Delight-Driven Willpower

positive habits, joyous willpower, happy habits,

Willpower isn’t a trait mastered by the strongest among us. It’s a form of energy that wears down if overused.

When you exert a lot of effort to stop several habits, you may be subtracting the very energy necessary to fulfill your intentions. For example, if frugality is new to you, you might vow to give up the morning latte, lunch out, buying magazines at the newsstand, and scrolling through online stores. You may give up so many habits at once that your willpower is taxed and you find yourself spending more or drinking more or arguing more once the weekend arrives. I don’t have a spending problem, not even close, but I do have plenty of habits I’d like to drop. They jangle at me like annoying wind chimes made entirely of what I want to change about myself.

We’re more likely to be successful when we take on one or two changes at a time, letting them become comfortable patterns before adding more. It’s commonly said that it takes at least 21 days to create a habit. Not too sure about that. If it’s a rewarding new habit it may have significant sticking power in a few days. If it’s a tough habit to drop (like my departure from eating wheat), it may still seem alluring years later. I know all about this. (Pizza, why do you call my name?)

And we have to remember there’s typically a gap between what we know and how well we apply it to our lives. A big gap that extends through four stages of competence. No wonder it’s hard to change.

We often associate self-discipline with the loss of short term pleasure (lose weight, save money, stop wasting so much time on Facebook). But for some of us with pretty decent impulse control, self-discipline can too easily tip into self-berating. Negativity gets us nowhere. It’s essential to be attuned to the positive, to see how we’re making progress rather than focusing on where we’re going wrong.

I think we should use willpower to cultivate delight in our lives rather than seeing it as a way of dropping bad habits. Those lovely new joys we’re practicing may very well nudge out what we don’t want in our lives as a side benefit.

Oh, and one more thought. Sharing our goals is a way of augmenting our willpower. That’s why I’m sharing my list.

Delights to Cultivate

1. Be a person who wears interesting hats.

2. Lie in the grass whenever possible.

3. Lean toward single-tasking. (That means you Pinterest.)

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

5. Keep ice water by my desk to inspire hydration (not to inspire klutz moves that might dampen my keyboard or phone).

6. Say positive things about myself (no more predicting future klutz moves).

7. Sigh whenever I want to, because it stimulates the vagus nerve. Ahhhh, that feels good.

8. Go barefoot more often.

9. Send oddities via snail mail.

10. Use gifts given to me rather than setting them aside for “good.”

11. Develop life lists.

12. Stretch my creativity by sketching for fun, without judgment.

13. Be happy with what I’m getting done rather than focus on what I haven’t accomplished.

14. Go on out-of-the-ordinary dates with my beloved. Maybe I can talk him into glassblowing lessons!

15.  Dye my hair pink. Okay, maybe a few streaks.

16. Honor the wisdom found in doing nothing.

What delights do YOU want to cultivate?

positive willpower, habits of joy,

Image:pixoti.deviantart.com

Changing The World One Choice At A Time

 

small steps big change, history is small decisions, change world through love, daily choices change world,

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When I was growing up I was told I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard enough. The examples I was given at school and church were daunting. Heroes who did no wrong and martyrs who suffered for a cause without wavering. The media showed me examples too. People who were celebrities because of their talent for acting or playing games or for their appearance alone. All these people seemed larger than life.

I didn’t want fame but I did want to accomplish important things. I wanted to find the source of sorrow, injustice, and suffering so that it could be alleviated. The urge to do this was constantly with me and often overpowering. When I was very small I wanted to bring peace to every caged puppy or crying baby I encountered. I couldn’t, although I did absorb the misery I perceived, turning it into questions that the adults around me couldn’t answer. As I approached my teen years I searched for my own answers. I learned all I could about the world’s wrongs, hoping to find out why greed and cruelty happened. I committed myself to do something important. An ordinary life that did nothing to turn the world around seemed unthinkable. Whatever I did, it had to be big. My time on earth had to make a difference.

