Last week I got to spend three days with Lola and her 7th grade class (26 12- and 13-year old girls) on part of the trail that Lewis & Clark trekked. We slept in yurts, explored Shipwreck Beach, hiked to the lighthouse at Cape Disappointment, visited Fort Clatsop to learn about the living conditions, and listened to folks tell stories of their discoveries. It was a lot of driving (I had four girls in my car), and I can honestly say that I don’t recall when I have laughed that much.

There were two other moms who came along as chaperones and four dads that joined the teachers on this trip, and it was really great to see how different adults interact with the students. One dad talked (in front of everyone) about how much he appreciated getting to spend this time with his daughter before she truly launches into the more fully independent teenage years which got quite the sweet response from us all.  Some parents watched the kids pretty closely while others gave them a wide circle of trust, but we all ultimately had everyone’s back.

There were moments of tension, and some tears along the way, but for the most part, the girls enjoyed exploring, talking about what it might have been like to be Sacajawea (the only woman, the only teenager, and the only Native American on an all-white-male expedition), and having a little bit of freedom.

As for me, it was just exactly what I needed.  The previous week had been one of angst and turmoil for me. After launching The SELF Project and officially putting the word out, I spent a week making a few connections with folks I thought might be interested and another week waiting and wondering. While I engaged in many of the normal activities of my life – blogging, editing a piece for publication, cooking and shopping and running the girls to school and their various activities – I was constantly taunted by thoughts that I ought to be doing something else. That if I were a “real” entrepreneur, I would know the right steps to take to get clients and start some projects. That I was somehow not good enough or smart enough to make this endeavor work.

The three days with these girls showed me that those voices are wrong. I had several conversations with teachers and parents on the trip about the social-emotional health of the girls, discussing my insights and understanding and making suggestions for future trips. I was able to see patterns in some instances that others hadn’t seen and it reinforced my belief that engaging in mindfulness with these kids is terrifically important in so many ways.

I came home exhausted and rejuvenated, my belly sore from laughing at their antics, and feeling a renewed sense of wonder about this beautiful place where we live. More than that, though, I came home knowing more about how I work best and that actually immersing myself in the work is where my talents shine through.

When I look at this image, the first thing I see is an old woman and it’s hard to see anything else.  But as soon as someone points out the young lady facing away from me in the same lines on the page, it is nearly impossible to see the old woman again. I am stuck with the view of the young lady.

In order to switch back and forth, I am forced to focus on certain parts of the image instead of looking at the whole. If I want to go back to the view of the old woman, I seek out the line of her mouth and raise my eyes up to her beak-like nose.

If I then want to see the young lady again, I look out to where her eyelash and nose are to shift perspective.  And as I do so, I am reminded that I possess the same power of perspective in my daily life.

Perception is reality, right? So if we’re in a challenging situation, or a pattern in our lives where our default perspective is glass-half-empty, it’s up to us to change the way we look at it. The trick is not to fill up the glass, but to see that it is half full instead.  We have to focus on certain parts of the whole that help us to see things in a different way, and it is important to teach our kids how to do this for themselves. As they hit adolescence and emotions become king, it can be really difficult to perceive things in a positive way, and once the negative patterns have been set, it takes work to change them.

If you have a teen who sees things in a decidedly unhappy way (I hate school, nobody likes me, I suck at math/history/lit), there’s no use challenging their perception. You will get nowhere by disputing their sense of reality or belittling their emotional responses, but you can help them turn the tide slowly by helping them see things in a different way. One powerful way to do this is to begin a gratitude practice (although you may not want to call it that).

When Eve started high school there were a lot of challenges and it didn’t take long for her to feel like a square peg in a round hole. After weeks of angst and hand-wringing (on my part), lots of conversations designed to build her up, and a few frustrated arguments, I decided to lead by example. Every night before turning my bedside lamp off, I texted Eve a list of three things I was grateful for and asked her if she had three to tell me about. I wanted the last thing in her mind before sleep to be happy.  She started out slowly, often able to come up with one or two things, but sometimes getting stuck. It took a week or so before she was texting me first and asking for my reply, and her list of things has deepened from “my soft pillow” to items like “teachers I can trust” and her own strengths. Her perspective is shifting right before my eyes and I would be remiss if I didn’t say that it has made a difference in her willingness to get up and tackle each new day as it comes, challenges and all.

