we have a Savior I have hope. Every day.

Bob Montgomery: Life without hope is death, a living death. Living a life of service as inspired by Jesus cements that hope.

Saraswati Namaste:  My trip to India where I was shown/taught the oneness of all & to actively love the world despite (assorted dreadfulnesses go here). And learning the lightness of simplicity. And biggest of all, that there are millions of souls around the world doing wondrous things for others in big and small ways, leading quiet but wholly dedicated lives of profound service. Every day 24/7 for decades. The pebble in the pond inspiring others to emulate them. As that desire to serve, to make love manifest in the world, continues its relentless, outward expansion love will triumph.

Bill and Kathy Johnston: We have never, ever been more hopeful. Here’s why. This autumn we, along with several other people, started an interfaith dialogue group. We sent invitations to every single house of faith in our city (and followed up with phone calls to a mosque, synagogue, and Zen center in hopes of real diversity). The invitations basically explained that each month we’d be reading a work that could help us more deeply understand different faith traditions, then we’d be getting together to discuss it. The local paper picked up the story before our first meeting in September and the response has been exceptional.  So far we have read passages by Christian theologian Frederick Buechner, Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, and Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.

We urge you to give this a go where you live. Here are the basics. Arrange to have monthly meetings in a library room (a safe, non-denominational place that’s also, at least where we live, free). Set up ground rules about respectful discussions. Email an article by the author (solicit suggestions from the group for upcoming reads). We also send around a sign-up sheet asking people to bring snacks and we provide coffee, tea, and water. There’s a reason for the food; it gets people to stand around talking to one another and those developing friendships are, in essence, one of the biggest reasons for doing this.

Amalie K.:  In March I was pushing a shopping cart full of stuff out of Target when I fell in the parking lot. I was in excruciating pain, but the worst thing was that my three-year-old was sitting in the cart panicking because her mama was writhing on the ground.

Instantly, and I mean instantly, people rushed over to help me. A man took off his coat and laid it over me to keep me from going into shock, then he knelt on the slushy cement holding my hand. A woman held my daughter, reassuring me she would stay right there and keep her safe. Someone called an ambulance. Another person loaded my shopping bags in my car. The medics made sure they didn’t alarm my daughter with anything they were doing and were kind enough to wait to leave for the hospital until my mother got there to pick her up. My hip may have broken but my fears about strangers healed that day.

Michelle Wilbert:  My hope is always maintained and often increased by the sheer beauty and goodness that prevails in spite of all that seems to work against both. In some respects, it isn’t surprising that humans are sometimes bent towards evil. What is remarkable and stunning to contemplate is the fact of goodness; we, who can get away with everything from a poor showing in every human interaction or the most insipid mediocrity do, on a regular basis, conform to the highest reaches of goodness and light, giving to, sharing with, doing for our fellows great good out of a simple, human sense of kindness and fair play–we perform the everyday miracles of generosity of spirit that allows for continued hope–“the thing with feathers” to quote Emily Dickinson– to live in our hearts and animate our actions, giving us the strength to press on.

It’s Getting Better

 

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Pay attention to the news and it’s nearly impossible to be optimistic.  Lives shattered by terrorism, poverty, conflict, and prejudice. The Earth herself endangered by greed and ignorance. It’s enough to stomp out hope altogether.

Don’t let it.

There’s no denying we have work to do to heal one another and our lovely planet, but let’s pause to consider where we’re already improving.

 

We’re overcoming diseases at extraordinary rates.

  1. AIDs related deaths have continued to drop for the last 15 years in a row and new HIV infections among children have dropped by 58% since 2000.
  2. Malaria, one of the world’s top killers, is on the decline. Last year 16 countries reported zero indigenous cases of malaria. Globally, mortality rates from the disease have fallen from an estimated 839 000 in 2000 to 438 000 in 2015. In other words, an estimated 6.2 million people have been saved from malaria-related deaths over the last 15 years .
  3. The incidence of polio, which once crippled over a thousand children every day, has now been reduced by 99 percent. Only two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, continue to experience wild polio cases.
  4. The painful parasitic disease, Guinea Worm, has effectively been eradicated.

 

Many more children are surviving childhood. 

