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Showing posts with label Jennifer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jennifer. Show all posts

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!
 







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.


Friday, May 4, 2012

Dancing Through the Pain, Part II

Last week, in the first part of this interview with former professional ballet dancer, Jane Haugh, we discussed what can make a person willing to tolerate pain. Here, in Part II, we continue to explore pain as a voluntary experience, and as an involuntary experience. Jane now lives with her husband and three children in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Pain (as opposed to suffering, which is mental or emotional) is in the body, and thus is the risk associated with physical courage.

Haugh: In the end, Jen, what I did in order to be a professional dancer in terms of dancing on stress fractures and soft corns with such unbelievable pain – I don’t know how healthy that was. I do question my decision to do that. I think that it wasn’t emotionally and psychologically really healthy to get to the point where you could disengage your nerve centers from your feet so you didn’t feel your feet anymore. That’s not me. That’s not part of my body. That doesn’t hurt. To the point where I would sometimes bang my feet against something because that hurt so much that my brain shut that down and I could pretend it wasn’t there. So a little pain can be more difficult than a lot of pain. And I don’t think that’s so good! I think that’s kind of sick!


Armstrong: So you’re in this culture of never mind the pain, keep going. Were there techniques or mental processes or gimmicks that were part of that culture, were there stories, did you remind yourself of such and such dancer where she did this and –


Haugh: Sure! Stories about Melissa Hayden dancing on a broken foot, stories about Darcy Kistler when she broke her elbow and finished "Swan Lake." We had these stories of famous people who performed through amazing things. Darcy I think seriously injured her elbow for life, and never did Swan Lake again – or only did Dying Swan – I don’t remember what the whole thing was – but it wasn’t good! But if you’re at the New York State Theater and you’re in Act I and you’ve got two more acts to do, what are you going to do? So you do it and then you go to the emergency room later I guess!


Armstrong: Okay, so I want to go in a different direction now. When your parents died and your sister was very badly injured [in a car wreck], you were 17, and so you were already a very dedicated dancer. So your sister was very badly injured for a long time, am I right?

Haugh: Yes, she was operated on a couple of times. You know, we did this weird thing. She had a plate in her arm, and she also had a brain injury, and deep into the fall they x-rayed her arm, and no healing had begun. The accident was in July and this was in September. And this bone was really brittle and they were very upset about it because the plate was not an ideal way to hold the bones together and it was kind of shocking that there had been no healing. And so they wanted us to rent this machine that was really really expensive and we didn’t have any health insurance, and my aunt [their guardian] was really upset about this, and I remember having a conversation with my sister where I said to her: “You have to concentrate on healing this bone. You have to think about it. You have to concentrate on it.” I don’t think if I wasn’t a dancer I would have thought of it that way. But I already understood that my body responded, to some extent, through the control of my mind. And I really did think that it was possible that if she concentrated on healing her arm that it would start to heal. And then we wouldn’t have to get this expensive machine and do all this stuff – and it did! They said they’d set up a four-week assessment and if no healing had begun she’d have to go up to Columbia regularly for electro-stim or something, and four weeks later there was quite a bit of new healing when they took an x-ray, or whatever they did. I don’t know whether that helped, but I definitely remember having this conversation with her. I remember – like taking a bath, and something really hurting, and just lying there and trying to relax my mind into that pain and trying to get the blood flowing there and I would start to feel – I mean I am not a big believer in that stuff. But…


Armstrong: Most Americans, probably, live pretty cut off from their bodies, right? Would you agree? So you had a much more intimate relationship with your body. So you understood a lot more about what the body can do, and what its limitations are. What I wonder is, did you ever evaluate or compare the pain that you endured willingly with the pain she had to endure unwillingly?

