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Archive for the ‘No Particular Path’ Category

Do Children Really Need to Know How to Grow Food?

In No Particular Path on May 5, 2017 at 2:28 pm

Our public schools should be teaching every child how to grow food in a garden.  They should be teaching every student how to change a flat tire, how to cook their own food, how to make change, how to balance their checkbook.  Comment yes if you agree.  Like and share.

Yeah, no.

While those are all admirable things for people to know how to do, they are also things that any adult can figure out and anyone with access to the internet or a library can find instructions for.  And that’s what we need to be teaching.

There is so much knowledge in the world; and new information, new discoveries, new important things to learn are being created every day.  This is the information age, and we are awash in things that it would be good to know.  But we don’t all need to know exactly the same things and we don’t all need to know them at the same time in our lives.

The biggest impediment to quality education for everyone is the belief that there are certain things, particular narrow ideas or “life skills,” that everyone needs to know.  What everyone really needs to know is how to think and reason effectively; how to ask effective and relevant questions; how to find relevant, valid, useful and credible answers; and how to apply those answers to the specific problems they need to solve or specific tasks they need to accomplish.

All the rest is optional.  Teach some of it so that students can see how to use the thinking skills they are learning, but focus on the thinking itself, not the specific tasks.

Teach students how to read well and nothing they need to know will be unavailable to them.

Teach them how to use numbers effectively and keeping track of their own money will never have to be a problem.

Teach them to think scientifically and they will be able to tell the difference between what they know, what they think they know, what they don’t actually know, and what they believe.  And they will understand the proper role of each in their lives.

Teach them how to think historically and they will be able to see how their own story intersects with the stories history tells us; and they will be able to use those stories to help make the world a better place.

Teach them to think and express themselves creatively and they will never lack for beauty or inspiration of their own, or for appreciation of the beauty and inspiration of others.

Teach them to express their ideas articulately and eloquently in speech and in writing and they will always have a voice that cannot be silenced.

Teach them to argue rationally and with civility and they will not need to follow demagogues or charlatans.

Teach them to think ethically and responsibly and they will become the leaders of a world with the potential for honest, compassionate and peaceable coexistence.

Teach them to listen effectively and the world will be open to them.

That does not, of course, mean that we might not choose to teach some “practical” skills.  But product should always be the servant of process, not the other way around.  If we teach students to garden it should be in the service of teaching them about other things.  A garden is, after all, more than just a collection of vegetation sitting in dirt.  There are reasons in science for why some plants need one kind of soil and others need something different.  There is a science to understanding why some plants should be paired with other plants, but avoid being too close to others.

There is much we can learn about gardens from the history of agriculture, from folklore and literature, from the politics of our relationship to the earth and its ecosystems.  There are ways to make a garden beautiful as well as productive, and to use what we grow to make aesthetically pleasing food served in beautiful surroundings.

In the skill of changing a tire there is much to be learned about applied physics, about risk assessment, about relationships between humans and their machines.

In balancing a checkbook, there is the application of mathematics, understanding of money and wealth as sources of power for both good and ill.  There is a chance for self-awareness in seeing how each of us thinks about money and possessions in our lives.  There are ethical questions that can be asked and answered.

All of these things are possible, but there are also a nearly infinite number of other ways to teach the same things, and we should be open to them all.

There is an old saying that if you give someone a fish you feed them for a day; if you teach them how to fish you feed them for a life time.  But fish is a very limited diet.  So, if instead, you use fishing as a way to teach them about a great deal more than that, then you will not only feed their stomach for a lifetime, you will feed their whole body, their mind, and their spirit.

Go Ahead and Overthink It

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble on April 14, 2017 at 10:55 am

I have often been accused of “overthinking” something.  So, naturally, I cannot help but think about that.

Usually, the offense is committed when I have encountered something that is either intended as a joke, or a clever analogy, or a meme with a narrow scope and that has, I admit, a very clear intent.  But I will see something in whatever it is that seems to need further thought, a bit more careful examination, perhaps something that takes the meaning in an entirely different direction.

So.  Guilty as charged, I suppose.  I do “overthink” things.

And I will continue to do so.  I will proudly overthink things whenever I feel like it.  And I encourage you to do the same.

We currently live in a culture in which we are repeatedly told, both directly and indirectly, not to think very much at all.  We’re told to feel, to react, to seek truth and profundity in 140 characters or less.  Reason is too slow, analysis is the same as bias, facts are whatever we declare them to be and they mean, like Humpty Dumpty’s words, whatever the source tells us they mean.  We’re told to choose our side in any dispute and hold our position against all attacks.  Intellect is suspect, emotions are power, thinking wastes valuable time.  We must act, we are told, and thinking isn’t action.

Culture, however, is not created mainly by the big things, but by the ordinary.  We tell a joke, sing a song, use a common expression we picked up somewhere, buy a product because we remember the ad for it, click on a hyperlink, watch a television show or go to a movie, leaf through the tabloids in the checkout line.

People are amused, they’re shocked, they’re enthralled, they’re outraged, they’re inspired.  And they move on.  they let it go, get over it, wait for the next shoe to drop, shake their heads.  They react; then it’s on to the next meme, the next chuckle or shock or inspiration or outrage.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

But they don’t think.

Often, they don’t even know how.

How many common logical fallacies can you name?  Do you know the order of operations in solving a simple math problem?  Are you proud to tell people that you never use algebra?   Do you understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory, between a theorem and a law, or between argument, persuasion, and propaganda?  Do you know the structure of a deductive argument and an inductive argument; or why the differences between them are important?  Would you be able to distinguish an empirical study from an experimental one, or know the appropriate use of each?

Does all of that sound boring to you?  Do you think that none of that has anything to do with you or your life?  The fact is that you either use or encounter all of those things, or their direct products, every single day.  They have consequences that affect you, for both good and ill.