Mortality rates for children younger than five have been cut in half since 1990 in virtually every country around the world. That’s about 19,000 fewer children dying every day this year compared to 25 years ago.

 

More people than ever have access to safe water and bathroom facilities. 

Over the last 25 years, an average of 47,000 more people per day were able to rely on a source of clean drinking water. Now 91 percent of the world’s population has safe water. This saves countless people from suffering or dying from water-borne illnesses.

Over two billion people have gained access in the last 25 years to what the World Health Organization politely calls “improved sanitation facilities.” In other words, 68% of the global population has access to a toilet — critical for health and improved living standards.

 

Fewer people are hungry.

The number of chronically undernourished people has dropped by 200 million in the last 25 years. That’s particularly impressive considering the world’s population increased by 1.9 billion people during that time. (The world produces enough food to feed everyone, but poverty, conflict, and harmful economic systems perpetuate hunger.)

 

More people can read than ever before

Today, four out of five people are able to read. In many regions of the world the majority of children and young adults are more literate than their elders, demonstrating that global literacy is rapidly increasing. At this point, nine out of ten children are learning to read.

Female literacy rates haven’t risen as quickly due to inequality and poverty, but in some areas, particularly East Asia, 90 percent more girls are able to read than 10 years ago. As female literacy goes up, other overall positive indicators tend to follow including decreased domestic violence, improved public health, and greater financial stability.

In the U.S., twice as many people are reading books for pleasure than they were in the mid-1950’s.

 

Internet access is spreading across the world. 

There’s been an eight fold increase in the number of people with access to the net in the last 15 years. Right now, there are two Internet users in the developing world for every user in the developed world. With this access comes better opportunities to network, build knowledge, create jobs, and stay connected with others.

 

The average person’s standard of living has gone up. 

Twenty-five years ago, nearly half the world’s population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day. Today, that proportion has declined to 14 percent. Around the world, the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by half.

In the U.S., homelessness continues to decline. Over the past five years the number of people without shelter has dropped by 26 percent.

 

Right of indigenous people around the world to protect their land and their identity are, in many cases, beginning to be upheld.

For example, the Makuna, Tanimuka, Letuama, Barasano, Cabiyari, Yahuna and Yujup-Maku peoples of Columbia have won the right to preserve a million hectares of Amazonian forest where they will continue to act as guardians of the land.

 

Sustainability is accelerating. 

The U.S. and Europe, over the last two years, have added more power capacity from renewables than from gas, coal, and nuclear combined. Renewable energy jobs more than doubled in ten years, from three million jobs in 2004 to 6.5 million in 2013, and continue to grow.  Dramatic improvements in renewable energy technology have lowered costs while improving performance for hydropower, geothermal, solar, and onshore wind power.

Wind energy prices in the U.S. have reached an all-time low and there’s enough wind power installed in the U.S. to meet the total electricity demands of Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, and Wyoming. Investments in wind power are becoming mainstream, including projects being built for Amazon.com, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart.

Protected areas of land and water have substantially increased in the last 25 years. For example, protected lands in Latin America and the Caribbean have risen from 8.8 percent in 1990 to 23.4 percent in 2014.

In fact, more of the planet found protection in 2015 than ever before.  In the U.S., President Obama has designated 260 million acres as protected public lands and waters – more than any previous president.

This year nations are setting aside one million square miles of “highly protected ocean,” more than any prior year.  This area is larger than Texas and Alaska combined. These fully protected marine reserves are off-limits to drilling, fishing, and other uses incompatible with preservation.

 

Much more needs to be done to raise these standards and to deal with the political extremism, economic inequality, and environmental destruction that causes so much suffering. Much, much more. But taking a moment to consider these and other positive changes can empower us to accomplish even more.

 

Grateful For The Dark Stuff Too

A handmade Gratitude Tree has hung in our hallway for years. We keep the tree lively by writing on leaves made of brightly colored paper, then tape them to the tree. It’s usually filled with life affirming reminders like hugs from Daddy, going to the library, bike rides, playing cards with Grammy, and yes, winning arguments.  The year my youngest son Sam was six, he got so inspired that he said he was grateful for a hundred things. A bit dubiously I offered to type the list while he dictated. I was astonished as he kept going until the list numbered 117.

