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

The Bomb & Me

alive because of the bomb, believe in fate, anti-war, nonviolence, anti-nuclear activist,

Why do we take any one path in our lives? Perhaps a mix of choices and abilities are simply stirred in the cauldron we call childhood. Or maybe there are elements we can’t fathom.

Here’s one reason for my wonderment.

I was one of those kids who worried about every chained dog and crying baby. I wanted to understand why the world contained cruelty and more, how I could fix it.  When I was ten years old I learned about the splitting of the atom. It struck me with cold horror, although I couldn’t articulate why. Before that I assumed most adults were looking out for the welfare of kids and trees and animals under their care. But once that information sank in I was afraid that grown ups were terribly misguided. When I asked questions I found out my country had dropped two atom bombs on Japan and that it now used nuclear power. Adult logic suddenly seemed like a fairy tale. It wasn’t until years later that I heard what J. Robert Oppenheimer, called the “father of the atomic bomb,” thought when the first one was detonated. A verse from the Bhagavad Gita came to his mind: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Cold horror indeed. Even on sunny days I thought about death.

As the child of conservative parents, I don’t recall any family discussions about nuclear weapons or nuclear energy, pro or con. The few times I asked I was told the bombs had to be dropped to end the war and nuclear power was a safe, clean form of energy. I kept to myself the chilling fear I felt whenever I thought about the splitting of atoms. That is, until my father’s old college roommate was in town. Before his visit I was told he was a smart man who had done well for himself. (In other words, little girls must be extra polite.) And I knew my father hadn’t seen this friend since before I was born. All good reasons to mind my manners and listen quietly to the adults talk. Which I did, until I heard him mention he was an engineer for a nuclear power plant. I gasped (not a polite response) and asked him about the dangers of radioactive waste.

He gestured to the light switch on the wall dismissively, asking, “Do you expect the lights to go on or do you know how to generate your own electricity?” As a child still afraid of the dark, I didn’t have much to say. But his response didn’t ease my concerns. That experience taught me to get the facts before I introduced a subject and also to do something about my concerns. Thank you sir.

I’m sure my ten-year-old self would be disappointed with me. I haven’t devoted myself to freeing the world of nuclear waste and nuclear weapons, nor to advancing peace. But it’s an issue that has resounded in my life. I worked with anti-nuclear weapons activist groups for years and taught nonviolence workshops even longer. I campaigned and testified against the opening of two nuclear plants in Ohio (unsuccessfully) and against a five state radioactive waste dump (successfully). When my children were small we attended Hiroshima Day observances each year, floating traditional lantern boats with messages of peace to commemorate the lives lost.  We also hosted a child from the Chernobyl region for five summers, a child we grew to love and whose health is still threatened by elevated background radiation in her homeland.

Then I learned what splitting the atom meant to me, personally.

My father never had much to say about serving in the U.S. Navy in the closing months of World War II except that he had been a radar man. But in the last years of his life we heard more. He told us about one day in particular. He and the entire crew of their ship were called on deck. They thought it was to formally welcome a new commander. Instead they were given a classified briefing.

They were told all leaves were cancelled and all communication with home would be heavily censored. Their ship was being retrofitted to leave for an upcoming top-secret coordinated air and sea attack on Japan. Their ship would be third in line of the first fleet. It was considered a “sacrifice” ship. My father, a quiet religious teen who got drafted right out of high school, faced certain death along with the rest of his shipmates.

A very short time later, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. My father lived to attend college, become a teacher, get married, and have a family because of the unspeakable violence wrought by those bombs. I am alive because of those bombs.

That I’ve felt driven since earliest childhood to advance a peaceful, nuclear free world now seems to have roots more mysterious than I can comprehend. I don’t know if that’s destiny at work,  but it calls me to believe that our paths are far more complex than we imagine.

fate, destiny, predestination, peacemaker, Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

Healing The Next Generation

reducing parental stress, epigenics, improving the future,

Image courtesy of corazondedios.deviantart.com

The science of epigenetics shows that the choices we make today will resonate in the minds and bodies of our grandchildren.

How? Each of us has biochemical markers that signal our genes in response to input such as nutrients, toxins, even behavior. As a result potential gene expression is switched on or off.

epigenic healing, epigenics and society, parental stress and children,

Nucleosome Wikipedia

These epigenetic changes persist well after the original stimulus for change is gone. Some of them pass on through generations like biologic memories of what our ancestors ate and breathed, as well has how they felt about their experiences. This also means that our personal choices today can become a living inheritance sent on to those we won’t live to see.

As Duke University genetics researcher Randy Jirtle, Ph. D recently commented,

We can no longer argue whether genes or environment has a greater impact on our health and development, because both are inextricably linked. Each nutrient, each interaction, each experience can manifest itself through biochemical changes that ultimately dictate gene expression, whether at birth or 40 years down the road.

epigenic changes, effects of parental nurturance,

Image courtesy of corazondedios.deviantart.com

Much of the research about epigenetics correlates to earlier studies showing that parental stress has a negative and long-lasting effect on their children, often well into adulthood. That’s true of the effect of prenatal stress, parental stress during early childhood,  parental depression, conflict in the home, unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. Epigenetics may, in part, explain the strong correlation between these stressors and resulting poor mental and physical health in the next generation.