Haugh: No. I think one of the things that I learned from dancing is that everybody’s pain threshold is really different. And I started to understand that I actually experienced quite a bit of pain, especially for somebody who was a professional dancer, and that a lot of people around me were not experiencing quite that level of pain. So we would do the same thing, have the same number of blisters, and I felt like I could really barely walk, and I spent all night icing my feet, and the other person was out dancing. And I thought, well they are obviously not in as much pain! Or they’re managing it so differently. I mean, I see in my kids – there’s a huge difference in Z.’s and M’s pain thresholds, and then another huge leap to T.’s. Z. will hurt herself and she’ll get a bump somewhere, a black and blue mark, and a week later – not complaining, but she’ll say this thing still hurts, should I take some more arnica, or should I ice it ? And M. will have the same kind of injury and two days later she’ll have forgotten about it. I think her body experiences less pain. Her body recovers from pain more quickly. She recovers from emotional upset more quickly. She recovers from loud noises more quickly. Her physiological self recovers faster from things. But I think T. [her son] – I don’t know how much pain he experiences but he rebounds very quickly partly because he doesn’t want to stop in order to feel that pain. So he can have a huge knot on his head and I think it’s got to hurt, but if I go to touch it he’ll shy away and it does hurt him, but he doesn’t want to stop. So that’s a different way to overcome pain, is to be so focused on what you want to do that the pain is secondary. So with my sister, I learned early on not to project any kind of pain I was feeling onto anyone else’s situation because it so often just doesn’t work. I’d be all sympathetic [to a fellow dancer] and they’d be like “What?” I’d say, “Your feet are a mess!” but it wasn’t bothering them.


Armstrong: Okay, so here’s something about pain, and that’s that pain has a lot to do with what we think about. What is the story we’re telling ourselves about the pain – am I doing myself an injury, what’s going to happen? The story we’re telling ourselves about what’s happening to our body… I mean, pain only happens when you notice it right?

Haugh: Right, so when you go on stage you don’t feel the pain in your feet because you have all this adrenaline, so you’re not noticing it.

Armstrong: It’s like taking the kids to the doctor to get a shot. There’s all this suffering, this storytelling. So, and this is my projection, I would think that if I’m a dancer, my world, everything I do, involves my body, right? So if I break my ankle then I won’t be able to work. So I’m curious about the role of storytelling in this. Stories that you tell yourself to keep going, or stories that limit you.

Haugh: Part of the story of dancing is being tough, of saying this hurts but I’m strong enough and I can overcome this, or this hurts and I might hurt myself but the director is there and I really want this part so I’m going to do this anyway, because I see myself as that person who will overcome this pain. And then he’ll see me as that person and then I’ll get the part. Or I’ll get to go on tour. So there’s some part of talking yourself into doing things because of the way you see yourself: as a strong person who can overcome things that normal people would stop at. You say, well, maybe someone else would stop, but that’s not me. I’m not that person and I’m going to keep going.

But I also think there’s storytelling with our kids, when our kids hurt themselves. There are two different things. There’s where people say, “you’re okay you’re okay you’re okay,” but the kid isn’t okay, and the kid is upset and doesn’t feel okay. And then there are people who say, “Oh no, you’re hurt! You’re bleeding, you’re not okay!” But there’s something in the middle where you can say, “Let me see what happened. I need to see what happened.” I think all three of my kids think of me as a very competent person to deal with whatever hurts them. They bring me their hurts. I say we need to calm down so we can see what happened so that we can deal with whatever that is. I think it’s really important for them to realize that you can get sick or you can get hurt and then your body does this amazing thing, it heals you, it heals your cut, you get a scab and then there’s nothing there anymore. What an amazing thing! So this is an opportunity to say, “You’ve hurt yourself, but you’re going to get better, because your body is this amazing thing that knows how to heal itself. How awesome is that! And then there’s this feeling of resiliency, this feeling of ow – I really hurt myself ! – but I know I’m going to be okay.


Please feel free to share your thoughts about physical courage and the risk of pain, either from your own experience or from watching your children.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Physical Courage and the Redheaded Child


If you are a redhead, you may already know - or at least suspect - that your relationship to pain is a bit different from your blonde or dark-haired friends. And if you are the parent of a redheaded child, but are not a redhead yourself, you may have wondered why your little carrot top seems very sensitive.