Listing what we’re grateful for is increasingly popular. Studies show that those who practice gratitude are healthier, happier, more helpful to others, and even more likely to reach their goals. People post gratitude lists on Facebook and on their blogs, keep gratitude journals, and pray in gratitude each morning. This is undeniably wonderful. Orienting ourselves toward what works in our lives is perpetually rejuvenating.

But perhaps we’re limiting ourselves to a childlike version of gratitude. Are we grateful only for what we deem good and ungrateful for all the rest?

I’m all about emphasizing the positive—heck, I’m pretty sure we amplify what we pay attention to. But that doesn’t mean that the darker sides of our lives aren’t a source of blessings as well. It’s one thing to be grateful for a disease in remission, a distant friend’s visit, or a new job, but there’s much to be grateful for right in the heart of what we consider the worst of times, the worst in ourselves. Maybe mining these experiences for gratitude can get us past the need to separate our lives into good and bad, putting us right into the seamless whole of a fully lived life. Here are a few to consider:

Mistakes

I’m not talking about the little mistakes we make each day, but those big, honking mistakes all of us who are honest with ourselves can admit we’ve made—errors that damaged relationships or changed the future we anticipated. Some of these mistakes were well-intended, while others were careless or downright stupid. 

It’s quite possible to be grateful for what we call mistakes. If nothing else, our fallibility demonstrates the foolishness of being self-righteous about others. Hopefully we learn even more. Our mistakes give us a depth of experience, a dose of humility, and the beginnings of wisdom.

Beware people who claim they have not made significant mistakes—either they haven’t stepped out the door yet, or what they hide from themselves is too dark to be claimed.  Our mistakes are a wonderful part of who we are. Thank goodness for our mistakes in all their falling down, awkward, forgiveness-hungry glory.

Doubt

While doubt seems ruinous, it can actually be a gift. We may doubt choices we’ve made, relationships we’re in, or the faith we have practiced all our lives. Doubt is a powerful motivator. When we look at doubt, using our heads and our hearts, we may not like what we see. It may take us years to find answers. This forces us to tell the truth to ourselves, and that process makes us stronger. Sure it’s painful, but it also leaves us much to be grateful for.

The harsh light cast by doubt can lead, after a time, to a much brighter path. We may find ourselves in stronger relationships and making more conscious choices. We may end up with deeper faith or accept that we don’t know the answers, but that we love the search all thanks to our friend, doubt.

Crisis

I don’t mean to minimize the impact of crisis. Like almost everyone, I’ve been at the mercy of crime, grief, and pain. But no matter the crisis, we have a choice. We can choose which attitude to take, and that alone is worthy of some gratitude.

Beyond that, many people find blessings of all sorts hidden in experiences that, on the surface, seem starkly horrible. They say that cancer woke them up to truly living, or they say that losing everything in a fire helped them choose more authentic priorities. Some people dedicate their energy to helping those who have suffered as they once suffered, thereby transforming their own crisis into a blessing for others.

Throughout history, cultures around the world have told folk tales that not only entertain, but also teach values while offering lessons on growing through difficulty. Too often, we’ve replaced these stories with weaker parables found in popular entertainment. Consider the following:

A man was given a strong horse. Many came to admire it, telling him he was the luckiest man around. He replied, “We’ll see.” A few days later the horse ran away and the neighbors came to console him. “How terrible!” they said. The man replied, “We’ll see.” The next week the horse returned. Following him were six wild horses. The neighbors congratulated him, saying, “You are richer than any of us now.” The man replied, “We’ll see.” When his son tried to train one of the wild horses, it threw him and the young man broke his leg. “Oh, what bad luck,” his neighbors said. The man only replied, “We’ll see.” Then an army swept through the village and conscripted all able-bodied young men, leaving only the man’s son with the broken leg. The neighbors told him how fortunate he was. The man only replied, “We’ll see.”

The next time crisis looms chances are you will stumble, get up, cry, laugh, protest, and argue. But you may also be aware just how grateful you are to be here and living life with all it has to offer. And, as the farmer in the story did, you may step back from your predicament and say to yourself, “We’ll see.”