Academics and intellectuals are often accused of not knowing anything about real life, as though thinking prevents us from experiencing the things that affect all humans.  Thought and emotion are not, however, enemies.  When properly applied they complement each other.  Problems that are solved with just logic can be dry, unfeeling, even cruel.  Problems solved with only emotion can be rash, clouded with bias, and even counterproductive.  When, however, we apply both reason and emotion, we have the opportunity for both pragmatism and empathy, for solutions that address the human condition realistically and practically.

There is no aspect of human activity or experience that does not require both the mind and the heart for its best expression.  Music is mathematics, sculpture is physics, art is geometry.  Planting a garden is both chemistry and aesthetics, biology and design.

Choose anything that either delights or disturbs you.  Take a moment to examine it.  Try to step away from your initial reaction.  Think about it.  Overthink it.  Practice patience with both ideas and emotions.  Don’t copy, share, like or comment until you have taken a least a few moments to try to understand it, and to understand your relationship to it.  Resist the urge to stop at feeling and go no further.

Hate, prejudice and discrimination are literally thoughtless.  They rely on the triggering of emotion, not of reason.

Compassion and empathy require thoughtful understanding, and the ability to both feel and reason.

There is far too much over-emoting these days.  A bit of overthinking would be a welcome change.  The best answers will usually be found, of course, somewhere between the two extremes.  But you can’t find the center unless you can recognize the poles.

So go ahead.  Join me.  Overthink a few things, or even a lot of things.  Do it for a saner, less polarized, and better understood world.

Or tell me I’m overthinking it.

One Shovelful at a Time: When Life Gets Overwhelming

In No Particular Path on March 20, 2017 at 9:49 am

 

Sometimes life can be overwhelming.  It can be hard for anyone sometimes to simply decide on the next thing to do.  There are lists, obligations, needs; and too few resources of money or energy or spirit to get done what needs doing.

 

I will begin with a brief story.

 

I used to live in a rural home set back from a tertiary road.  It had a large turn-around and a 140 foot driveway.  All of this was back when it was still common in New England to get several big snowstorms in a single winter and have snow on the ground from November to April.  Some mornings I would get up and look out on a foot or more of snow from the front of the garage to the road, and the plows had piled even more at the end of the drive.

 

In those days I didn’t have a snow blower and I couldn’t afford to pay for someone to plow me out every week or two.  But I had a shovel.  And I usually got up early.

 

Standing in my garage looking out at the, literally, tons of snow to be moved out of the way could be overwhelming, to say the least.

 

That was when I developed a philosophy of “one shovelful at a time.”  I would start at the garage door and take one shovelful of snow and toss it to the side.  “Well,” I would say to myself, “that wasn’t so bad.  I guess I’ll do another one.”  I didn’t look up toward the end of the driveway until I had passed the halfway point between the turn-around and the road.  With each shovelful I assessed how I was doing.  Was I too tired to continue?  Had I done enough for now?  Could I take one more?  And my goals changed as I went along.  One shovelful became, as I made some noticeable progress, this small area here, as far as that tree there, might as well cut through to the road, and so on.  I always left myself the option of stopping at any time.  There were, after all other things I could do.  Each of those options had their own consequences, of course; they might cost me money, or time, or I might miss work or an appointment; but I knew that and knew that continuing to shovel could also have consequences other than a clean driveway.  I could injure myself, or be too exhausted to do other things that needed doing, for instance.  Usually, though, I persisted, one shovelful at a time, until the job was done.

 

There are five stages to this method.  The first is to know what has to be done and break it down into smaller tasks.  Try not to focus on the whole chore or the whole list or the entirety of the need, but to isolate smaller pieces that are manageable in the moment.  The second is to start where you are.  See what is right in front of you that you can do right now.  Don’t worry about how it is related to the whole overwhelming task; it is doable and that’s what matters. Third, let your goals be flexible.  Some days you’ll feel like you can accomplish more than other days; and there will be days when the most important thing you can do is rest.  Fourth, be pleased with yourself for each thing you do.  If today you had a couple of boiled eggs for breakfast instead of Cocoa Puffs, it probably won’t move you meaningfully close to your weight loss goals, but good for you, anyway.  Tomorrow you can make the choice again.  And fifth, give yourself permission to stop when you need to.  Sometimes, the most stressful part of any task is thinking that it all has to be done now.  When we know that it’s a choice at each stage, we can often get a lot more done simply because it feels good to do it, rather than feeling stressed by the obligation.

 

The one thing this method requires of you is that you pay attention and stay as much as possible in the moment.  Learn to recognize your own feelings and needs; your fears and griefs and limitations as well as your strengths, your hopes, and your skills.  And honor, respect and accept all of them.  They are who you are.  They are fair and legitimate and honest. In each stage, allow yourself to face them and use them to decide which shovelful to take first.

 

Every choice we make in life is a beginning of something.  Sometimes we can see where it will all end, but sometimes we have to act on faith that we are headed where we want to go.  As long as we can see what is right before us, right now, then we can choose. 

 

And it doesn’t matter whether you have a small shovel or a great big front-end loader.  A shovel is a shovel; your shovel, your shovelful; one shovelful at a time.

 

I have tried to remember this over the years as I have faced loss and grief and anger and fear.  On those mornings when I have gotten out of bed not knowing what to do next, not wanting to do anything, feeling overwhelmed, I have tried to remember.  I say to myself, “I know what this is.  I know that there is more here than I can face right now.  But I can take a shower, or I can have some breakfast, or I can sit and feel what I’m feeling, cry or laugh or pound my pillow; and I can know that all of it is movement; all of it is a choice; all of it is a shovelful.  And when I have done whatever I have done in that moment, I can do the next thing or I can stop, knowing that one less shovelful of whatever it is stands between me and where I need to get to.

 

The blizzard is temporary.  The snow is finite.  The shovel is real.  And all you have to do right now is decide whether to use it.

 

 

 

GIVERS AND TAKERS — The Normalcy of Need

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble on December 7, 2016 at 11:35 am

The First Nations, for the most part, had no concept of ownership of things. We are given only temporary custodianship in this world, and that is both a gift and a responsibility. Our purpose is to consume only what we need and to leave the rest, both to meet the needs of others, and so that the world can replenish its resources for our future use.

