Category Archives: Empathy

The Way of the Reader

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“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

 

We live in a distracting world, but we fool ourselves when we think that, by doing more than one thing at a time we are being efficient. To be mindful, fully present in the moments of our lives, sounds deceptively simple, but, especially in this electronic age, is a decided discipline.

Reading, because it slows one down and encourages uses of imagination and focus, can be a gentle bridge to serenity.

As more and more children abandon reading for electronics, neuroimaging research shows that excessive screen time damages the developing brain by creating structural and functional changes in the regions that control emotional processing and cognitive control.

Of particular concern are findings that show damage to areas of the brain that equate physical attributes, such as facial expressions and body language, with emotion. This kind of damage, combined with the rapidly growing trend to spend more time socializing online than face to face, are a cocktail that severely impacts healthy social emotional development.

Conversely, reading develops brain connectivity, particularly in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with language and in the the sensorimotor region, the region of the brain responsible for something called embodied cognition, the ability to empathize.

Studies show that daily reading also increases connections between the brain’s hemispheres.  These neural pathways aide in the growth of a multitude of complex cognitive functions.

Undoubtedly, reading makes you smart. But does it also make you wise?

When we read to our children we encourage them to be still in body and mind, to listen attentively, and to focus intently. We offer a refuge from the jangle of the modern world and give them our full attention in a joyful and quiet way.

Reading develops Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to understand that others have needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings that may be different than one’s own. These early stirrings of compassion are the foundation on which tolerance is built.
Reading, by its very nature, takes us outside ourselves. We become emotionally and intellectually sympathetic to characters who often are quite unlike us. This creates, in the child, an attitude of acceptance in which he or she is not threatened by foreign ideas…the seeds of a peaceful world.

Like a spiritual practice, reading offers a time to reflect, to ask questions and to examine one’s own life. It helps to foster what Albert Einstein called “holy curiosity.”
It makes us receptive, open to new concepts that inspire wonder, creativity and clarity…Deep reading allows us a singular meditation even in the midst of chaos and confusion.

In an often dark world, books illuminate.
Statistics show that, after their schooling is completed, almost half of the population of the United States never reads a book again.

So, if you ever find your children reading under the covers with a flashlight, quietly close the door and let them stay up late, their growing minds and hearts filled with vivid imagery and emotion as they follow their own singular bumpy twisty  roads to enlightenment.

 

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Be Inspired

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“Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” John Green – The Fault in Our Stars

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The first story I remember being read to me was Honey Bear, by Dixie Wilson. The cadence of my mother’s voice, the enchantment of the illustrations…I couldn’t get enough of this little book…its Belle Epoque watercolors and rhyming verses like the bells of fairies. It took me to a place I never knew existed, a wondrous place. I was inspired, in the true sense of the word, filled with the spirit of literature.

Yet the feelings this story aroused were not simply of joy, but also, like all epiphanies, laced with longing. I traced my fingers over the delicate illustrations…the glowing cottage in the dark woods…the garden blooming with anthropomorphic flowers. I yearned to be there, a part of this loving family in their rapturous world.

The next book that hit me like a thunderbolt was E.B.White’s Charlotte’s Web. I was seven and longed with all my heart to be Fern…raising a baby pig, sitting silent in the barn privy to the conversations of animals…brave and tender Fern, who stood up to her father to save a helpless runt…reckless Fern, swinging out from the high loft of the barn on an old rope…circumspect Fern, who deeply listened before she spoke.

As an awkward ungainly preteen, the intelligence and independence of Nancy Drew seemed out of reach. Yet, I collected, read and re-read the dozens of blue cloth covered editions…her ordinary world so extraordinary to me, the wide tree lined streets, the stately homes with their generous porches, her stalwart convictions, her steadfast fight for justice while speeding around jauntily in her roadster without a blonde hair out of place.

I abandoned Nancy when I discovered Jane. Austen’s heroines were women I could imagine myself becoming…snubbing high society’s mores while strolling through formal English gardens…exposing hypocrisy while dancing in gilded ceilinged ballrooms.

The spiritual journey that books set me on is a never ending one..sometimes an Autobahn, sometimes a labyrinth, but mostly a twisting path that splits into many side roads…from Anna Karenina to Chekov, Turgenev, and my first true love, Dostoevsky…from a short story by Guy de Maupassant to Flaubert, Victor Hugo, and Proust. Today the books on my nightstand spill into stacks on the floor.

“So many books, so little time.” Frank Zappa

Although it is important to allow a child in a library or bookstore free reign to explore, it is also a good idea for the parent to be aware, just as he or she is aware of what foods are nutritious for the body, what books develop a child’s mind in healthy ways. Publishing for children is, after all, a business, one which is heavily researched and marketed to be delivered in bright shiny packaging designed to lure your child. So be aware, there are books that exploit rather than respect the child. The next time you take your child to pick out books, be involved in the process, find stories you loved as a child and point them out. Don’t forget to get a book for yourself, too. Your example, by way of the value you place on reading, is truly inspirational.

