Freedom on the Fourth

Statue of liberty
As we approach the 4th of July, American Independence Day, I have been thinking of what it means to be free. Freedom, of course, has different meanings to different people. There is freedom on the level of nations and the rule of law- a freedom fundamentally concerned with rights, but there is also freedom on a more personal level.

What does it mean to be personally free? Is freedom about the absence of constraints? Are we free only when no others have a claim on our lives, our allegiances, our affections? Yes- certainly that is a type of freedom and one perhaps that we wish for when we are feeling overwhelmed and pulled at from all directions.

But I think for most of us, that type of freedom would quickly grow tiresome. If freedom is only about being free of constraints, we will find ourselves isolated and alone. However, freedom can also be about the opportunity and the room to grow into the best versions of ourselves- to fulfill our unique potential and purpose[1]. And often this means being in connection with others and connection can mean constraints.

As a wife, mother, friend, daughter, sister,  coach and teacher, there are many constraints placed upon me. I am not free to pick up and travel to exotic locales on a whim as no one would be there to pick my kids up after jujitsu or tuck them into bed at night. Nor am I free of financial or emotional obligations or those associated with my work. But if I define freedom so narrowly I will never be free.

For me, freedom is in the broader choices I have made and the way in which I choose to live my life. I have entered into these obligations freely and happily. I have bound my life to others in service of something greater- a higher calling than just my individual desires at a given moment. I have freely chosen to participate in the world in a certain way and it has led to an expansiveness of spirit and a great deal of joy.

My freedom is my own and deeply fulfilling for me. For others, the choices I have made may seem confining (or perhaps not confining enough!) but personal freedom means the ability to pursue your own path- making the choices that are right for you.

To be sure- there times when we make choices that do not feel like our own- they are the ones we make trying to please others that also require us to sacrifice some essential part of ourselves. Indeed, one of the regrets that people most often have at death is that they did not follow their own dreams- that they did not pursue the opportunity to become the best versions of themselves.

Thus freedom is a balancing act (and what in life isn’t?). But the first step to achieving this balance is to imagine what the best versions of ourselves look and feel like and then pursue opportunities to become that. Make no mistake- personal freedom is not always easy to achieve, but it is always worth the effort.

So on this 4th of July while you celebrate and honor the ways in which you are free, take a moment to declare your personal independence and honor your path to personal freedom.


[1] Isaiah Berlin discussed this in his influential essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” in which he defined the two types of freedom as positive and negative liberty. Berlin was writing about political philosophy and was concerned about the excesses of positive liberty as applied at a state level. But my remarks here are more confined to the personal level- leaving macro analysis for another time and place.


Bye Bye, Brontosaurus


“Mom, what’s your favorite aquatic dinosaur that gives birth to live young?” I still remember my train of thought when my five year old asked me this question. It went something like this: “Umm. What? They exist? There are multiple aquatic dinosaurs that give birth to live young? When did this happen?” I think I came up with something like, “I don’t know, honey. What’s yours?” (Apparently my choices included – but were not limited to- plesiosaurus, ichthyosaurus and the liopleurodon.)

As a child I learned about dinosaurs and even remember a model set I had with little figurines. But it felt basically like there were five dinosaurs; Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Raptors, Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Brontosaurus (that apparently is no longer a thing- it is now called the Apatosaurus). As my son developed the normal child interest in dinosaurs we bought many books on the subject and suddenly I was faced with dinosaurs that not only could I not pronounce their names, but that I could swear had not existed when I was a child.

At the moment my son asked me, I was confronted with my own ignorance on a topic about which I thought I had some knowledge. I began to feel that perhaps many of the things I knew to be true were no longer so. I’d like to say that I found this realization exciting, that I found possibilities in questioning received knowledge exhilarating. But truthfully, it made me nervous, defensive and disoriented.

I remember feeling a similar disorientation when scientists announced that Pluto was no longer a planet. Or that ulcers are caused by a bacteria. Or when I encountered certain ideas about non-attachment from Buddhist tradition that were so alien to my own Jewish upbringing. And the truth is that with advances in science, new models of business, interactions with different cultures and customs, and indeed, with each new life experience, we are all regularly confronted with situations and information that challenge our default and learned understandings of the world.

How we rise (or not) to these occasions will, in many ways, determine the way we live our lives. My reaction to my son’s first questions was to evade and hide my ignorance. I was embarrassed that my 5 year old’s knowledge exceeded my own. Eventually, I learned to be proud of his encyclopedic knowledge and have come to respond with curiosity, learning from him and growing as a result..