My quest to understand all that was wrong turned me in the opposite direction from hope. It showed me the worst of humanity. Slowly I came to realize that building on what’s positive brings greater possibilities into being. My days as an adult have proceeded without accomplishing anything Big. But I’ve come to think it’s the countless small actions, even thoughts, that truly have significance. We’re faced with these choices every day.

  • Do I wave to my neighbor, the one who condemns me?
  • Do I give the cash in my pocket to a street person or do I look away?
  • Will I cook tonight’s dinner from scratch, perhaps making enough to bring some to a friend recovering from an illness?
  • Do I turn from what I’m doing to truly look and listen when someone talks to me?
  • Should I go to yet another activist meeting, surrounded by often despairing people? Would it be better to write an article about the issue or simply to focus my energy on new possibilities that make the issue obsolete?
  • Do I fritter away time on tasks that feel like “shoulds” even though time seems to be slipping away like escalator stairs?
  • Do I read too much, blotting out my own experiences, or is it fine to indulge this obsession of mine?
  • Do I believe that humanity is becoming more aware, more kindly, more open?
  • And because my answer is yes, do I live that yes?

None of these are major challenges, but how I answer such questions is how I live my life. They have to do with how I conduct myself and how I see the world around me. The questions aren’t clear-cut, so it’s not always easy to discern where on the scale my answer falls. Leaning toward loving attention or apathy? Joy or bitterness? Eagerness or weary resignation? Considering larger implications or thinking only of my whims?

I’m undisciplined and prone to stubbornness, so I make plenty of choices that wouldn’t pass an ethical stink test. Still, each one matters.

We’ve been taught that only Big people with “real” influence make a difference. That makes us feel powerless. Chances are, that’s what Big money and those who control it want us to think. If we feel powerless we give up before we try. After all, the advertisements surrounding us insist our major choices have to do with what we wear, the cell phones we use, the cars we drive, the vacations we take. Oh and having teeth so white they shine like LED lights each time we smile. Larger social, environmental, and political concerns may keep us in a state of anxiety but are nothing we have any control over. Or so we’re told. Hush about unemployment and income disparity. Hush about erosion of Constitutional rights, climate change, drone strikes. Just stimulate the economy like a nice shopper. As soon as the Big experts are done distracting us with their divisiveness they’ll handle it.

That’s true only if we agree with the idea that Big matters. Because all around us is the present, which appears little and inconsequential, but isn’t. Acting in the present may mean choosing to slow down, to meet our neighbors, to take a deep breath and be grateful, to speak up against a wrong, to step outside and look at the sky, to turn off all devices and spend time with someone, to eat while savoring each bite, to do something difficult with no assured outcome. It doesn’t mean ignoring injustice or wastefulness.

A response in the present is corrective. Even fixing the largest problems requires small steps. Incremental progress, both in attitude and action, is behind great social and environmental change.  In fact, the idea that only Big change can fix problems is part of the problem. When bureaucrats or corporations institute top-down changes they often make situations worse. Real progress happens when the same people who are affected by a problem take power over the choices and act on that power. This rises from small choices, values elevated to action.

We’ve all heard of the butterfly effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in the rainforest, as a consequence weeks later there are tornadoes in Texas instead of clear skies. The effect, coined by mathematician Edward Lorenz, basically says that small change in one place can result in large differences later. It’s a fascinating look at chaos theory, but it also means nothing we or anyone (even a butterfly) does is without consequence. Just as a butterfly in Brazil has no way of knowing it may affect weather patterns a continent away, we often can’t predict the consequences of our choices let alone understand the long term impact. Our choices are those butterfly wings. Who I am today might be a disappointment to the determined child I once was, but I know now that worthwhile doesn’t have to mean big. How I fill a day is how I fill a life.

