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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Running Plan B

Three weeks ago I was packing my bag and planning to head to New York City to run the ING NYC 2012 marathon. That is until Hurricane Sandy came to town and wreaked havoc on too many lives to count. I was one of 47,000 runners from around the world registered to run 26.2 miles through what is now considered one of the worst environmental disasters to hit the East Coast.

Unlike many residents along the marathon route and beyond, I didn’t lose power, access to clean drinking water, my home, family members, or my livelihood. When my friends starting texting and calling me a few hours before my departure, to notify me of the race cancellation, they were all sympathetic and guessed I would be disappointed. All I could think was that Mayor Bloomberg had made a difficult, but necessary, decision to channel much-needed supplies and human resources designated for the race to those who truly needed them.

One of my former coworkers has a beloved coffee mug that reads: “Life is all about how you handle Plan B.”  Before starting this blog about how to nurture courage in our children and ourselves as parents, I had honestly never thought about how important it is to frame some of life’s unexpected and challenging circumstances as “Plan B” to help boost our capacity for the six types of courage.  It now strikes me that much of human courage, and a truer measure of our success in life, has to do with how we handle adapting, often in a singular moment, to the unexpected and challenging circumstances of our individual lives.  In terms of parenting, since my kids were young I have had lots of conversations with them about differentiating life's “big stuff” (i.e. life-threatening illness) from the “small stuff” (i.e. not getting to push the elevator button).  When my son was about five years old, after one such conversation when he was upset about a playdate cancellation, he proclaimed: “You know Mommy, if you reeeeaaaalllly think about it the big stuff can just be smashed apart to make smaller stuff.  It's all just small stuff!!” (You can read about Jennifer’s perspective on  “Plan B” by clicking here. You can also read more about cognitive reframing in one of my former posts A Hurricane is Coming.)


Well, it didn’t take long for me to decide that I would lace up my sneakers and still run the marathon as scheduled--it would just have to be around my hometown instead. I figured I had done all my training and had collected some $3,000 in charitable donations for the Alzheimer’s Association in honor of my mother and uncle. I had all my gear ready. I was good to go!

Next, I cancelled my hotel reservation and diverted the refund to the Red Cross Relief fund for Hurricane Sandy. I wrote an email to all my sponsors who had so generously donated funds notifying them that I keep good on my promises. Not one of them asked for a refund! Instead, I received a flurry of supportive emails that strengthened my resolve to run. My husband and I then planned and drove a few possible 26.2 miler routes starting from our house. Some more hilly than others, through battlefields my ancestors had once fought on. I’m a little superstitious and also a big believer that everything happens for a reason; I figured running close to home on the same day, starting at the same time, from my own front porch instead of from the Hudson River’s edge on Staten Island, was what was meant to be. It always feels right and good when I’m living in the flow.

When I called my uncle to inform him that I was still going ahead with my run on my own, to honor his courage in facing down Alzheimer’s, his response: “Well, how like you. This means you'll win the race, of course!”

Starting out!
I started out at 10:30 a.m., with a hug from my daughter and a dear colleague. Halfway down the block I was surprised to find another dear friend outfitted to join me on my first six miles. My husband and son planned to be my loyal pit crew at various stops along the way.

I carried all the names of the family members my sponsors had honored through their donations. I read it out to myself and sent prayers for each of them at 13.1 miles and again towards the end of my run--when I really needed their strength and inspiration. I thought of the families struggling to recover and repair their lives after Hurricane Sandy, especially the mom from Staten Island whose two young children were torn from her arms by a giant wave and both of whom tragically died. A loss which I can only imagine must take the most courage any of us as parents can muster.

I reflected on how truly grateful I am to be healthy enough to run on behalf of such important causes. I also thought, “Girl, if you can give birth twice, you can do this!”

Around mile 16, I felt the presence of other runners coming up behind me. Being Canadian, I promptly apologized for hogging the narrow slip of road we were needing to share along my route, only to turn around and find two twin guardian angels—my son’s ex-girlfriend and her twin. They told me not to talk, good advice, and to just keep running. Not long after my mind went to an altered state and I just kept saying to myself “Just keep running, just keep running.” No deep insights. But maybe that's enough: just to keep moving, putting one foot in front of the other, staying VERY present, especially when you have to dig deep during tough times.