It is a practice, and, like the effort it takes to focus my eyes on one set of lines or another in that drawing when I want to see a certain perspective, it is continual. The best part about it, though, for me, is the reminder that I am ultimately in charge of which lenses I see the world through – hope or fear, scarcity or abundance, gratitude or anger – and I hope that my girls are learning that, too.

What a week! I am putting the first touches on the website for my new project (that I’ve been hinting about here for a while, now), and it is a lot of work, but it’s really fun. You can visit the site here and give  me any feedback you have on what you see/what I might change or add.  The endeavor is called The SELF (Social-Emotional Learning Foundations) Project. The goal is to bring social-emotional education to tweens and teens at schools, after-school programs, and other places where they gather.  The curriculum is divided into six areas:

  • mindfulness
  • living with joy
  • dealing with stress, anxiety, and fear
  • developing self-worth
  • compassion
  • big questions of life
I’m offering one-off events as well as entire workshops based in these areas and hoping to do a few summer camps this year.  I will also facilitate groups for parents and others raising tweens and teens to talk about mindful parenting through this tumultuous time, again either as ongoing meetings or as one-off speaking/facilitating events.  Eventually, I hope to develop the curriculum so that it can be licensed to other people who want to teach it in their own communities.  Each focus area has discussion prompts, worksheets, activities, and guided visualizations/meditations in order to offer different ways of looking at the same ideas.  It is based in research I’ve done over the past eight years as I raise my own girls and strive to help them develop as whole human beings, and most of the meditations and worksheets are things I created to help my girls through challenging times. If you know of schools or other organizations (YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, etc.) who might be interested, please pass on the link to the website so they can check it out.   I am happy to travel in the Pacific Northwest to speak and teach.  
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Also, in case you missed it, I had a piece published this week that I have worked on for a while and I’d love it if you headed over to read it – especially if you know tweens or teens that have questions about sex and sexuality.  You can find it here.


“Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.” Josiah Charles Stamp

Ahh, personal responsibility. We are a nation enamored with the concept. We are also enamored with the notion of individuality; individual freedoms (to a certain extent), individual rights, individual responsibility. We expect people to clean up their messes if, for some reason they haven’t managed to avoid making them in the first place. Unfortunately, we don’t always provide them with the tools they need to do either of these things. And therein lies the rub.

We are a nation that loves instant gratification and thrives on the ability to “keep up with the Joneses.” Hallelujah for credit! Visa and MasterCard give us the opportunity to spend money we don’t have on things we want now. Sub-prime mortgages and “zero down” financing offer us chances to spend money we won’t likely ever have. Our children and grandchildren see the economy collapsing under the weight of such ridiculousness, and hear every day on the news that the economy would rebound more quickly if we just went out and spent more money. Huh? Is it any wonder they’re confused? And how many of them will learn about money management in school? How many of their classes will educate them about saving money and contingency planning? If these classes aren’t available, how many of their parents will be able to talk to them about these things? I remember two of the “life skills” classes I took in high school: Personal Finance and home economics. We talked about calculating interest rates and were taught the proper way to write a personal check in Personal Finance class. In Home Ec, we did a little sewing, a little meal preparation, and one very memorable day, a cosmetics expert came in to teach us the proper way to apply our makeup without creating wrinkles around our eyes. I didn’t feel precisely qualified to manage the finances of a household upon graduation. I’m certain I’m not qualified to teach my kids money management skills based on those two “practical life” classes.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed yet another bill that is aimed at blocking access to reproductive healthcare for millions of American women. They claim that their intent is to reduce the number of abortions (hopefully to zero) in our nation. If this is an attempt to force women to live up to the consequences of their mistakes (ie. premarital or unprotected sexual activity?), I fear that they are asking women to sweep up a mess without providing them a broom or proper instruction on its use. Defunding Planned Parenthood and making access to other facilities where women can get objective, non-biased information about their own bodies is worse than that. It is actively denying them access to the broom and the class on sweeping. How can we expect people to avoid mistakes or learn from them when we don’t offer them information? If we fight against sexual education classes in our schools and rail against birth control, we are expecting people to gain this vital education by what, osmosis? If we don’t teach each other what we know about the more difficult things in life, we can’t expect any change. You can’t hold someone responsible for making a mistake they had no way of preventing.

