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Showing posts with label intellectual courage. Show all posts
Showing posts with label intellectual courage. Show all posts

Sunday, October 21, 2012

My Year of Living Fearlessly!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!
 







Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Plan B

I have two anecdotes to share today, and then something to say about them.

Last year, my friend B. shared a wonderful "Plan B" story about a day she spent with her daughter, who was then a young teen. I don't remember all the details, but I think the original plan was to take the train to New York City to see a Broadway show, and then shopping or some other treat. The timing was tricky though, because of other things on their schedule,  and B. decided they should have a Plan B - what they would do if the train was late, or the show was sold out, or any other monkey wrench in the machine. Long story short and indeed, the original plan fell through entirely, but they immediately switched to Plan B - which if I'm remembering correctly involved taking another train to Philadelphia and seeing an exhibit at a museum, and there was a second Plan B for the first Plan B which had to be implemented, because it was all on the fly - well, you get the picture. They had a fabulous time, and remember it fondly to this day as an adventure that unfolded one surprise after another like a series of gifts.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid?

"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.  To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable."
~Helen Keller


It’s New Year’s Day and I’m taking a different approach to planning my 2012 New Year’s Resolutions.  I’ve tried and failed many times in some of my previous vain attempts at perfectionism disguised as self-improvement.  In fact, when reading Gretchen Rubin’s bestseller, The Happiness Project, the only commandment for happiness (submitted by one of her readers) that resonated with me long after finishing the book was: “I am already enough.”  These days I prefer books that open my mind to possibility, rather than filling it with worry about all the ways I am not YET enough.  I'm trying to adopt a more relaxed, hands-in-the-air-less-white-knuckle-approach to riding this roller coaster called life.  I like books that are more bucket list than to-do list.  Though goal-setting is important and empowering, mining our dreams often requires getting fear out of the way first.  Diane Conway’s book What Would You Do if You Had No Fear?:  Living Your Dreams While Quakin’ in Your Boots, for example, is filled with stories of folks who mustered the courage to conquer their fears and follow their dreams. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Up and Over the Black Belt Wall!

Lisa's son performing his personal Black Belt form
I recently wrote about Jennifer's daughter and my two children's Tae Kwon Do Black Belt journey in a post entitled The Black Belt Wall.  All three children faced their own individual courage challenges over the four years of study required to attain their Black Belts.  Over the course of the final two days of testing, a couple of weeks ago, each Black Belt candidate was required to perform approximately ten different belt forms (a set series of jumps, kicks, chops, and other martial arts moves), a lengthy work-out, 100+ sit-ups, 100+ push-ups, 500-1,000 jump ropes, a 15-minute run, several sparring matches, their own personal form performed for all attendees, and finally to read a personal essay about their individual journey to becoming a Black Belt.  I'm happy to report that each of them successfully completed their test and were subsequently awarded crisp new Black Belts embroidered with their names!  It was truly inspiring to be witness to such a motivated, talented group of young people, ages 9-16, each achieving a long-cherished and hard-won goal. 

As parents, we provided the gas, transportation, monthly school fees, and the "You can do it!" motivation (when needed).  It was our kids, however, working under their martial arts instructors' mentorship, who had to show up for each class, dig deep in moments of fear or boredom, and have the emotional, intellectual, social, and physical courage to stick with a sport that is learned one move at a time.  Like in the classic movie Karate Kid (1984) when young Daniel is asked to help Karate Master Mr. Miyagi, one paint brush stroke at a time (instead of getting his much-desired and expected martial arts instruction), our kids not only had to develop trust in their instructors and themselves, they had to develop the kind of patience with the process that is in short supply in our instant gratification culture.  The courage development associated with this kind of time-honored teacher-student relationship and the courage challenges involved:  priceless!  Jennifer wrote a great post about this recently, too, in Wait for it...Wait for it!  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Surviving the Lion AND the Fox!