I had always minimized the legendary “Wall” that every marathoner talks about, around miles 20-24. That is until “The Wall” found me at mile 22. It became too much to take a drink, stomach any energy “goo,” and it became very evident that I was going to have to draw on something much stronger than myself to finish this particular race. Most marathoners would agree that at this stage of a 26.2 miler, the balance tips in favor or mind over matter. I kept counting down the blocks and kept with my plan to run and not stop—no matter what! At that point, if I had stopped I figured I would lose all momentum and fall face-first onto the pavement. I was really concerned about honoring my commitment to my sponsors. Everything became very simple.  Just breath, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and push just that little bit further than I think I can: the essence of physical courage.  The type of courage that Jennifer's friend Jane, a former professional ballerina, talks about in this post: Dancing Through Pain.


Almost across the finish line
A few blocks from home, I could hear a chorus of girls singing “She'll be coming around the block, when she comes…” Total relief! One final hill and I'd be home. I did my best, hunched over at this point, to challenge that hill, and was met at the top by my daughter and a group of her good friends. One of whom I overheard saying, “Your mom seriously looks like she's going to die.” Then followed a series of inspirational chalk sayings along our block, with my husband and son holding a make-shift finish line, fashioned from some spare rope from our garage, for me to cross some 4 hrs. and 25 mins. later—first, of course, as predicted! My twin angels clearly gracious enough to let me win this one!

My learning? In a nutshell:

• Disappointment gets in the way of decoding Plan B.

• Grace is accepting what happens as meant to be.

• Never underestimate good running shoes, hydrating, and regular re-fueling.

• Don't believe every thought that pops into your head—especially those at mile 22 that start "I can't..."

• Everyone needs a loyal pit crew. Treat them well! Give thanks!

• Stretching and being flexible can’t be underestimated, especially after 40.
• What we think is the big stuff can actually be broken into smaller, more manageable, stuff—especially when we focus on what’s truly important in life. Which, in my opinion, is to love and be loved.  It takes all six types of courage to live this value!

Across the finish line with my twin guardian angels!
Care to share one of your "Plan B" stories?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

My Year of Living Fearlessly!

When we know who we are, we can overcome our fears and insecurities. We surpass our smaller selves who suffer the slings and arrows of our conditioned reality, and we move to the unconditional truth of our larger selves. The answers to the questions of what to do, what to say, whom to let in, and whom to keep out become a clear and simple matter of listening to our hearts. That inner voice helps us align with our purpose, because each of us has a purpose, even if we judge it to be insignificant the voice is there. We just need to listen to it. When we do that, we live in fearlessness.” – Arianna Huffington, excerpted from On Becoming Fearless in Love, Work, and Life


Since my last blog post, I’ve been busy crossing things of my list of “Fears to Conquer and Dreams to Live,” as part of my intention to live fearlessly in 2012!

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about my decision not to make a list of New Year’s resolutions in my post What Would You Do if You Weren't Afraid? Instead, I decided to embrace the idea that by striving to live fearlessly, an even more authentic and courageous self may emerge. The thing about fear is that it limits full self-expression while keeping us fearfully, anxiously captive. Perfectionism, the underlying culprit behind many New Year’s resolutions, is fear’s evil twin (I’ve written about it in Making Failure Okay). Therefore, I also made a commitment to embrace the belief  “I’m already enough.”

We seek to help our kids to conquer their fears every day, and the best place to start is with ourselves!

The first thing I did after writing my New Year’s post was to make a list of my fears. I was pleasantly surprised to find that none of the classic phobias were on the list. I’m not afraid of spiders, snakes, heights, public speaking, or flying. Of course, when I see a snake on the side of the road on one of my long distance runs, I still jump. That type of fear is biologically-based, instinctual, and the kind of self-protective response we need for survival. Pure fear, instead of anxious “fright,” can be a powerful protector and teacher. In 2012, however, I wanted to coax the monsters from out under my bed, rid old skeletons in my closet. Simply riding more roller coasters wasn’t going to do the trick.

So, here’s where things got interesting. Once I was willing to commit to living fearlessly, I found that every single fear I may have avoided, stuffed, or otherwise denied, when given permission to be expressed, written down on paper, or otherwise invited to show its ugly face, did just that! Around about January 15th, it looked like Halloween in my own head!  Therefore, as I became willing to face my fears, it became very important to identify specific goals and steps to take to conquer those fears. The fastest anxiety-busting technique I know is to take ACTION! As the old adage reminds us: “The only way out is through.” No matter how small the steps you take through fear, it just matters that you keep taking those steps. For every fear on my list, I came up with a fear-busting goal.