It is not easy. Sometimes the thing that changes seems central to our understanding of the world and accepting that change means a reevaluation of our received knowledge and way of seeing. Change at this level can be frightening. Many, when faced with such a challenge, retreat in fear, preferring the certainty of old ways- even as they learn that those old ways are no longer supported by fact. Lacking flexibility, they begin to see new experiences and information as threats to their ways of living and those who challenge their views as enemies.

However, if we can learn to respond to new information and situations with curiosity and openness and not defensiveness and fear, we will find that the world is full of opportunity and new possibilities. If we can commit to being life-long learners, we can avoid ossification. If we can approach our deficits as opportunities, we can escape becoming fossils in this new world. We can grow and evolve.

So Plesiosaur is my favorite aquatic dinosaur that gives birth to live young. (But Pluto will always be a planet to me…)

Life Lessons from Children’s Books Part II- Mole and the Baby Bird

Mole and the Baby bird

I love giving books as baby presents. Long after the adorable onesies and outfits have been outgrown, the books remain. In addition to the twenty copies of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar that we received when my son was born, we also got a copy of Mole and the Baby Bird– a beautiful story by Marjorie Newman. With a sweet narrative and gentle drawings, Newman and illustrator Patrick Benson tell the story of young mole who finds an abandoned baby bird and adopts it.

Mole responsibly cares for his pet bird despite the admonitions of his parents that it is not a pet bird, but a wild one. When the bird begins to fly, Mole builds a cage for it, not wanting it to fly away. The bird is sad. Mole is sad and his parents are sad. His parents tell him the bird should be free.

Up until this point, all the pictures in the books are small and framed by white space on the page. Then, Mole’s grandfather takes him on a walk- allowing Mole to walk in open fields- and the illustrations suddenly take over the whole page. The reader feels as Mole does- “I’m flying” or “nearly,” as grandpa says. Mole, standing on a hillside with a bird’s eye view, suddenly understands his bird. Having experienced the freedom and openness of the field, Mole returns home and sets his bird free “because he loved it. Then he cried.” But we are told that the “next day Mole went into the forest. He saw his bird flying, soaring, free. And Mole was glad.”

The story can clearly be understood as an object lesson in “If you love someone, set them free.” But I think there is a more subtle lesson in the book- and one that is important for parents, friends, teachers, and coaches alike. Mole cannot hear what his parents tell him. It is not real for him and he cannot quite get out of his own perspective and find another way of viewing the situation. It is mole’s grandfather who, without saying a word about the baby bird, is able to help Mole do the right thing.

By allowing Mole to experience what it means to be a bird, Mole’s grandfather lets Mole come to the realization himself. It is only when Mole is empowered to discover things on his own, that he is able to grow.

Too often as parents we want to protect our children. As friends, we are often convinced of the right way of doing things. As teachers we want to instruct our students in the correct way to learn. And sometimes as coaches we have wishes for our clients. We want to tell these people that we care for the right way to do things and keep them from feeling hurt or pain. We want to teach them the lessons where it is safe. But when we do this, we deny them the opportunity to learn it for themselves.

In the story, Mole’s grandfather takes Mole on a journey of self-discovery. He allows Mole to experience the world and come to his own conclusions. In the end, Mole makes a painful and difficult decision. But it is his decision. There will not be a book focusing on Mole the adolescent or young adult complaining to his therapist that his parents made him set the bird free and that he has been resentful ever since. Mole will grow up knowing he owned his choices- however difficult they may have been- and he will be a better adult mole for it (or so I imagine).

We must learn to support our children, friends, students and clients on their journeys- helping them see their own potential and find their own paths. It is not always easy- but if we love them, we must set them free.

The Call of Stories

The first time I taught an interpersonal communication class I assigned the opening chapter of The Call of Stories by the great child psychiatrist, Harvard professor, and writer, Robert Coles. In the thirty pages I assigned, Coles lays out a compelling argument for medical practitioners to hear the stories of their patients and not just reduce them to jargon and theory. I asked my students after reading the chapter to tell me a story about themselves that would let me get to know them (without disclosing deeply personal information.)

We are all born as storytellers. Some are more skilled, more descriptive etc, but we are each the protagonist and the narrator of our own lives. In trying to make sense of the day to day and the random, of the trajectory of our lives, we build narratives. Our stories are filled with primary, secondary and tertiary characters, characters who play pivotal roles and then recede and characters who stay in our lives, changing and remaining constant.

At the time, I conceived of the exercise for my students as a way for me to get to know  them and for them to engage in some introspection. And I did learn some fascinating things about my students- I got to know them much better than I would have if I had asked a more directed question. But what I also learned was that many of my students did not trust their own ability to be story tellers.