Travellers' Decorated CaravanI found a very interesting story the other day that highlights moral courage in an unusual way. Animal fables typically offer the lion and the fox as examples of physical courage and intellectual courage, brawn vs. brains. Here we have a story from the very old Gypsy tradition, a story which demonstrates a different way an outcast group manages to survive. I found The Lion, the Fox, and the Bird in The Fish Bride and Other Gypsy Tales, retold by Jean Russel Larson. This is book well worth reading if you can find it. I'll just summarize this story briefly.

In this story, a new bird arrives in a part of the forest that is home to a lion and a fox. Not being a fast flyer, the bird is warned by everyone to leave. "I'll have to get the lion and the fox to leave," the bird replies. "It's really too dangerous to have them here." While the lion and the fox are both contemplating the nice meal they'll make of the bird, the bird turns the tables on them both by appealing for help. The bird asks the lion to perform an act of physical strength (moving some fallen trees to reveal the berry bushes) and the fox to figure out how to get reeds from the pond for building a nest (he tells the herons that the fishing will be better if they pull out the reeds). Both lion and fox are stymied by this appeal to their generosity, as they cannot eat someone they've helped, and they must help when someone weaker asks for assistance. Once they have taken responsibility for the bird by helping, they must do the right thing and leave it be. Hungry, and rather baffled at having chosen not to eat the bird, the lion and the fox leave that part of the forest and search for somebody else to eat.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Four Dragons

In the West, we frequently use dragons as a metaphor for evils, wrongs, or unnamed fears that must be conquered. In China, however, dragons are benevolent. Powerful, yes, but benevolent. One beautiful legend from ancient China speaks of the Four Dragons: Black Dragon, Yellow Dragon, Long Dragon and Pearl Dragon. Here it is, as I retold it to my daughter:


A very long time ago, there were no rivers in China. No lakes, no ponds, no streams or springs or waterfalls, either. There was only the great ocean in the east. Fortunately, the land was watered by rain, sent by the Jade Emperor, who ruled in Heaven. A time came, however, when the Jade Emperor stopped paying attention to the earth, and forgot to send the rains for a very long time. The earth began to dry out, and crops withered.


One day, as the Black Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, the Long Dragon and the Pearl Dragon were gliding through the air, they noticed an old woman kneeling in the dust below, her face streaked with tears as she prayed. Then they noticed that the earth was cracked and brown. "Why has the Jade Emperor sent no rain?" the Pearl Dragon wondered. "Let us go to him in Heaven and ask."


When they arrived at the throne of the Jade Emperor, he was annoyed that they had come to him, pointing out his failure. "I'll send the rain, now go away," he snapped.


The dragons left, relieved that all would be well again on earth. Yet when ten days passed with no rain falling, they knew the Jade Emperor had forgotten about the people on earth again. "Let us help them," said the dragons to one another. "We can fill our bellies with water from the great ocean and spray it onto the earth, can't we?" And so this is what they did. The moment the water touched the dry soil the wilting rice and wheat stood tall again, and the people rushed to catch the water in bowls.


Up in Heaven, the Jade Emperor caught sight of what the dragons were doing, and shouted with anger that they had taken it upon themselves to help the earth. "Bring mountains!" he roared to the Mountain God. "Crush those dragons!"


Faster than wind over rice paddies, four mountains came and bore down upon the dragons, pinning them to the earth. Yet the dragons were still full of water, and continued to pour it out, even as they were crushed. And so the four great rivers of China were formed, the Yellow River, the Long River, the Black River and the Pearl River, bringing water to the people forever.


I asked my daughter how many kind of courage she thought were involved in this story. "It took courage to show the emperor he had forgotten his job," she said. "And it took courage to go ahead and do the job themselves." "Do you think it also takes courage sometimes to pray for help?" I asked. She shrugged. "Maybe."

Compare this story of self-sacrifice to the story of Fenrir the Wolf, from Viking mythology, and The Legend of the Banyan Deer, from the Buddhist tradition. In all of these stories, the powerful put themselves at risk to help the weak. Endurance, love, charity, compassion, stewardship, responsibility and leadership are values that parents can model in their own behavior toward their children as examples of all six types of courage. Of course, it's often much easier said than done!