For years, it was recognized by anesthesiologists that redheads require more pain-killers than others. Eventually, researchers heeded what was common knowledge among the anesthesiologists and began to investigate. It turns out that the gene associated with red hair is also linked to endorphin production. There is also some evidence that topical anesthesia (such as Novocaine) is less effective on redheads, making them especially anxious about visits to the dentist. And yet it's more complicated than merely being more sensitive to certain kinds of pain, because there's also evidence that redheads are less sensitive to other kinds of pain.

Physical courage, as we have said on this blog many times, is related to one's willingness to tolerate pain - or the risk of pain. Thus if you are the parent of a natural redhead, it may be useful to you to read about some of the research about redheads and pain. Your child's path to develop physical courage may be easier if you have some familiarity with this information. Go here to read WebMD's page on pain tolerance, go here to read Discover magazine on the Secrets of Redheads, go here to read the New York Times on The Pain of Being a Redhead.


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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? 


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.

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:

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.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Letting Go: The Death of Ra

In the beginning all was darkness, but then came Ra, and he called all things into being. He was the first god-pharaoh, and he ruled in Egypt for thousands of years in human form. Over time, his human frame grew frail and weak. His head shook as he walked and he drooled like a baby. People whispered and laughed behind his back. His children, the deities Isis and Osiris, were impatient to take his place on the throne, but he would not relinquish it.

Isis was the greatest worker of magic in the world, but even she could wield no power over Ra without knowing his most secret name. He had many names for the many forms he had taken, but one was most secret and powerful of all, and he would not whisper it even to the last grain of sand at the root of a sand dune. Without that name, Isis could do nothing.

She waited. One day, as he stumbled down the path, drooling and trembling with age, she crept behind him and gathered some of the earth his spit had dribble on. Kneading the wet earth into a long snake, Isis set the lifeless thing upon the path. Only Ra could give life, so the earthen snake lay there until Ra stumbled past again. The moment the glance of his eyes fell upon it the cobra was filled with life, and it reared up and bit him in the heel. Ra fell, writhing in agony. As the poison worked its way through his body, the pain became even more intense.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Does This Taste Funny to You?

Not long ago I wrote about the giddy pleasures of the tall-tale form in the wildly exaggerated physical courage of Pecos Bill. Today I want to say just a few words more about the trusty shield of cream pie to the face.

According to research cited in the New York Times, laughter produces endorphins. The physical act of laughing, like any vigorous exercise, triggers the release of this "feel-good" chemical in the brain. It just plain feels good to laugh. We relax, we find new friendships through humor, we lower our guard. In fact, the growing international movement known as "laughter yoga" is taking this powerful tool into schools, workplaces, leadership seminars, and community organizations all over the world as a way of combating stress and raising productivity. There doesn't even have to be a joke - it's not an intellectual process where we find something funny, and then we laugh. Just laughing (fake, forced laughing sustained for a few minutes) will lead to genuine laughter. You know you've succumbed to giggling fits, laughing for no reason until tears run down your face. Rather than a silly thing to do, it's actually a powerful tool for promoting well-being.

Now consider what happens with fear and stress. The chemicals released by the brain under the influence of fear and stress are adrenaline and cortisol. These are the life-saving fight-or-flight hormones that prepare us to snatch children from the path of oncoming cars or withstand pain during emergencies. All our defenses are on high-alert, and when running away from a tiger, that's a good thing. But chronic exposure, especially to cortisol, from daily stress and anxiety can have serious adverse effects on the body and on cognitive function.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Courage Book Review: Three Little Three Little Pigs

Know how you can tell this classic is about physical courage? All the huffing and puffing! Just as The Three Billy Goats Gruff had plenty of act-out-able bits, so does every version of The Three Little Pigs. Straw, wood, bricks - these are all parts of our physical experience (as opposed to tricks or puzzles, which are part of our intellectual experience). A big bad wolf who wants to eat you up is a physical risk. Physical courage may be the most easily recognized of the six types of courage, and so it is one that features in so many tales for the very young.

The Three Little Pigs have also been a mainstay of children's book illustrator/retellers for many years, and today I offer a few words on a few notables from the Three Little Pigs' Pen that should be readily available in libraries or stores.