But within that statement is the very troublesome word “need.” The word has connotations of weakness, inferiority, and shame. And that’s too bad, because need is at the very heart of the human condition and the nature of our relationships. There are six things you need to know about needs.

  1. Everyone has them.

Anyone who has sat through Psychology 101 has probably heard of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. There have been several versions of his famous pyramid, but the basic idea is that human beings have a range of needs from the basic biological needs all the way up to our need to self-actualize; to become as fully aware of and as comfortable as possible with our own humanity. Some of these needs are important to our physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual and spiritual health and well-being. Others are necessary for our growth and development in all those areas.

But our needs aren’t identical. Each of us has greater needs in one area than in another: and each of us is successful in getting at least some of our needs met.

2. Everything we do is an attempt to meet our needs.

And the corollary to that is that we nearly always attempt to meet our needs in cooperation with other human beings. Basically, we trade one need for another. If I have a physical need for food, I may trade some of my cash (which you need to meet your physical needs) for some of your food. If I have a need to validate my sense that I am a good person, I may give you food and thus trade for a feeling that I have done a good thing. Most of the time, the trade-offs can get quickly complicated. If I have a need to express my creative and spiritual self through sharing a musical gift with others, I may trade that gift for payment to perform in front of an audience you provide; they have a need to satisfy their aesthetic needs which they satisfy by paying you for the privilege of hearing me perform. If I am a poor person in an isolated third-world village who needs medical assistance, I may trade that to a doctor who needs to satisfy his altruistic needs by performing the service for free, with expenses paid by a rich person who needs to maintain a reputation for philanthropy.

Whenever we enter into any kind of relationship with another human being or other human beings, no matter how trivial or momentous, no matter how simple or complex, no matter how intimate or distant, we are each of us getting some need met by the interaction.

  1. We nearly always multi-task the meeting of our needs.

When I get something to eat, I may be satisfying my need for food, for basic survival. But I may also be meeting a need for maintaining the health of my body, by choosing nutritious, healthful food; and I may be satisfying my aesthetic needs by choosing food that pleases my eye and my palate; and I may also be satisfying my social needs by sharing my meal with others, which may also satisfy my needs for love and belonging; and if I cook the food myself, or provide it in some other way that reflects back on my abilities in some way, then I may also be satisfying my needs for self-esteem and self-actualization.

All of our needs are systemic. They affect each other. None of my needs are isolated from my other needs.

  1. Sometimes we meet our needs in healthy ways; other times, not so much.

We all eat some junk food once in a while. (Yes, even that organic, vegan, low sugar, gluten-free, whole-grain chocolate chip cookie you just ate is junk food.} We consume all kinds of junk, from pizza to internet click-bait. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Junk meets important needs for us or we wouldn’t consume it. Moderation in all things (except coffee and chocolate, but only organic, free-trade, sustainably and humanely sourced for both and only 70% or higher cocoa content.), right?

We all make uncomfortable and challenging compromises in our relationships with others and ourselves. Sometimes we even make dangerous ones. It is generally accepted that someone in an abusive relationship, if they end that relationship and do nothing else, is about ninety percent likely to form a new abusive relationship. Why? Because they have learned somewhere that in order to be loved, they must expect pain as part of the relationship. That’s the trade-off. They trade their need to be loved for the other’s need to be powerful. Sometimes, we will sometimes trade freedom for even the perception of security, or vice-versa. The artist will ruin her health rather than give up her art.

But it’s not all about hurting ourselves for reasons that are difficult for others to understand. A mother can go without food to ensure that her children are fed. A firefighter can ignore personal safety to rush into a burning building to save someone else. People will stand in the cold, risk arrest, violence, condemnation in order to support a cause which has no direct effect on them, but satisfies their need to be of service in the world.

  1. Virtually all bigotry, hatred, cruelty, and violence are needs-based; but so are compassion, love, understanding, and healing.

And the corollary is that they are the same needs. The need to feel valued by ourselves and others can be exaggerated and perverted into a need to feel superior to someone. Love and hate are often described as two sides of the same emotional coin. The need to have enough to survive and thrive can easily become a need to have more than enough; and with a perception that resources are limited, a need to keep others from getting more than you. The need for security can become a need for control. Fear is the dark side of trust; judgment is the dark side of compassion or understanding; apathy is the dark side of empathy.

  1. Understanding our needs can help us to meet them in healthy ways.

Because none of us wants to be “needy,” most of us have developed a bad habit of understating, self-justifying, rationalizing, or denying the needs that affect us most. And because we aren’t being honest about our needs, we often seek out unhealthy, even self-destructive ways of satisfying them.

Things like fear, anger, stress, depression, even bigotry and hatred are expressions of serious needs that are not being addressed in healthy ways. Violence is always a result of failing to meet needs in healthy ways.

Whenever we find ourselves in negative spaces, it is useful to ask (and answer honestly) several questions:

— What are my needs here? Have I identified them accurately and given them appropriate importance?

— What am I currently doing to try to satisfy those needs?

— Is it working? Is it healthy? What else could I do?

— Who can I trust to help me? What trade-offs am I willing to accept?

It might even be better to spend time each day checking in with ourselves, rather than trying to do this kind of assessment when we are already in crisis.

Ultimately, we are all in this together. We are all givers and we are all takers in equal measure.  We need each other. Understanding our own needs can help us to understand others’ needs as well. And then we can find ways to help each other.

The Treadmill and the Highway: Liberal, Progressive and the Relativity of Movement.

In No Particular Path on October 23, 2016 at 12:13 pm

All motion is relative.

And our experience of it is personal and related to how we perceive the fixed points against which it is measured.