Right Now You Are Activating Change

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My mother tried throughout her pregnancies to get hospitals and doctors to change their rules. She wanted a natural birth, she wanted her husband with her, she wanted to hold her babies after they were born. Instead regulations were followed— every decision excluding her. That meant her labors were induced, she was given painkillers, my father had to stay in the waiting room, and except for standard in-room hours her babies were kept apart from her in the hospital nursery. Such procedures made it easier for the institution and less trouble for doctors.

By the time I had babies her futile requests were standard policy. Every woman was encouraged to have one or more support people with her, to room in with her baby, and to give birth naturally. It took change-makers to turn those policies around. Those change-makers were ordinary people who had a vision of something better. Some of them actively worked to see those changes happen but I suspect most of them simply talked, read, wrote, and otherwise carried on with what looked like everyday lives while activating awareness in people around them.

This is how real progress happens. Yes, there’s the much cited quote by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And yes, there are torchbearers for our big changes who are often misunderstood, even persecuted, while they lead the way. But lets not assume that we don’t qualify as “thoughtful, committed citizens” if we aren’t at the front of any movement. It’s about action but it’s also about attitude. Those attitudes make justice, ecological harmony, and peace possible.

Those “in charge” are often well behind the consciousness of the people they supposedly lead. Many in authority impose the same order, same rules, same limited thinking on people who have opened themselves to bigger possibilities. That’s true when we look at mainstream medicine, education, organized religion, finance and banking, government, science for hire, and multinational corporations. Such established institutions tend to become more rigid in response to vital change shaking their structures loose. The lower levels of moral reasoning that often hold those structures so restrictively in place (might makes right, or an eye for an eye, or conformity to norms) have less relevance when more and more people are in touch with deeper wisdom.

You may be activating change right now by the content of your conversations, the ideas you see taking hold around you, the way you stay informed, the way you raise your children and treat your friends, how you choose to spend your money and not spend your money, the way you make a living, the causes you advocate and believe in, and how you interact with our living planet. You, like so many change-makers, may already be living through deeply felt, personally lived ethics. That itself causes rippling change. Torchbearers of the last century who brought about so much good could do so because awareness shifted and deepened.

It may seem that small personal efforts make little difference when the problems facing the world are so huge. But bemoaning what’s wrong usually doesn’t effect much positive change. It may very well just entrench the feeling that we’re victims of all that’s Big and Bad. Instead we can see how truly interconnected everything is. Mind and matter, internal and external, thought and deed–all are aspects of the same essential aliveness in a universe where nothing is really separate.

My mother didn’t go looking for causes but when they were in front of her, she stood up for what was right. This happened often when she was a young registered nurse working in a large Chicago hospital. She defied rules requiring nurses to stop laboring women from delivering until a physician was present (perhaps to collect higher fees?). Nurses were expected to keep women from pushing, and in extreme cases, to hold back the head of the emerging baby. As you might imagine, some infants were deprived of oxygen or worse. My mother refused to follow the policy, more than once delivering a baby herself if the doctor didn’t arrive in time. She also refused to follow the policy that restricted incubators to private pay patients. When necessary she simply went to another ward, took an incubator, and faced the consequences. She got in trouble over and over. She did it anyway.

Once she had children of her own, my mother spent much of her life as what she’d call a homemaker. She did all sorts of good on a small level. She herself been a lonely child, perhaps as a result she was remarkably skilled at staying closely connected with and supportive of people. She functioned as a sort of informal Wikipedia for her wide network of friends, always putting her hands on an article she’d clipped so she could advance knowledge to help others. I often didn’t agree with her political opinions but I saw from her example that activating change often has more to do with living as if compassion is not just necessary, it is essential.

Who or what in your life reminds you that progress is happening, even on a small personal level? 

What’s The Perfect Age?

what is the perfect age,growing older is perfect, child is not an ungrown adult, baby is not an unformed child,

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There must be an ideal age floating around in our collective unconscious. This is such a fixed part of our media-driven culture that it’s hard to focus on it. But let’s give it a try. Allow a number come to you as you consider the following questions.

