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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dancing Through the Pain, Part I

Over the winter I sat down with my good friend, Jane Haugh, a former professional ballet dancer, to talk about physical courage. Specifically, I had questions for her about her experience with and understanding of pain, and how it relates to her role as a mother of three. Our conversation was a long one covering three distinct topics relating to pain and physical courage, so I'll offer the adaptation of our dialogue in three parts. To avoid confusing our first names (Jane and Jen) I'll refer to us by our last names, Haugh and Armstrong.

I began by asking her about when she started ballet, what it entailed, and when she knew she wanted to become a professional dancer, despite direct experience of the pain that would involve.

Haugh: I was very little when I started ballet class, maybe six or seven, and I was 12 when I decided I was very serious about it. This involved lots and lots of class and going on pointe, which is painful.
-->There was an aesthetic, there was a dream of something which made getting blisters on your feet okay. There were a bunch of different components. One was that you had graduated to a point where you could wear these very special shoes and then the fact that they hurt was – the mystique around them was enough to keep you going. Then the other part was that there was a bit of a culture around, “How many blisters do you have? I have four.” “Oh, I only have two.” It’s like when you learn to play violin when you’re very young and you get blisters on your fingers – those kids are also talking about it as a badge of achievement. “I worked so hard that I have more blisters than you do.” I think that there was a point at which blisters hurt and there were coping mechanisms for that – things you could put on your feet, things you could wear in your shoes to try and help that. And there was this other pain that had to with fatiguing your muscles and getting to the point where you worked yourself so hard that the next day you were very sore. Or you pulled something slightly – not enough to stop but enough to know that you hurt.     -->You weren’t a serious dancer unless you were having some pain.

Armstrong: Did you ever have a conversation with an adult about that? Like the teacher or your parents?

Haugh: -->There were two different conversations. One conversation was with the teacher: “Oh my feet really hurt,” and the teacher said, “Everybody’s feet hurt and if you don’t want to do this you should go do some mundane job, like maybe you could go become a secretary, dear.” So there was this subtle put-down that this is what it’s about: either you tough it out and keep going or you step out because someone else will take your place. When I had conversations with my parents about it they would say, “Stop! If it hurts so much you should stop.” But I really wanted to be that dancer, that person on stage wearing that costume. And so them saying “stop” wasn’t a solution for me. I wanted someone to make it stop hurting and nobody could do that. So there has to be a goal, and that goal has to be so important that even though you have these conversations – like my parents kept saying that’s not okay that your feet are bleeding, stop. But   -->it was entirely up to me. My parents said, this is crazy, you should stop, but then when Tuesday came around I went to class. Or I said I wanted to go to class, and they would ask didn’t my feet hurt and I would either lie and say they didn’t, or say they did but I still wanted to go.

Armstrong: -->So, as a parent, looking back on that, what do you think about that? Because after all you did end up with this career, with achieving this dream of becoming a professional dancer, so if you were in a position to counsel your parents in that moment, would you say “make her stop,” or would you say “yes, it’s painful and maybe she’ll hurt herself but this is really important to her dream, her goal.”

Haugh: -->I didn’t let Z. [her elder daughter] do ballet but I think it’s probably for other reasons. There certainly are things about neoclassical ballet that are bad for your body, like arthritis in your hips and stress fractures in your feet, but mostly I didn’t want the competitiveness and aesthetic stringency and criticalness of that world. I didn’t want that for her. But the physical stuff – I think that’s okay. I think it depends on the culture within which that physical stuff happens. I think ballet culture specifically is slightly ill, and therefore not healthy and not something I wanted for my daughter, but I think mountain-climbing culture is not ill, or not in that same way, and so when you take your kids on a hike and they start complaining, they’re tired and their feet hurt, getting to the top of the mountain is still a worthwhile goal, and the things that you learn by making yourself or making your children get to the top of the mountain are so worthwhile. I’ve talked to Z. about it a little bit: the things I learned as a dancer had to do with how far you can go and even though it hurts you’ll be okay the next day.

-->: Let’s talk about being a mom. You’re raising three kids in an environment that we could call very physical [High Peaks region of the Adirondack Mountains]. Lots of outdoor activities, a very cold winter climate. What decisions have you made about when you know your child is cold, or tired, or uncomfortable, and yet it’s – this is our lifestyle, this is what we do.