Individuality is important. Differences are often what creates color and vibrancy in life. But not enough can be made of the power of tapping into a collective base of information. There will always be people who learn best by making mistakes over and over again, but for those who could benefit from the wisdom of others, isn’t it our responsibility to pass that information on?

Albert Einstein once characterized insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This applies to entire cultures as much as it does to individuals. We can’t keep telling generation after generation that we expect them to clean up their own messes if we don’t provide them with the tools to either do so, or avoid those messes in the first place. Rebuilding our economy by asking people to spend more money only props it up for the next generation to overspend again. We will find ourselves right back in the same position, just as we have so many times before. And telling women and girls that they ought not to get pregnant without giving them ways to prevent pregnancy won’t affect the rate of unwanted pregnancy in our country. Personal responsibility is a good thing, but it is impossible to sustain without knowledge.

“Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.” Dalai Lama

         The fact that the phrase “school shooting” exists is clear
evidence of how we are failing our children. The fact that we have systems in
place to mobilize grief counselors within our communities, that there are
protocols and sample dialogues to help parents talk to their children about gun
violence in their schools tells us we are doing something wrong.  That a “popular,” “happy” high school
student from a “prominent” family could post his anguished feelings multiple
times over a period of weeks on Twitter prior to shooting his friends and
turning his weapon on himself and the media headlines read “Motive Still
Unknown” is shocking to me.
            I
am not blaming the family and friends of school shooters for not intervening,
not anticipating that they will react this way to their deep sadness. I am
saying that we as a society are failing our kids in an elemental way by waiting
until something horrific happens to talk publicly about difficult emotions
instead of teaching our kids how to recognize and process those emotions throughout
their lives.
            Two
vital things we know are at play here. First, adolescent brains are literally
wired differently than adult brains. The brain of a teenager is subject to
emotional storms that are not yet mitigated by logic, primarily because that
portion of their brain is not yet fully developed. When a teenager is feeling
strong emotions, they are not being ‘dramatic’ or ‘over-reacting,’ they are
simply responding to the chemical reactions swirling around in their heads. To
expect them to push aside or disregard those biochemical impulses is simply
unrealistic. Instead, we have to teach them to mitigate those responses, to
acknowledge their feelings and process them appropriately, but all to often we
expect them to “get over it” or we feel uncomfortable when they are upset and
we minimize their feelings to make ourselves feel better.
            We
spend billions of dollars each year teaching our children to read and write, to
apply mathematical formulas to complicated problems, to find patterns in
history and science, and we neglect to talk to them about what it means to be
human. While it is vitally important to have these kinds of conversations within
family systems, it is equally as important to acknowledge these emotional
challenges within a wider audience, to normalize them as much as we can.  If we continue to send the message that
learning to identify and process deeply painful feelings is a private endeavor,
we are missing the opportunity to show our children that they are supported
within a wider community, that they are not alone.
            The
second thing that we know is that violence is often rooted in disconnection.
People harm others when they feel powerless, often because they are struggling
with ideas of their own worth or their place within the community. When an
individual does not feel part of the system or supported by it, they are more
likely to objectify and dehumanize the other people around them. It is through
that objectification that the threshold for violent acts is lowered – it is
much easier to harm someone you don’t feel connected to, that you have
demonized. Our educational system emphasizes individual accomplishments and
competition, values independence, and isolates students who are ‘different,’
both academically and socially. Without some sort of social-emotional education
that acknowledges the developmental stages of teens and tweens within the
context of the demands placed on them, we cannot expect them to flourish. We
may be raising a generation of students who can compete in the global economy,
but without teaching them what it is to be human, to experience pain and
rejection, to accept discomfort and work through it, we are treading a
dangerous path. Every time our children cry out in pain we are presented with
an opportunity to listen, to validate those feelings, to model empathy and compassion
and to teach them how to navigate those difficult times. This isn’t about
individual or family therapy, this isn’t about mental health treatment, this is
about acknowledging that our children are whole human beings who are developing
physically, mentally and emotionally and ignoring their social-emotional
development is creating a problem for all of us.  Our children are killing each other to get our attention.
What is it going to take for us to start listening to them?

Patience is a virtue, but so far, it isn’t one I possess. Unfortunately for me, I just happen to be hard-wired to make decisions only after I sleep on them for a while. I have learned, on some occasions quite painfully, that when I make quick decisions about big things, I often regret my choice. There are people (my husband and Eve, for example) who can check in with their gut and know almost instantaneously what they ought to do. I am not one of those people.