 What age do parents have in mind as they groom their kids for success?

 What age do kids have in mind as they imagine growing up?

 What age do older adults have in mind as they try to look and act younger?

I’m guessing it’s somewhere between 21 and 35, a time when we’re supposed to be brimming with youthful good looks and potential. Or maybe it’s not a number but just a fundamental belief that young adulthood is some sort of peak. Everything before that is preparation, everything after a slide toward old age.

Consciously or unconsciously, believing in this ideal age uses up a large part of all our other ages.

Consider how relentlessly the adult world prods children to get (or at least act) older. I know I’m somewhat guilty. I did my very best to savor the baby and toddler years but honestly, it’s hard. I found myself thinking that it would just get better after they finished teething, or could talk, or finally mastered toilet training. Even the most sainted in-the-moment parent will find him or herself bombarded with well-intended, future-oriented inquiries from others like, “Is she sleeping through the night?” and “Does he talk in sentences yet?” Such questions don’t stop as the child gets older, instead they have to do with bigger topics like academic abilities, athletic achievement, even popularity. Admiration is heaped on little ones who act much older than their developmental age, especially those children who exhibit social poise beyond their years, as if six-year-olds who act like six-year-olds are already somehow behind.

The pressure becomes more intense with each passing year. Parents often find themselves buying all sorts of educational toys and electronics, filling what could be free time with an ambitious schedule of practices and enrichment programs, and of course, pushing educational achievement. We’re told that these efforts “count” as if there’s a permanent record for eight-year-olds or 13-year-olds. There isn’t.

We’re assured that getting kids ahead in sports or hobbies will create passionate engagement, but research affirms that children build rewardingly intense interests when they are free to explore activities without adult pressure and interference

We’re led to believe that early academic accomplishment is the path to later success. Too often, that’s not true either. Success is closely linked to much more nuanced personal factors which develop quite nicely, research tells us, during free play, early participation in household tasks, conversation, and other experiences that foster self- control as well as an internal locus of control

Pushing our children toward adulthood takes us (and them) away from seeing that each of us are whole people exactly as we are. A baby is not an unformed child, a child is not an ungrown adult, an elder is not an age-ruined version of a once younger self.

Each of us is wonderfully unique. Of course we’re flawed and often foundering. But at the same time we are also brimming with emerging possibilities. We don’t have to paddle away from the moment we live in toward some ideal age. Doing so doesn’t just wish away right now, it also condemns every other age we live in to be something less.

Truly seeing our children and our elders as complete and whole, right now, means seeing ourselves that way too.

You’re Having A Perfect Day

today is perfect, unique day, gratitude reasons,

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A hundred million babies are being soothed in loving arms, lulled to sleep by songs in every language. Those gently nurtured babies will grow up to change our lives in ways too marvelous to imagine.

children change the world, imagine future,

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Today Muslims pray, “Praise be to the Lord of the Universe who has created us and made us into tribes and nations. That we may know each other, not that we may despise each other.” Cloistered nuns petition God that our world be blessed with the wine of Christ’s love and peace. Tibetan Buddhists practice tonglen, breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out happiness for all beings.  Individuals meditate, chant, pray, or contemplate nature while sending light to each soul on earth. People of all faiths dance and sing in Dances of Universal Peace.

Right now, artists are creating something that never before existed. Their medium may be cake batter, dance steps, paint, tiny gems, huge beams, words, reclaimed trash, wool, glass, musical notes, or curved light. They bring vision into reality. The way they see transforms the way we see.

art, vision into reality, art shapes world,

onebadcat.net

Right now people in crisis are rising up, acting out of deep regard for one another in an ongoing testament to the compassion that defines us. Every second millions of people are selflessly working around the world to advance ecological sustainability, economic justice, human rights, political accountability, and peace. Unnoticed ordinary acts of kindness allow life to flourish as we nurture the youngest and tend to the oldest, share with those in need, and weave the web of mutuality that holds us together.