Of course, great children’s literature doesn’t have to be fiction, wonderful nonfiction books such as those by Gail Gibbons, Charlotte Zolotow, and Tana Hoban broaden the child’s knowledge of their immediate environment and answer many of the child’s unasked questions about how the world works.

Below is a link with a list of some outstanding children’s books:

http://www.readingrockets.org/article/75-authorsillustrators-everyone-shouldknow

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Books provide escape and comfort, but they also introduce the eternal questions, Why am I here?, ponder good vs. evil, and inspire us to wonder. My daughter, in her devotion to one of literature’s greatest female role models, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, would not take off her ruby slippers for weeks, even to go to bed.

Whether you find your inspiration in Candy Fairies or Candide, whether you are reading from a rare first edition or a Kindle, books will always be a journey of egalitarian enlightenment. Follow your heart. The world today needs inspiration.

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So please, oh please, we beg, we pray

Go throw your TV set away

And in its place you can install

A lovely bookshelf on the wall

Roald Dahl – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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What books have inspired you or your children? I’d love to hear from you.

Reduce Reuse Recycle Resist

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Treat the earth well

It was not given to you by your parents

It was loaned to you by your children

We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors

We borrow it from our children.

Ancient Indian Proverb

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Earth Day 2017 took on greater meaning than ever before. Since Trump took office his administration has systematically undermined and dismissed scientific facts such as global warming as liberal hysteria.

In a mere 100 days he and Congress have implemented unprecedented easing of environmental protections beginning with the Orwellian act of excising all mention of climate change from the White House website. This draconian editing process was followed by the appointment of the fossil fuel shill, Scott Pruitt, to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Pruitt, outspoken in his opposition to the very values that the agency upholds, has stated that “carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to climate change.”  He sued the EPA for supporting President Obama’s Clean Power Act – an important piece of legislation that for the first time set Federal limits on carbon pollution. Pruitt is a man who Trump praises highly, stating that his new head of the EPA “will reverse an out-of-control anti-energy agenda.”

Appointing Scott Pruitt to head the EPA is akin to placing someone who believes that the earth is the center of the universe to head NASA. We will not let the current GOP lead our nation down a perilous path with their “Roadmap to Repeal” (An actual document compiled by The Freedom Partners – a group of wealthy political donors organized by the Koch brothers).

Scientists are accustomed to thinking of things in terms of hundreds of thousands of years (or light years). But, as seen by the massive worldwide turn out for the Science March on Earth Day, the boundary between politics and science is now an illusion.

When Trump repeals environmental safeguards such as the Clean Water Act, which protected the fragile eco-system of our streams and rivers from becoming dumping grounds for toxic waste, and when agencies such as NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) are being treated dismissively as extraneous, scientists have been forced to become activists.

Trump’s careless tweets, his mendacity, his toying with the grave issues of global warming and nuclear war, reveal the vulnerability of our dreams for our children and the world they will inherit. Dreams that are worth fighting for – that have always been worth fighting for…a world that is cleaner, safer, more compassionate, with liberty and justice for all.

Gather your friends and family and lace up your boots. We have seen in the last 100 days that our voices are powerful. We are all connected, just as all waterways are connected as they flow to the sea. Hear the call to action. There is no time to lose.

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“What used to be a wish list of the oil, coal, and gas industries has become the to do list for Congress and the White House.”

Michael Brune – Executive Director-Sierra Club

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttwP02WXB0I

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The Vital Importance of Diversity

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“The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky

Are also on the faces of people going by.”

What a Wonderful World – Thiele & Weiss

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If we care about mankind and its future, if we care that the most powerful nation on earth has a leader who does not believe in science and who puts immediate gratification above concern for future generations, then it is time that we make a radical shift in how we view education within a global society. The mill of school grinds along, and we are glad that it does, but changes in how we teach at the fundamental level have now become critically important.

“Most of what we teach children today is going to be completely irrelevant to the job market in 2040 or 2050.”

Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens

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 We cannot survive, much less thrive, if we build walls and keep people out. It is through the permeable sharing of ideas and cultural nuances that we build on our own reservoirs of knowledge, compassion, and the ability to live in harmony.

No one would dispute that teaching our children to share is a good thing, one of the basic elements of social-emotional relationships. When we share, we learn. We show others our good intentions, and they show us theirs. Bridges are built and alliances are formed.