-->Right, and we’re not all going to stop. There are a couple of things that I think I learned dancing that I’ve tried to teach my kids. One of them has to do with being tired. When you’re really tired, and you’re on a hike, and you’re not there yet, but you’re close enough that if you really put on a push you could get there – what I know about being tired from dancing is that if you pretend not to be tired for a couple of minutes, you will find more energy. It’s a phenomenon that we learned in the studio. You’re really tired and you’ve run the thing fifteen times and the rehearsal master says we’re going to do it one more time and everything in you says “oh god, no!” but you know you are going to have to do it again. You go back in your corner. You take a deep breath, and when the music starts you come out with 150%, because if you can gather that and put it out there it will carry you through. You’ll make it and be okay. You’ll find the energy. And that’s something that I don’t think most people – most adults – don’t know. That they can do that. When we go on hikes and we get to that point I say, “Okay, we’re going to stand here, and I’m going to count to three, and then we’re going to run. I know you can. We’re going to run, and we’re going to yell as we run, and we’re going to run up this mountain.” And you find that if you can get them over that hump and they yell and they run they’re laughing and then they’re walking again, and then when you get to the top of the mountain you can say, “See!? This is where we got to! And you guys were so tired and that was twenty minutes ago!”
We have a rule at the mountain because it’s often very cold at Whiteface and yet we all like to ski. You’re not allowed to talk about being cold. You can stay inside. But don’t complain. Don’t say the word “cold.” We all get in the gondola, and we can say “Wow, what’s the temperature!?” but saying “my feet are so cold!” No. I say, “then go in.” But don’t ski and complain. You can choose to ski, or you can choose to go in. And a lot of times when they were littler they would choose to go in. M. [younger daughter] especially would choose to go in. But then she’d see us come down, and we’d be laughing and skiing and she’d come back out again and she’d ski longer than I thought she would.

Please join us in for the second part of this interview on dancing through the pain, an apt metaphor for much of life by clicking here: /2012/05/dancing-through-pain-part-ii.html And please feel free to share your thoughts about pain, physical courage, and how you feel about your kids doing physical activities that may hurt them.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Video interview with Jennifer Armstrong

Hi folks, I recently did an interview for a web-based TV show called The Seeker's Journey, and talked about how childhood reflects the Hero's Journey, and how helping our kids develop courage prepares them for their own hero's quest (in other words, life!)  You can watch the interview here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Courage Quotation of the Day

The only tired I was, was tired of giving in. ~  Rosa Parks 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Horatio at the Bridge

One of the very popular tropes in action films is the lone fighter making a courageous last stand in order to buy time for others to get to safety.  "Go!  Save yourselves!" is the command through gritted teeth.  "I'll stay and hold them off as long as I can!"  Typically the odds are wildly against this hero: an entire army, a savage monster, a powerful wizard.  "He's never gonna make it," someone in the retreating party will mourn.  "I'll never meet anyone braver than him!"

It's a popular tradition in stories of physical courage.  One of the most enduring versions that has been told again and again since Roman times is the legend of Horatio at the Bridge.

The mighty army of the Etruscans was marching toward Rome, which was still a young and small city.   Farmers and villagers from the surrounding countryside had fled in advance of the enemy, streaming across the bridge that spanned the river Tiber, seeking shelter within Rome's walls.  "But what happens if the Etruscans cross the bridge?" the people wailed.  "They will tear down our walls and destroy us!"

A troop of Roman soldiers stood guard on the bridge, hearts pounding with suspense.  At last, over the crest of a hill showed a line of spears that grew taller and taller as the advancing soldiers marched forward.  The army came on inexorably, massive and terrible, the tramp of their feet booming like thunder.  Rome's walls could not withstand an assault by such a force.  

Among the soldiers stood young Horatio, tall and proud.  "We must tear down the bridge," he said to his companions.

"There's no time, Horatio!"

"Tear it down, I'll hold them off," he replied, gripping his shield straps tight in his fist.   While the other soldiers raced to the safe side of the river and began hacking at the wooden bridge, the vanguard of the Etruscan army came within shouting distance.

"Who among you will fight in single combat!" Horatio cried, evoking the epic battle between Achilles and Hector before the gates of Troy.  "One soldier of Rome stands to fight your whole army!  Who among you will do the honor?!  Or are you an army of slaves, ordered to die by a tyrant?"

The Etruscans hung back,  unsure how to proceed.  Horatio could hear the frantic chopping behind him, and the groaning creak as weakened bridge timbers began to sag.  From among the ranks of the Etruscans, someone threw a dart, hitting Horatio in the eye.  Emboldened, the enemy surged forward, and several spears flew toward the lone hero.   Horatio warded them off with his shield.  Then, as he heard the bridge collapse with a great splash into the Tiber behind him, he dove into the river.  

The Romans who watched this show of bravery turned their faces away in grief.  Their city was saved, but how could Horatio survive falling blinded into the flooded Tiber in full armor?  "Wait! Look there!" came a triumphant shout.  And there, swimming powerfully across the churning river, was Horatio.  Cheers of victory greeted him when he reached the Roman shore, and forever afterward he was hailed as one of the greatest heroes of the Republic.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Failure Is Always an Option

I have been reflecting recently on how often I hear, "Failure Is Not An Option." From earnest motivational posters to hard-bitten action films, this phrase is bandied about as if "failure" is tantamount to total annihilation, like the destruction of the planet Alderaan by the Death Star in "Star Wars." No, we definitely don't want that.