A few years ago, as I was driving cross-country, I entered Utah on I-70, where a sign at the Colorado/Utah line warns that there will be no services for the next 106 miles. That is a truly frightening thought for a New Englander, but it was not the distance that I noticed while I was driving across Utah, but the lack of a sense of movement through it. The mountains that rise above the high plains are well in the distance, so they seem to move along with you as you go, like the moon. And the landscape up close is unchanging to the unfamiliar eye, which does not see that this bit of desert is subtly different from the one just passed ten minutes ago. The untrained eye sees the whole without being able to distinguish the parts; as the untrained ear hears all the beauty of a symphony without being able to distinguish the violins from the violas. I had no reference points for sensing movement. I had no idea how far I had gone because the environmental cues I rely on for determining progress were missing; there was too much sameness, it was all too vast, I was in the middle of the ocean trying to navigate by individual drops of water.

On the other hand, I have occasionally joked to friends who were working out on a treadmill that they were literally “going nowhere fast.” But here the problem isn’t vastness, but intimacy. On a treadmill, you are, of course, moving. It wouldn’t do you much good if you weren’t. But the reference points for that movement are almost all your own body. Your movement isn’t so much through space as within it. You’re not trying to get anywhere. In fact, the point is to create movement exactly where you are. Progress is measured internally, not externally. Heart rate, blood pressure, breath and the burning of calories are all kinds of movement. We have decided not to listen to the whole orchestra, but to pay specific attention to the oboes, the percussion, and the movement of the director’s baton.

Now, I am, obviously, I hope, building a metaphor here. Or at least an analogy.

I think of myself as a progressive. I prefer the term to the much-maligned “liberal” label. It seems to me that one can be a liberal as a kind of treadmill. It’s internal. I can believe things. I can be philosophical about it all. The movement is all my own. There is nothing inherently wrong about that, of course. As a liberal, I have to look at the world and process what I see in ways that will energize and strengthen parts of my perspective, such as my moral and ethical codes, my knowledge and understanding of ideas and events, my empathy for the experiences and perspectives of others, and my sense of place in the world. Unless I exercise these internal aspects of myself they may become unhealthy, calcified. I am a white sixty-nine-year-old, middle-class, American male, influenced by my culture and my environment. So if I do my best to understand and empathize with the experiences of women and people of color; other cultures and beliefs; and those caught in whirlpools of poverty, mal-education, and cultural oppression; and if I make the effort to see the special privilege of my color, my class, and my sex; then I can count that as progress, even if I cannot do more right now to change those things.

If I am a progressive, on the other hand, then I need to get off the treadmill occasionally and go run outside. I need to do things, not just think about them. But to do that I need broader points of reference against which to measure my progress. In a world where there is so much that might be changed; where there is poverty, hunger, oppression, and bigotry of all kinds; where there is rape and murder and abuse of all kinds; it can be hard not to feel as though we are getting nowhere fast. The mountains we are aching to reach always seem to move with us and ahead of us, and it’s hard to tell one tumbleweed from the next or the last. I can “adopt” a child in need or a whole village, but I cannot adopt the whole world without a sense of futility. I can send money to a GoFundMe effort that will buy one beautiful child a life-saving operation, but I can’t save them all. I can move from understanding and empathy to learning how to be an ally to women and people of color and all who have been “other-ed”, and to finding ways to use my privilege to eliminate that privilege, but bigotry and oppression and privilege will still be there.

The trick is to find a place between the highway and the treadmill. We each need to understand our own path, with its unique landmarks and signposts, with its own hills and valleys, so that we know how to measure our progress by where we are and what kind of movement we are trying for. We need to seek ways to strengthen our inner selves without losing sight of the need to actually get somewhere.

And we need to stop judging our progress by the standards of people on different paths than ours or by comparing one measure of progress to another. If life is ecological, then every action, however small, makes a difference. We can say to ourselves, “Today I will help this veteran in this way, and I can do this other thing to help this immigrant.” I can say that I understand that all lives matter, but today these particular lives need special attention. I can send five dollars to GoFundMe and five more to a large political movement. I can applaud the work of people who stand with the Lakotas against the pipeline, but know that my personal movement needs to be measure by dropping off a box of food to the local food pantry. I don’t need to choose between their importance, I only need to understand where I am on my path, what kind of distance I need to travel, and how I will know that I am moving.

There is a short video circulating on Facebook right now that illustrates the theory that the solar system is moving through the universe. The result is an image of the planets moving not in simple elliptical orbits, but in vast spirals through the cosmos. It’s a beautiful thing to contemplate, but it is impossible for most of us to observe or sense. If our solar system is going somewhere and carrying us with it, then where is it going except some relative next point, and where is it leaving from except wherever it is right now? And in the vastness of the universe, where everything is so distant that it seems to move with us or away from us, how do we measure our progress?

All that most of us can do is move through the smallness of the space we occupy physically, spiritually and cognitively. We must each strive to understand and diligently observe the measure of our own progress. And we must refrain from using our reference points to judge the progress of others. The snail’s pace is as admirable as the cheetah’s, as long as we understand that it isn’t a competition.

All movement is relative.

Take My Advice. Stop Giving Advice.

In No Particular Path on March 2, 2016 at 8:48 am

A response by a friend to a post about advice reminded me of something I used to tell students in my communication classes: it is usually a bad idea to give people advice about their lives. Giving advice can go so wrong in so many ways and go right in only one.

Let’s start with the ways it can go wrong.

It is possible that you may give advice, the other person doesn’t take it and they’re right. It works out well. Suddenly, your advice seems less valuable. Perhaps you experience this as a personal loss of value in the relationship. Do you resent the fact that they didn’t listen to you? Why did they ask your advice at all if they already knew better? Perhaps you feel a little foolish as well as disregarded. What if this isn’t the first time you’ve given advice they haven’t taken and their choice worked out well? Are they trying to make you feel foolish? And what about the other side of it? Perhaps the other person is feeling somewhat superior now; perhaps they’re a little smug that they didn’t take your advice, that it is clear now that they knew better all along.

Or perhaps you gave lousy advice, the other person took the advice and it turned out badly. Now it’s your fault. Having already given you at least a share of the responsibility for their decision, they may now be perfectly willing to give you all of it. “You told me to do that!” they’re angry because the results weren’t what they needed or wanted; and they are angry at you, and resentful, because you own the advice.

