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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."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

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.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Prototype of Courage

Here's another reason why sharing stories that illustrate all six types of courage with your kids may be a very constructive project.  As children develop and acquire language, they are actively engaged in concept formation (which of course began in infancy).  What is "dog" or "chair" or "jumping" or "soft"?  These are all concepts that are learned through exposure to a wide variety of examples.  Each exposure helps the child refine the prototype, the essence or ideal, if you will, of "dog" "chair" "jumping" and "soft" based on what is common among all the examples of the concept.  

It works like this:  If a child has experience of many different sorts of dogs, her prototype of the concept "dog" may end up as something of medium stature, with an affectionate nature and an appetite for long walks - something like a Labrador retriever (not surprisingly one of the most popular of breeds.)   Generic or stylized signs for dogs generally show an animal of medium stature and average proportions, rather than a wasp-waisted whippet or a low-slung Basset hound.  If the child sees primarily Chihuahuas and Yorkshire terriers, her prototype might be something decidedly smaller, more nervous, and more inclined to sit on laps than your average Labrador.   (I am reminded of an anecdote I heard recently about a young boy whose mother was a lawyer with many women attorneys in her social set; the son disdained the idea of practicing law as a career since it was something "only girls do.")

If children form a prototype of the concept "courage" based on a narrow range of examples (e.g. only police officers or soldiers or firefighters) might they find it harder to recognize other types of courage in themselves or others? I can't find any academic studies supporting this, but it would certainly be an interesting investigation.

As I wrote earlier in a post on more evidence on the power of stories, researchers find more sophisticated "theory of mind" in children who listen to or read a lot of stories.  Theory of mind is the ability to imagine what might be going on in another person's head.   Some researchers contend that theory of mind may be critical to forming certain concepts.  For an abstract concept such as "courage" it may be necessary for a child to imagine the mental states of different people undergoing challenges.   In other words, theory of mind may allow a child to infer that a given situation is frightening or difficult for another person, and thus allow additional material for forming the prototype of "courage."

A recent article in Psychology Today also proposes that imagining other people's choices clarifies our own.  When faced with a choice we have never had to make before, we summon our mental prototype of a person who would made that choice.  If that prototype is something we aspire to (i.e. courageous action), we may make the choice in a way that matches the prototype.  Much as many Evangelical Christians use the motto, "What would Jesus do?"to guide their decisions, we prompt ourselves to conform to a standard that we wish to match.  If we have allowed ourselves and our children to form a prototype that encompasses all six types of courage, can we hope that we will be better able to rise to the challenge when it meets us on the path, in whatever form it takes?  If courage resides in the hearts of such diverse heroes as Horatio, Br'er Rabbit, and Lady Godiva, the prototype of courage our children take with them through their lives may be as nuanced as our complex world requires.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Girls Gone Wild? No: Lady Godiva

John Collier c. 1898, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry
This enduring and popular English legend is, like many legends about historical figures, very unlikely to be true.  But what I like about it is that given the culture and norms of the period when this story gained popularity, this is a story of extreme social courage.  Imagine if you will a Zeitgeist very different from Girls Gone Wild (and if you don't know what that is, it's just as well.) In the 11th century, a noblewoman's virtue was her most valuable possession, because without it her future was grim indeed.  We're not talking about the risk of embarrassment.  This would have been the risk of being banished to a cloistered convent or worse.  There would have been a wide selection of sanctions to punish her with, but (according to legend) Lady Godiva risked it anyway.

A certain nobleman, the Earl of Mercer and Lord of Coventry, had imposed heavy taxes upon the people of that town.  They struggled to feed their families and pay their taxes as well.  Bellies ached with hunger, and some were driven penniless from their homes.  Lady Godiva, the earl's wife, pleaded with him daily to relieve the burden.  "My lord, the tax is too heavy," she told him, day after day.

At last, annoyed by her persistence and her tender heart, the earl replied, "My lady, I will remove the taxes the day you ride naked through Coventry."

Word went swiftly from house to house that the lady would take his dare.  Out of respect for her modesty and gratitude for her compassion, the people shuttered their windows and drew the curtains.  As the dawn broke, Lady Godiva disrobed in the stableyard.  Mounting her horse, she draped her long hair around herself like a cloak, and rode through the streets of the town.  They say only one person peeked, but that he was immediately struck blind by fate.

True to his word, the earl lifted the taxes, and the people of Coventry remained grateful to Lady Godiva for all her days.