reasons for gratitude, inspiration, appreciate today,

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Right now people assumed to be dead are reviving, changed forever after by a near-death experience.  They reawaken to a life less focused on material success or narrow beliefs, and instead emphasize love, curiosity, and awe.

living in awe, it's all love,

flickr.com/photos/qthomasbower

Right now you are fueled by a perfect circle: sunlight, soil, and the seed’s mysterious will. At this moment your extraordinary body is replacing millions of cells, pumping quarts of blood, actively defending your immunity, releasing precisely timed hormones and enzymes, operating on rhythms well beyond your perceptions.

perfect body, how body works,

gajitz.com

Today in an unimaginably vast universe, clouds of interstellar dust reflect the light of nearby stars. We are made of elements forged inside of stars that died out long before our own solar system emerged.

we are made of stars, perfect day,

nasa.gov

Each of us is unique, yet we are one being.

What an amazing day.

Dying My Hair Pink

Time to dye it?

Well, maybe. I haven’t seen anyone with pink hair in our small town, passing through or otherwise. But I’m contemplating it. Action may be necessary after what happened the other day.

I was out on the town engaging in a not-so-fascinating adventure: shopping for canning jar lids. I heard someone call out behind me from a distance. It was a stranger’s voice.

Using the logic bestowed on most members of our species, I assumed she was hailing some other person in the store so I ignored her. A moment later that stranger zoomed up behind me and said,

“Oh, I thought you were my mom.”

I’m a warm and motherly person, true. But I was not that stranger’s mother. Worse, she was in my approximate age group. Which means her own mother either looks like someone who gave birth as a kindergartener OR I look really old. (Particularly from behind.)

The stranger muttered something like, “Sorry, she has blonde hair too.”

Raised to be polite at all costs, I simply smiled at her (fist shake at Nice Girl upbringing). I’m not sure what an appropriate response might have been. Snort-enhanced laughter perhaps.

Wait, it gets worse.

I saw her join a woman one aisle over. I witnessed her call this woman “Mom.” Her mother was clearly 15 to 20 years old than I. And wearing tan stretch pants. With tennis shoes. And a quilted handbag.

Alas, I see I’ve fallen right into the basement of People Who Make Superficial Comments despite my regular attempts to be my Better Self.

I’m not mocking my elders, heck, I’m looking forward to being a rowdy old lady myself (which is how I’ll finally outgrow that Nice Girl upbringing). And I’m in no position to judge this woman’s appearance, especially after outing myself as a beauty flunky. As I tell my kids, everyone has a lovely gleaming soul. (Boy do they ever like to hit me back with that one when I get snarky.) But I’m finding the chronological escalator a bit too relentless.

When I was younger I took a constantly functional body and seemingly unlimited time ahead for granted. Now various parts creak and I realize I may not be able to fit all my enthusiasm into an ordinary lifespan. Sometimes I walk by the library windows, noticing a stumpy little woman in the reflection. Who is that woman, I wonder? Why is she carrying my purse? It takes a moment to sink in. That’s me. I may feel like a fourteen-year-old sneaking out of the house in a halter top, but instead I’m some lady wearing a scarf.

I was raised to use everything up. To smack the bottle till it was empty, then add a little water and shake it to get out the last lingering drops. I fully intend to do that with my life too. I’ll be using up every single bit. But if I get any more reminders about being old before my time, you may see me with pink hair. Or at least pink streaks. My quietly rebellious fourteen-year-old self would be proud. And the rowdy old lady I hope to become will understand.

Engage The Window Box Effect

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When I was in college my professors enjoyed crushing what was left of our youthful optimism with miserable statistics about how bad everything was and how rapidly it was getting worse. (Even their cynicism was too small to envision our current issues.) I remember a semester-long course that had to do with reversing urban blight. After being taught about this dire and growing problem we were introduced to the standard remedies. Our professor scornfully dismissed every effort to reverse urban blight. The worst thing that could be done? Coming in from outside the community to impose a do-gooder solution. The only right thing to do was a vast overhaul of our economic structures. (Those structures are even shakier today.) I wrote sufficiently miserable papers to get an A but was left with quiet despair in my ever-hopeful heart.