Maybe the advice was good advice, but they didn’t take it and the result was terrible. Guess what? It’s still your fault. “Why didn’t you make me do what you told me to?” “You didn’t tell me it would be this bad!” Now you’re not only clearly smarter than they are, you didn’t work hard enough to make them see that. They feel foolish for not taking the advice and they feel inferior because you were right and they were wrong. And how do you feel? Can you resist the temptation to remind them that you gave them good advice that they didn’t take? Do you feel a bit superior and ego-vindicated because they didn’t listen and screwed up?

Let’s imagine, however, that you give the other person some really good advice; they take it; and everything works out wonderfully. But afterwards there seems to be a change in the relationship, subtle at first, but unmistakable. They keep saying how grateful they are, but they also seem somehow resentful. Perhaps they are feeling somewhat in your debt and don’t, really don’t, know how they can repay you. Gifts of all kinds – including the gift of advice – can create an imbalance in a relationship where one of the parties cannot give or has not given equally. There is a sense of sudden inferiority that can come with the sense that the other person was smarter or cleverer or better able to say how to act in your life than you were. Debts and obligations of all kinds can leave us feeling diminished, resentful and in conflict. Are these rational behaviors? Perhaps not. But humans don’t always act rationally. And by the way, the advice giver may also feel uncomfortable with the situation. Other people’s gratitude is nice at first, but can become a burden of its own. Any imbalance in a relationship, even a well-intentioned one, any change, even a good one, can cause stress.

But what about the one thing that can go right? You and the other person might have a strong, close relationship built on years of trust, understanding, perhaps love, and a clear sense of boundaries and personal responsibility. You give the advice and then let it go. You want nothing and expect nothing. The other person either follows it or not, but in either case, however it turns out, you walk away with the relationship intact, supporting each other. If you have this kind of relationship with someone, and if you are the kind of person who can genuinely give without expectation or obligation, then you may successfully give occasional advice.

But this is not the norm. In most cases, giving advice is a risk; one that we are often either oblivious to or in denial about. But there is another way to go. If someone asks for advice, ask them what they have already considered. Really listen. Get them to talk about the problem and the strategies they’ve already thought about. Encourage them to think it through, support them in reaching their own decision. If you think of other possibilities, put them in the form of questions: “Have you considered . . .?” “Is it possible that you might . . .?” Add to their options without advocacy, but help them see the possibilities and risks of all the choices. It is still possible that they might make a decision and blame you for it: “I would never have thought to do that if you hadn’t brought it up!” But the risks for you are less than with straight out advice-giving.

Human beings are unpredictable, contradictory, and emotional. Murphy’s Law (If something can go wrong, it will.) is about us, not about some outside force in the universe that we have no influence over. Remember that and give advice sparingly and with great care.

Or not.

It’s just a suggestion.

It’s your decision.

Really. Do what you want.

Oversimplifying the Choice

In No Particular Path on December 7, 2015 at 5:59 pm

“Your life is a result of your choices. If you don’t like your life it’s time to make some better choices.” (Attributed to something called KUSHANDWIZDOM from a site called Mentor Channel.)

I see these sorts of memes regularly. They are intended to be motivational, but, in my opinion, they are overly simplistic; and they can actually be harmful.

Based on my well over thirty years of teaching about human behavior with a strong emphasis on how choices affect our lives and the relationships we have with others, I find that such sentiments are too dismissive of the kinds of choices available to each of us, too easily used to “blame the victim,” and too quick to see every choice as life-changing.

Let’s be honest. Not everyone has access to the same kinds of choices. Those born into wealth and privilege have a far different set of choices than those born into poverty and deprivation. Those with easy access to quality, well-funded, perhaps private academy education will have a very different set of choices than those who are herded into underfunded, overcrowded inner-city public school systems. The rural middle class will have different choices from those of the urban middle class. Those who are read to and encouraged to read, those whose creativity is nurtured by others, those whose self-esteem and self-image are strengthened by family and community will have the tools to make better choices than those who have been, from birth, demeaned, dismissed, discriminated against, and subject to the worst sort of negative influences. Each of us is tasked with making the best choices we can within the specific circumstances of our lives, but those circumstances are, for the most part, not in our control. To tell someone to make better choices at least requires us to have some understanding of what “better” means in the context of that person’s life. We make choices that we believe will help us get our needs met. So forgive us if the choices we see available to us don’t satisfy your idea of what might be better.

When someone has been hurt, is suffering in some way, it’s far too easy to say, “Well, if you’d chosen better . . .” You were raped? Well, if you hadn’t dressed like that, or walked alone at night, or watched your drink more carefully, or done or not done something; if you’d only made better choices. You’re a single mother living in poverty? Well, if you hadn’t had sex with that jerk you thought you were in love with, or if you had stayed in school, or if you had used birth control even though the guy you were with didn’t want you to. You say he abused you? Well, you should have left him, you shouldn’t have antagonized him; there are lots of nice guys out there, why don’t you find one of those? You’re unemployed and don’t have any marketable skills? Well, you should have studied harder, gone to college; you could always flip burgers at minimum wage. No matter what the circumstances of our lives, there is always someone who will be willing to tell us that it’s our own fault. We could have and should have chosen more wisely, done it all differently; and if we only start right now and make “better choices” our lives will be magically better. But what about those other choices that were made for you? What about the “better choices” that might have been made by the rapist or the abuser or the people responsible for your education, the people who have discriminated against you because of your sex or your color or your beliefs or your disabilities? What about the fact that the choices they made have forever altered the choices available to their victims?