For a few months now I have been trying to define my next steps. The girls are getting increasingly independent and I am getting restless, looking for something more substantial to do besides freelance writing here and there.  I put the word out to some trusted allies this summer and have begun scouring the internet for volunteer and job opportunities that might fit my passions. On several occasions, I have been tempted to apply for positions with organizations I admire, despite the fact that the position itself is not quite right. Either the hours are wrong or I know I would be bored in a few months, or the organization does great work but it doesn’t light a fire in my belly.  Thus far, I have resisted, hoping (but not really knowing deep down) that the right thing will present itself.

This week, one of the folks who knows I’m looking forwarded a job posting to me, noting that it was full time (which I don’t really want because I still want to attend the girls’ sporting events and be flexible for their school days off), but that it was a local non-profit we both know and love and I would be very qualified for the position.  I read through the job announcement a few times, getting excited because it is a job I know I could do.  And yet.  There was something. If I’m being totally honest (and a little bit woo woo), I have to say that all of that excitement was lighting up the left side of my brain. I actually felt as though my head was listing to the left – no kidding. I put off applying for the job and emailed Bubba to see what he thought about it.  Before I received a response from him, I headed to a gathering of women who are going to a leadership retreat together in October and pretty quickly, I found myself talking to two of the women there about this job. They both know the organization and the folks who work there and, more importantly, they know me, so I asked what they thought.  Within moments, I realized that I had spent most of the day trying to talk myself out of applying.  Another moment passed and we were talking about a project I’ve been quietly working on all month that is scaring the crap out of me because it’s such a big leap. And even as we spoke, I realized I had a fire in my belly. That despite the fact that I’m scared and my left brain doesn’t believe I have the credibility or the qualifications to pull off this secret project, my right brain is all twinkly Christmas lights when I think about it.  Needless to say, my body language convinced both of these amazing women that I know what I really need to do.

I won’t be applying for the job that was forwarded to me.  Bubba got a ‘gut hit’ off of it that, while it’s a terrific position and I would do a great job at it, it’s not right for me. And twice in the last two days, I have heard the phrase “what would you do if you knew you would not fail?” – not directed at me, but in the context of other things I’ve read or seen.  Both times, I stopped and asked myself this question and sat twisting my fingers in my lap as I answered, “the secret project that scares me.” I can’t say where it will go, but I will say that I’m a little closer to leaping. Wish me luck.

I’m going to tell you something you already know: it’s
easier to be angry than it is to feel sad. It is harder still to acknowledge
the fear that lies behind both the sadness and the anger without becoming
entangled in it and letting it take over. 
And the most challenging scenario I’ve yet encountered is when the fear
and anger and sadness spring from incidents that involve my children.  There is a certain intensity to the
feeling, the difference between a freshly-honed butcher knife and the paring
knife you’ve used for everything from slicing apples to cutting bread to
peeling cucumbers. That sharp edge makes all the difference and it gleams in
the light.
Even though fear underlies both sadness and anger, the anger
comes with a drive to act, a sense that I can do something to mitigate or
repair or eradicate. It feels like a positive force, propelling me forward. The
sadness feels like a pit, a low spot in the landscape where I have to just sit
and see my limited view of the horizon for a while. That feels hopeless and
helpless, especially when it comes on behalf of someone else, someone who will
benefit more from quiet compassion and understanding than any action I could
possibly take.  I am much more
comfortable being the Mama Bear, putting out a forearm to block incoming
trouble and uttering a frightening roar because it feels proactive and
empowering. Sitting in that ditch with my kid while she sobs is not so
satisfying.
If I were a caveperson, I would understand. Sitting in that
sad pit will get you eaten. Injury to the soul is of little consequence when
you aren’t sure whether or not you will find a meal or be the meal. And so I
suppose it is a consequence of our relatively luxurious life that I can feel so
acutely the emotional pain of my children and long for a solution that will
instantly make things different, or at least one that will give me the illusion
of control.  But the backdrop of
luxury doesn’t make my heart hurt any less. And reminding my kids that they’re
not the only one this has ever happened to doesn’t make their hearts hurt any
less. It is nice to know you’re not alone, but it sucks to know that you still
have to make your way through the hurt in your own way, in your own time, no
matter how many people have been there before and how many others are sitting cross-legged in that damn pit with you.
And as a mother, it is far more difficult to watch my
children make their way through, in fits and starts, with frustration and doubt
and, sometimes, utter desolation, and know there isn’t a damn thing I can do but
love them and love them and love them until my heart feels like it will burst
with a single touch. As I walked the dog this morning I wished for anger, for
someone or something to project my fears onto because holding this emotion is
exhausting and anger is exhilarating in its power, even if it is often
destructive.  Anger feels
galvanizing, strengthening, and when I go all Mama Bear, I am certain my kids
know I’ve got their backs and it feels good to express it publicly. Telling
them quietly that I acknowledge their pain and sadness and letting them see my
sadness feels supportive but falls flat because it doesn’t have all the
attendant bells and whistles of action. It isn’t necessarily in my nature to choose the easy way out but, man, do I really want to sometimes. 

