Remember a while back when I was trying to convince my friends to write Perspectives for NPR? Well, I actually did, but it was "respectfully declined". Maybe a bit too controversial—who knows? Not to let it go to waste...
Going to the movies used to be the safest unsupervised outing a parent could agree on with their preteen or teenage child. These days many movie complexes are located inside malls, with security guards and the reassuring presence of a Macy’s and a Wetzel’s Pretzels. Malls have become the new downtown centers of many modern cities, which provide the closest approximation of the nostalgic, store-lined main streets of the somewhat distant past. For parents who want to allow their kids to develop that crucial sense of independence while still providing as much safety as possible, a trip to the mall with friends to cruise the food court and see a movie seems like a good option. As much as this setting may provide parents with a reasonably sufficient sense of security, I wonder how many parents consider the content of what their children are imbibing in their absence.
Certainly parents are concerned about preventing drug and alcohol use, but what about the terror that intoxicates children as part of today’s typical moviegoing experience? Rating systems be darned— horror movies have become such a widespread staple in the moviegoing demographic’s diet, many parents fail to recognize the impact the terrifying sights and sounds have on their children. The brain’s chemical response to terror and its effect on a person’s physical and psychological wellbeing has been identified and supported by research. The effect is even more intense on children, as their brains are in a delicate state of development. We know that shocks to their psychological system have an intense impact on their ability to concentrate, to feel secure and calm, and to interact effectively in the social world.
We have abstinence and safer sex programs for our teenagers, alcohol and drug abuse interventions, and even gaming addiction awareness, why is there no concern about the domestic terror rolling out daily in our seemingly safest harbors? Is our society so bereft of meaningful rites of passage to mark the advent of adulthood that learning to accept and embrace fear, anxiety, and horror has become the required training to be an adult American? Parents of youngsters may do well by their children to reconsider the activities they allow for “entertainment” and remember that our children’s mental safety is equally important as their physical safety.
One of my favorite stories...
A farmer who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, his horse ran away beyond the fields and across the border. His neighbors rushed to his side and cried, "How horrible! What a tragedy!", but he simply stated, "It's too soon to tell". Several weeks later, the horse returned. But it wasn't alone—it was accompanied by a splendid stallion! Well this caused the neighbors to exclaim with joy at his great fortune. The farmer just replied, "It's too soon to tell". His response was confounding to the neighbors, who scratched their heads and returned to their labor.
The farmer's household was richer with such a fine horse. His son took to the task of training the horse for work in the fields. One day he was thrown by the stallion and his hip was broken. This appeared to be a catastrophe to the neighbors, who knew the farmer relied on his son to harvest the crops. The farmer took in the situation and thought to himself, "It's too soon to tell". Soon after, nomad warriors stormed the nearby border and all able-bodied men from the farmer's village took up weapons and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because of the son's injury did the father and son survive to take care of each other.
The tides of life rise and fall—there is blessing or disaster to be found in every event. Emotional equanimity allows peace to flow in the midst of the most challenging of times.
aside My close friends and family are aware of my struggle to make sense of the response to the destruction in Haiti. I have been called cynical, off-base, and cold-hearted by the people who love me most. Many people have difficulty understanding my perspective on Life. I see the world as though from a distant planet and I don't get too wrapped up in the drama that plays out on a daily basis. I see our lives as analogous to a trip to an amusement park: we enter from a peaceful place in the cosmos, have exciting, terrifying, emotional experiences (punctuated by moments of calm and comfort) and eventually go home. It's all very temporary seen through the perspective of universal time.
When a major catastrophe occurs, like the one in Haiti, the most common response is, "Oh heavens! How horrible! What if that were ME?!?" and people immediately rush into the middle of the drama and do everything possible to rescue the poor victims. We are so afraid of pain and discomfort that we have an intolerable need to intervene when someone's pain strikes too close to home, emotionally. The thought of parents losing children is particularly insufferable. As much as I understand and support first response efforts, I admit I have had an existential crisis related to the outpouring of money and "compassion" for the residents of Haiti. I am starting to gain a better sense of the nature of my struggle.
Growth is always accompanied by pain. Kids learning to walk fall down innumerable times and suffer all kinds of injuries. However, we don't bar their progress in order to prevent the pain. Adolescents experiencing growth spurts complain of constant aches and pains. Advanced societies no longer partake in rituals such as foot-binding to hold back natural growth. Forests need to burn occasionally to regenerate and encourage new life. It is now known that our quick-response strategy of putting out forest fires immediately has done damage to the ecosystem. Old civilizations fall and make way for greater advancement. No one thought it would be a smart idea to rebuild the pyramids and move in.
