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

Storytelling
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.

Rage Fatigue

anger2

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.

Fighting the Zombie Apocalypse

http://lyricallywired.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/zombiesilhouettes.jpg

This weekend I went to the see the newest X-Men movie (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and after sitting through endless previews for depressing action movies and the dark vision of the film itself, I found myself feeling pretty hopeless. Our entertainment environment is filled right now with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic imagery. We conjure flawed super heroes to fight cunning and powerful villains or watch the “everyman” fight off a zombie mob. You might say “it’s just the movies (or TV),” but the truth is that our entertainment feeds and expands upon our fears.

Our ultra-violent and dark popular culture speaks to and from our collective anxiety. A jobless economic recovery, a world overrun with war, shooting sprees that leave children and young people massacred, a government that spies on its enemies and citizens alike, corporate cultures that demand long hours with increasing job instability- all of these conspire to make us feel vulnerable. Our entertainment is filled with stories of heroes (either super or home-grown) who are able to survive and conquer these forces. We turn to fiction for heroes because they seem so elusive in our own lives.

There is no better distillation of this fear than the zombies who inhabit our entertainment- from The Walking Dead to World War Z to any number of video games. Zombies are people who have ceased to be human. They are unstoppable mindless drones who have the ability to turn healthy independent people into the shuffling undead.

Zombie movies are a fun house mirror of our fears- that our world has spun out of control and that we are being turned into zombies. Schools prepare our students to be good workers and work demands that we surrender our autonomy and creativity and become mindless drones. We fear that we and those around us are becoming zombies. We fear that we have become the shuffling undead.

In popular culture the only way to resist the zombie horde is to resort to hiding and violence. The siege mentality of zombie films is again a mirror of our own mentality- looking out only for ourselves, pitted against our neighbors and friends for scarce resources- fighting over the division of the pie and not attempting to make the pie bigger.

Our zombie entertainment reflects our fears. But we have choices. We can, of course, surrender and become zombies ourselves or we can resist. But we do not need to resist as our entertainment counterparts do- by building fortresses and stockpiling weapons. Rather the way that we can fight is by becoming more intensely human.

We can reach out to our neighbors and to strangers with kindness and not suspicion. We can seek out moments of connection with one another. We can stop and appreciate the arts- by listening to music, reading a book or creating something (paintings, sculptures, collages- whatever!). We can stroll calmly and slowly out in nature. We can turn off our cell phones when we come home and make the office wait until tomorrow. We can insist on our own humanity and we can resist fear.

It is not easy. Zombies have captured our imaginations because we live in dangerous and uncertain times. But if zombies are the undead, we must fight them and what they represent by becoming more fully alive.

Just Begin Again

Meditation can be hard. Sitting still, focusing on your breathing… in and out, in and out. It’s easy for your mind to wander. Indeed, the practice of meditation is not really about having a blank mind, but about controlling the wandering of your mind when it inevitably strays. There are some mornings when my meditation practice (and there is a reason they call it practice) does not seem to be going well- when my mind is so crowded with lists and worries, and my allotted meditation time feels like an eternity that  I contemplate getting up and just getting on with my day.

At these moments, the voice of my teacher comes to me. “Just begin again” she tells me. No judgment, no recrimination, just begin again. And I return to my breathing. In and out. In and out.

Just begin again. Her words are powerful and grounding. And truly, they are important outside of the confines of meditation. Life is about trying and failing and trying again. When we fail, and we all do, we must begin again.

Psychologists refer to this ability as resilience. Some people are naturally resilient while others must work at it. Some people are able to rise over and over again and claim victory from defeat. But for others, through learned helplessness and difficult life circumstances, they get stuck.

We attach so much shame to failing that sometimes the process of beginning again feels like an admission of defeat and not a sign of resilience and triumph over circumstances. At these moments, it is important to find the strength to begin again. Just begin again- because that is what life is about. In my teacher’s suggestion is kindness and gentleness. Her voice in my mind urges self-forgiveness and quiet urging to continue.  We can train ourselves to become resilient, by getting up, and beginning again.