My students, who had undoubtedly told friends and families numerous stories in their lives, had difficulty crafting a story about themselves. Some came to me struggling with such an open ended instruction. I began to feel that somewhere along the way my students had learned to accept other people’s narratives about them and lacked confidence in their ability to construct their own. Throughout the class I encouraged them to find their own voices, craft their own narratives and I knew that part of my job was to listen.

I learned a lot about my students that semester.  I also learned the importance of listening to stories. When I saw each student through their stories- in their own voices- they were more vibrant and alive than my gradebook suggested. When my students were empowered to tell their own stories, they grew in confidence and as people.

A common coaching tool is to ask clients to write their own stories- designing a narrative that stretches from the past into the future. The practice of consciously telling your own story can be transformative.

But as we craft our own stories, it is important to remember that everyone else is engaged in a similar act. Everyone you meet has a story- with joy and pain, triumphs and defeats. Being aware of this fosters greater understanding. The first step in creating that understanding is remembering that each person is a product of their stories and the second step is remembering to listen.

Befores and Afters

child hand
I remember the day it began- because of course you never forget. And the odd thing about those days is that you don’t realize when you wake up that it will be a day that changes your life. When you wake up it is just a day. It is a Monday or a Wednesday. It’s just a day. For me it was Sunday.

It started with a birthday party for a friend’s toddler. It started by watching my three year old son playing and showing off my ten week old daughter. After all the excitement my son was tired. Like I always did, I went to put him down for a nap. I snuggled him as he drifted off to sleep. Or rather, he should have drifted off to sleep.

Instead he began twitching his hand in mine and then he was shaking rhythmically in my arms. And I didn’t know it as I screamed for help, as I waited for the ambulance, as I watched helplessly while he seized, that it had begun. I didn’t know about the hospital stays, the sleep deprived EEG’s, the med evac flights, the doctor’s visits, the meds, the side effects, the IEP’s, the sleep studies and all the other parts of parenting a child with epilepsy. At that moment I only knew that my baby was sick and that I couldn’t help him.

But it had begun. That day changed the trajectory of our lives. I found strength I did not know I had. I learned (slowly) that whatever expert I met, I was still the expert on my son and that I needed to stand up for what I felt in my heart to be right. I learned that parenting a child with a serious illness is a marathon and not a sprint. I learned that there are good days and bad days and though the good days often outnumber the bad, the bad ones can be so bad that they leave you reeling. I learned that asking for help on those bad days is the only way to survive it.

I also learned that people can get used to anything. The medication regimen that once seemed so difficult to coordinate became routine and the schedules that once overwhelmed us became second nature. It all just became the new normal, such that some days I forgot what it was ever like before it all began.

And it’s funny because although I can mark the day it began, I can’t mark the day it ended. We are mercifully three years seizure and medication free. I no longer watch him vigilantly while he plays (though watching him twitch in his sleep still terrifies me). I no longer worry every time I leave the house. I have adjusted to our new “new normal.”

But it’s not the same as it was before it began. I and my family were changed and marked by that day and the ones that followed. We were altered in ways mundane and meaningful. I am a better mother and advocate now than I was on that day- not that I was bad before or that I wanted to learn in the way that I did.

Life happened on that day. I can mark the before and the after. I also know that there will be other befores and afters- hopefully less traumatic than that one. Every morning I wake up, life can happen to me. And I know now I can survive it.

Life Lessons From Street Signs: Slow Children At Play

slow children

My rabbi growing up once gave a sermon in which he said that he and a colleague, in a sort of rabbinical competition, would “compete” to see who could come up with the best sermon based on road signs. I have been thinking a lot about that lately as I drive past signs that say “Slow Children at Play.”

It is a command for drivers to take note and slow down. But it might also be a reminder to parents and teachers as well. Slow down- our children are at play. Or at least they should be. Sadly, what strikes me when I see the signs is the absolute absence of children playing.

In the afternoons neighborhoods that once echoed with the boisterous cries of children are now eerily silent. Children are at activities- from soccer, to dance, to football, to violin, to math Olympics, to tutoring in foreign languages. Our children are so busy being prepared to be talented adults (or excellent college applicants) that they are seldom allowed to be children.

And it’s funny- because I know a lot of unhappy adults who look back nostalgically on their own childhoods when they were carefree. But our children are not carefree. They are stressed and over-scheduled. They are tested and quantified. They are seldom at play.

Perhaps it is a result of our collective anxiety. The job market is tight and the world seems ever more competitive. We are anxious about our own futures, and are thus also anxious about our children’s. We want to give them that edge that we lack (maybe if we had been fluent in Chinese we would have gotten that promotion). Or maybe we are so miserable ourselves that we can’t stand seeing children happy. Maybe their carefree laughter is painful to us because we don’t make time for it in our own lives.

