Friday, April 22, 2011

A Call toward kindness & generosity

Hover mothers zoom in to aid their children instead of letting them work it out thus emasculating them from the opportunity to grow from their own experience at success or even failure. I have struggled with how much to help my children- I know we learn from failure, but I also know we grow weary and fearful from bad outcomes especially if it happens too frequently. I remember watching pike (a fish) experiments is college. The fish is trapped in a glass bowl within a larger tank; it is hungry and repeatedly attempts to catch its prey. The pike, a simple fish, grows weary; this is when the researcher removes the bowl. Now the prey is there for the eating, but the fish is habituated to failure and so it dies of starvation, pike after pike does this to make the point. Years later I was reminded of this survival lesson while reading Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's story of hiking on Mt. Everest. Persistence and not giving up were one of the keys between a survivor who gave up and laid down and thus dying twenty feet from safety and others who would not give up. When I can see safety or weariness being an issue, I zoom in.

Shrugging off unkind glances or comments can be hard- when you are a parent in a moment of crisis, it seems everyone has an opinion to share. Sharing opinions is a lost art form. Motherhood and my sensitivity to how to help both myself and my children grow has raised my awareness of when an opinion is meaningful and when it is unkind. If we accomplish making someone feel bad, we have gained nothing for them or ourselves. I ask my children when they are egging each other on or when trying to resolve a dispute to consider how they are saying something: does that make the other person feel better? No, then don't say it- you make yourself feel good by gloating about your righteousness but to what end? We need another way.

To consider the impact of our words is essential in civility as they are bundles of thoughts that enter into our heart and mind- sometimes growing into a virus that plagues us or sometimes they are set adrift without any meaning attached to them. Provoked with anger or hurt, we respond unkindly seeking out soft underbellies with words that sear and sometimes scar. Afterward, this unkindness can haunt the person who uttered the words- some turn to justifying their behavior and telling others of how they were provoked over and over again as if by saying it so many times they can make it so. Not surprisingly, they continue to have experience after experience that reinforces their idea of all that is wrong in the world. They never identify their role in the process. Their anger grows; their frustration knows no limit; they are never liable for wrong doing or the pain they create.

A child should expect a parent to keep them safe, rescue them in a toxic situation, and to cue them in on social behaviors that need to be learned. An adult may need this as well, but ultimately, has to find a way to grow beyond the need to put others down. The endless struggle keeps repeating; you can't get off this merry-go-round until you stop it. It is essential to learn to talk kindly to each other. If we speak in a way that enhances each others feelings of worth, we might stretch ourselves toward growth. Haranguing and harping is wearisome to all- those who say it, those to whom it is directed, and those who are unfortunately in the audience.

If you really want to change someone? Change yourself. Examine yourself. Explore the dark side. Think about what you say to someone- come up with a checklist. Here is a start: is it said kindly? Is it helpful? Are you dumping your fear onto others? The more the failure of the world is someone else's fault, the more likely you need to consider what you are getting out of the bickering, arguing, justifying, or put downs you are issuing. Just because you can poison the world does not mean you should. It is all about free will- you are free to build a better relationship and you are free to shred one to pieces. Negativity creates pain which when released creates a toxic environment. Saving it for home? Saving it for the game? You can be firm and kind. You can be gentle and tough. Putting someone down to elevate yourself ultimately damages you too. Get your game on and consider how to speak in a way that enhances others and make you and your world bigger, bolder, and more dynamic. Being conscious of the pain inflicted mindlessly and of the need for a better form is not easy, but stewing in anger and frustration is no picnic either.

There are times when we need to walk away from painful relationships when abuse or neglect are at issue; I speak of relationships where our familiarity with each other breeds contempt; we get laxidaisial in our self discipline. Think twice about what and how you say things to others, we all prefer gentleness and kind words.

In college my roommate and great friend Deb told me many stories. She was and is a great story teller. She regaled me with tales of her family, dating, and sometimes with just good advice. We haven't chatted in a long time, but there is wealth of good memories stored for the day when opportunity will call us together again. When I was nineteen, she talked to me about hiking mountains as an analogy for life. Her story was something like, "You are hiking up a really steep mountain. You accumulate things, people, and experiences; your bags are heavy. You have all of these bags and as you go along you keep getting more. The top of the mountain seems to get further and further from you; you are tired, but you don't know what to do. Do you know what you need to do?" she asked. I had no idea at the time; I was stuck. She said, "You start throwing some of the shit you've accumulated down the mountain; you throw the bags; you can't take everything with you. Something has to give!" It painted a picture in my mind of bags sailing through the air and of how the burden was lighter for it. I've often thought of that story through the years especially when I am struggling with something and I come to the realization that I am carrying too much. I love to visualize the bag sailing down the mountain, rolling away.

There is a difference between letting something go that is holding us back and in venting our frustrations onto others which is about giving free reign to our baser impulses, letting go of our self-discipline, letting our righteousness takeover. Let us instead step toward being generous with ourselves and others.

After writing this I read these words by John O'Donohue which perhaps more aptly arrives at where I was trying to go, "Our culture has little respect for privacy; we no longer recognize the sacred zone around each person. We feel we have a right to blunder unannounced into any area we wish. Because we have lost reverence of approach, we should not be too surprised at the lack of quality and beauty in our experience. At the heart of things is a secret law of balance and when our approach is respectful, sensitive and worthy, gifts of healing, challenge and creativity open to us. A gracious approach is the key that unlocks the treasure of encounter."


  1. > I love to visualize the bag sailing down the mountain, rolling away.

    So - what happens to your metaphorical baggage after you have tossed it down the mountain? I ask because this analogy conjured up a negative image to me. You just don't do that in the mountains! For a start your baggage might hit and serious injure, or kill, someone below you. Secondly, you are polluting the environment and making a mess for someone else to clear up. Actual mountain options are several: if you are doing an out-and-back route, then you can leave you pack neatly at the trailside and return to pick it up on the way back down after you have gained the summit; you can make sure you do not set out with a pack that is too heavy for you, of which a part is making sure the load is fairly split (according to ability) among the climbing party; finally, when the elements turn against you, the best option is to turn round and live to climb another day.

  2. Do things really disappear? The image needs some updating, but it is simply about letting something go- so I like the idea of sharing the load/asking for help, waiting/patience, self-knowledge. Those things help us move along as well. It was the imagery my friend used to get me through a tough spot when we were younger so I can't really change the story, but I still love the idea of letting things go- it doesn't happen enough in life.


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