We don’t bother to give thanks for many aspects of our lives, from the face in the mirror each morning to the minor frustrations of the day. Look again at your mistakes, your doubts, and your crises to see the richness that lies waiting to be discovered. I’ll be doing the same.

It’s not my practice to make gratitude lists, especially one as long as six-year-old Sam’s list of 117 items. If I did, I admit it would include many more of the “easy” ones—birdsong, a bountiful garden, finding a lost book. But I’m inclined to see gratitude as a tree—it not only grows upward with bright leaves, it also grows deep roots in dark soil.

Originally published in Lilipoh.

Make a List of Non-Resolutions

no resolutions, non-resolutions, no New Year's resolutions,

image: unsplash

Resolutions are traditionally meant to fix what we think is wrong with our lives, as if it’s necessary to hammer ourselves into someone society finds more attractive and more successful.

I say meh.

Seems to me the more significant challenges are to discover greater depths in ourselves and to cultivate more joy in our daily lives. Maybe we need to replace New Year’s resolutions with delight-enhancing non-resolutions. If you need ideas for your own list, here are some things I hope to nurture in my life, .

Prioritize time for daydreaming.

Sigh loudly whenever you want to. It stimulates the vagus nerve.

Pursue the urge to know more, no matter how obscure your fascinations.

Tune in to sensory pleasure: birdsong, soft blankets, wind in the trees, warm soup.

Accept all apologies as you wish those you apologize to might accept yours.

Give your machines names,  especially your car.

Send oddities via snail mail, it’s ridiculously fun.

Eat something different, often.

Talk about your traumas as a stand-up comedian might.

Greet the same tree every day.

Each time you take a first sip of ice water, pay attention as it slides down your throat.

Allow yourself to become a library addict.

Lie on the grass whenever you can. Also sand. And snow. It’s like accepting a hug from Ma Nature.

Try sketching for fun.

Listen.

Collect poems that speak to you.

When you take a walk, just walk. No phone, no earbuds, simply let your legs move you forward.

Talk to insects.

Look at yourself tenderly, as an angelic being might see you, adoring every moment of the amazing mortal life you lead.

Play!

Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

kindness turns around misery, heartwarming family Christmas, poor family Christmas gets better,

Photo by doortoriver via Flickr, CC by 2.0

One year it seemed we were having the worst Christmas ever. That autumn my husband had been in a car accident. His broken neck was healing, but it left him with severe migraines and what doctors thought might be a seizure disorder. Because he wasn’t medically cleared to return to work, we had to pay for health insurance through COBRA (which cost more than our mortgage) while not receiving a paycheck. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, my brother-in-law was recovering from open heart surgery, and my son was struggling with asthma so severe that his oxygen intake regularly hovered at the “go to emergency room” level.

We were broke and worried. But I insisted on a normal Christmas. I put up our usual decorations, baked the same goodies, and managed to wrap plenty of inexpensive gifts for our kids. Everyone else on my list would be getting something homemade.

Each night after getting my four children tucked in, I sat at the sewing machine making gifts for friends and family. The evening of December 23rd as I was finishing up the last few sewing projects I realized I didn’t have a single item for the kid’s stockings and absolutely no funds to buy even a pack of gum. I put my head down, too tired to cry. I was so overwhelmed by the bigger issues going on that the stocking problem pushed me right to the edge. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to get back to sewing, but when I lifted my head my eleven-year-old daughter stood next to me. When she asked what was wrong I admitted that I had nothing for any of their stockings. Her response lightened up my mood then and still does every time I think of it.

“All that matters is we’re a family,” she said. “ I don’t care if you squat over my stocking and poop in it.”

I laughed so loudly and for so long that something cleared out in me. I felt better than I had in months. She and I stayed up at least another hour together, restarting the giggles with just a look or more hilariously, a squatting motion.

When I woke up the next morning I still felt good. Until the phone rang. It was Katy* who said she needed to talk to someone. The mother of one of my children’s friends, she always seemed like a super women who did everything with panache. It was hard to imagine her with anything but a big smile. She said she didn’t want to tell anyone who might feel obligated to help her but, oddly, said she felt free to talk to me because she knew of my family’s dire financial straits. “We’re in the same boat I guess,” she said, “sinking.”