I know that, for myself, explaining to my daughter why I'm making a sacrifice is key. The sacrifice might be giving my money, or my mental time, or my physical effort to something other than my myself and my own immediate needs. Because fear is correlated to lack of control, we can infer that the opposite is true: courage is correlated to taking control. When I see something in the world that grieves me (poverty, injustice, hunger, etc.) I could allow feelings of helplessness overwhelm me. I could begin to fear that the world is a hopeless place. On the other hand, if I take even a small step, make a small sacrifice of money or time or effort to help alleviate that problem, I gain a measure of control. As a result, my feelings of futility diminish, and my fear subsides. Dr. Lisa has explained this eloquently in her posts about an internal v. external locus of control.

When we help others, we truly help ourselves. The greater our sacrifice, the less fear we will experience. Two quotations say this better, and more succinctly, than I have:

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage." ~ Dale Carnegie.

It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed. ~ Napoleon Hill




Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Bloody Hook and Halloween Candy Poisoners


When I was a teenager, we heard that two kids from a rival high school had been "parking" near the reservoir late one Saturday night. A news broadcast interrupted the music on the radio to warn that a dangerous serial killer with a hook for a hand had escaped from a hospital, and was being hunted by police in the area. The teens heard some scratching on the car, and without pausing to investigate, the boy put the pedal to the metal. That car spit gravel as they spun around and sped back out to Route 35. When they got back to the girl's house, they were horrified to find a metal hook dangling from the rear bumper, still bloody from where it had been ripped out of a man's arm. Swear to God, totally true. My cousin's friend's dentist's baby-sitter knew them.

This spook story made the rounds when I was a teen in the 1970s, whispered in huddles of girls in the school halls and in the cafeteria. In fact, it had been steadily making the rounds since at least 1960, when this particular urban legend was first "reported." We greeted the news as marginally credible, totally gross, and perfectly thrilling. Sociologists and folklorists have been collecting such urban legends for years, trying to tease out what these contemporary "myths" reveal about our culture, just as anthropologists search for cultural clues in ancient myths. In the case of the Bloody Hook, the consensus seems to be that it's an effective warning not to go out necking with your boyfriend on Saturday night. Sex = mortal danger, in other words. We were happy to repeat the story, enjoying the thrill of grossing out friends who hadn't heard this "totally true story," yet, and speculating on how likely it was that it actually had happened.

And every Halloween, there were "reliable" reports and warnings about people who gave out poisoned candy and apples with razor blades in them. We didn't really believe it then, but I'm sorry to say that the "reliable" reports have gained potency year after year until now there are communities where Trick-or-Treating is a relic of a "safer" past. Parents are too fearful to let their children go door to door and risk being given chocolate laced with strychnine or arsenic. However, if you go to Snopes.com (the premier hoax-busting website) you will discover that there never has been a case of a person maliciously poisoning candy to give to Trick-or-Treaters.

Why are we so ready to believe our neighbors are capable of such things? Why, when hearing patently dubious claims, are we so gullible? Why do we not ask to see the police reports or news stories? Why, when someone tells us that such-and-such causes cancer, do we not ask for the source of this "information," but dutifully forward it to everyone in our address book? It's tempting to surmise that people just like to believe they are beset by dangers on all sides (otherwise why would they so willingly believe it?). With the Internet handy it's often the work of just minutes to bust a hoax, and yet hardly a week goes by when I don't find some heartfelt warning in my inbox, urging me to share it with my loved ones.

I think back to my teen years and the thrilling sensations I experienced when hearing about The Bloody Hook; among the feelings I relished the most were the ones relating to how safe I felt that my friends had shared it with me! We had each other's backs! No crazy Hook Man was going to get me because my girlfriends were looking out for me! That feels awesome, and it's worth having a crazy Hook Man on the loose. Maybe nameless teen angst needs a scapegoat, a boogeyman we can circle the wagons against.

