I am taking the week off and hope that you have time off, too. If you celebrate any of the winter season holidays, may your celebrations be happy and bright. If you don’t celebrate any of these holidays, may your days also be happy and bright. And may understanding, insight, compassion and love slide down everyone’s chimney this New Year. (I can dream, can’t I?)
One of the most important lessons a good teacher teaches, beyond the subject matter, is how to live a moment or a year of moments. On the first day of classes, you teach how to meet new people, how to start an endeavor, how to be open to whatever comes. On the last day of classes, you model how to end something, how to say goodbye. You model how to face freaky spring weather in winter and winter weather in the spring. How to face a test, sickness or other challenge. To share insights, listen to the insights of others, think deeply about questions raised, and fears and joys expressed. How to face evil with insight, and violence with calm clarity. And how to celebrate what you value and value what you celebrate.
In this way you model the most important lessons one person can give to another. You create a community. You state with your very life that a loving, caring community is possible and, thusly, create the seeds for a more loving and sustainable future. You think of teaching not as a job, not even an avocation, but just what you are doing now with your life. You think of each moment as an opportunity to learn, to expand your sense of self, to see others in you and you in others. All of us in this world that we share need this sort of gift. This is what I hope to celebrate and wish for all of us this season.
My first teaching assignment was in the Peace Corps, in a small village in the bush in Sierra Leone. One day, my classroom was invaded by a swarm of bees. They settled in my book cabinet. I imagine as I think back on it that they were “killer bees” but I don’t know if that was true or not. To get rid of the bees, I got out insect spray that I had somehow acquired and gathered my students, in a line, outside the classroom door. Each was armed with a bucket of water to throw on the bees, and me, in case they chased me from the room. I put on a raincoat, hat, pants and boots. I entered the classroom, sprayed the cabinet—and the bees flew out in a swarm from the room. A seeming miracle. The students and I celebrated.
The next day, my neighbor, the paramount chief (one of five powerful traditional tribal chiefs in the country) came to see me. The whole village was of the Mende tribe. His chief wife, one of five, was a tall, majestic woman. She seemed to like making a fool of me. She only spoke deep Mende, the language of the bush, not the more modern version I spoke, and not Krio, a hybrid language of English, Portuguese, and Sierra Leonean languages; she certainly did not speak English. Whenever I tried to speak with her in new Mende, she always corrected me in old Mende. Anyway, she was in trouble. She had heard about how I had chased the bees from my classroom. Another swarm had invaded the hut where the chief’s beer and food was stored. The maintenance of food and beer was her responsibility, so she tried to duplicate my miracle and somehow chase out the bees without using the spray or protective clothing. It didn’t work. She had twenty to thirty stings and was possibly in shock. The chief said I had to give him whatever medicines I had to cure her. There was a shaman living near the the village, but no medical doctor within hours. The Peace Corps provided all its volunteers with a large first aid and medicine kit. I gave him skin cream for bites, aspirin—I did what I could, fearing that neither my knowledge nor medicine would be of much help.
Three or four days later, while I was resting on my porch in my hammock, I heard the voices of several people. I lived in the Paramount chief’s rest house which was set back maybe a hundred feet from the road. The group stopped at the path leading to the house and one person, a woman, left the group on her own and was walking toward me. I got up to meet her. It was the chief’s first wife. Obviously, she had recovered quickly. I don’t know if what I gave the Chief cured her, or whether it was her belief in the power of the medications, or what. She walked up to me. Now remember, no one had heard her speak any language but deep Mende in years, maybe forever. Yet when she stopped and looked in my eyes, she thanked me, in English. Good English. I started crying. And laughing. Then came a celebration. After that, she no longer made fun of me. In fact, when I got extremely sick a few months later, she helped me get to a doctor.
The world is a miraculous place, if only we can make it so.
**The Good Men Project is a great site to check out. They also published a blog of mine today, on the relationship of all humans.
When someone says something to you that seems outrageously wrong and you want to jump onto his back and pound him, or at least leap onto his words and pound them, consider this first. What beliefs or assumptions about the nature of reality that you hold is he threatening? What beliefs or assumptions of his are behind his statements? You might think his reasoning needs correction or her factual knowledge is deficient. But what might instead be the culprit is her cosmology or “meta-narrative,” meaning the central story that he tells himself to make sense of the world. And if so, your response won’t reach him unless you take that into account.
You aren’t going to change someone’s belief system in one conversation, and attacking that belief system will just lead to defensive behavior. No one likes having their God or favorite story threatened. To do so threatens a person’s whole sense of self and reality.
For example, if you believe that there is a male God who favors the rich, and politically and economically powerful, you are likely to believe what these people say even if it is absurd. According to this viewpoint, it is not the institutions, economic and legal systems of a particular society that favor certain people to gain riches. It is nature itself that puts these people in their position. Another form of this cosmology is presented by Ayn Rand, a novelist and philosopher who has influenced a great many Republican political leaders. For Rand, altruism and compassion are signs of weakness and are unhealthy, immoral, even evil. In her book, The Voice of Reason, she said that altruism is a “monstrous notion.” “It is the morality of cannibals devouring one another. It is a theory of profound hatred for man, for reason, for achievement, for any form of human success and happiness on earth.” To help someone else, she argued, especially if the act is dangerous, is immoral because it would show a lack of esteem for your self. It would be putting someone’s interest above your own, thus degrading you. Governments not only cannot, but should not, help the poor, sick, and elderly, who are to be considered killers of growth. Those who take anything from the government are looting from everyone else. It is the poor who exploit the rich, not the other way around. Christian calls to help the needy, or the image of Jesus as compassionate, are likewise notions that promote immorality. If you believe Rand, you treat those who are on Social Security or Medicare as looters, and those people who want to reduce their college debt as immoral, wanting to steal from the coffers of the brave bankers who loaned them money.