Katy revealed that her husband had been abusive and she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him to leave. He did, but not before emptying their bank accounts, turning off their utilities, disabling her car, and taking every single Christmas gift for their four children. Utility companies had promised to restore power to their cold, dark home but she was left with no money for groceries and no gifts for her kids. Katy said she was going to talk to her priest, hoping he’d find someone willing to drive her family to the Christmas service. She said her problems would be public knowledge soon enough. The neighbors would notice that her husband had punched a hole in the door on his way out.

Heartsick at her situation, my husband and I agreed we had to do something. I spent that day in eager anticipation of the plan we hatched. I went through the gifts I’d wrapped for our kids and took out about a third, putting on new gift tags for Katy’s children. I rewrapped gifts that friends and relatives had sent for me, putting Katy’s name on them. While I was happily engaged, my friend Rachel* called, someone who didn’t know Katy. I told her about the situation without revealing Katy’s identity. A few hours later Rachel showed up at my door with a tin of homemade cookies and a card with $100 tucked inside. She said she’d told her mother about the situation, and her mother insisted on supplying grocery bags full of holiday treats including a large ham.

Close to midnight my husband and I loaded up our car and drove quietly to Katy’s street. Snow was falling and the moon was full, like a movie set Christmas Eve. He turned off the headlights and cut the engine as we coasted into her drive. We quietly stacked groceries and piles of gifts on her porch, then pounded on her door yelling “Merry Christmas!” before dashing to make our getaway. By the time our car was a few houses down I could see that Katy had opened the door. Her hands were up in the air in a classic gesture of surprise and delight.

Katy called the next day. She told me there’d been a late night interruption. She thought to herself, what now, but when she got to her door her porch was full of gifts and groceries.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “The gifts had the kids’ names on them and were just right for their ages and there were even gifts for me. We can’t figure out who might have done that. I know it couldn’t have been you but why wouldn’t someone leave their name so I could thank them?”

I could only tell her that whoever left her porch that night must have wanted the gesture to remain a simple gift of love. She said her kids were calling it their Christmas miracle.

A small gesture of kindness hardly makes up for what Katy’s family endured that Christmas. But as we drove away, my husband and I felt a lift of euphoria that our own circumstances couldn’t diminish. That feeling stuck with us. It held us through problems that got worse before they got better. Even when our situation seemed intractable my husband and I could easily summon the sense of complete peace we felt in those moments at Katy’s door. I’m not sure if a word has been coined that encompasses that feeling: a mix of peace, and possibility, and complete happiness. But it’s far more precious than any wrapped package.

Oh, and that Christmas my brother gave my daughter, who at that time was an aspiring paleontologist, the perfect gift. Coprolite. Basically a hunk of fossilized poop. He thought it was a funny present but never understood why seeing it made me laugh until tears came to my eyes.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

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Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Recognizing Each Child’s Particular Genius

 

Free Range Learning, children's gifts,

A child’s gifts can be difficult to recognize, perhaps because they tend to unfold in mysterious ways. What we might consider idiosyncrasies or problems may very well indicate a child’s strengths. Oftentimes we can’t see the whole picture until long after the child has grown into adulthood. It’s worth remembering we can’t easily see our own gifts either, even though they have whispered to us of destiny or wounded us where they were denied.

A little girl creates chaos with her toys. She won’t put blocks away with other blocks nor put socks in her dresser drawer. As a preschooler she creates groupings that go together with logic only she understands. One such collection is made up of red blocks, a striped sock, spoons, and marbles. She sings to herself while she rearranges these items over and over. The girl is punished when she refuses to put her puzzles away in the correct box or her tea set dishes back together. She continues making and playing with these strangely ordered sets but hides them to avoid getting in trouble. This phase passes when she is about nine years old. Now an adult, she is conducting post-doctoral studies relating to string theory. She explains her work as a physicist has to do with finding common equations among disparate natural forces.