Here's a sample of some of the fears from my January 1st, 2012 list:

"I'm afraid of becoming blind." So, I promptly booked an appointment with an optometrist who reassured me I had neither a fatal brain tumor nor impending blindness. Instead, she prescribed a cheap pair of readers and told me “You have excellent vision, but you're in your forties.  The good news is that your forties aren't fatal! Your eye strain isn’t a tumor, you just need readers.” Phew!  One fear down, nine to go!

"I'm afraid of not having friends and family for support during tough times." So, I started reaching out to old and new friends and hosting more social gatherings, whether my house is clean or not, and repaired my heart and upped my happiness a little more in the process.  I booked flights for myself and my family home to Canada for a much-needed family and friends fill-up after a two year absence. I’ve reconnected with old friends and estranged family members. I’ve learned to sit in the discomfort of misunderstandings and past hurts without needing to be right, but instead seeking to forgive and cultivate peace.

A few of the fears on my list involved overcoming previous experiences that had evoked survival responses of fear, like my fear of snorkeling after getting caught off a coral reef a few years ago in the Caribbean (read about that by clicking here). But most of my fears were more existential in nature. Fears that, upon reflection, I realized were holding me back in my relationships and career. Those fears were the ones rooted deep in childhood experiences that required some careful uprooting. Previous hurts in relationships still haunted me in the form of a fear of making mistakes, being unlovable, or being judged. The imposter syndrome was on the list. And like many others, the bag lady fear also made my list—minus the house full of cats.

Looking at my list of fears, it struck me that I had inherited most of my fears from my parents and that, almost by osmosis, I had absorbed many from our culture primarily through fear-based media messaging. Fears like: losing everything and becoming homeless, being a bad parent, and getting sick and old.

Many of my underlying fears I know I share with others. As a therapist I have the unique opportunity and privilege to listen as children, adolescents, and adults in my office peel back the layers to reveal the underlying fears that keep them unhappy and afraid in life. Our materialist society capitalizes on these very fears to sell stuff. “If you buy this cream, you’ll look young and stay lovable.” “If you buy this insurance, you won’t get sick, grow old, and die alone.” But life is unpredictable. Until we learn to live more fully in the present and take action, instead of worrying needlessly about future “what if’s,” we leave ourselves vulnerable to fear’s tight grip. It’s not as if anti-aging face creams, insurance policies, and saving for a rainy day are bad ideas. But I’ve found that when fear motivates my decisions, my goals are less aligned with being authentic and courageous and more about avoiding some kind of possible pain.

After writing down my fears, my next step was to use the surest, quickest way I’ve found to release oneself from fear: author Byron Katie’s Four Questions method. Her method helps folks to reveal how irrational most fears are and to discover what it might be like to live life without fearful thought.

Here are her Four Questions:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it's true?
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?
Source: www.thework.com

The four questions have helped me to discover that most all fears are irrational. I also found that once I identified key fears to conquer, more than enough opportunities presented themselves to help me overcome them! Don't say I didn't warn you! My responses to question 4 also helped me generate my list of dreams to live this year.

For example, if I wasn’t afraid of being lost in New York City (which resulted in a mild panic attack a few years ago on Ellis Island), then I would sign up for the 2012 ING NYC marathon and run through all the city’s boroughs. So, I promptly signed myself up.  On November 4th I will be completing my first marathon in fifteen years. It turns out that at age 45 I do have to stretch more, and my first few long runs were painful.  But otherwise the optometrist is right, our forties aren't fatal!

"I’m afraid of asking others for help" was also on my list of fears to conquer.  Plenty of opportunities there when I put my ego aside and open myself up to others' help and what they have to teach me!  I'm now fundraising and asking friends and family for money for the Alzheimer’s Association on behalf of my mother and uncle who have been recently been diagnosed with this devastating disease. Instead of running from my genetic heritage, I’m running towards a cure before anyone else in my family is afflicted! Here’s my fundraising page, in case any of you are interested and/or would like more information on behalf of your own family.

Thus far in 2012, I’ve flown in an open helicopter with my daughter (who was afraid of flying, as some of you may remember from reading Fear of Flying: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Feeling). I got back into the ocean and snorkeled in Cuba. I’ve completed five months of marathon training and two half-marathons in preparation for November 4th. I’ve made sure to focus more on all the good in others, instead of looking for something to judge—thus, effectively curtailing my own fear of others judging me!