But seriously. If we actually want to be safe, instead of just feeling safe, it's up to us to be critical consumers of information. A feeling of security is pointless without actual security, and a false sense of danger can distort a secure life in truly harmful ways, not the least by trampling joy and freedom. Intellectual courage can help us dig for verification of the alarms and warnings that come our way. It can help us teach our kids what healthy skepticism is, and teach us to be better at risk assessment (e.g. air travel not statistically dangerous, driving without a seat belt statistically really dangerous). Intellectual courage can save us from the bloody hook.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Good News and Bad News

The good news: here is a delightful story I was reminded of recently, the story of the Brave Little Dutch Boy, a tale of moral courage, physical courage, emotional courage, the story that gives us the popular image of beating back disaster by the narrowest margin: the finger in the dike. I loved this story when I was young. It was so inspiring!

In the old city of Haarlem, the sea was held back by strong dikes, great walls of earth which protected the low-lying coastal lands. From atop the dykes one had beautiful views of the sea on one side, and the rich green farms on the other. For a little boy named Hendrik, walking along the tops of the dikes was a great pleasure, and one evening, coming home from his grandmother's house, he was enjoying the view of the wintry sea when he heard a small, watery trickle. The light was fading, but he peered around, wondering where the sound was coming from. He cocked an ear, and following the noise he made his way down the back side of the dike, where shadows were already gathering. To his dismay, he saw water spurting through a tiny hole. Now, Hendrik was very young, but even young children in that country knew that the dikes were what protected their farms and homes and livestock. A small leak could quickly become a larger leak, and when the tide turned and pressed with all its might the dike could give way completely, flooding the entire city! In growing alarm, Hendrik looked around for something to plug the hole with. Nothing. Without giving it further thought, Hendrik stuck his finger into the dike. "Help!" he cried, looking out across the twilit fields. "Help!" Night fell, and the cold, damp air wrapped around the shivering, frightened boy. Visions of his warm supper and fireside filled his imagination, only to be chased away by visions of raging floodwaters. He dared not leave, for he knew it could spell disaster. "Help!" he called again, his voice hoarse. "Someone help me!" At last, he saw a lantern bobbing in the darkness, coming closer and closer. A search party had been sent to find him, his father in the lead. "My brave boy!" Hendrik's father cried. While the strong men of Haarlem set to work repairing the dike, the young hero was carried home, given his supper, and tucked into bed.

Delightful story! Beloved by millions! But here's the bad news. I'm sorry to say that this story is not a traditional Dutch story at all, but 19th Century American product of "Holland-Mania." Careful consideration of the story along with even the slightest experience with wet soil will make it clear that the story cannot represent any sort of real scenario. The Dutch, with centuries of experience of using dikes to keep the sea out of their low-lying country, would never have invented such an improbable tale. If an earthen dike is saturated enough with water to start leaking, one finger will never hold back the tide.  I reckon the inventor of the tale was picturing something more like a brick wall with a bit of loose mortar, not a real levee or dike.

And yet, what is interesting (to me) is how popular the story became, and how enduring the image of the boy with his finger in the dike is. We like to imagine the lone, small, heroic figure struggling against a mighty force to do the right thing. Perhaps what comforts us is thinking that we can be saved by the efforts of a few individuals while we are comfortably eating our dinners, and that our courage can be kept warm and dry while someone else braves the rising tide. Sorry to say, I don't think that's true. Neither do the Dutch, by the way. In 2007 that country prepared a 200-year plan to deal with the effects of global climate change and rising sea levels on their low-lying nation. Talk about the intellectual courage to tackle uncomfortable facts!

Just because this story isn't a traditional folk tale doesn't mean I won't tell it to my daughter.  Helping her develop courage is part of my plan for preparing for the future.  It's not a 200-year plan, more of a 20-year plan.  We all need the courage of the Brave Little Dutch Boy, even if he was fabricated as an unrealistic, romantic fantasy.  So really, this is more a Bad News/Good News essay than a Good News/Bad News one.  The bad news is we are all going to need a lot of courage; the good news is, we all have that potential, especially our kids. 