The fact that such beliefs reduce each person to a fortress at war not only with everyone else but nature itself is not a result to be deplored but just the way the world works. For Rand, happiness results from acting in tune with this reality.
I fundamentally disagree with this viewpoint. It often leads to a disquieting tendency to react defensively, not to what I’d call happiness. Contemporary neuroscience describes a “negativity bias” in our brain and perceptual system. We react to the mere possibility of a threat to our selves or even to our self-image, to pain or negative experience, more quickly than to positive experiences. Our fight-flight-freeze response activates quickly. In fact, during the course of a normal day, our thoughts might center on one negative or threatening comment and gloss over the far more numerous positive experiences. Rand’s philosophy reinforces this negative reactivity.
Happiness, whether in the form of joy or overall well-being, only appears as this negativity ends. According to neuroscience, one of the greatest sources of happiness is a close, caring relationship, a relationship where you value the other person as highly as yourself. Where you can let down your guard and relax. It’s difficult to feel happy when you feel everyone around you is primarily motivated by the thought of taking from you whatever you have. Helping others increases self-esteem. It leads you to feel you have something valuable to give and the other is worth your attention. It strengthens the ties between people. How you feel about others and the world includes how you feel about yourself. You value others and in turn feel valued.
But if you can’t speak at the level of these core beliefs in a conversation with someone you disagree with, what do you do? Instead of attacking what divides you, think of what you share. Think from a place of agreement so you can reach some agreement. Use language that doesn’t set off a sense of threat.
George Lakoff, in his book, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant, gives a guide to do just that. You can’t say to someone “don’t think of an elephant” and imagine they won’t think of an elephant. Likewise, to say “Ayn Rand is wrong” or this idea is evil, you strengthen the idea you oppose in the mind of the people you are speaking with. Instead, use the language and metaphors that a person values in order to expose the implications or perspective they hadn’t considered.
Borrowing again from Lakoff, think of “freedom.” Rand and other conservatives speak frequently about freedom. Ask them to imagine that they want to walk on a beach, but it’s owned by a rich person who fences it off from the public. They want good medical care but can’t get it because they don’t have the money. Or they want to attend college but it’s too expensive. What then happens to their freedom? Whose freedom is supported by the belief that the rich are favored by God? Are the rich to be allowed to deny these freedoms to others?
In an important way, we inhabit the world we believe is true and live the story (or the consequences of the story) about reality that we tell ourselves. If we believe that the only way to be free and get what we need is to seize it, no matter the consequences for others or the environment, then others are unlikely to respond to us with love and friendship. If we put up strong walls, then it’s unlikely anyone will get inside with us. Happiness is reduced to the thrill of defending our isolation. But society is a relationship amongst all its members. The quality of society and of our happiness will depend on how much we respect and value each other and value caring relationships.
More horrible news from San Bernardino and from Colorado fill the headlines, and that’s only from the U. S. We might say in response that “the world is falling apart” but what’s falling? Not the apple or cherry tree in my yard. Not the hillside beyond it. There is a light rain falling around me, but that’s not it. The rain isn’t falling apart but falling into the earth and onto the rest of us. What is falling apart is a feeling of safety and stability when I read about “world events” or politics or society. But here, sitting outside my house and looking at the hillside around me, there is “falling into” but no falling apart.
The sense of threat expressed by “the world is falling apart” can be so powerful. Yet, everything around me is just here, beautiful, stark, rich, and something beyond any word I can write. I need this contrast. We all do. There is a social reality, and there’s this bigger reality. When I try to understand “what’s happening in the world,” it is important to keep the rain and the trees alive in me. When I try to understand US society or human society, I need the society of the earth. Ideas, world and personal events need to be analyzed but are only understood through contrasting them with a diversity of perspectives, including the quiet of the rain and the trees. Without this contrast, it is too easy to get lost in our explanations, beliefs, technology, and the news.
Of course, sometimes the rain itself cries out– about global warming, water pollution, etc.
I wrote a few weeks ago that teaching students how to understand and deal with terrorism includes teaching what strength means and how to be strong in case of emergency. Strength of this sort emerges from an inner quiet. Meditating, sometimes just walking in the rain or taking in the beauty of a tree, or planting vegetables, trees or flowers, can give you that. The news can be so disturbing and cause such a disruption in your mind and heart that finding balance and quiet can be difficult. Yet, it is worth the effort. A quiet mind enables clear observation of “inner” as well as “outer” reality. It enables you to monitor thoughts, emotions as well as your feelings about the others around you so you can understand them better. To learn from and let go of thoughts and emotions you need to feel them. To feel what connects all of us, feel the earth, feel how every time you walk, talk, yell, scream, or make love, you are the earth speaking.
And the earth can no longer afford the hate and blame game. Some people blame all Muslims for ISIL. If so, do you blame all Christians for the violence and murders carried out by Christian groups like the Army of God at Planned Parenthood clinics? (Robert Dear, responsible for last week’s violence, was a Christian but is not known as a member of this or any anti-abortion group.) Do you blame all Americans, including yourself if you’re an American citizen, for the lies, deaths and chaos caused by the invasion of Iraq and for other American policies? Do you blame yourself for being human?
As many people have been reminding us lately, hate does not serve us well. Martin Luther King Junior said: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate…Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” The Buddha said, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love…” Maybe it’s about time to figure out how to live by this principle.