I catch myself when I’m worrying and remind myself what I’ve taught my own children since they were little: “A change in your thoughts, leads directly to a change in your feelings.” So, I pick a different thought. A kinder thought that evokes faith and peace, instead of worry.

I completed Kathy Freston’s Quantum Wellness 21-day cleanse as a way to kick start healthier habits, get in better shape for the marathon, and genuinely feel more at ease in the present moment.

I listen more—especially to my kids who’ve felt free to give me feedback on what it is like to have a therapist for a mom who looks too often for problems to solve and advice to give! Once they hit adolescence, I started asking if they wanted to hear my thoughts. Surprisingly, more often than not, they do still want to hear what I have to say especially now that they have a choice.

I’ve made sure to do at least one thing that makes me happy every day. Subsequently, I've cultivated a much more grateful heart.

And after completing all my mental health therapist licensure requirements after moving five years ago from Canada to the U.S., I'm finally listening to that wise inner voice Arianna Huffington's quote refers to and gave notice at my job a few weeks ago.  I will be devoting much more time in 2013 to pursuing a higher purpose and integrity in my professional life, which includes making Lion’s Whiskers into a book.

As I conquer the last few fears on my list, I notice that I’m trusting myself, others, and the Universe a lot more. I’m back to laughing a lot more, stressing less, and generally being a much more relaxed parent.  Fear is no longer a foe, but more a scaredy-cat I'm making friends with—cause let's face it, everyone could use a little more friendship in their lives!

My daughter crossing the finish line with me at my recent half-marathon!

The truth of the matter is that these past ten months I've been most inspired by my own children and those I work with therapeutically to learn what it is to live life fearlessly. I wholeheartedly believe kids have a lot to teach us about courage. It's in everything they do!

I also know that as parents we could be much more aware of how we project our fears onto our children. By trusting our children—instead of letting worry get in our own way and theirs—we intentionally uproot fear's tenacious roots before they grow too deep, thus encouraging our children to develop trust in themselves. But more on that topic in upcoming posts!

Feel free to enjoy the follow-up chapter to this particular story by clicking here: Running Plan B

Care to share a fear of yours and what action you might take to conquer it!?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Raising a Leader - Conclusion

Readers who have been with us since the early days on this blog may recall I wrote about my decision to take an emotional courage challenge in the form of raising a guide dog puppy with my daughter, the Lovely K.  Here is my report on raising a leader.

Our adorable pup, "F," came to us in April of 2011 from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.  She was a little black bundle of Labrador Retriever love, and we fell in love at first sight.  Our family dog, Cider, was delighted to have a little sis to chase around the house, and the games began right away - although while she was small, F sometimes took refuge under a chair.  However, it wasn't long before she matched our dog in size, and then surpassed her.  We had an independent spirit on our hands, and when we took little F to puppy play with the other pups on the regional GEB team, she was content to follow her nose through the grass while the other puppies tumbled and played.  Her home playmate seemed to be enough for her.

The courage challenge for me, in the early months with this dog, was a real test of my patience and my composure.  Raising a family dog is one thing; raising a guide dog is quite another.  The protocols and training procedures are not complicated or even much different from basic obedience - but they are inexorable.  There can be no exceptions to the rules, no 'just once can't she sleep on my bed?' no, 'I don't mind if she jumps up on me at the door.'  The grass in my yard was steadily worn away by two energetic dogs playing chase, and my enthusiasm wore thin on occasions, too.

For my daughter - and her visiting friends - having a pup meant lots of adorable photos and hugs and kisses.  As F grew bigger (and stronger) it became clear that walking her was going to fall mainly to me.  Although the ideal we were working toward was a gentle dog that would not pull, the ideal wasn't necessarily what we had in F at 8 months or 9 months!  And yet she did steadily make progress, and when we put on the vest that identified her as a service dog in training and took her to the mall, the grocery store, the movie theater, the public library, she seemed to know her role.  Twice-monthly training classes with the team exposed her to fire trucks and strange noises and people in funny hats and stairs and elevators and working with new handlers.

By the time she was 14 months old, we had a smart, confident young dog who clearly enjoyed using her considerable brain to solve puzzles and examine new things, but also loved lying at my feet at night in the t.v. room.  And although we knew all along that she was not ours to keep, when we were informed of her "in for training" date - the date when she would return to Guiding Eyes for the Blind to begin her serious training in harness - it was a blow to our hearts.  Two months away.  Then one month.  Then two weeks.  Then it was tomorrow.