Soon after that class I read about one woman’s experience of urban blight. She’d lived in the same house for decades, watching her neighborhood decline. There were few jobs and the ones available paid poorly, with no benefits or job security. She sadly listed the local businesses that had left, leaving her area with no grocery, beauty shop, or movie theater. The only places that remained were bars and corner stores selling little in the way of real food. People lost their homes and landlords took over, rarely keeping up the property. The city lost revenue, doing little to keep up with residents’ complaints. It seemed to her that young people were lost too. They swore in front of tiny children and their elders, hung out all hours on street corners, got into public fights, abused drugs. She was quoted as saying that people complained they got no respect from young people, when really the young people had no respect for themselves.

The reason she was being interviewed? She was credited with beginning a tiny urban renaissance that was evident on her street and slowly spreading through the neighborhood.

Here’s how it happened. She’d been in poor health and adjusting to widowhood. Her home had been well maintained over the years but like many wood-sided homes, it began to look shabby when too much time went by without new paint. After her husband died she didn’t do well keeping up with yard work and because the street had changed she rarely sat on the porch as she used to do in years past, chatting with neighbors and greeting young people by name as they went by. It wasn’t just friendliness. When everyone knows everyone, word of misdeeds travels home quicker than an unruly child can get in the door. And when a child really knows the elders on his or her street, they have many more potential role models to benefit them as they grow up. That’s the proverbial “village” it takes to raise a child.

This woman wanted to do something. All she could afford was a few packets of flower seeds. She got out on a spring day to plant the seeds in her long-unused window boxes. She started sitting on her porch every afternoon after watering them, greeting those who went by even though she didn’t know them. Renters in houses where her friends once lived began talking to her. By the time the flowers were in bloom she noticed a difference on the street. She said that people were sweeping their porches and planting flowers of their own. Because they were trying, she got out there to do her part, attempting to take better care of her lawn, telling people who passed by that it was a good way to get exercise she needed. Every time she couldn’t get her mower to start she’d ask a teenager walking down the street to help her. Then before starting to mow, she’d ask for his or her name, shake hands, and thank that youth for doing a good deed by helping her. She made sure to greet those young people by name every time she saw them afterwards.

That summer one family painted their front door. Someone else cleaned up an empty lot that had been a dumping place for trash. People started sitting on their porches, waving to each other, stopping for conversation. It began to feel like a neighborhood again. Building on what’s positive is powerful indeed.

There are plenty of ways people are revitalizing their communities these days. They’re reclaiming empty lots as gardens or play places for their kids, running micro-businesses out of their homes, starting up tool-shares and neighborhood work groups. They’re using social media to connect and collaborate with each other. They’re mentoring kids in the neighborhood and finding ways to get kids more involved in the larger community.  Studies show that urban gardens and other revitalizing efforts make a difference, reducing the crime rate and fostering all sorts of positive relationships. An old theory, kind of the flip side of what I’m calling the Window Box Effect, was called Broken Windows Theory. It posited that minor examples of breakdown (like a few broken windows) leads to greater disorder, dragging down not only the appearance of an area but also leading to crime and property damage. This has largely been disproven because crime is actually deterred when people know they have the power to affect their communities and benefit from strong networks within those communities.

Sure, we have a lot to work to do rebuilding our sorry infrastructure and easing the ever-widening income gap. But it doesn’t hurt to remember that noticing a little beauty can amplify the greater beauty that’s everywhere, waiting to bloom.

There are plenty of ways to apply the Window Box Effect.

Tell me how the Window Box Effect works in your life.