But there’s good news too. Studies have shown that early nurturance can flip “dimmer switches” on genes related to stress, permanently shaping offspring to be calmer and better able to handle new situations. Healthier too.

healing generational depression, healing generational anxiety,

Chances are good that I was born with genes predisposing me to anxiety or depression.  My sorrowful grandmother nurtured my own mother as best she could despite very stressful circumstances. In turn, I was lovingly nurtured and well attached to my parents. As a result, these predispositions were more likely to be dimmed or switched off in me. I hope to carry on this legacy of positive epigenetic changes by gently parenting my children. Epigenetics show us that grandparents and parents can bless children to come (including foster children and adopted children) even if they don’t live to see those children.

As a society, we’ve known for a long time that serious parental stress leaves a legacy of pain into the next generation. Maybe the science of epigenetics will be enough to convince us that parental support and nurturance doesn’t just benefit the child. It also benefits society as a whole.

healing future generations,

Image courtesy of corazondedios.deviantart.com

Additional resources

Epigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance by Richard C. Francis

The Genie in Your Genes by Dawson Church

The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ by David Shenk

Accepting Challenges, Embracing Mistakes

children need challenges, mistakes can be good,

Escalera al cielo by David Oliva

Interesting problems and exciting risks are life’s calisthenics. They stretch us in directions we need to grow. Children are particularly oriented this way. They think up huge questions and search for the answers. They face fears. They puzzle over inconsistencies in what is said and done around them. They relentlessly challenge themselves to achieve social, physical, or intellectual feats that (from a child’s perspective) seem daunting. They struggle for mastery even when dozens of attempts don’t provide them any success. It’s a testament to courage that they continue to try.

let children face challenges,

Illustration from ”Lustige Gesellschaft” by Franz, Count von Pocci

Sometimes children are accused of “looking for trouble” when they simply yearn to vanquish dragons of their own making. A child’s desire to challenge him- or herself is at times as unrelenting as physical growth.

As adults we do this in our own way. If we don’t have enticing challenges, we may develop a state of mental friction to compensate. It seems to be a very human trait to clutter up our days with trouble if we have no more engaging prospects. We worry, rehash old issues, overreact, or find complications where there may be none. As the roots of a plant become more tightly entangled once they are pot bound, an individual without the freedom to take on greater challenges often gets caught up in the same confining struggles.

challenges are necessary, life without risk, take risks,

Image by Keith Williamson

One thing we can learn from children is the way they are attracted to dilemmas that help them learn and grow. Children who are nurtured in a healthy, free range learning environment are invigorated by the challenges they seek out. They expand their own frontiers on a comfortable, self-regulating timetable. Perhaps people of all ages define themselves, in part, through the challenges they take on and the way they resolve those challenges.

Oftentimes we deprive children of normal day-to-day challenges because of our own time constraints. As adults we are often distracted and focused on moving forward. It takes considerable tolerance to keep from stepping in and doing for children what will take them much longer to do for themselves, such as solving problems, making choices, completing tasks, and accepting the consequences. But when we recognize that even these small challenges are catalysts for growth, it is easier for us to step back and let children face them as they occur. These are normal stressors. Dealing with them gives children the critical experiences that lead to self-reliance.

accept challenges, embrace mistakes,

pdphoto.org

So much about today’s “managed childhood” has developed in order to prevent young people from making mistakes. We think we know the prescription for success, but as we’ve seen, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t allow individuals to thrive. It also denies them the very human right to learn in the way best for them and to listen to the callings that prompt them. The “right way” to proceed in our culture usually means health, popularity, good grades, attractiveness, college degree, career, marriage, mortgage, and so on. We’ve created these societal expectations largely to cushion our youth from mistakes. But error is inevitable even if we avoid all risks. That narrow, preordained path is anathema to genuine experience. Setting rigid standards for children sends a message. It says to them that failure is the worst outcome and that our acceptance is conditional.

What we might do instead is recognize that courage is required to go one’s own way, that mistakes are inevitable, and that the outcome is authenticity. The real challenge lies in accepting each person’s possibilities. That’s how each of us proceeds when we do what we can with what we have in order to live our lives fully. The path not taken may be the journey regretted forever. That’s why we need to honor mistakes as important passages in our lives too. They help us face the next challenge with a wry smile and new determination, knowing another lesson has been learned.

Excerpt from Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything

Ask The Most Powerful Question

wisdom of elders, ask the most powerful question, what should I know, is there something you want to tell me,

Image courtesy of dimkatm.deviantart.com

“I ask once or twice a year,” she told me. “But it’s a powerful question. It should only be used wisely.”

I was interviewing a woman I’ll call Ms. C. for an article on faith and spirituality. She was truly an elder. I don’t mean age-wise, although she appeared to be in her mid-seventies or beyond. By elder I mean the sort of person who lives deeply and gladly passes along what she has learned.

Ms. C. dressed up for our meeting. She wore a navy blue suit and dazzlingly patterned silk shirt, a tiny hat perched on her elaborately coiffed hair, and bright red lipstick that made her dark skin glow. The pants and sweater I’d tossed on looked pretty casual by comparison.