K. and I both sniffed back our tears and wiped our eyes when we dropped her off.  Our ride home was silent, and we were brusque with each other for a while, arguing about something entirely different and both feeling an empty F-shaped hole in our hearts.  "I miss her," K. said that evening.  "Me, too," I agreed.  She looked at me.  "Were you crying?" she asked, as if not quite sure I was upset about the dog.  

"It's okay to cry if you're sad," I told her.  "There's no reason to hide it." 

I asked K. several days later how she felt about the experience.   "Would you recommend other kids your age do a project like this?"

"Maybe" she said pensively.  "Fifty-fifty."

"How about when you think of how she's going to change someone's life?"

K. thought for a moment.  "If it's important to you, like if you care about helping people with disabilities."  She paused.  "I tried not to get too attached.  But a dog is a dog."

A dog is a dog, and better writers than I have spoken eloquently about how much a dog can teach about love,  attachment, and acceptance.   And loss.  And moving on.  Emotional courage can help us with all of those and more.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Courage Book Review: Beautiful Souls

I've just finished reading Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, by Eyal Press (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).  This book shares the stories of several people in different times and different walks of life who demonstrated moral courage at great risk: a Swiss border officer who defied the law to help Jews flee from Nazi oppression; a Serb soldier who "identified" Croat prisoners as Serbian to save them from genocide; an Israeli soldier refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories; a financial adviser blowing the whistle on a Ponzi scheme that was bilking thousands of investors of their life savings; a U.S. military prosecutor questioning the treatment of Muslim POWs at Guantanamo Bay.  Press interviewed all of these people, trying to dig to the bottom of what causes "ordinary" people to make decisions that turn them into rebels, renegades or outliers.  It's fascinating reading, although somewhat disconcerting.   Although Hollywood would have us believe that the moral hero rides into the sunset to the sounds of a grand and inspiring soundtrack, none of these actual moral heroes obeyed their conscience without paying a heavy price.  

Press points out that at the very least,  refusing to conform stirs anger and resentment among those who are conforming.  If you and I are both members of Group A, and I announce that the activities of Group A are morally questionable or even evil, then by implication you accept their validity if you don't walk out with me.  What is striking about the people in these profiles is that they were almost all people who fervently upheld the values and principles of their group originally; it was that very conviction that led them to break ranks when those values became distorted or poisoned.  As the military prosecutor poignantly stated, his sworn duty to protect the U.S. Constitution made it impossible for him to accept what he saw without speaking out.  Yet the consequences for all these conscientious resistors were significant: social exclusion, financial ruin, loss of security, loss of faith in previously esteemed institutions.

It is difficult to read these stories without feeling some misgivings about moral courage and the price it exacts.  Does raising a child to be a good citizen of the world, who has conviction, integrity, and an audible conscience place that child at risk?  In my opinion it does, and yet I also hear my own conscience telling me it's the right thing for me to do.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Death of Edith Cavell

A number of years ago I encountered the story of Edith Cavell for the first time and was strongly tempted to write a book about her.  The book plan got sidelined, but the story has stayed with me.  Edith Cavell was an English nurse at the turn of the 20th century.  Professional nursing was still relatively new, and trained nurses and nursing schools were few and far between.  Because Cavell had spent time in Belgium in her younger days, she was invited to go there to help start that country's first professional nursing school.

It was while she was engaged in this project that World War I began, and it wasn't long before her nursing school was recruited as a full-fledged hospital for Allied soldiers.  Belgium, sitting between Germany and France, was the scene of heavy fighting as the German army advanced.  Cavell's hospital was soon filled with wounded English soldiers, and when they recovered sufficiently, Cavell smuggled them to neutral Netherlands so they could return safely to their units, or to England.  Over 200 soldiers evaded capture by the German army through her efforts.

For this "crime," Cavell was eventually arrested by the Germans and tried for treason - and executed by firing squad, despite frantic, international, diplomatic efforts to prevent her sentence from being carried out.

Before facing the firing squad, Cavell famously said, "Patriotism is not enough.  I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." 