The Antidote Is Awe

cure for stress, coffee ritual, easing worry, finding peace,

My husband and I seek refuge on the porch each afternoon in a ritual known simply as “time for coffee.” Somehow just out the door we’re a step away from the pull of obligations and worries. Here we feel centered by the light through the trees or the sounds of birds or the strange lumbering grace of a bumblebee in the flowers.

Our lives, and yours too, are twisted into knots so complicated we can’t see where they start or end. Those complications are made of bills to be paid, old arguments that didn’t heal, long hours and too little sleep, by endless political bluster and the fallout it causes. It’s good to let go of those tangles, even for a while.

Today on the porch we watched an insect we’d never seen before. It skittered without visible wings, its body open like the spokes on a wheel or the arms of a star. It looked improbable as an undersea creature swimming in the air. We gaped in quiet wonder until it was out of sight.

A few moments of awe are all it takes to remind us that our lives aren’t about those knots. We are pulsing, breathing wonders ourselves in a world bursting with miracles.  It takes looking closely at only one thing to see those miracles, whether watching a spider spin her web or looking at fungi that seemed to spring up overnight.  We exist for so short a time on this beautiful planet. We clamor over concerns when our lives may be better measured by how much awe we allow ourselves.

I have things to do, but it’s time for coffee. I’m heading for the porch. Hope you do the same.

We are, perhaps, uniquely among the earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still.   Lewis Thomas 

Reprint from my farm site Bit of Earth Farm

Give Em The Finger

working with instead of against resistance, leading children, foster learning, non-compliant children, resistant children, non-coercion,

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“Self-trust is the first secret of success.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

No one wants to be cajoled, forced, or coerced. Some of us resist mightily. Such resisters are called all sorts of names: underachieving, non-compliant, difficult, withdrawn, eccentric, or worse.

Human beings naturally resist when our autonomy is threatened. And autonomy is most threatened in childhood because many adults (particularly in the western world) believe children require moment-to-moment instruction, advice, and entertainment. Unlike most of previous human history, children’s lives today are heavily monitored and controlled. Adults keep kids in pre-planned activities,  insist that education proceed in a linear fashion, intervene to minimize difficulties, and provide distractions to prevent even momentary boredom. They do so assuming these efforts will advance learning and boost success.

Yet this puts character development at risk, because children are attracted to dilemmas that help them learn. Learning from mistakes, taking on challenges,  and developing a growth mindset are pivotal for success. So is preservation of a trait found in people at the top of their fields in science, the arts, and entrepreneurship—curiosity. And curiosity arises in unique and unpredictable ways, often appearing after a child has traveled from boredom to inspiration on his or her own.

Coercion also puts the child in an uncomfortable position, because all this control comes from adults with the best intentions. Usually adults who love them. So children, who don’t like overt control any more than you do, typically react somewhere on the spectrum between compliance and resistance. Extreme compliance and they’re less likely to think for themselves, developing an external rather than internal locus of control.  Extreme resistance and they’re likely to face ever more punitive efforts to get them to comply. Neither reaction is what adults want or expect.

Which leads me to a story about Transcendentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He and his son Edward were trying to get a calf through a barn door. Emerson pushed from behind while his son pulled on the calf’s ear. The heifer wouldn’t move an inch despite a great deal of effort exerted by the two men. Emerson thought back over his scientific and literary readings in hopes of figuring out some way of getting the reluctant animal to move but didn’t come up with any solutions. They continued trying, to the amusement of a servant woman who was passing by. She offered a finger to the calf. Easily led by its desire to suckle, the calf followed her at once.

The wisdom of capitalizing on natural tendencies is the key to good animal husbandry. It’s probably a key to decent human relationships as well. I’m not for a moment suggesting that children are calves. (In fact, I’d rather see calves left with their mothers to suckle than led into a barn by capitalizing on that unmet need.) Children need rules, responsibilities, and the expectation that they’ll treat others with compassion. They need to be nurtured by adults who understand that pushing and pulling aren’t useful ways to help children mature. And they need the freedom to learn in ways that are best for them. At any age, those of us who aren’t oppressed by coercive relationships or controlling institutions gladly seek out advice as we need it, find role models who inspire us, and advance in the direction of our greatest gifts.