Too many of us have developed the habit of looking back over our lives and trying to determine specific choices that, if only we’d made them differently, would have made whatever is wrong with our lives all better. But life doesn’t work that way. There are no such magic moments. We might be able to identify choices that are more clearly mistakes now than they seemed at the time; but all we can say for sure about choosing differently is that something would be different, not necessarily any better. Life is about the entire path, not just one turn or another, one crossroad or fork, one hill or valley. Life is an accumulation of choices and events, about the confluence of a nearly infinite number of choices, happenings, environments, the expected and the unexpected, the tragic and the miraculous, some of which we could influence, most we could not. Make better choices? Which ones? When? How? Don’t tell me to make better choices unless you are prepared to help me see what better choices are available to me and to help me make them. Don’t tell me that my own bad choices have gotten me to where I am unless you are prepared to tell me how much you can empathize with the real experiences of my life.

Those who think of their lives as successful are prone to think that they have created their lives all by themselves; that their own choices are wholly responsible for that success. That allows them to think less of others and their choices. It can also allow them to avoid any responsibility they might have for the circumstances of anyone else’s life. It creates a culture of self-proclaimed superiority. It justifies all kinds of social, economic, educational, and cultural inequities and abuses. I’ve got mine, it seems to say, so it must be because I’m better, I made better choices.

The choices we make in response to the circumstances of our lives are, of course, important. They do make a difference. But we can never be certain exactly what that difference might be. Most people are doing the best they can to find positive ways to meet their needs; but when the healthy choices aren’t available to us and the need is great enough, we will make unhealthy choices. Telling us to make “better choices” ignores the reality of our lives and does nothing to help us see what other choices we might make.

I Dream Who I Am; Not Who I will Be.

In No Particular Path on October 5, 2015 at 9:33 am

“Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die tomorrow.” This meme, in various forms and attributed to various people has been showing up on my FB feed lately.

No.

I won’t do that.

I won’t indulge in timeless fantasy, only to live in fear that my dreams may not come true if I don’t do them right now. Dreams aren’t blueprints, they’re works of art – as realistic or abstract, as representational or as surrealist as we want to make them. But they’re present, not future. Tomorrow they will have changed somehow, sometimes for the better, but not always. When we rush to make our dreams concrete, because we know that our lives are short, we risk the dreams and our lives both.

Artists and poets – artists of all kinds – have spoken of the transience of art in two ways. Art is never really permanent. Like everything else, it can die; it can be destroyed by accident or by design. And works of art are not immutable. They are, in fact, constantly renewed each time some new person encounters them. Artists often hate to finish a painting, writers hate to write the end. There’s always something that could, if one went back, be made different, made better; something that reflects who one was when the work was begun, but not who one is today. Dreams are like that. They tell us more about who we are now than they do about who we will become; or even who we really might wish to become.

Our lives are always lived in the present, though we may seek to avoid that fact. We spend our present time either regretting the past or celebrating it; we spend it either dreaming of the future or trying to control it. But everything we do is a choice, and choice is always present tense. Tomorrow I may die or I may not. What I do today I may regret tomorrow or celebrate. It may lead me in the direction of my dreams or in a direction I could not have imagined. And I cannot know which until it is done, and what is done cannot be undone.

Humans exist in a constant state of both loss and gain, both grief and hope, both beginning and ending. We are conscious of the past, anticipate the future and pay far too little attention to the present.

All of our lives thus far are prologue. The past may be foreshadowing, but it is not prediction. What I did yesterday exists only in my capacity to remember it; what I do today belongs to today; and what I will do tomorrow is possibility, not promise. I savor today not because tomorrow may not come, but because today already is.

There is a similar meme that advises us to tell those we love that we love them today, because tomorrow they may not be here to tell. I think that’s foolish. Love expressed out of fear of lost opportunity is love coerced. I express my love today because I can, so why would I not? If I say I love you in the morning, repeat myself several times during the day, then remind you of it before we go to sleep, it isn’t because I fear that I may not get another chance. It’s because I can think of no better bookends to the day and no better library between them. And if tomorrow you are no longer here, or I am not, then I will believe that every expression of love we have made will live forever. As a breath ripples out into the world and can never be recovered, each new expression of love ripples out and marks our presence. Each new expression of love that we take in, like each new breath, brings with it the oxygen to feed the fire in our souls and give us life for this moment and this day.

And so I will dream because I live today. My dreams keep me conscious of my desires, my hopes, and my fantasies. Today I dream who I am today, and tomorrow I will dream anew.

I will live as though I am alive now, in this moment. And if tomorrow comes I will live then as I live now. If it doesn’t come, then I will have lived to that last moment according to the dreams of every moment.

I know that I will not live forever. I cannot know if I will die tomorrow. But I know that I am here today and I can choose what to do with that.

I will love as I breathe, so that I can draw in that which ignites my soul; and exhale it rippling out into the world.

6 Reasons We Should Stop Trying to Calculate the “Salary” of “Stay-at-Home Moms”

In No Particular Path on April 8, 2015 at 10:02 am

Every year for at least the last 15 years or so, someone has come out with an article claiming to calculate the dollar value of the work of a “stay-at-home mom,” or “homemaker.” But if we genuinely value and want to support the work that women do, then we should stop making pointless and arbitrary calculations. Here are six reasons why.