Looking back through 100 years, we can speculate about the types of courage that may have motivated Nurse Cavell in her choices.  Becoming a nurse at all in that day was a risky move - it wasn't something "nice girls" did.  But she did.   Then simultaneously running a hospital and a smuggling operation would have required a degree of fortitude and executive management that somewhat boggles the mind.  Intellectual courage would have enabled focus and adaptability.  We know that she was a devout member of the Anglican church, and it seems fair to say that spiritual courage - that which fortifies us with a sense of purpose and meaning and makes forgiveness possible - was a significant part of her makeup.  (She was the daughter of a vicar, and raised with an ethic of sharing). Moral courage was clearly there, as well as the physical courage that nursing requires, especially wartime nursing.  She must also have had a very strong internal locus of control to believe that she was capable of effecting change amid the chaos of war, and to act so purposefully in on that conviction.

Much beyond that is difficult to surmise.  She was known as a private woman, reserved and formal toward her students and patients.  During her court-martial she made no attempt to disavow her activities, and she reportedly went to the firing squad with composure.  She was clearly a woman of great courage.

It is important to us on Lion's Whiskers, however, to make it clear that courageous action is not limited to life-and-death risks such as the ones Edith Cavell took.  We have every reason to admire her courage, but we can't let it convince us that because we haven't done anything like this and faced a firing squad, we have not shown courage.  We are all capable of courage, because the risks we face are proportionate to our capacities and our circumstances.   If a teen speaks out against a popular bully and risks ostracism, it is no less courageous because there's no firing squad in the offing.  A social "firing squad" can be devastating, and the number of teens who commit suicide because of it are tragic evidence.  

So let Edith Cavell inspire, but not intimidate. 



You can read more about Edith Cavell here on the website dedicated to her memory.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Art of Misdirection

A skilled magician is a usually a master of misdirection.  While keeping the audience's attention focused on something that seems important but isn't, the magician is accomplishing a clever deception just to the side.  The cognitive bias known as "inattentional blindness" or "perceptual blindness" causes our brains to ignore vast quantities of sensory information.  If we are vigilantly focused on one thing, this inattentional blindness can be even stronger.  (I like to this this is why an almost-13-year-old with a paintbrush in her hand doesn't hear my voice saying it's time to set the table for dinner).

Inattentional blindness is a characteristic of the human brain that storytelling and storytellers can really use to advantage, and parents often do it quite naturally.  In fact, most parents will quickly develop a whole bag of tricks for distracting a child's attention from something that is happening or just about to happen.  From bright noisy toys to the spell-binding "Once upon a time," misdirection tends to narrow the focal range and shut out the rest of the world - for a while.

And yet while the attention is focused, the world is still there.  It doesn't actually go away, and we may absorb those sensory inputs without being aware.  Here is a story my mother told me once that made a deep impression on me.   Because time is part of the our physical experience, patience is associated with physical courage.  So, here's a story combining physical courage and the art of misdirection.


Long ago in China, a young man set his heart on becoming a master jade carver.  Fired with enthusiasm, he went to the greatest jade carver in the land and asked to become his student.  The master agreed, and placed a piece of jade in the young man's hand.  "Please sit, we can begin right away."

The young man eagerly sat with the stone in his hand, his gaze on the teacher.  "Please tell me everything you know about jade."

Nodding, the old man began to tell a long and rambling story about his own youth, and the student waited patiently for the lesson to begin.  The story was actually a bit boring in parts, and the student clenched the jade in his hand to curb his impatience while the old man went on and on.  At last, the master said, "Oh, it is late.  You must come back tomorrow."

The next day the student came again, and the master handed him another piece of jade.  "Here, take a seat.  Let us begin."  Now I will learn everything about jade! the student said to himself.  But to his great disappointment, the master carver launched into another long story.  The student tried very hard to focus on this story, sure that at any moment it was going to get to the point.  But again, the master interrupted his own story and said, "Oh dear.  It's time for dinner.  Come back tomorrow."

Day after day this went on, with the teacher handing the student yet another piece of stone.  Every day the student listened with his whole heart, trying to understand how these stories were teaching him everything about jade while he held one stone after another in his hands.  He grew discouraged, thinking he had made a terrible mistake.  At last, after this had gone on for many months, he arrived at his teacher's house and said, "Master, forgive me, but when will you teach me about jade?"

The jade carver picked up yet another piece of stone and tossed it to the young man, who caught it deftly in two hands.  "Now, this piece of jade -" the master began.

"This is not jade," said the student, who had not even opened his hands to look at the stone.

The teacher nodded.  "Ah, I see I have now taught you everything I know."

