Monthly Archives: August 2011

Nothing Is Bad?

Elsewhere on this blog I have pointed out how nearly-identical stories can arise in separate corners of the world. For example, I’ve offered the Judgement of Solomon paired with a Birbal story from Moghul India; I’ve shown the connection between Chicken Little and one of the Jataka tales of Buddha. Whenever I find stories that have a separated-at-birth twin story elsewhere in the world, I sit up and take notice: there is something powerful to be learned here, something that may be universal to human nature. I remind myself to listen well!

Here are two such stories, both with something to say about being too quick to judge – or maybe about judging in the first place.
Akiva ben Yosef was a 1st Century rabbi, referred to in the Talmud as the “head of all the sages.” His favorite saying was “Everything God does is for the best,” and his conviction that this was true was illustrated in an event from his travels. While on a journey, he reached a town at the end of the day, hoping to find a welcome in someone’s home. Yet he was turned away from one door after another, and eventually made his way to a meadow outside the town’s walls. “Everything God does is for the best,” he said, letting his donkey graze and his rooster scratch for bugs. Akiva ben Yosef lit his lamp, and made as comfortable a bed for himself as he could. In the night, a cool breeze blew out his lamp, leaving him stranded in darkness. “Everything God does is for the best,” he said.  “Now I am able to enjoy the beauty of the stars.”  Under cover of darkness, a wildcat sprang upon his rooster, carrying it off for supper. “Everything God does is for the best,” the rabbi said. “The cat must eat, too, and the sun can wake me up.” At the sound of the rooster’s final tussle, the donkey ran off in alarm. “Well, perhaps there are even bigger animals out here that may have attacked my donkey if he hadn’t run. Everything God does is for the best.”
In the morning, he returned to the town on foot, only to find that bandits had come in the night and attacked the inhabitants, killing many and causing much destruction. Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef gave thanks to God for making him sleep in the meadow, or else he too might have been killed. “Everything God does is for the best.  If my lantern had not blown out, the bandits might have found me.  My donkey and my rooster might both have alerted those robbers to my camping spot.   God has preserved my life.”

Compare this story to a well-known Zen koan, sometimes referred to as, “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.”

A farmer had worked his fields with the aid of his horse for many years.  One day, quite unexpectedly, his horse ran off.

            “Oh, what bad luck!” his neighbors consoled him.
            “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” the farmer replied.
            A week later, his horse returned, followed by seven wild horses.
            “Oh, my!  What good luck,” his neighbors rejoiced.
            The farmer closed the paddock gate behind the horses.  “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.”
           A week after that, the farmer’s son was trying to tame one of the wild horses, and he was thrown off and broke his leg.
            “Oh, what terrible luck!” the neighbors said, shaking their heads.
            “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” the farmer answered.
            One week after that, the army passed through town, rounding up all the young men to fight.  Because the farmer’s son had a broken leg, the army went off to the war without him.
            “Such good luck!” the neighbors said.
            “Maybe it is.  Maybe it isn’t.”
            You get the idea!

Is it possible that nothing is bad? How does courage help us avoid judgment?

A Hurricane is Coming!

Hurricane Irene headed my family’s way recently.  Were we scared?  No.  Did we decide to cut short our RV vacation by one night in order to avoid being pushed around by Irene on the I-87 battling her high winds and rain?  Yes.  Were my children anxious about the storm brewing down south heading our direction?  No.  Why not?  Well, as a family we decided to opt for courage instead of fear in this case.  We made sure to get all the information first, and then we made a couple sound decisions.  We checked we had a flashlight or two, some water and extra provisions, and we charged our cellular phones.  We also decided to still use our tickets for a five-minute hot air balloon ride we’d purchased before we hit the road home, before the winds started to blow.  Granted, we were not in the eye of the storm and many folks on the East Coast needed to be much braver than us.  That said, I decided to reframe this whole experience as an adventure.  Having kids in your life will help you develop this healthy habit! 

Driving home last evening from our foreshortened family vacation, we all sang at the top of our lungs delighting in the sunset.  During a pause in the radio’s intoxicating Top 40 repertoire, my kids commented “Isn’t it amazing how calm it is tonight?  You would never know that tomorrow there will be a storm.  Can we stay up all night to wait for the storm to hit? This is going to be SO MUCH FUN!  We can watch movies all day together.”  Kids are amazing!  They help us all find the “magical” and accept the “meant to be” in life.  They are so focused on the present moment.  They don’t worry until we teach them how to do so.  My kids didn’t voice any concern until they looked at our faces as we mulled over whether or not to leave our riverside campsite and drive home early in our tin can-like motorhome.  We explained the facts as we understood them and showed leadership in making a prudent decision to drive ahead of the storm.  I must add that such rational thought is unlike me, being a more spontaneous person and someone who NEVER watches the weather channel.  However, having a couple of other lives to consider requires more thoughtfulness.  All my daughter wanted to know after we’d delivered our brief informational seminar about hurricanes:  “Are the shingles going to fly off the roof?”  More importantly, both kids wanted to know if we had enough of their all-time favorite snacks on hand.  Click here for my Ten Tips for Talking About Tough Stuff with Kids.