1. What is the Job Description?
These analyses all begin with some specific idea about what the job entails. These ideas are, to be blunt, unrealistic, gender-biased, and chauvinistic. One way to show this is to rethink the calculations using a gender-neutral argument. What we are really talking about is a family relationship involving two adults and at least one child. One of the adults, Adult A, has agreed to take employment outside the home for a salary or wage, and this employment will provide the family’s sole source of income. The other, Adult B, has agreed to remain at home with the couple’s child and not take paid outside employment. But what does that mean about the actual work each does in support of the family relationship? It is foolish to imagine that relationships in which one partner does nothing but go to a paid job and the other does everything else represent any kind of norm. The analyses also imply that Adult B is an employee of Adult A. One recent article made the claim that the author “can’t afford” his stay-at-home wife because of one of these “salary” computations.
2. Breaking Adult B’s Job Into Smaller Parts is Misleading.
These arguments always make the mistake of isolating out some of the tasks of the stay-at-home partner as though they are separate jobs rather than small parts of the overall job. Then they label those small parts as though they are separate and distinct jobs. A web site called Salary.com lists those jobs as daycare teacher, chief executive officer, psychologist, cook (some sites say chef), housekeeper, laundry operator, computer operator, facilities manager, janitor, and van driver (other sources call this a chauffeur). Another recent article included nannie, personal shopper, financial assistant and even PR assistant (because the author apparently expects his wife to serve as an adjunct to his own career by attending, and sometimes hosting dinners and parties related to his work).
But, to borrow the punch line from an old joke, calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one. I have, out of some necessity, become a fairly competent do-it-yourself-er. I have, for instance painted both the outside and the inside of my house. I am actually quite proud of my skill at cutting-in paint along the ceiling or the door and window trim. But I would never claim to be, in those moments, a painting contractor. Someone who straps the kids into their seats and heads for the mall, or dance lessons, or soccer practice, or the grocery store, or all of those does not suddenly become a chauffeur. If Adult B takes on the responsibility of keeping the checkbook balanced, and maintaining a simple family budget, this is not the equivalent of being a professional financial officer. Cooking the family’s meals does not make one a chef. And so on. Calling what I do at some point during my day a “computer operator” doesn’t actually make me one.
The analyses then make some claim as to the “average” number of hours a week spent on each of these jobs. Aside from the question of the validity and accuracy of these averages, there are few professional jobs that would ever be broken down this way. I was a college professor. The job involved a variety of tasks. I taught; I planned my classes; I assigned, collected, evaluated, and I graded assignments; I kept track of students’ progress and a record of their work in the class. I also did a certain amount of committee work related to the things such as the college curriculum, long-range planning, goals, and mission. But I got paid for the whole job. I didn’t get paid one amount as a group leader, something else as data analyst, another amount as computer operator or word processing specialist or lecturer. The job is the whole job, and the value of the job is not the sum of its parts. Even an attorney, who needs to document her time for each client by the separate tasks performed, charges for an hour’s worth of her time, not differently for each thing she does.
3. The Calculations Ignore Overlapping Work and Multi-tasking.
When Adult B packs the kid or kids into the van and heads for the store to pick up some groceries, several of the jobs overlap. But isn’t buying groceries one of the responsibilities of a chef; isn’t planning what food to have around part of child care; if there is a spontaneous side trip to the cleaners are we in the realm of laundry operator; and can we really separate out the driving necessary to get to the store and home again from the tasks of shopping and getting the cleaning?
4. The Calculations Ignore Everything Adult A Does Besides The Salaried Work.
This has two parts: first, the totality of Adult A’s contribution to the family is diminished, and the real value of what everyone in the family does is imbalanced. I think we can assume that, in a healthy family, the principle wage earner doesn’t simply go to work, come home, and do nothing else. So how do we figure A’s other contributions into the formula? Do we add value every time A stops at the store on the way home, cooks dinner, cares for the child, helps with homework, rakes leaves or replaces a washer in the kitchen faucet? Perhaps we could subtract those activities from Adult B’s “salary.” And let’s remember that the tasks of family life change over time, they aren’t a fixed set of chores or responsibilities. Do we reduce Adult B’s salary over time because as the child grows the time spent caring for and educating the child becomes less as those tasks are handed over to other people, such as the public school system? Do we increase the salary if the child is home schooled? If the family buys a lawn tractor shall we recalculate the contribution of the person who mows the lawn?
5. Who Works For Whom; And Who Pays For What?
The tasks of a marriage are not simply categorized into his-and-hers. If B’s work at home supports and supplements A’s work outside, then A’s salary is earned for B’s work as much as for A’s. Unless we make the calculations based on the idea that B is an employee of A; that everything B does is in the service of A; that, in effect, A is the boss. Since the perception of calculations that claim to value what “stay-at-home Moms” do, isn’t this just a perpetuation of the chauvinistic, male-centered idea that the wife is subservient to the husband? Given such a perception, why not go all the way and include “sex worker” in the list of job titles? If we are going to calculate how much A “owes” B for staying at home, how do we calculate what B owes A for A’s unsalaried contributions? And what of all the other costs of being a family? How do we figure in the cost of a mortgage, utilities, car payments, clothing, food, medical care, insurance, and contributions to a retirement account? Shall we simply divide all those costs in half and deduct B’s half from the salary we have calculated for B? Or do we simply assume that all those things are A’s responsibility because A earns an actual salary, not a virtual one?
6. Everyone Loses.
This sort of analysis, because it relies on rigidly categorized and arbitrarily assigned ideas about what the husband and the wife do in a marriage, is actually kind of insulting to everyone. It insults the women and those who stay in the home, whom it claims to be valuing, by calculating that value in monetary rather than personal terms. It insults wage-earners by reducing their contribution to a paycheck. It insults all the people who actually do the professional jobs on the list by ignoring the real complexity of their work, the extent of their professional training and experience, and the struggles they may have gone through to earn the kind of salaries imagined for them by those who do these analyses. It insults those who both work for a wage and do all those unpaid tasks as well by suggesting that one must either work outside the home or in it, but can’t do both. And it insults normal healthy families by dividing what they do into impersonal tasks rather than elements of a much richer and more meaningful relationship.

The issues of equal pay for equal work, of the under-representation of women in the paid workforce, of our perceptions of “men’s work” and “women’s work” and gender roles generally all need serious discussion and resolution. The nature of marriage and the roles of men and women in relationships need to be addressed in order to deal with the reality that marriage is not a single thing, but as varied as the people who enter into it. Also, the reasons some people decide to leave salaried work are equally varied. The stay-at-home Mom may also be an artist, a gardener, a writer, a volunteer, or active in any number of activities outside the home. These days, the stay-at-home Mom might very well be a Dad.
Perhaps a good starting point might be to recognize and declare that we will no longer reduce the value of the work people do to nothing more than a wage or salary. If people really got paid what they are worth for the value of the work they do, then teachers would get paid more than baseball players, there would be no such thing as a “volunteer” fire department, and no executive would earn four hundred times as much as his average employee. And we should stop devaluing the work of people who don’t get a wage or salary. The worth of every human being and the work they do is always going to be more than the sum of the parts. And we need to recognize that healthy families are shared, common, and mutually supportive relationships that are harmed when the people in them are encouraged to think of them in reductive and mercenary terms.