At the same time, I see chirpy messages like "Reach for the Stars!" "Go for it!" and "You Can Do It!"

So... which is it? It can't possibly be both! The command, "Go for it, but for heaven's sake don't fail!" seems perfectly calculated to cause an epic choke and an epidemic of anxiety. Oh wait, that's what we have, isn't it? It is axiomatic that we learn more from our failures than from our triumphs, so how have we made any result short of first place so toxic?  Of course we always want our kids to do their best, but are they always clear on the difference between doing their best and doing the best? 

I recently entered a national contest - never mind what it was - and spent some time studying past winners on the website with my daughter. The skill and expertise demonstrated in those examples made my effort look pretty amateurish, and the Lovely K. and I agreed that my chances of winning looked pretty slim given the competition. So why do it? Why even try? 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Courage Quotation of the Day

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. ~ Martin Luther King Jr

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Courage Quotation of the Day

"Volunteering is an act of heroism on a grand scale. And it matters profoundly.  It does more than help people beat the odds.  It changes the odds."  ~ President Bill Clinton

Happy National Volunteer Week!  Do you agree with the above statement?  Which of the Six Types of Courage fortifies your voluntary heroism?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Carnegie Heroes

If you ever want to give your faith in humanity a boost, take a look at the hero profiles on the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission's website. What is the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission you ask? From their website:

The two-fold mission of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission: To recognize persons who perform acts of heroism in civilian life in the United States and Canada, and to provide financial assistance for those disabled and the dependents of those killed helping others.

Reading these profiles is truly inspiring, and you may begin to notice some themes running through these stories of ordinary citizens who performed extraordinary acts of courage - usually on behalf of strangers. Many of these heroes credit their family relationships with giving them the core belief that every life is worth saving. The influence of parents is clear in profile after profile. The youngest medal recipients of 2011, three teenage Florida boys who saved a woman from drowning, explicitly credit their parents. "I grew up with my dad helping people," one of the young heroes told reporters. This is the influence of family connection and strong attachment.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Courage Quotation of the Day

In order to rally people, governments need enemies. They want us to be afraid, to hate, so we will rally behind them. And if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us. Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese monk, activist and writer

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

More Evidence On the Power of Stories

A recent article in the New York Times, "The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction" cited current research on what happens when we read (or listen to) fictional narratives. You may recall I wrote an article back in December in a similar vein, This Is your Brain on Stories.  Again, it has been shown through fMRI scanning that reading words associated with sensory or motor activities stimulates not just the regions in the brain that are related to language processing, but to the specific sensory or motor activities being referenced. Stories thus act as simulations of activities or events, giving us the chance to live an experience we haven't yet had. Scientists also speculate that lots of experience with fiction, with its rich metaphors and descriptions and exploration of character's thoughts and emotions, helps to develop "theory of mind." This is what helps us imagine what might be going on in someone else's head, and gives us clues about how to proceed in social interactions.

The article does specifically mention how this affects children:

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Courage Quotation of the Day

In whatever area in life one may meet the challenges of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience – the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men — each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage can define that ingredient — they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.  – John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

St. Ailbe and the Wolf

Among the values that social courage can help us promote in our children are compassion, tolerance, caring and charity. These are the values we exhibit in the social realm in our behavior to others. Here is a wonderful legend from Ireland that demonstrates these values. Compare it to the legend of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio, or Androcles and the Lion. It also fits in the same tradition of foundling heroes we've discussed on this blog before.

Long and long ago in Ireland, almost so long ago the wood that built the first harp was still a green twig, a poor couple had a boy baby and couldn't keep him - that's how poor they were. Without knowing what else to do, they left him on a hillside and hastened away in shame. It wasn't long after that that a she-wolf was trotting by, and her keen ears caught the sound of a cry. Her nose led her to a heather bush, and there lay a pink, furless pup, or so she thought. It wasn't like her own pups, but she picked him up carefully - Ailbe was his name, though how was she to know it? - and brought him along back to her den to suckle him beside the others. Ailbe soon grew strong and hale, and ran four-legged with his brother wolves. If his wolf-mother sometimes thought him a strange creature with fur nowhere but his head, she loved him all the same.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Courage Quotation of the Day

Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Scared of Flying No More!