Paul Galdone's version from 1970 is a basic, friendly start. The trim size is small, making it comfortable for little hands. The story is straightforward and the illustrations are bright and dynamic. It's perfectly satisfactory and we move briskly from one pig's fate to the next. From 1989 we have the beloved James Marshall offering his trio of roly poly piggies, each dressed in a distinctive costume. I particularly like the pig who builds with sticks - he wears colorful, striped shorts, and his house is decorated with flags, balloons and wind chimes. The brick-building pig in this version looks like a London banker, with waistcoat and bowler hat. In this version, as in Galdone's, the unfortunate straw-builder and stick-builder are both gobbled up. Both books end gleefully with the provident third pig gobbling up the wolf in turn.

Steven Kellogg's 1997 version adds a subplot of a mobile waffle business that supports the pigs financially, and and enterprising mother pig who comes to the rescue at the end. Although the art and the subplot are both full of fun and interesting details, I would only share this with kids who are already well-versed in the story, for two reasons. For one thing, the subplot slows down the cadence of the main action. As you may recall from my post on The Rule of Threes, classic stories make use of triads to carry the emotional punch. It's useful to keep that triad clear of clutter, however, so the pattern can emerge. The echoes of "Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin," and "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in," should ideally still be in the air by the time the next round comes. The second reason I feel less than enthusiastic about this version is related to the internal v. external locus of control, which Lisa has explained so well in earlier posts. Mommy pig comes to save the day - emphasizing that forces outside of the little pigs are in control. It's so much more satisfying to have the final pig (even if he is poignantly the last pig standing) be the one to thwart the big bad wolf and deliver revenge, as in the more traditional versions. That shows the internal locus of control that we want our kids to develop for themselves.

Finally (and yes, I realize that this makes four) we have David Wiesner's 2001 The Three Pigs, the Caldecott Medal winner for that year. It's a brilliant tour de force of illustration and revision, but again, I would share this with older kids who are already perfectly familiar with the traditional story. You can't even understand this book without knowing the model it subverts. This is a book to be enjoyed by a more sophisticated audience than the one that will squeal with delight and huff and puff as ferocious wolves. This is one that demonstrates qualities of intellectual courage - flexibility, creativity, and inventiveness - rather than physical courage. Enjoy the Galdone or Marshall versions of the story with your small kids, and then once they've gone to bed, appreciate the Wiesner book with your wordly-wise middle schooler.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Perseverance: The Courage of a Spider

"Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never."
                         - Churchill
If you've ever seen the movie Braveheart, you know something of Scotland's struggle for independence from King Edward Longshanks in the late 13th and early 14th Century. Here is one of the legends from that era. The next time you are tempted to intone, "If at first you don't succeed, try try again," tell this story instead. Perseverance is one of the qualities that physical courage can activate in us, and we can see it in the tiniest illustrations if we are observant:

Robert the Bruce, true king of Scotland, had tried six times to prevail in battle against the English. Six times he had failed, and now he was on the run, hunted like a wild animal from forest to farm to glen. Desperate, and with faltering hope, he took refuge in a cave while the rain beat steadily outside.

As he gazed with weary eyes through the entryway, he noticed a spider hanging from the ceiling. It was working a web, and seemed to be determined to fasten its next strand to a stone some distance away. It launched itself, swinging through the air, but missed, then patiently climbed back up to the start again, and made another attempt. Robert the Bruce watched, fascinated, while the spider struggled again and again to reach the stone. Six times the spider swung itself through the air, and six times it failed.

"I know what it is to lose six times," the exiled king said to the spider. "My heart goes out to you."

Once more, the spider launched itself with all the force it could muster, and this time gained its prize. "Yes!" the king cheered. "So shall I try a seventh time! I will not give up hope!"

And indeed, he was able to rally an army around himself, and encourage his people with new zeal. This time he prevailed, and drove the English from Scotland at the Battle of Bannockburn.


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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pecos Bill

This American tall tale - or collection of tales - comes from the great tradition of brag stories from the Wild West. Decades of cowboys sitting around the campfire trying to outdo each other with exaggerated exploits gave rise to the legend of Pecos Bill. The stories were collected and put into published form in 1932 by an East Coast writer for The Century magazine. What's fun about these stories - about all tall tales, really - is the zany bravado that takes physical courage to the extreme.