By now, most of you reading this post will know that the hurricane expected turned out to be a tropical storm of much less magnitude than expected.   There are few such anticipated changes, disasters, and/or tough times that we can actually try and predict other than the weather these days.  And even the weather, despite all our modern technology, continues to be increasingly unpredictable!  The truth is that we can predict very little in life.  Saving our energy for rainy days, like those of us on the East Coast are enduring, is a much better use our courage resources than worrying about imagined futures that may never come to pass.  For an illustrative example of the dangers of worry and the importance of getting all the information first before responding, read Jennifer’s previous post: The Sky is Falling?  Really?

Framing life’s challenges and unexpected storms as yet another adventure in life is not always possible.  However, it is helpful to know that the biochemistry associated with fear/anxiety mimics that of excitement.  Biochemically, these experiences are very similar in the body.  Reframe any potentially frightening event as exciting and watch how your perspective changes.  Find the humor or something to be grateful for during any storm, and you will be better prepared for the next gale force wind coming your way.  Jennifer has always said that helping her to help her daughter, the Lovely K., reframe some of her fears associated with moving countries, making new friendships, or trying something new as “exciting,” is one of the most useful things I’ve shared with them.  Cognitive reframing, or restructuring, is a technique I learned in my training in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).   It involves thinking about a specific problem, for example, and seeing if you can view it as an opportunity instead of something to worry about or fear.  Or to think of a weakness and reframe it as something that may actually be a strength.  Motivation and behavior can change as we shift our thinking.  We are meaning-making beings and our beliefs and values shape the stories we tell about our lives.  We have the cognitive capacity to ascribe the meaning we want to the events of our lives.  This can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on how we use this gift of cognition.  Catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, mistaking feelings for facts, personalizing, and other shoulda’/woulda’/coulda’ thoughts can be our own personal storm clouds!  It takes emotional and intellectual courage to push aside those clouds and allow resourcefulness, hope, and happiness back into your perspective (click on these links to revisit what we mean by “emotional courage” and “intellectual courage“).

It would be nice if we could predict, chart, and know the outcome of every storm we will weather in life.  The only thing any of us knows for sure is that there will be storms.  Sometimes we will be better prepared than others.  We can, however, always choose how we cognitively frame the experience.  We can be afraid and freeze, or we can be in action.  My husband often says to me, especially on days when I’m anxious and want to shrink from life’s demands, “90% of life is just showing up.”  I hate to admit it, but he’s right.  We all have the capacity to choose courage, and even to reframe our fear-based fight, flight, or freeze response as “excitement.”  Either way, our biochemistry and our thinking will be a match.  I remind myself that there is little I can control in life, despite my best white-knuckled efforts to the contrary.  Like many other East Coasters who choose not to live in fear, and who have tucked their children and pets safely inside to shelter them from the storm, I hope to have more energy and resources to deal with what may come.  It is humbling to be human, and yet always possible to be brave!

May the sun continue to shine through the storm clouds in your family’s life!

Courage Challenge of the Day

Here is a social courage challenge especially for Westerners (tweens through adults), for whom physical affection between friends tends to be somewhat reserved.  Next time you are in public with your closest friend, link arms, hold hands, or walk with arms across one another’s shoulders.  Do you feel self-conscious?  Are there places or situations where you feel less comfortable doing this than in others?  What a great opportunity for you and your friend to have a conversation about how others see you and your friendship, and how you yourselves see it.  We too often forget that in many parts of the world, this is perfectly standard practice between men and men, and between women and women.  And no-one assumes they’re gay!
Other ways to test the limits of “personal space” and social courage is to stand close to the only other person on the elevator instead of retreating to the opposite side, or taking a seat near the only other occupant of a bus, movie theater, park bench or restaurant.  You might get some dirty looks! Go ahead, test yourself.  What sorts of feelings does it bring up for you?