Fear of flying is no joke--especially for kids!  Here’s some advice to help children overcome aerophobia--most of which I put into practice with my own daughter to help her overcome her fear of flying, which I wrote about in my previous post “Fear of Flying: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Feeling!”:   
  • Talk about your child's fear.  Let's face it, it is kinda' strange to fly so high above the ground!Empathize with them by normalizing fear as part of life and that we become stronger and more courageous by facing our fears--which gets easier the more we do it!  Don't unnecessarily minimize how big their fear may feel.  Help them to break it into smaller, more manageable, pieces.   For example, if your child is afraid of flying figure out if it is being in a small, enclosed space; or is it the loud sounds of the engines; or leaving their doggies behind at home; or possible turbulence during flight? Next, take steps to overcoming each fear.  Brainstorm ways to have courage facing a particular fear and perhaps even simulate facing those bite-sized fears like leaving the dog for a day, using ear plugs around a loud lawnmower, or likening riding in a plan to the roller coaster you may have ridden last summer. 

  • It is helpful to demystify flying and address some of your child’s questions about how safe it is as a method of travel.  Reading books about air travel, describing and visualizing a flight from beginning to a safe and happy landing, and educating your child about how safe flying is and how many millions of people arrive safely to their various destinations every day can be helpful in reducing anxiety.  Even going through a car wash together, or simulating a flight by watching a YouTube clip like this one, or setting up the pillows and a cardboard plane control panel in the living room—complete with self-made sounds and effects—may help to acclimate your child to the feelings, sounds, and sensations similar to those of being in an actual plane.  Normalize turbulence as part of the natural waves of wind the plane will ride up and down during the flight—especially when riding over mountains. 

  • Provide some valuable facts about flight safety.  Frame those facts in ways that kids can understand.  For example, explaining how safe flying is in comparison to driving doesn’t help really--it just made my daughter begin to question even getting into the car.  Fear is contagious that way!  Ask them to visualize the 4.5 million people everyday who fly safely in planes!  Remind them that many of those millions are kids off to visit their beloved grandparents or to see Disneyland for the first time.  Help them visualize such a large number like 4.5 million:  it is way more people that all the people living in Alaska and Hawaii combined, and about as many as live in the entire State of South Carolina. 

  • It is helpful to challenge some of those fear-inducing thoughts by brainstorming solutions to every worry and/or testing if the fearful thought is actually accurate, true, or simply irrational.  Take a piece of paper, divide it in two, and make one side for thoughts that are “True” and one for those that are “Not True.”  For example, “Everybody dies when they fly”— phobic thinking actually sounds like this.  This particular thought would go on the “Not True” list.

  • I’ve also taught my children that if they change their thinking, they can change their feeling.  I encouraged them to notice that when they pick a different thought, their feelings follow suit.  As I've written about previously, in Mental Pathways of Courage, it can take only approximately 90 seconds for feelings to catch up with our thoughts.

  • It is important to focus on the positive benefits associated with flying.  For example, the fun stuff you can do on board, the nutritional/favorite snacks and drinks you will pack, his/her favorite stuffy along for the ride, the movie you will bring to watch or book to read, special friends/family you are travelling to visit, the sights you might see along the way, and any other things your child might be looking forward to about the trip. 

  • Move around during the flight, should aerophobia’s close cousin, claustrophobia, also be contributing to your child’s fear of flying. 
  • One parenting site recommended wrapping little gifts to unwrap each hour on the flight to add something to look forward to and to countdown the hour(s) until you arrive at your destination.  

  • It is also useful to inform the airline staff that you have a hesitant flyer on your hands and any and all treats or accommodations they can make to ensure a relaxing flight would be most appreciated. 

  • Arriving to the airport relaxed helps (not that my family has ever been able to manage this one—which may well have also contributed to our daughter’s anxiety! We even slept through two alarms for our most recent early morning flight.  We were the last to check in and board, but we made it!) 

  • Teaching some simple body relaxation techniques to your child can help them learn the difference between tense and relaxed muscles.  Kids don’t automatically notice the difference.  So, start with your toes, showing them how to squeeze/tense and let go/relax each muscle group, ending with your faces.  Liken a tensed body to uncooked spaghetti (straight, rigid), relaxed bodies are like cooked spaghetti (loose, wiggly and jiggly).  Use visual imagery to help them tense and relax, this audio script may help. When stressed or worried during the flight, remind each other to use progressive relaxation to help your body tell your mind that all is well.  To learn more about Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), consult this book: The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (Davis, Eschelman, & McKay, 1988).

  • Airline attendants are full of helpful advice. Those vomit bags may also come in handy for some much needed anti-panic deep breathing relief.

  •  If your child’s fear is debilitating, or close to being so, it is also a wise investment to consult a local child-oriented mental health therapist to prepare for any upcoming trips—especially if as a parent you, too, suffer from aerophobia.

  • Lastly, clap those hands loud and proud to thank the pilot for your safe arrival on the tarmac.  Be sure to celebrate each of your child’s successes along the journey to conquering their fear—no matter how small the steps or how short the flight—just keep gently moving forward through the fear instead of letting it limit your lives! 

Any advice you'd like to share about how you've helped your child overcome a fear?  We'd love to hear from you!