Depression, Suicide, and Selfishness: Reflections on responses to Robin Williams’ Death

In No Particular Path on August 12, 2014 at 3:45 pm

Robin Williams’ suicide has, of course, resulted in a flood of well-wishing, condolences, and remembrances of his brilliant comedic and acting talents, as well as references to his humanitarian work and insightful commentary. It has also brought up some things that I believe deserve more honest and sensitive discussion than they have so far received. I am referring to the issues of depression and suicide, and the related idea of when an act is selfish.
It is a good thing that so much has been written in support of those who suffer from depression. Called an “invisible” illness, depression is often undiagnosed or badly diagnosed, often treated in a kind of knee-jerk fashion with a variety of pharmaceuticals, confused with temporary down times and reasonable sadness, and sometimes simply dismissed as nothing to worry about. Women especially have been misdiagnosed and over-medicated. Men have often been encouraged in denial and told to “man up and shake it off.” It will be a very good thing if, this time, a public figure’s struggle with depression generates some honest talk about the disease.
Suicide is, if possible, an even touchier subject than depression. Technically, attempting suicide is, in most places, a crime. A successful suicide can mean that life insurance policies will be invalidated, that the cause of death will be expressed in euphemisms and evasions, and that churches will refuse sacraments and funeral services. Even the elective suicides (physician assisted or otherwise) of people who are terminally ill and suffering are approached with a sense that, somehow, staying alive is something other people owe us; and keeping people alive regardless of their needs and wishes is a noble act. Both in terms of medical ethics and practice, and in terms of the social contract and individual freedom of choice, suicide needs a more thoughtful and sensitive discussion than it has generally received.
Which leads us to the question of “selfishness.” In the midst of the overwhelmingly supportive responses to Williams’ death, there have been a few voices of criticism, mostly around the charge that his suicide was a selfish act. Countering that have been articles, such as that by Dean Burnett for The Guardian, that have argued, based mostly on arguments about the serious and poorly understood nature of depression, that are saying that it is wrong to call his act selfish.
As one who has suffered the loss of a loved one, my wife of 25 years, to suicide, I would like to offer a bit of counterpoint. Let me say first that I would have felt less compelled to write this if the charges of selfishness had been held back for a reasonable amount of time or had seemed less harsh and critical; and if the response to the idea had been less vitriolic and more sensitive. Because I believe that suicide is, in fact, always a selfish act; but I don’t intend that as a condemnation of those who choose it. It is, I believe, the ultimate selfish act, the final, irreversible act of self-interest, when the individual puts his own needs first regardless of the potential consequences for others, especially for those closest to him. It is also a personal choice for which I cannot fault someone whose suffering has brought them to that place. I believe that, especially when life itself has become our biggest burden, we have the right to decide to end that life. We can argue endlessly about whether suicide is moral or immoral, whether it is a threat to human society or a natural extension of human freedom, but it would still be a selfish act.
The suicidal person will often justify the act by claiming that they are doing it for others. “I don’t want to be a burden.” “I don’t want you to have to see me suffering this way any longer.” But the most common real life response to a suicide for the people who loved her is not to feel relief, but to experience abandonment, anger, a sense of helplessness and impotence, grief, self-blame and the blaming of each other, embarrassment, shame, regret, guilt and a host of other negative consequences. We twist ourselves into knots trying to explain the suicide, to understand it. We tell everyone who will listen how much we regret not having seen what was happening, not having made an unmade phone call or visit, for having been angry or disappointed or something with the person, not having said “I love you” often enough or sincerely enough. We are driven close to or even into depression built on grief; and we worry that we might, ourselves, be infected somehow with the possibility of suicide. In private we alternate between sobbing grief and angry outbursts. We slowly put our lives back together, but we never feel as though the other’s death made things better for us.
It can be argued that suicide is not a rational decision, but that would be true of any purely selfish decision. And I’m not sure it is always irrational. Robin Williams had suffered terribly from addiction and depression. He was aware of those struggles. He had talked about how addiction never went away but just waited until one thought that it was OK then struck again when one’s guard was down. He knew what he was dealing with. Lacking evidence (which we may someday have) about his final thoughts, how can we be certain that he was not making a considered, rational, personal choice at the end? Is it really irrational to say to oneself, “I’m done with the struggle and I’m ready to go now”? They say that there are signs that someone is considering suicide, and those signs sometimes include a desire to wrap up loose ends in their life, to try to control what will happen after they die, to begin to cut burdensome ties and complete promises and finish responsibilities. Could it not be argued that those might sometimes be rational actions?
I think that we should be slow to judge, both the one who has died and those who are responding to that death. The suicide had his reasons, and it is good that we are becoming more sensitive to those reasons. He might have been depressed, or in pain, or simply ready to move on to the next adventure, as the elders in native communities once did. But we know at the end that he was thinking first of himself and his needs; as was his right. On the other hand, those who criticize the suicide may themselves have considered it and been pulled back from the ledge; they may still harbor some anger about being “saved,” or some doubt about whether they were really wrong; or some sense of loss of control, or disempowerment because they were prevented by others from making their own choice, especially if the things that led to the attempt still afflict them. They may have been left behind by someone else’s suicide and are still struggling with all of the things I mention above, and they may need to call the suicide out for selfishness in order to reassure themselves that they are going to be okay.
Of course Robin Williams’ death is a significant loss to all those who were entertained or moved or inspired by him and his work and life; the same can be said of anyone who chooses her own death and leaves behind the people who loved her. But it is not necessarily unloving to feel anger, to feel that the other person has been selfish, to feel that we are somehow hurt by the other’s choice. It is normal and natural. Each of us arrives at this place uniquely and we will respond uniquely to what has happened. I think that we ought to respect those responses.
I greatly admired Robin Williams; his passing grieves me; but I simultaneously believe that his choice was a selfish one and respect that choice as his to make.

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