Children, Courage, and Adaptive Capacity

The committee defined an earthquake-resilient nation as “one in which its communities, through mitigation and predisaster preparation, develop the adaptive capacity to maintain important community functions and recover quickly when major disasters occur.” – National Institute of Standards and Technology, New Study Maps Out Steps to Strengthen U.S. Resilience to Earthquakes

The adaptation projects made possible by the WCS Climate Adaptation Fund will increase the adaptive capacity of wildlife and their habitats to new conditions precipitated by climatic changes. – Wildlife Conservation Society, press release

But the one competence that I now realize is absolutely essential for leaders – the key competence – is adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity is what allows leaders to adapt quickly and intelligently to relentless change. – Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leade

One of the assumptions that underpins Lion’s Whiskers is the assumption of a changing world. We all know change is inevitable; what we don’t know is what form that change will take, or what the magnitude of it will be. Climate scientists are trying to piece together what they know and predict the effects on the ecosystem; economists and business leaders are studying world markets and trying to extrapolate what will create tomorrow’s prosperity; social and political scientists are looking at trends in human behavior and trying to imagine where those trajectories will take our society.

Adaptive capacity is an idea that applies to ecological and human systems, and refers to the ability of that system to manage change while maintaining integrity or without losing function. (Species extinction is one way to manage change – but it doesn’t maintain integrity for the species!) How great the adaptive capacity of a system is determines how well it can manage change.

How does this apply to parenting, and to children, and courage? The most fundamental human system is the individual. A person who is rigid physically, emotionally, intellectually – an inflexible person – is not going to adapt well to change. For many people, change is an alarming prospect; yet we know change will come no matter what. Strengthening our courage and our children’s courage may be a useful way to develop adaptive capacity. It’s also possible that it goes the other way – developing our adaptive capacity may strengthen our courage! Maybe it goes both ways at the same time. Maybe they are the same thing!

We have talked from the beginning about strengthening all six types of courage by trying new things. It may be that the process of trying new things – any new things – counts more than what the things are. Our willingness to experiment, break old habits, question our paradigms, risk making mistakes and greet change as a friend rather than an enemy may help us live longer and happier lives.

This is not about being changed by exterior forces, but changing from within as circumstances (our environment, our social relationships, our knowledge) changes. Nourishing our children’s adaptive capacity may be as important as nourishing their growing bodies. Adaptive capacity is now a buzzword in longevity research, sustainability, leadership studies and business. Let’s make it a buzzword for parenting, too.

Belling the Cat

A fable from Aesop, in which we see a lack of both moral courage and physical courage

A large community of mice had been comfortable in the barn for many generations. Then, like a bolt of lightning, a cat appeared out of nowhere, picking them off without regard for age or prestige – a patriarch yesterday, a nursing mother today – even the bold buck mice were keeping in their holes.

“Council! Call a council!” the mice began to squeal.

Under the floorboards, the mice congregated in a great huddle. Over their heads was the soft pad-pad-pad of the hunting cat.

“We’ve got to do something,” the head mouse said. “Who has an idea?”

They all looked at each other, but hesitated to make eye contact. Finally, one young mouse piped up. “If we had a warning system, and could hear him coming, we’d have a better chance of escaping.”

“See! See!” his friends squealed. “Great idea!”

Even the big mice were impressed, and they all put their heads together to figure out what kind of warning system would work. There was much chitting and chatting about systems and techniques and devices. At last a big gray mouse stamped his foot. “I’ve got it! A bell! If that cat had a bell hung around his neck, we’d hear him wherever he went!”

The mice crowd erupted in wild cheers. Friends clapped the genius on the back and congratulated him, and he looked pleased and proud. There was some talk of replacing the head mouse with this fellow, and some of the young mice started planning a party to celebrate. At last the clapping died down. An uneasy silence descended, and again the footsteps of the cat could be heard overhead.

“So,” said a granny mouse looking around. “Who’s going to put the bell on that cat?”

Not a peep.

About Stories

“[Stories] serve as mirrors in which a group of people can see themselves. More specifically and more often, they are like those mirrors in which we apply make up or even disguises, designing images of who we think we are, how we believe we should appear to the world, and how we think we should perform in it.”

David Leeming and Jake Page, Myths, Legends and Folktales of America

Courage Challenge of the Day

Do nothing!   Set a timer for five minutes, and then sit quietly doing nothing other than breathing, and letting your thoughts pass across your mind without judgment like clouds passing across the sky.  Try not to check the timer.  Don’t make plans for what you’ll do when the five minutes are up.   Try this challenge with your kids.  Next time you’re considering giving your child a time-out, give both of you the time-in together for five minutes of silence.  Will you need courage to set aside the busy-ness of your life for five minutes?  Sometimes, when we don’t build time into our lives for quiet contemplation we become reactive instead of mindfully responding in line with our life-affirming values.