I haven’t posted anything in a long time, but it isn’t for lack of material. There is so much going on in the world right now, from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO to the ongoing wars in Syria and the Gaza Strip and Ukraine to the CDC whistleblower coming out to say that statistically significant data sets were withheld from studies on the MMR vaccine over a decade ago.  I’m exhausted and overwhelmed and saddened by the ongoing polarization I see every single day. That said, the fact is, I am guilty of adding fuel to the fire from time to time.

A very close friend of mine helped me realize that yesterday.  I had posted a video on Facebook related to the CDC whistleblower case and remarked that the notion that a group of government scientists purposely omitting an entire set of data from a study was something I found horrifying.  This friend of mine, whom I’ve known since we were 15, commented that she didn’t believe a word of it and went one step further to post a pretty snarky essay written by someone who not only doesn’t believe it, but resorted (in the first sentence of his piece) to name-calling and went on to write sarcastically and with true nastiness about “those people” who put any stock in this story.While my friend and I ultimately had a very civil (very public) discourse about the issue, I was prompted to recognize that the video I posted was incendiary and I spent a great deal of time thinking about how I could have done it differently throughout the rest of the day.

On a very related topic, there was a study published in the New York Times that made its way around Facebook yesterday stating that most people are not willing to post controversial things online for fear of creating debates that might turn ugly. My concern is not that people won’t post those things, but that when they do, they are fully unprepared to have a respectful exchange of ideas with regard to them and it quickly devolves into hateful rhetoric where there are more answers than questions.

When I meet people in my daily life who are utterly convinced of their own positions on everything, I am prompted to steer clear. Anyone who says to me that they know that something is absolutely true is someone who hasn’t asked enough questions. Anyone who is willing to disregard any new theory that might raise an area for further study because they think we know enough isn’t someone I need to talk to. I am most often amazed by folks with very little scientific background or training beyond high school biology or chemistry classes who are steadfast in their determination that some ultimate truth has been proven somewhere and everyone who disagrees ought to just be quiet now.  I am wary of folks who assume that deeper inquiries are a personal challenge or that they are altogether unnecessary.

The video I posted was designed to be incendiary and attention-grabbing and even, perhaps, fear-mongering and that is something that I have spoken out against many times in the past. I can see how my posting it would seem to be an endorsement of these tactics and, for that, I apologize.  But I will never apologize for continuing to be inquisitive, for keeping an open mind and struggling to understand why any scientist worth his or her salt would choose to avoid asking or answering certain questions. I will never apologize for believing that corporate interests ought to be kept as far from scientific discovery and testing as possible for fear that they will create undue influence. And I will never apologize for supporting others who are simply asking that their questions and hunches and parenting instincts be taken into consideration by those who could potentially make a difference. We can be stronger and smarter together forever, but only if we start listening with the express goal of understanding each other instead of simply waiting our turn to spout our own position. If you can’t be bothered to read an entire article or essay (or watch the whole video) without assuming you know what I’m trying to say and responding with dismissive, sarcastic, snarky comments or name-calling, then you don’t deserve to be part of the conversation and you probably don’t want to, anyway. I suspect you’re just angling to be “right” about something and I’m not interested.