Pre-earthquake Haiti was riddled with social, economic, and political turmoil. This disaster leveled all elements of society, including some of the symbolic and actual structures of power. What an opportunity to reflect, redefine, and start anew! When outside entities sweep in with money to patch things up right away, they instill the demand for an instantaneous solution rather than allowing time for synthesis and inspired growth. Pain ushers in great awakening and transformation. If Haiti is allowed to feel it's pain, as awful as it may be for them to experience and for the rest of the world to witness, the resulting change could potentially be spectacular. These types of incidents test faith on a deep level—can we trust that opportunity lies latent within a tragedy and will be brought to bear with patience and endurance? The swoop-and-rescue response decreases the likelihood that the Haitians will take hold of this prime opportunity for renewal and advancement.
It reminds me of the one intervention which has proven successful in treating the problem of addiction—allowing the addict to hit "rock bottom". When the family continues to rescue the person with money, resources, and support, the addict never experiences the difficult but priceless opportunity to rebuild himself in a whole new light. It is only when friends and family finally step aside completely that addicts can take full responsibility and experience an opportunity to develop the internal strength to stand on their own. When we see the Haiti situation through the small eyes of fear and allow frustration intolerance to set in, we fail to acknowledge the incredible possibility presented by the destruction. We fail to honor the wisdom of the great cycles of life when we refuse to acknowledge the temporality of material existence and the inevitability of destruction and rebirth.
What if a mother never let her baby's feet touch the ground for fear that he might tumble? How long would it take for that individual to learn his own capabilities? Our rescue instinct is not about the Haitians but rather our own emotional weakness to endure suffering. We have personalized their pain and we want it to end. Most of us first-worlders haven't had to experiencene the significant suffering that we see nightly on the world news. Emotional and physical pain is the most effective method for building character and strength in human beings. If we can manage our own fear and sadness, we too will become stronger and will feel less compelled to fill the role of rescue party to the masses. Let's face it, there is a lot of rescuing to be done right here at home and "compassion" is never as forthcoming as in the wake of a dramatic catastrophe. Let's back off and give Haiti a chance to regroup and rise up from this tragedy as the mythical phoenix from the ashes.
Think for yourself. (I wanted to post the Beatles song of the same title here, but was unable. That is the suggested musical accompaniment to this post.)
I was browsing through the "Improve Yourself" table at Barnes and Noble today and I got a very familiar feeling as I scanned through books on conversations with God, increasing happiness, and spiritual growth through hardship. I feel frustrated with the pervasiveness of the "expert" voice. One book detailed a man's private conversations with God and presented his experience as a manual of Truth. Others offer concrete steps to follow to manifest all desires instantaneously. It seems to me as though the idea of an opinion has gone by the wayside as the specter of expertise has been extended to everyone within spitting distance of the blogosphere.
Spiritual experiences are incredibly powerful, as well as being incredibly personal. People have a tendency to generalize their own experience for something that is appropriate and accessible to every other person. Today we have authorities on everything; as easy as it is to find an "expert" on any subject from contacting God to eating for longevity, it is equally easy to find a contradicting "expert" offering research supporting their own claims. I believe that different life strategies and belief systems work for different people and there is very little that is innately "good" or "bad" or even "standard". I think many people hear ideas from characters they admire, or think they should admire (see my previous post), and take on their assertions as gospel truth. The danger in this is evident in the fact that the names of charismatic figures in history ("authorities") who have easily convinced masses to commit despicable acts come readily to mind.
Life and the Universe present humans with a vast range of experience and possibility. Our attitude undoubtedly affects our access to opportunity and insight. But humans enter the world in different stages of karmic expression, intellectual development, and psychic or mystical insight. It is highly unlikely that one person's life experience and trajectory will mirror another's. I often find books documenting people's psychological growth and spiritual development to be off-putting, as many of them are presented as the final word on their subject. There is so much to learn and experience—the value of maintaining a beginner's mind (and a healthy critical eye as well as a touch of cynicism) cannot be understated. It is crucial to remember that the advice offered by fellow humans is a subjective expression of their innate creativity and might be honored as such and tempered with patience.
I have no doubt that most people reading my posts will have absolutely no idea where I'm coming from or what my freakin' deal is. I get that. I am only an authority on my own experience and cannot dare to speak to anyone else's truth. And I can only express myself in a way that makes sense to me. I will continue to urge people to take in all perspectives and consider any ideas that seem interesting, but not to accept any authoritative edicts on subjects which are intangible, unproveable and highly personal to each individual.
I come to my deeply held beliefs through a combination of the following:
I am always harboring a certain theory on life or love and putting them into practice in my own experience. There is no need to accept my comments here as Truth simply by reading them. Test out my ideas in your own life if you feel somehow interested and see how they play out. We all have different methods, strategies, and abiding visions that take us through this life. Perhaps my ideas will spur new thinking of your own. Life is about creativity and building upward and outward, constantly expanding our wholeness to become even larger and greater.