Ms. C talked about seeing the divine in all things. She spoke precisely, with poetic imagery, but also slid easily into humorous retorts. I felt a wondrous enlargement of spirit in her presence and was, frankly, reluctant to end our interview.

Then she mentioned that she employed the most powerful question of all.

I waited to find out what that might be.

She told me that it should be asked only when the questioner felt strong and ready for the answers. And it should only be asked of those who loved you and could be trusted to tell the truth.

She told me she asked her husband (of 42 years) every now and then. She also asked her sisters and close friends, usually when she felt prompted by some unknown impulse.

The question seems simple: “Is there something I should know?”

She said the answers it evokes are rarely simple.

When Ms. C. kept receiving important and sometimes surprising answers to that question it inspired her friends to take up the question too. She gave me a few examples.

~A neighbor was told by everyone she asked that she needed to seek medical help for a condition she thought was under control.

~A friend was advised to stop wearing clothes that were too tight and too young for her.

~A fellow churchgoer found out that his son was back on drugs.

~One person was informed that a long-standing habit of his infuriated his best friend.

~A former co-worker learned that she came across as haughty and cold, and needed to learn how to get past her shyness to let people see her warmth.

~A friend was told that a secret he thought had been buried long ago was out but no one had wanted to break the news to him.

Ms. C. says that she mostly listens to what the Quakers call the “small still voice” inside her but she has one ear open to what else she might need to know.

I tend to think there’s peace right beyond the need of answers but I won’t deny that Ms. C’s question has its uses. Nor will I deny that truth-telling feels wonderfully liberating.

Do you have a truth just itching to get free, if only a certain person would ask you?

And what about truth seeking? Will you be asking the most powerful question?

What the French Revolution Can Teach Us About Parenting

A Deck of Cards Dating Back to the French Revolution Where Kings Have Been Replaced With Wise Men (Solo, Plato, Cato, & Brutus), and Queens With Virtues (Justice, Union, Prudence, & Force) La Bibliofilia

The parent I would become was changed by history. Or at least by revelations history can offer.

At 18, I signed up for a college history course simply to fulfill a requirement.  Although I’ve forgotten the professor’s name, I’ll never forget the man. He was oddly proportioned with a short round body that didn’t match his oversized head. His florid face, full lips, and bulging eyes gave the impression that he was continually strangled by an unseen hand. Stadium seating in our introductory history class of nearly 100 students made him look even more foreshortened as he stood below us at the front of the room. He used no visual aids, no videos, only an occasional map that he drew himself on the board. He spoke without notes about a subject that impassioned him. As he lectured his voice started to quaver, his hands trembled in front of him, and he leaned forward looking at us with red-rimmed eyes. He was overwhelmed with the task. His lessons had to sink in.

That lesson was the same no matter what era we studied. He taught us to look at all of history using one pivotal question.

What happens when people are deprived of (or otherwise separated from) the consequences of their words and actions?

We studied the elite in various societies throughout history who were insulated from the consequences of their actions, even if the working poor around them suffered more and more from decisions made by the elite. We analyzed the larger impact this had on the culture over time. Then we narrowed it down. We looked at rulers who were typically brought up with all the advantages of privilege. Those who rarely experienced the consequences of their actions from childhood on tended to make decisions that resulted in tragedy, sometimes immediately, sometimes in ways that resounded for generations.

Any time we stumble on truth we see how it interconnects with larger truths. That was the case with my history professor’s question. I saw that theme, consequences, everywhere I looked—- in literature, in politics, and in the news being reported each day. I saw it in relationships around me. And on weekends, while volunteering with a project that offered services to teen addicts, I saw it there too.

So I vowed to use what I’d gained from my history professor when I became a parent. When my toddlers made a mess, even spilling a drink, I offered them a rag and some assistance cleaning it up but I didn’t do it for them. That work was their own. As they got older I expected them to give me three reasons when they wanted to do something outside our normal rules. They learned impeccable logic in the service of their own interests. And when they were teens I didn’t keep them from taking reasonable risks, knowing that they had developed a fine awareness of their own abilities.  I certainly suffer at times from parenting this way.  My kids expect ME to deal with the consequences of my own words and actions.  I can’t rant about an idiot driver on the road without one of my kids telling me it’s an opportunity to practice inner peace. That’s what happens when my words come back to bite me.

Too many kids are deprived of the consequences on a small scale. When parents help a child on and off playground equipment for fear of falls, the child is taught she can’t trust her own body. If a parent takes over building a model when the child becomes frustrated, the child is taught he is incompetent. If a parent refuses to let a child take the blame after hurting another child, she is being taught to avoid responsibility (and empathy). These aren’t the messages parents intend to convey. They’re hoping to make things safer, easier, and happier for their children. But frustration, embarrassment, even a few bruises are important parts of the maturing process. Attempts to make childhood frictionless are misguided. Worse, the consequences of words and actions on a larger scale may be much harder for these children to understand. At least that’s what history tells us.

Maria Theresa of Savoy, comtesse d'Artois