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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Courage is Not the Absence of Fear

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. ~ Ambrose Redmoon

As parents, we are often faced with the decision to put the welfare of our children above that of our own.  Being a courageous parent can range from rescuing your child from near death or other peril, to fighting for your child’s right to feel safe at school and not bullied, to telling the truth about your decision to separate, to holding your child’s hand at their hospital bedside, to canceling that belated wedding anniversary vacation (the first one in 10 years) due to your child’s unexpected flu bug, to waking each morning early to ensure that you keep your job and your child has shelter, food, and the many other necessities modern life now seems to require.  Any number of opportunities present themselves everyday to us as parents to muster and model the six types of courage.  Sometimes we even fail to recognize what courage it takes to be a parent.  It takes courage to walk through the fears about our own eclipsed needs after deciding to have a child.  To accept the risks associated with loving another human being so fully and completely that they one day walk out our front door with the keys to their own castle in hand (God willing). Courage is telling the truth about who we are, apologizing when we mess up, and loving ourselves and our child in the process. 


As a child and family therapist, I frequently witness the courage and compassion parents have in advocating for their mentally ill child, their child who struggles in school because of a learning disorder, their obese child facing long-term health issues if they don’t lose some weight, or their child banished to the outskirts of social acceptance due to the arbitrary judgment of an individual or group with more social cache.  I see the heartbreak on these parents’ faces when their child is called fat, gay, stupid, or weird.  Then, I witness the tears brushed away and the smile return to greet their child’s gaze with unconditional love.  The child, in turn, is looking for that acceptance as fuel for their own courage to face the battles they must.  Sometimes as parents we feel powerless about what to do to help our child through a tough time.  But it is the decision to keep moving forward, digging together for solutions in the dark, that inspires our children to have faith in the kindness of others, hope for their future, and to develop the necessary courage associated with resilience. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Monkey's Heart


Versions of this tale have been collected from many countries, including Korea, Japan, China, the Philippines, Tanzania and Kenya. Details change to suit local circumstances, but the gist of the story - and the payoff - remain the same. I've written before about the benefit of telling trickster stories. Here is a classic example of quick wits and intellectual courage in action.

Monkey loved mangoes, of course. Who does not? And his favorite mango tree had branches that reached out over a river, where a certain crocodile came quite often.

"Why do you come here, lurking and smirking?" Monkey asked one day, hanging just out of reach and eating a sweet piece of fruit.

"I come because one of these days you will slip," Crocodile replied. "And I will catch you and take you to my king."

Monkey laughed, and swung back up onto the branch. "Really? We'll see about that!"

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Are You the Ant or the Grasshopper? And Which Are You Raising?


A fable from Aesop that has seen a lot of play over the centuries is the Ant and the Grasshopper. The story extols the industrious ant who spends the summer working and storing food, and also points out the improvidence of the grasshopper who fiddles and sings all summer long, ends up starving through the winter and knocking on the ant's door for a hand-out.

Chances are, (if you are American) you're a grasshopper. The U.S. personal savings rate is the lowest among developed nations. Why is that? And what's it got to do with Lion's Whiskers?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Nothing Is Bad?

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

Here are two such stories, both with something to say about being too quick to judge - or maybe about judging in the first place.

Friday, August 12, 2011

5-Minute Courage Workout: Stop Dominating Me!

Compiled and written by Lisa and Jennifer:

It is commonly understood that habits are formed or broken in as little as thirty days.  Much of the time we are unaware of the habits that define us, instead opting to run on auto-pilot.  Today, we are suggesting that you turn off the auto-pilot.  The first step to making any kind of change is becoming conscious of how our routines, thinking and reacting to life can dominate us.  Routines can provide a great deal of comfort, but they can also box us in, particularly when they are not healthy habits.  Before your children's habits and routines become ingrained, you can set a powerful example of flexibility in thinking, feeling and behaving.


Here's a list of 5-Minute Courage Workouts by age range to turn off the auto pilot.