It seems to me that one of the most common words in our American-English language is "should". We're taught as children what we should and shouldn't do to be good, or to avoid being bad. Life is set up from the start as a game of skill and luck to win good points and avoid bad points. We carry this training with us and evaluate all possible choices according to whether we should or shouldn't, usually unconscious of the subtle subtext of judgment—"If I do it, will I be good?", "If I don't, will I be bad??". Whenever I think or hear from someone else the word "should", my immediate response is "Says who?". We have internalized the adult voices from our childhood and we whip them out regularly to flagellate ourselves and judge our every choice and action. My response is that of a typical rebellious child who doesn't want to do something just 'cause Mom says. As adults, we have finally gained the right and privilege to make our own choices based on what we deem best for us in light of the situation and the well-being of all involved. When we unconsciously continue to wag a judgmental finger in our own direction and guilt ourselves into doing or not doing something, we are bowing down to the "should" and surrendering the power of our own intellect and free will.
I experience the "should" frequently as a single person. There is an unspoken but pervasive belief that in order to find a new partner, one must go out and socialize and participate in any number of activities encouraging contact with other singles: "You should go to that", "I should really get out more", etc. The pressure is strong to force you off the couch, out of your comfort zone, and into uncomfortable and nerve-wracking situations, all supposedly for your own benefit. In thinking over this quandary, I've come to realize that I can't remember meeting someone important to me at an event that I had to force myself to attend. My meetings of previous partners and good friends all occurred in places I was comfortable, happy and typically not trolling for a mate. So I take that information and I refute the "should"... "Oh yeah? Says who? Them? Do they say? Yeah, well what do they know?". When we consider the guidance we receive from the base of our collective common knowledge (them), we often realize that we cannot find any solid wisdom to back up their claims. When we encounter a "should", it is a healthy practice to ask the should to prove itself. "Tell me exactly why you think that's a good idea or a necessity in my life. Prove how that is true." If the "should" doesn't make a compelling argument, you're off the hook. Instead of using "should", I find it useful to ask "Will it help me to...?" or "What is the benefit of...? And how do I know that to be true?". This takes away the judgment of good or bad and evaluates the proposition on it's own merits, free from fear and shame.
As you get to know me you'll see that I have a strong belief in a higher power. I do not believe we are dropped here on this planet on our own to make a life, fend for ourselves, and figure it all out equipped with just the gray mush between our ears. To me, that idea is like powering the sun with a AA battery. I think we exist on an eternal, immaterial plane, which supports us to lead many lives and grow in spirituality and wisdom. I think that cosmic power pervades our existence and is constantly available to provide insight and direction. When we utilize our brains effectively, and keep them from running wild with fear (the root of the "should"), we can tap into the inner guidance that keeps us on track, moving forward in the direction of our destiny. When we are still, quiet, and mindful, we know what is best for us and we make choices based on deep knowing rather than temporary anxiety.
I have been doing an experiment for the last month. I have decided that I will let my inner wisdom guide my every decision. Common knowledge says "Oooh, be careful with that—you'll turn into a sloth". I find that common wisdom draws on fear. It worries that if I let my wisdom be my guide, I will never get off the couch or put down the Cheetos. I find that inner wisdom can also be understood by the name "conscience", which inherently understands all aspects of a situation and does not lead one down a path to oblivion. In my experiment, I inquire within whenever I come to a choice point..."What do I really want to do right now?". This works because I experience a lot of quiet and inner stillness in my life (more easily achieved as a single person!), and I can tap into my inner knowing relatively easily. I always get a response—sometimes it is a bodily perception of feeling tired or energized. Sometimes I get a thought like, "It would be great to have a clean kitchen". But I have found in the past month that when I let my "gut" guide me, I accomplish everything I need to do, I feel happy and peaceful, and I am free from fear. When I make a decision, I do not continue wondering what would have happened if I chose something different. I trust that the decision based on inner wisdom is in line with my ultimate destiny. I believe that the universe is self-correcting and that if my free will leads me down a path which I am not meant to follow, something will happen to get me back on course. But more about that in the "free will" post!
I believe that following my inner wisdom will take me exactly where I want to go in a much more enjoyable and direct way than pushing with guilt and struggling through anxiety to try and make something happen. I will focus another blog on all the good things that are destined to happen in our lives. But for now I will end with the suggestion that abandoning the "should" and the opinion of them in favor of heeding inner guidance, utilizing critical reasoning, and trusting Life as a wise guide is a way to live happily, productively, and peacefully.