But play and downtime are necessary for children- especially as the common core pushes literature, and the arts, and recess out of our kids’ school day. Ironically play is also essential for global competition. Unstructured play gives children the opportunity to make (and break) their own rules which in turn fosters creativity and that ever sought after “outside the box” thinking.

Play helps children develop independence and self-reliance because children at play are entertaining themselves and do not need adult supervision (or help) to do it. Play encourages problem solving and develops a sense of internal locus of control- a measure of your belief in your own ability to control events in your life which psychologists find relates to happiness, well-being and lower levels of depression and anxiety.

We are moving so fast that our children never get to slow down- to be children at play. The result is that they lose the capacity to play. They become the zombies that haunt our popular culture– drones in the world- marching aimlessly and endlessly towards some elusive (and destructive) goal.

There are many reasons we do not allow our children to play as they used to; Dual career families (by choice and by necessity) seek out structured activities to keep them occupied during work hours, a culture of fear that makes us believe our neighborhoods are under siege (when in fact crime has been falling for the past 20 years), and a particularly corrosive culture of competition that permeates affluent communities. We may not even notice how little our children are playing, because we ourselves work so hard and play so little.

But children are the canaries in the coal mine. Rising rates of teen suicide and suicide attempts as well as high rates of childhood/teen depression and drug addiction should warn us that what we are doing is not good for them, and indeed, it is not good for us (adults have seen similar rises in suicide and drug use).

We need to the see the street sign as a command- Slow Children at Play. Slow down- let your children play. Slow down, let yourself play. Even if it does mean taking a Detour.

Rage Fatigue


I have an ambivalent relationship with social media sites (as I have discussed here). But I am on social media sites most days. Generally I use social media to keep up with friends, conduct business and keep apprised of developments in fields of interest. By and large I am impressed with the range of interests my friends have and the discussions they start and with which they are engaged. I love seeing photos of their vacations and children and enjoy humorous updates from their lives. I have also been known to enjoy the occasional cat video.

But lately I have noticed that my adrenal glands are fatigued- you know the ones that secrete hormones to respond to dangerous situations. The adrenal glands are activated to a greater or lesser extent by stress, fear, anger and rage. And this is where social media come into play. Because I have found that many of the feeds I follow are dedicated to creating anger and rage. Their teasing headlines inform me that I will be “shocked,” “horrified,” and “terrified” by the content of their links. Sometimes they promise me heartwarming links but these too stimulate the adrenal system by releasing dopamine, the neurotransmitter related to pleasure. Additionally, the heartwarming links are often stories of triumph over adversity, pain and injustice.

Social media, with their unending devotion to click-bait, are designed to keep me in a state of emotional agitation. (I should note that cable news outlets and talk radio are similarly designed). And I am no different than most social media participants in that my social circle tends to be comprised of people with similar social and political beliefs. The result is that my social media world is an echo chamber in which my friends and I supply one another with evidence supporting our pre-existing beliefs and fuel each other’s rage.

And my group, like most on the internet, is angry and scared. Our heightened adrenal states of anger and rage, designed for an age in which fight or flight were the only two responses, do not serve us well. On an individual basis, these states are physically and emotionally exhausting. The result is adrenal fatigue, in which the constantly stimulated adrenal system begins to shut down. (I do not mean to suggest that the internet alone is to blame for this condition, but our heightened stress levels are part of the problem and the internet creates and feeds off of that stress.)

On a social level- the results are equally as toxic. Listening to only those who agree with us, we become more strident and more polarized. We are more likely to see those who disagree with us as the enemy- insensitive, cold, irrational and monstrous. If all we read tells us we must resist tyranny, then seeing our political opponents as tyrants means that we are unable to compromise because compromise is immoral in such a view.

So, I am tired. I am tired from being angry and scared all the time. My options for real action as a result of what I read are often limited and so I am left with agitation and little way to dissipate it. The result is helplessness and fatigue which only feeds into the above cycle (it is easier to scare people who are already feeling helpless).

Because so much of my work and professional circle is online, unplugging is not a real option for me. However, I am making new rules for myself. I am deleting feeds that play on my fears. I am resisting the urge to click on links that I know will anger me. I cannot ignore all content that is upsetting, because we live in a world that frankly is often upsetting, but I will try and limit the quantity I consume.

I am also choosing certain areas with which I can engage and about which I am passionate. These areas will be my focus for now and I will take my activism off-line as well. Human contact and connection will hopefully mitigate some of the feelings of anger and helplessness.

We must be wary of business models that are predicated on rage and fear. We must understand that their effects are damaging to us personally and culturally. Whatever their motives are, cable news channels, viral web content providers or political groups are all engaged in the manufacturing of rage. And the world has enough problems without such agitation.