The concept of respecting one another begins at the earliest levels of education. Even preschoolers can understand that their blue marble of a world spins in a beautifully complex solar system. They can grasp the idea that there are lands across the seas where people speak differently and go about their day in different ways, yet share the same joys and sorrows that we do.

We cannot coexist in any kind of peace if we fear each other, and we cannot imagine anything better if we don’t begin to encourage critical thinking skills and the uses of imagination in our schools.

Children feel a close affinity with the creatures of air, sea, mountains, and forests that share the world with us. Have you, lately, looked at a picture book of animals as closely as they do? They have an innate curiosity and empathy that, rather than dismissing as ingenuous, we need to recognize for the wisdom that it holds.

The question “Why?” is asked primarily by children less than seven years old and the greatest philosophers and scientists of all time. Think about that.

Yet we proceed, beginning in elementary school, to encourage students not to ask,  but to answer questions- to memorize facts, figures, and formulas. It is no wonder, then, that the trajectory of education becomes a long distance race to get into a good college, secure a high paying job, and then, finally, get down to the business of living.

The way our competitive education system works is that children learn early on that it is better not to think outside of the box. That imaginative thinking, flights of fancy, and creativity, at best lowers their grade point average and at worse, gets them labeled “weird.”

We are, grade by grade, inadvertently teaching our children not to think more deeply than a test requires.

Worldwide-scholars, tech companies, scientists, educators, politicians, medical researchers, and thousands of others share knowledge; effectively creating networks of ideas that often lead to radical breakthroughs in their fields. When we think and feel and work together at the global level, we nurture compassion for the hungry, the suffering, the refugees of war, all those in need, because the faces and the voices of humanity become real to us. We cannot understand others without interacting with them, any more than we can understand what water is just from knowing its chemical formula. When we  foster bonds with different nations we all benefit. Our minds expand in many different ways as we share thoughts and our hearts grow in equal measure as we become more viscerally aware of others.

Without making a definitive change in both our education system and our budding nationalistic and isolationist politics we are in serious danger of losing our ability to engage innovatively and diplomatically. It is unwise, if not foolish, to be unaware that our entire planet is an eco-system, not only from the standpoint of biology, but on deeper levels of cognitive connectivity. We need clean air and water and we need to believe in and take responsibility for climate change, but we must also believe in mutual respect and tolerance despite different skin colors, religions, or ideologies. It is vital that we begin to teach, starting at the earliest levels of education, that we are the caretakers of our world, not its rulers.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/09/epa-scott-pruitt-carbon-dioxide-global-warming-climate-change

Resist

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“A machine that, when you touch the button, it makes the ocean clean for the whales and dolphins and even the sharks.”  Ava – Age 6

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Dr. Seuss – Zen Master

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“So please, when you step, step with care and great tact.

And Remember that Life’s a great balancing act.”

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!  –  Dr. Seuss

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Read across American month began this week with celebrations all over the world of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Dr. Seuss would be delightful to read even if his books were just pure fun. But, there is more than silliness under that tall striped hat.

In The Uses of Imagination, Bruno Bettelheim states that “The child intuitively comprehends that although fairy tales are unreal, they are not untrue.”

This is the nexus of the genius of Dr. Seuss – His ability to create whimsical characters with wild hair, gangly bodies, and furry feet that touch our heart with their humanity.

Dr. Seuss, born Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904), was an artist, an intellectual and a seeker of knowledge. His very first children’s book  And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (rejected twenty seven times by publishers) encourages using one’s imagination as a way to see the world in many different ways. He poses the question: What is reality?

But Mulberry Street didn’t sell well and his career as a children’s author seemed doomed when Life Magazine published an article in 1954 that exposed America’s children’s poor reading abilities. John Hersey (author of A Separate Peace) was quoted in the article as saying that children were illiterate because the primers in school were so boring and that authors like Dr. Seuss should be writing them.

Shortly after, Theo was approached by a major publishing house and asked to create a primer using 220 vocabulary words. The result , The Cat in the Hat, made him a household name. Fame brought lucrative offers by corporations eager to exploit his popularity. The ever unconventional Geisel turned down every proposal. Even when he was wooed with an unprecedented amount of money just to use a short unpublished verse on a Christmas billboard, Theo, showing unusual moral fortitude, refused, stating that he did not want to be associated with products for sale.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store

What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!

 

And what happened then? Well…in Whoville they say,

That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!

How The Grinch Stole Christmas – Dr. Seuss

Throughout his career as a children’s author, Dr. Seuss emphasized the importance of integrity, caring, tenderness, courage, and the interconnectivity of all creatures.

He held his head high and he threw out his chest

And he looked at the hunters as much as to say

“Shoot if you must but I won’t run away.”

I meant what I said and I said what I meant…

An elephant’s faithful One Hundred percent!