“No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.” John Holt

Staring Down Worry

mystical experience of fear, metaphysical encounter with darkness, overcoming evil, facing worry, staring at Satan, prince of darkness in my room,

Image courtesy of pitrisek.deviantart.com

Something happened the night Worry appeared to me.

Some of us are chronic worriers. There’s probably an adaptive reason for this, since humans who envisioned potential dangers would be more likely to survive and pass on their genes. But saber-toothed tigers aren’t lurking by our front doors these days. I know for a fact that worry generates misery while producing absolutely no benefit. Giving it up, however, isn’t an easy matter. Worry runs in our heads like movies of disaster to come, unbidden yet powerful, making some of us wary of the smallest choices.

I worried from the earliest time I can remember. It may have an adaptive start in my life too. As a tiny child I spent many nights struggling to breathe through asthma attacks. When I was five years old I got a bit of food lodged in my esophagus. When my worried mother called the doctor he said it couldn’t possibly still be stuck hours later, I was just overreacting. I stayed awake all night spitting my saliva into a bowl, since even a moment’s inattention caused it to run down my windpipe and sent me into fits of choking. The next morning my parents took me to the ER where a surgeon removed a very stuck bit of food. The year I turned nine my grandparents all died, catapulting me into years of obsessive worry that everyone else I loved would die too. I was assaulted by an adult when I was 13, telling no one until years later. The focus of my worry widened as I spent years searching for the causes of evil and suffering. Worry continued to be my companion when I hit my 20’s. Each of my babies were born with medical problems. The unknown dangers threatening even the most innocent lives suddenly resided in my house. Chances are my chronic insomnia has roots in all this worry.

One night as I lay awake worrying, I had an experience that profoundly changed me. That night I had plenty of things to worry about: serious concerns about my children’s health, our finances, and other problems. Normally I fought off worry with gratitude—focusing on the comfort of my family sleeping safely nearby and the many blessings in my life. But worry was there haunting my mind and hollowing my body.

Sudden as a car crash, something happened.

I know it sounds bizarre but it was as real as the lamp on my desk is now. I became aware of a huge black column next to my bed. It was comprised of the most immense energy I’d ever experienced. It was dark and powerful with a presence that seemed alive and completely aware of my thoughts.

I had the sense that it was of such infinite size and strength that it went through the floor and out the roof, stretching far in both directions. I should have been more frightened, but the moment this column appeared I realized, as if the message hit all my cells at once, that I had summoned this darkness.

It was born of my own intense worry. It was a profound lesson that went through me the way wisdom does, filling not just our brains but also our bodies and souls. Lying there, I resolved to bring forth every ounce of light I could muster.

The instant I thought to do this, whatever that column was disappeared.

I woke my husband to tell him. He kindly assured me that I was nuts. Until this post I’ve only told one other friend. But in today’s atmosphere of worry, I wanted to share this image—of fear so huge that it manifests next to you. It taught me that worry is a kind of unintentional evil. It presupposes things will go wrong. It’s the opposite of faith.

I’m not entirely cured of worrying nor would I ever change those earlier years of worry. They’ve made me stronger, more open to the beauty found just beyond despair, and left me with a positive quest. But ever since that moment, years ago, I have made a conscious effort to reorient myself.

Ironically, my family has been through times more difficult than I could have imagined back when this happened—crime, financial hardship, loss, and grief. But I know the antidote—to shine forth with all the light I can. Some days I’m practically optimism’s parasite.

But really, if all my moments of hope coalesce into some kind of vision, I can’t wait to see it.

metaphysical experience of evil, starting at evil, facing Satan, summoning fear, transcending worry, transcending fear, overcoming worry, renewing optimism,

Image courtesy of m0thyyku.deviantart.com