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The God (or mom) From the Machine

In my 25 years of writing books for children and teens, I've had my share of plot problems.   Often, when a writer finds she has written her characters into a situation she can't quite get them out of, she is tempted by (but must resist!)  the deus ex machina solution.  This literary term (literally "the god from the machine") comes to us from ancient Greek drama, and refers to the device of lowering a statue of a god onto the stage to resolve a crisis.  Evidently this was perfectly satisfactory to the ancient Greeks, but it is far from satisfactory for us today.  When the hero or heroine of a drama gets bailed out of a tricky situation by some unforeseen and improbable stroke of luck, the reader is left feeling cheated.  There was no clever resourcefulness, physical skill or moral courage at work to save the day,  just a lousy old deus ex machina. "Oh come on, really?" the reader asks.  "How convenient."

When writing for children, with children as protagonists, this is especially difficult to work around.  In real life, children aren't usually left to their own devices to track down jewelry thieves, mediate social conflicts, run their own businesses or invent extraordinary robots that have the Pentagon calling.  No.  All too often, there is an adult keeping watch (or guard, depending on your view) and managing everything from on high: the Mom from the Machine. (Yes, sometimes it is the Dad from the Machine, but more often the mom.)  So when writing children's fiction there is a delicate balance between plausibility and good plotting.

As Lisa has written previously on her posts on internal v. external locus of control, children must develop confidence in their own agency, their own ability to solve problems, make choices and be responsible for the outcome.  The more often the mom ex machina swoops in to take over, the less likely the child is to develop a strong internal locus of control.    And just as the deus ex machina solution in a story leaves us feeling rooked, so does the mom ex machina solution in our children's lives leave a feeling of inadequacy in its wake.  So often we relish the role of superhero, enjoying the warm glow of gratitude and appreciation and admiration from the ones we've "saved" from a big problem.   But unless you are prepared to be lowered from a machine onto your child's stage in perpetuity, you might consider letting your child learn to be the hero of his own story.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What If I'm Wrong?

One of the ways to determine if a given situation requires courage is to dig for the risk.  On Lion's Whiskers our definition of courage has less to do with fear, and more to do with risk.  If you perceive a risk (either real or imagined), then you need courage to face the risk.  In most matters of intellectual courage, the risk is being wrong.  Being wrong, as "the world's only wrongologist," Kathryn Schultz, points out in this fascinating TED lecture,  does not feel good. Correction: knowing that you are wrong does not feel good.  As Schulz observes, often when we are wrong we don't know it, so we feel fine.  It's the discovery that we were wrong that can feel so bad.  In fact, the more our identity is wrapped up with our intellectual accomplishments or with our ideologies, the worse being wrong feels.   It ought to be a simple matter of saying, "Oops, this fact I thought was true is actually false," and letting it go, but instead we make it about ourselves:  we are wrong.  Ow.

Intellectual courage, or being willing to face the risk of being wrong, allows for flexibility, inventiveness, adaptability, creativity, curiosity, objectivity, and focus.  Being unwilling to face the risk of being wrong (discovering we hold false beliefs) leads to rigidity, dogma, prejudice, and worst of all, more wrongness!  As philosopher George Santayana famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."   Let me hasten to clarify what I  mean by false belief:  If you believed that two people were standing on your foot and it turned out it was only one person standing on your foot, that was a false belief.  If you further believed that the person standing on your foot was deliberately and maliciously hurting you, and it turned out the person was actually unaware of your foot there, that was a false belief.  I'm not talking about religion.

Refusing to accept the reality about the person standing on your foot is generally an indication that the risk of being wrong is truly enormous, that it threatens the very foundations of a whole system of beliefs.  A good example of this is the Inquisition of Gallileo, who presented evidence of planetary motion around the sun and the imperfection (in the form of sunspots) of the universe, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest because of it.  (In this case I am talking about religious belief.)

Two more insightful quotations are instructive here, the first from Aristotle, and the second from Emerson:

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."  

"Let me never fall into the vulgar  mistake of dreaming I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted." 

Without the intellectual courage to consider and investigate an idea that may challenge or contradict our current beliefs and possibly reveal them to be false beliefs, debate becomes impossible, and a discussion between people with opposing views can quickly devolve into shouting and personal attacks.

Not long ago I ran into a version of this problem with my daughter, who had decided that something she had been doing (let's call it X) was not at all her cup of tea.  The problem arose when I asked how she felt about the thing that X was a subset of, and her position was she didn't see anything positive about any of it, because she didn't see anything positive about X.  She was taking the part for the whole, a logical fallacy called pars pro toto.  This is the (often false) belief that what is true for part of a thing is true for the whole thing.  I kept asking, "But what about this part, and this other part, and this other part?" and she dug her heels in even harder and claimed I was forcing her to accept X!