 Horton Hatches the Egg – Dr. Seuss

 

In The Sneetches he addresses the absurdity of prejudice, and in Oh! The Places You’ll Go! he gives us, in classic Seussesque style, both warning and encouragement:

You’ll come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly there darked.

But Dr. Seuss reaches a lofty zenith in his darkly beautiful and profoundly environmentally aware treatise The Lorax, who “speaks for the trees.” The author’s brilliance lies in his ability to show us a believable glimpse of a tree’s soul – albeit one with a small orange furry body and a ridiculously large yellow moustache.

Teach your children to be on the look out for them.

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“When I let go of what I am I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.” Tao Te Ching

 

“If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew. Just go right along

and you’ll start happening, too.” Dr. Seuss

 

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Books vs. Bullies

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Walk as though you’ve been given one brown eye and one blue

Body & Soul…Charles Wright

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Bullying is a complicated socio-psychological issue. Bullies have always been among us in one form or another, but with the advent of the internet and the unprecedented prevalence of teenage texting it has reached pandemic, twenty four hour a day, proportions. The heart breaking stories of teen suicides brought on by severe cyber bullying have shocked and wounded us all and served to create a keen cultural awareness of the seriousness of bullying. Many articles have been published on the subject, programs implemented in schools, and anti-bullying laws put in place. Yet, statistics show that these interventions have little effect on day to day bullying in the playgrounds and corridors of our schools.

If aggression is part of human nature, then so is empathy. Bullies are made, not born. Our society, as a whole, needs to take responsibility for having created a culture in which bullying exists in every middle and high school in the country. How do we reinforce the empathetic nature in our children and discourage the aggression in a milieu that justifies violence as entertainment, is fascinated by power, sees mean spiritedness as humor, and glorifies only a certain body type as attractive?

I believe that when home and preschool environments value, teach, and practice kindness a foundation that prevents bullying later in life can be built.

Normal behavior at the preschool level involves constant experimentation on how to get along with others. Although children have an innate desire to make friends they must learn how to do so. Anyone with a toddler knows that basic social skills, such as sharing or waiting for your turn do not come naturally or easily, yet, even very young children enjoy being around their peers and overflow with affection for others. Children learn by imitation, following the lead of parents, teachers, and older siblings. Modeling thoughtful words and actions is extremely important, but there is more-attention needs to be paid to raising a child with a strong sense of self worth. Bullies are able to hold power in an ambiance of hierarchy and fear. Feeling powerless themselves, they prey on those who they sense can be intimidated.

At the earliest stages of a child’s life, there should be a concerted effort to create an atmosphere of respect that values each and every living creature precisely for their unique qualities; an atmosphere that not only appreciates others but that also honors the self.

“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” Dr. Seuss, Happy Birthday to You!

Books can be extremely helpful in fostering a climate that encourages reflection and instills empathy. Who doesn’t suffer with the ugly duckling or feel angry at the mean swans? In both fairy and modern tales the most important quality, and one not lost on the child, is character. There is a great power in language, and reading to your child is a wonderful way to fill their hearts with caring. There is no need to focus only on books that specifically address bullying (and there are many fine ones for all ages). Books that address diversity such as David McKee’s Elmer the Elephant, champion courage, like Watty Piper’s classic, The Little Engine That Could, or promote individuality as in Kevin Henkes’ Chrysanthemum, help children understand that being little does not mean being incapable and being different does not mean being an outcast. Books of this nature are helpful in beginning conversations that allow the child to examine and express feelings difficult to articulate.

Unconscionably, studies show that children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be victims of chronic bullying directly related to their disability. (Marshal,Kendall, Banks, & Gover (Eds.) 2009). It is a short distance from being bullied to bullying one’s self: I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m gross, I’m worthless..words that become a endless reel in the victim’s mind, leading to anxiety, anorexia, depression and other unbalanced emotional states. When parents and teachers cultivate an awareness of others, and introduce an early exposure to people of all colors, ideas, cultures, and disabilities, they are planting the seeds of empathy. While it may be difficult to expose a very young child to this broad family of man, books can take us all over the world, through time and space, and into the thoughts and feelings of a vast diversity of people.

30% of all school age children are either bullies or bullied while 70% look the other way. More than half of all bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied. (Hawkins, Pepler, and Craig, 2001) The statistics speak for themselves. Bullying is a cultural phenomenon. There is tremendous strength in the 70%. Let’s raise our children to be courageous, to speak up for injustice. We may not be able to change the reality of bullying, but we can work, from the very beginning, to raise empathetic children, with a sense of individual pride and dignity who will use their 70% majority to speak up for what is right-beginning in the school corridors, and spreading from there out into the world.

Local Hero:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l91cgdFCkJ0