Archive | February, 2014

Fixing Up the World

9 Feb

From the time I was about two and a half, I have thought there was something really wrong with the so-called grown-ups in my little corner of the world. I use the world “thought” loosely, of course. What does a two-year-old know about analysis and synthesis? About inductive and deductive reasoning?  About ad hominem arguments? My own little mind didn’t know very much, and couldn’t have put into words what it did  know. But it KNEW for certain that certain kinds of meanness were “over the line” and that certain people were not worthy of her trust, and never would be.  

I’m seventy-one now. I’ve worked my mind, left and right, as hard and as long as I can, and I will keep at it until I can’t keep at it any longer, but I am still in the dark about very huge things–not to mention a lot of little things that add up to sums I still can’t total.

I don’t understand meanness, violence, nastiness, sneakiness, sneering, bullying,  condescension, blatant lying. I don’t understand pretension–pretending to know and be what one knows one doesn’t and isn’t.

Where does any of that, all of that, come from? I assume such things come from somewhere. I think I assume they start out small and get bigger, but maybe they don’t.  

I wish there were a place to go where we could ask the universe a question: “Dear Universe–Why are so many so-called grown-ups so mean and nasty, so intentionally hurtful?”  I don’t know the universal zip code. I wish I did.

When I was younger, I used to spend many hours driving on back roads. I found them so peaceful, such good places to let go of the pain I encountered in the human world.  I would  speak to the cows  about these things. Cows always seemed so docile, so patient, so unruffled.  “Hey, cows,” I’d say, rolling down the window. “Do you have a minute? You seem like the kind of creature that would understand. Did you ever have anyone yell and sneer at you, and intentionally hurt you? Did you ever encounter a bully, or a whole room full of them? What did you think of them? What did you say, or do?”

It helped a lot to talk to cows. They just went on eating, and swishing their tails. I kind of figured they were above that sort of thing. I remembered Frost’s poem about cleaning the pasture spring.   He’d just wait long enough to watch the water clear, he said–and to  check on the newborn calf that tottered when its mother licked it with her tongue. 

Frost gave me such a nice view of cows in that poem. It was kind of like he was saying that mothers, soon after giving birth, teach their offspring kindness not by precept, but by example. They touch them with kindness and gentleness. I had a cat that did that–a male cat, too. I came home with a tiny kitten, and set the kitten on the kitchen floor, next to my full-grown male cat. “This little kitten needs you,” I said to the cat. I pet each one, one with my left hand, the other with my right. “Nice kitten,” I said. “Nice kitten.” Each of them thought I was speaking about it. As I knelt there, the male cat, to my amazement, picked the kitten up in its mouth and carried it to the food dishes, then  sat next to it and waited. After the kitten ate, the male cat again carried it, this time to the litter box, and dropped it in. And, finally, he carried it into the bedroom and jumped up on the bed, dropping the tiny kitten between the two pillows on the bed, so that only its ears were visible. It was wonderful to see how patiently and gently he did these things, and how easily the kitten became accustomed to the routine.  

There must be a lot of human beings who lack such skills, such instincts–both mothers and fathers.  And, I guess, there must be a lot who were taught the opposite of kindness. Remember the song, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” from  “South Pacific”: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate. . . .” 

 It’s a pity there’s nowhere we can go to read and think about the meanness in the world. There should be times and places before there are crises, where people of all ages and circumstances can go to reflect–alone, or together. There should be  calmness centers, for introspection, quiet music, flowing water.  These things should be part of our everyday lives–places to balance the constant motion, and noise, the constant chaos, the pushing, the shoving, the fighting to get ahead, something to counteract the mindless crowd’s urge to be first. There should be cooperation to balance all the competition, calm to balance stress. It says something about our society as a whole, that we do not have such places, and do not think of them, until after centuries of premeditated hurtfulness, but maybe it is not too late to consider such things, to build a truly humane society where bullying is simply not practiced, and not imagined, and not necessary, because human beings have finally learned to value empathic listening and cooperation.

Some might say such a vision is “soft,” but perhaps those are the ones who would need it the most. The kind of softness I have in mind requires fortitude, strength,  patience, and insight–and perhaps a lifetime of practice.    

I know that there are people that some refer to as religious who believe that an old book spoke the truth when it said “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”  I think one of the requirements of adulthood is to examine the teachings of the past, and to decide if they are or are not wise. Just because a practice is advocated by someone does not mean that it is wise. We should think such matters out for ourselves, and compare our experiences.  I was always proud of A.S. Neill for disputing that teaching. When he started Summerhill, in England, he went on record against that teaching, and accepted students at his school who had already been harmed by such treatment. He described very well how difficult it was to unlearn such violence. Neill  decided to do the opposite: Hug kids, listen to them, talk with them one to one, give them room to play, to make art, music, dance, places to rest, places to explore. He decided to ask them how they were feeling, to give them a fair share of responsibility, to give them chances to lead and not just follow, to teach them cooperation, and not just competition. It was very clear to me that he was able to remember his own childhood, and to reflect on what caused him too much pain. I have always been grateful for his courage, and his wisdom, and wish all the bullies I have encountered in my life  could have known him , or at least could have read his book and thought about the alternatives he provided. How wonderful it is to know that there are such kind and such imaginative people in the world.

It seems to me now that there should be a place where adult bullies and other nasty people can melt down without harming anyone–including themselves–but what sort of place would that be? It seems to me that when adult bullies were children, there must have been adults who indulged them–or who did the opposite and bullied them. Once that has happened, it seems that it is so easy for ugliness to spiral out of control. Other adults indulge adult bullies. It seems to me that none of them has the capacity to look inward, to “center themselves,” to listen to their feelings, to appreciate their own complexity. Truly, I don’t know if adults can learn such humane habits. Perhaps, for some, it is too late. And maybe their egos are just too inflated to allow thought, or empathy, to enter. It seems, then, that the only people who are capable of insight might be those who have been hurt by them, those whose hearts ache, those who suffer the beatings and the bruises, those who already have tenderness and gentleness in their character, those who have never sneered at anyone and who know they never will. Those are the people who understand that compassion is a struggle, and that wounds that take advantage of one’s good nature sometimes take a long time to heal. 

My heart goes out to all children, both the victims and the bullies. I know that violent and unthinking parents often do harm that lasts a lifetime. I know there are no easy solutions. Dorothy Corkille-Briggs offers some helpful suggestions to parents who want to consider non-bullying alternatives, and many authors who write about child-raising and about self-esteem also deal with these issues. All of them understand that wounds go deep, that there is a great deal of meanness in the world, and that far too few adults understand it and know how to heal from it, or to help others heal.  

It is so much easier when children are small. Just the simple presence of a caring and thoughtful and aware adult can do so much. At the very least, such an adult can speak words and use tones of voice that demonstrate insight and compassion, and can provide outlets for creative expression that prevent feelings from “piling up”  too much and too long. How helpful it would be if all children who are “six or seven or eight” could spend time in the company of such adults.