A young boy’s high energy frustrates his parents. As a preschooler he climbs on furniture and curtain rods, even repeatedly tries to scale the kitchen cabinets. When he becomes a preteen he breaks his collarbone skateboarding. He is caught shoplifting at 13. His parents are frightened when he says he “only feels alive on the edge.” Around the age of 15 he becomes fascinated with rock-climbing. His fellow climbers, mostly in their 20’s, also love the adrenaline rush that comes from adventure sports but help him gain perspective about his responsibility to himself and other climbers. His ability to focus on the cliff face boosts his confidence on the ground. At 19 he is already certified as a mountain search and rescue volunteer. He is thinking of going to school to become an emergency medical technician.

James Hillman explains in his book, The Soul’s Code,

I want us to envision that what children go through has to do with finding a place in the world for their specific calling. They are trying to live two lives at once, the one they were born with and the one of the place and among the people they were born into. The entire image of a destiny is packed into a tiny acorn, the seed of a huge oak on small shoulders. And its call rings loud and persistent and is as demanding as any scolding voice from the surroundings. The call shows in the tantrums and obstinacies, in the shyness and retreats, that seem to set the child against our world but that may be protections of the world it comes with and comes from.

Yehudi Menuhin, one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th century, became fascinated when he heard classical music on the radio as a three year old. He wanted to feel the same rich notes coming out of a violin in his hands. His parents lovingly presented him with a toy fiddle. He drew the bow across the strings and was horrified at the cheap squawk the toy made. Enraged, he threw the instrument across the room and broke it. His imagination had already taken him to the place in himself where beautiful music was made and he was unable to bear that awful sound. We normally call that behavior a “tantrum.”

Then there’s R. Buckminster Fuller, whose young adult years were marked with struggle. As a college student he hired an entire dance troupe to entertain a party, and in that one night of excess he squandered all the tuition money his family saved to send him to school. In his 20’s he was a mechanic, meat-packer, and Navy commander before starting a business that left him bankrupt. After his daughter died of polio he began drinking heavily. By conventional wisdom he’d be considered a total failure at this point. But while contemplating suicide, Fuller decided instead to live his life as an experiment to find out if one penniless individual could benefit humanity. He called himself Guinea Pig B. Without credentials or training Fuller worked as an engineer and architect, inventing such designs as the geodesic dome and advancing the concept of sustainable development. He wrote more than 30 books and registered dozens of patents. Fuller once said, “Everybody is born a genius. Society de-geniuses them.”

Few young people have clear indications of their gifts. Most have multiple abilities. A single true calling is rarely anyone’s lot in life as it is for a legendary artist or inventor. Instead, a mix of ready potential waits, offering a life of balance among many options. When we emphasize a child’s particular strengths we help that child to flourish, no matter if those gifts fall within mainstream academic subjects or broader personal capacities. Traits such as a highly developed sense of justice, a way with animals, a love of organization, a contemplative nature, the knack for getting others to cooperate—-these are of inestimable value, far more important skills than good grades on a spelling test.

Free Range Learning, all kids geniuses,

Although society confuses genius with IQ scores, such scores don’t determine what an individual will do with his or her intelligence. In fact, studies have shown that specific personality traits are better predictors of success than I.Q. scores. Genius has more to do with using one’s gifts. In Roman mythology each man was seen as having a genius within (and each woman its corollary, a juno) which functioned like a guardian of intellectual powers or ancestral talent.

What today’s innovators bring to any discipline, whether history or art or technology, is a sort of persistent childlike wonder. They are able to see with fresh eyes. They can’t be dissuaded from what they want to do and often what they do is highly original. Sometimes these people have a difficult personal journey before using their gifts. Their paths are not easy or risk-free, but the lessons learned from making mistakes can lead to strength of character.

We must leave ample space for these gifts to unfold. This takes time and understanding. The alternative deprives not only the child, it also deprives our world of what that child might become.

Acknowledging that each person is born with innate abilities waiting to manifest doesn’t imply our children are destined for greatness in the popular sense of power or wealth. It means that children are cued to develop their own personal greatness. This unfolding is a lifelong process for each of us as we work toward our capabilities for fulfillment, joy, health, meaning, and that intangible sense of well-being that comes of using one’s gifts.

 

This article is an excerpt from the book Free Range Learning. It was also published in Life Learning Magazine