Trends in education come and go, like anything else. Letter grades, number grades, no grades, “old” math, “new” math, multi-age classrooms, inclusive classrooms, AP classrooms. It’s hard to keep up, but one trend that has been around for my girls’ generation is the STEM focused curriculum and while I understand it, it does give me some pause.  Mostly because I think that doing anything in a vacuum, for the sake of doing it or jumping on that moving train is not necessarily a good idea.  It seems that the United States has fully embraced the notion that we can all live better lives if we pursue jobs in math or engineering or science fields. We have all drunk the Kool-Aid that tells us that technology is the saviour of the future and those individuals who understand it and shape it will be kings and queens.

Within this push for STEM education, there is a mini-movement that is focused on girls. It is true that women are very poorly represented in the fields that rely heavily on STEM education. These also tend to be the jobs that offer more flexibility and opportunity and higher pay.  And while I am absolutely not opposed to the emphasis on STEM (or, as they put it at Lola’s school, STEAM with an A for the arts), I hope that these students are also learning just as much about the application of this knowledge and the ethics involved as they are about how to build a better robot.  I hope that they aren’t being seduced by the possibilities of this knowledge without considering the ramifications of it. When Albert Einstein helped spur the development of the atomic bomb, he had some inkling of what he might be unleashing, but it wasn’t until many years later that he said, “I have always condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan.”  He defended his involvement by noting that the research was available and, if it hadn’t been built and used by the United States, he was certain that the Nazis would have developed the technology, but this is precisely what I think of when I imagine legions of scientifically-literate students graduating from American high schools without any sort of ethical framework for the work they are suddenly capable of doing.

One of the phrases I use with Lola and Eve that drives them batty goes like this, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” I hope that I haven’t said it so many times that they tune it out, but just often enough that it echoes in their heads from time to time and encourages them to ask, “Why? Why am I doing this? Why am I making this decision now? What will come of it?”  I honestly believe that this is the most important question we can ever ask ourselves, and often the most difficult to answer.  I think that as a culture we could save boatloads of money and time and effort if we stopped to inquire about why we choose to do certain things in particular ways.  Technology and science, engineering and math have certainly changed our lives for the better in multitudes of ways, but there are also egregious examples of STEM-gone-wrong, used for exploitation or corporate financial gain, and turning out an entire generation of students who blindly believe that STEM is the way to job security and financial success without any ability to question their own motives or morality is a frightening prospect.

I remember taking a bioethics course in college and wondering why it wasn’t required for pre-med students (I was pre-med, but I took it as credit toward my bachelor’s degree in philosophy, not biology). I was lucky enough to sit on the ethics committee at a local hospital for one term and see how large institutions debate questions of morality when it comes to research and equity for all patients and I was shocked at how many physicians never bothered to ask those questions in their daily practice unless it was required for some study or potential lawsuit. They were content to let the “experts” in ethics decide for them and dictate what they ought to do.  I am not condemning them for that. They were likely never taught to ask those kinds of questions or how to think about them.  They were taught to look critically at things that had “right” and “wrong” answers, how to perform tests to determine which was which, and move forward. If we don’t find ways to give our children a language of ethics, a way to talk about the choices we make and understand the effect those choices have on others, we are sorely mistaken.  If we don’t attempt to focus on the application and consequences of our scientific discoveries, have honest conversations about the reasons for engaging in the work we’re doing (beyond making money or ‘to see if we can,’) we are missing a vital piece of educating our kids.  I am much more interested in my children becoming thoughtful citizens of a community who can envision and work toward some common goal than I am in seeing them get advanced degrees in STEM fields and go on to create the next genetically-modified food product that could wreak havoc on our ecosystems beyond anything we can imagine. And while I do think that some of the responsibility for teaching that lies with parents, to have our educational system acknowledge the necessity and importance of it is vital. I’m not advocating for schools to provide any sort of absolute ethical framework (although some religious schools do that). Rather, I think they would do better to teach students to ask “why” at each important juncture, to flex that ethical muscle, to keep them examining the reasons and ramifications of their actions when it comes to all of their learning.

I am reading my first book by bell hooks. I have read quotes of hers before and come across people who think she is absolutely brilliant and yet, I have never once picked up a book by her. Until now. And to be honest, I don’t even really remember what made me pick up “All About Love: New Visions,” but it is quickly becoming a tome to set next to the likes of David Whyte’s “The Three Marriages” and anything by Brene Brown to read over and over again.  I have taken so many pages of notes I’m running out of space in my notebook and I am only about 70% of the way through it.

hooks’ meditations on every kind of love from friendships to family to intimate, romantic relationships to self-love are so simple and profound that I am stunned again and again. And, as I often do, I find myself stopping mid-page to muse about the ways in which her philosophy pertains to different aspects of my life and pop culture.  The fact that her thoughts feel so incredibly universal to me is one reason why I suspect I will be able to read this book many times and find some new perspective during each and every reading.