 Grab Some Lion's Whiskers Today!
  • Toddler:   On your walk today (or drive) to a daily destination, take a different route than usual.  Announce that you'll be taking a new path and see what he or she notices.  Notice, yourself, if it seems to bring up any discomfort for your child, or if instead there's excitement for exploring new territory.
  • PreschoolerDoes your child have a security object?  Try proposing that a different teddy bear or blankie go through the day with your child. (Book recommendation: Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems).  If that one is too alarming, try mixing up the bedtime routine.  Have your child "read" the bedtime story to you, or have someone else do the tucking in - or have your child tuck you in, if you're an early-to-bed sleeper.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Birbal Reveals the Thief

Here we have another Birbal story. Intellectual courage allows us to try unconventional methods.  At the same time, lack of social courage may be our undoing.


At the palace of Akbar, the emperor, a robbery was discovered. One of the royal advisors was missing a valuable piece of jewelry – a thief must have broken into the palace.

Birbal, listening to the advisor’s story, spoke up. “It could not have been a thief from outside. This palace is too well guarded. No, the thief is someone who lives here. I can find who it is.”

The emperor looked at Birbal with surprise and amusement. “Are you so sure, Birbal?”

“Let a donkey be brought to the main courtyard, and have all who live within these walls come there,” Birbal said.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Brushfires


The story of the Brave Little Parrot reminds me of a story from my own life that I have shared with K., and that I will probably share many more times. It's a cautionary tale!


Many years ago, I lived in an old house on the side of a hill in a wooded valley. My boyfriend and I were restoring this old house, and frequently had heaps of old lumber to dispose of. There was a large field to the south of the house, and one autumn day we made a burn pile there.The wind was high, the grass was dry – and you can imagine what happened.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Focus Locus Hocus Pocus!

As a parent, I find that the more widely I read on subjects not related to parenting, the more I find ideas that give me a new way to think about my parenting decisions. While reading articles on business and marketing, I came across the subject of Regulatory Focus Theory.

This theory, formulated by Professor E. Tory Higgins at Columbia University, proposes that there are two categories of people when it comes to goals. There are the people who have a Promotion Focus, and people who have a Prevention Focus. Promotion Focus is what motivates a person to move toward an aspirational goal, working actively to achieve something that counts as an advantage. The Higgins lab puts it this way: "A promotion focus emphasizes hopes, accomplishments, and advancement needs." The Prevention Focus creates more cautious behavior, motivated by preventing loss, and is guided by obligation, duty, and rules. As the Higgins Lab says, "A prevention focus emphasizes safety, responsibility, and security needs." A person's regulatory focus can either be chronic or momentary, i.e. normal state or induced by a given situation.  Promotion-focused individuals may speak of their goals using language such as "I could" "I want to" "I plan to" "I hope to," while prevention-focused individuals may use language such as "I should" "I have to" "I'm supposed to" while discussing goals.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Water Seller's Donkey and The Sword of Damocles

I found a Rumi parable the other day that reminded me of the Greek story of the Sword of Damocles. Both have to do with envy, and speak to the need for intellectual courage in asking questions and checking our assumptions – especially when we are comparing ourselves to others. Here are both stories. I’ve told K. the story of the Sword of Damocles, but now I also have the Water Seller’s Donkey to share with her. If you want to share these with your child, feel free to tell them in your own words – as you’ll see, they aren’t long, and won’t be hard to learn.

A poor water seller had a donkey who carried the heavy jugs of water, and it was weary work; the donkey was always hungry and tired, and his hooves ached. One day, the sultan’s groom crossed paths with the water seller, and asked, “Why is this beast so thin?”
“I’m a poor man,” the water seller replied. “I do my best for him.”
“Let him come to the sultan’s stables for a rest,” said the groom.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Sky is Falling? Really?

It is the nature of children (and grown-ups) to tell stories. That’s a given. Stories act a social lubricant among kids, a currency of exchange, and as a way to share information about their lives and their relationship to the world – or information about how the world works. I know from personal experience that telling a story with an air of incontrovertible authority (my specialty almost since I gained the power of speech) or telling a story with emotional intensity can be very persuasive to the listener. Many listeners can be convinced of the truth of a story without ever pausing to ask questions, but if we don’t teach our kids to greet information with appropriate skepticism, we run the risk that they will grow up to follow rascals, demagogues and ignoramuses.  Intellectual courage allows us to question information, and social courage gives us the courage to resist using sensational information as a social currency or passport to attention.