Just begin again. It is simple and difficult at the same time. We must begin again because there truthfully is little alternative.

Just begin again. When love withers, when a career falters, when health fails, just begin again. The rhythms of life tell us this is possible, from the sun rising every morning to the changes of seasons to the ebb and flow of the tides and the moon. Just begin again.

Just begin again, knowing that you will do so many times in your life. Meditation is the art of calming a busy mind- of starting over again and again. One of the reasons that meditation has such powerful effects on our lives is because if we practice the art of beginning again in meditation, it makes it easier (not easy) to begin again when life is tough.

So, just begin again. Without judgment. Without recrimination. With gentleness and kindness. With love. Just begin again.

Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys.

A friend of mine posted this image on Facebook:
CircusMonkeys

It made my day. Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys. It is witty, and profound, and incredibly useful. There are days it is my mantra.

We have all had that friend at some point in our lives whose attraction to drama is matched only by their ability to suck you into it. After a phone call or a cup of coffee with them you find yourself worked up, drawn into their catastrophizing and anxiety. It may feel at first that you are just being a good friend, but after a while, it becomes apparent that you have been pulled into their special brand of crazy.

In moments like these- these six words are incredibly powerful: Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys. Knowing when to step back is vital. It is part of the maintenance of healthy boundaries- in friendships, in family and at work.

Let’s be clear, we all have days when we, or our own monkeys, are running the circus. Yes- it’s possible to attempt management of your circus and someone else’s, but it may not be advisable. And just as we do not want to get sucked into someone else’s circus, it’s important not to draw other people into our own.

The truth is that good friends are the ones who are able to empathize, but are also able to offer a perspective from outside of the circus. With compassion and kindness these friends are able to calm us down.

So when you feel yourself getting drawn in and spinning about someone else’s problems, remember: Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys.

Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys. Say it over and over until you are calmer. With this attitude, your own circus may even seem more manageable.

 

Avoiding the Empty Calories of Chocolate Easter Eggs

When I was a child, a neighbor who was a devout Christian came over to our house and sat distraught, talking to my mother. She had just returned from the grocery store and found it filled with chocolate bunnies and cream eggs for Easter. She said to my mother, “we, as Christians, have already lost Christmas to commercialism, if we lose Easter too, our religion is in serious trouble.”

What my neighbor was decrying was the substitution of commercialism for content- of surface for substance. When advertisers come in to our lives and try and sell back to us our own experiences, they diminish them. Without question Easter eggs and chocolates are part of many families’ memories of the holiday. But they are not, and never have been, the sum total. The holiday has deep religious significance. Not everyone has religious connections to the holiday, but for them, Easter may also be about time with family and perhaps, the joy of Spring- things similarly not captured by commercials.

The problem is that when advertisers enter the dialogue, they are seeking to place their products at the center of our experience. Sadly, in our world of constant media bombardment, it is easy to lose what is authentic in our own lives. It is easy to let the televised version of events take the place of our own memories- swapping symbolism and commercialism for real connection.

Whether advertisers are painting a picture of the holidays, or love, or fun, or happiness, their aim is always the same- to make us buy things. Their goal is to turn our desire for authentic connection into purchasing. They want to sell us the facsimile and we are all too often willing to buy. But of course, one cannot really buy love or happiness and true religious experiences cannot be purchased at a store.

Our culture is all about convincing us that we do not have enough and that the next purchase will somehow make us whole. We are told that “retail therapy” is the way to cure our ills- when really such therapy results in greater credit card debt, more clutter in our homes and the feeling of emptiness that follows the realization that this purchase has not actually changed our situations in any meaningful way.

For, like the chocolate bunnies and creams eggs, the purchases are devoid of nutritional value. They offer us nothing that can nurture our souls and our lives. This year, resist the Easter Bunny and instead embrace what is real and meaningful in your lives. Find your spiritual center, embrace a loved one, take a walk in nature. Celebrate what is authentic and true in your lives and you will find it is a better therapy than what advertisers would have you purchase.