So I backed off.  Just as I have been trying to model that failure is always an option, I am trying to model that being wrong is always an option, too, and that revising an opinion in the light of new evidence is totally acceptable.  The more often I can find opportunities to say, "Oh, I guess I was wrong about that," the better.  Mind you, at first I didn't especially enjoy saying, "Look, there I go being wrong again," but the truth is it actually gets easier the more I do it!   Lisa recently wrote about making failure okay, and how liberating it can be to let go of perfectionism, and I am finding it very liberating to make being wrong okay.  Besides, it's exhausting having to be right all the time - and my friends will tell you it's very annoying!

Here's Kathryn Schulz's liberating (and entertaining) TED lecture, and notice (near the end) what she has to say about stories.  Enjoy!
 







Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Issun Boshi, the Inch-High Samurai

This story, Issun-Boshi the Inchling, or the Inch-High Samurai, is sometimes referred to as the Japanese Tom Thumb.  It is a much loved story that reminds us that physical courage is not reserved for the big and strong among us. 

Long ago there was an old couple who had reached old age with no children.  They prayed every day and every night to have a family, and at last they were blessed with a little boy.   Little boy.   Very very little boy, only the the size of your finger.  His parents' joy was unlimited, however, and they called their treasure Issun-Boshi, Inch Boy.

Issun-Boshi ate and ate and ate like any baby, any toddler, any child, but he did not grow.  As  he grew older he grew strong and agile, but he did not grow any taller.  One day, while looking at the river that flowed past their village, Issun-Boshi asked his father, "Where does this river go?"

"The river goes to great Kyoto, Issun-Boshi.  It must be a wonderful place, but I have never seen it."

"I will," Issun-Boshi decided. "I will see it.  Help me get ready, Father."

His parents knew he was old enough to go on his own, so his father fashioned for him a sword (it was a needle) and his mother gave him a boat (it was a rice bowl) and an oar (it was a chopstick) and they waved farewell to their brave son.  "Be safe!"

The voyage took many days, and was fraught with peril.  Large fish tried to eat him, and often the rice bowl crashed into rocks and nearly tipped over.  Whirlpools spun it around and around and hungry herons peered in at Issun-Boshi with bright bead eyes.  But undaunted Issun-Boshi paddled and steered with his chopstick, and at last came to great Kyoto.

With great excitement, Issun-Boshi tied his sword at his side, and strode to the door of the finest, largest house he could see.   He pounded as large as he could, and gave a shout.  "Hello!  Hello!  I'm looking for work!"  The guard at the door looked around with a puzzled frown, but saw nothing until Issun-Boshi yelled, "Down here!"

"Ah!" The guard bent over and picked up Issun-Boshi for a clearer look.  "Well, someone as brave as you can work for me, young man.  You may join the guard of my master's daughter."

This suited Issun-Boshi very well and he joined the household guard.  One day, he went with the lord's daughter to the temple.  As they walked the path two goblins leaped out, their red eyes gleaming.  They were about to kidnap the young lady, when Issun-Boshi leaped upon the first one with a cry of anger.  "You will not take her!" he cried, stabbing the goblin on the shin with his needle sword.  

"What's this?"  The goblin picked him up by his coat, and thinking that Issun-Boshi looked just the right size for a snack, swallowed him whole.  But Issun-Boshi continued stabbing and jabbing at the goblin from inside, and within moments the goblin was howling with pain.  "Ow!  Ow no!"  And he choked up Issun-Boshi and spit him on the ground.    Without skipping a beat, Issun-Boshi then attacked the second goblin, scrambling up his legs and onto his head, where he poked the goblin in the eye.  

Both goblins took to their heels and ran away, screaming in pain.  The young lady and Issun-Boshi stood laughing on the path, and then she noticed something gleaming behind a rock.  "Look, a magic hammer!" she exclaimed, bending over to pick it up.  "One of the goblins must have dropped it.  It will grant you any wish you ask."

Issun-Boshi looked at the hammer, and he looked at the beautiful young lady, and he said, "I would like to be bigger."

So she waved the hammer, and chanted, "Grow, Issun-Boshi, Grow!"  Before her eyes he grew into a tall (and of course, handsome) young man, as fine as any samurai. 

And they were married, as you can imagine, and Issun-Boshi remained just as brave as he had been when he was one inch high.