She begins by defining love in a way I’ve never heard it spoken about before and, yet, it feels absolutely right to me.  She uses M. Scott Peck’s definition, the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth, as a springboard, and adds, “To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”

She has chapters on every imaginable application of love but in light of what is happening in the Middle East right now, I am particularly struck by her chapters on community and what she calls a “love ethic.”

I have been called hopelessly idealistic and a dreamer most of my life. I own it. And so, in that spirit, I began thinking about what the world would look like if we embraced the notion of a love ethic, cultures rooted in mutual respect and acknowledgment instead of materialism and consumerism and money and power.  In this kind of society, it would be absolutely necessary to address our fears and take daily leaps of faith. In this kind of society, we would be required to forego the possibility of having everything we want in order for everyone to have some of what they want.  In our current model, we are encouraged to think constantly about what we as individuals want which sets up this endless cycle of desiring and attaining and assessing and desiring more. We are always comparing what we have with what we don’t have, what we have with what others have, and we will always come up short. In our current model, where possessions equal success equal power, we are tricked into thinking that more stuff will make us happier and we dehumanize other people who get in the way of us having more stuff.

When I think about the daily violence happening in Gaza and Syria, I see a cycle of fear and entitlement. I see groups of people desperate to have exactly what they think they need and willing to go to any length to get it.  I see militaries who have embraced the power of fear to make others do what you want them to do and one of the big problems with that is that, while fear is a terrific motivator, it is only ever a temporary one.  And fear doesn’t allow you to have relationship with others, so if you’re intent on controlling them for long, you either have to continue to ratchet up the fear factor or you have to worry about their retaliation. (Of course, one other solution is to entirely eradicate the “other” so that you don’t have to consider being in relationship at all.)

In hooks’ love ethic, everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and to live well.  Everyone expresses themselves honestly and openly and with a view toward living their ethic in everything they do and, in doing so, they are investing in their own individual growth and the growth and happiness of everyone else.  Individuals in these kinds of communities recognize the humanity of the other individuals at every turn even if they don’t agree with them. In acknowledging the humanity of others, there is no desire to “win” or rule over another, there is only a concern for the good of all and the acceptance that nobody can ever have all that they want because that is not good for the community.

The irony in the present situation in the Middle East is that everyone’s actions are rooted in fear, even as they are doing their mightiest to instill terror in the hearts of their opponents. And when we act out of fear, we cannot hope to accomplish anything but inciting more fear and anger. This cycle is endlessly destructive and while we may gain momentary feelings of righteousness as we claim small victories, we
have not made any lasting, sustainable efforts toward peace.

In the case of the violence in the Middle East, Benjamin Netanyahu has been very clear that the goal of attacking Gaza is to shut down the tunnels that Hamas has built from Gaza into Israel’s territory. They are afraid and, goodness’ knows I don’t fault them for that. Their fears are justified, given the violence Hamas has rained down upon Israel thanks to the tunnels. But in disproportionately attacking the civilians in Gaza, what Israel is doing is showing that they can instill fear in Hamas, that they can be scarier than their enemy in hopes of what – convincing them that Israel is mightier and they ought to just give up? Even if Hamas did concede that point for now, if they ever hope to get any power again, they will have to invent some way to be even more frightening in the future. And the Palestinians are not likely to ever forget the horrific numbers of innocent civilians who fell prey to Netanyahu’s military which means that the prospects for a peaceful solution are even farther away than they were before.

There will always be someone who will come along and threaten to take what you have – your feeling of security, your home and possessions, your family. And we can set up fences, locks, alarm systems, but as long as we are operating from a place of fear, we are focused on what we might lose instead of what we already have, what is most important. If we can learn to retreat to a place of “enough” instead of continually visiting the well of “I need/deserve more,” we won’t feel threatened by others and worried that they will take what is or might one day be “ours.” And if we can build communities based on everyone taking the courageous, incredibly difficult step of extending a hand and trusting in each others’ humanity, we might just begin to find solutions that are rooted in love one day.