We’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

Have you ever seen the musical South Pacific? There is much to be learned from this World War II story.  In particular, Rodgers and Hammerstein included a song titled, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” which reminds us that fear and hate, especially of those who are different, is not something we do naturally.  These are things that are taught.

Whether we are cognizant of it or not, our words, our actions, our habits, our practices, our off-the-cuff comments teach our children.  They are what we learned from our own parents and, with the choice of free-will, we opted to include or exclude from the way we live and interact with others.  These things have influenced our religious and political beliefs, our morals and values, our feelings and thoughts, just as our own experiences have.

Understanding that we are products of our upbringings and experiences, as well as the potential influence we have on not only the lives of our children, but on generations to follow, it is time to stop and reassess what it is we are teaching.  Self-introspection is not easy.  It means facing and accepting that at times we may have been wrong.  When we speak in generalizations we are particularly vulnerable to error because we may be saying or doing something against those whom we never intended to offend, insult, critique, or oppose.

What a different world we would live in if we consciously taught tolerance and acceptance of differences, if we promoted inclusion,  if we spent more time exercising empathy and less time seeking to put down, isolate, and segregate.  What if we challenged ourselves and our children to sit with someone new at lunch and engage in conversation to discover that we are more alike than different.

Every one has a story.  Every one has a cross they bear that you know nothing about. We are all guilty of judging too quickly and projecting our own ideas and beliefs into situations without considering how unfair we are being.

Do you know why  she may seem to sit more often than stand? Do you know why the one over he is standing alone or quiet? Do you know why she is crying? Do you know why he was absent?  The scenarios of why are endless and the answers just as plentiful. Perhaps she is suffering from a pain or illness they never speak of as they quietly fight to overcome and endure, rather than complain.  Perhaps, he is grieving, worried, upset, or simply forgotten because no one took the time to make him feel included.  As for the one crying, it could be anything, pain, fear, grief, worry, loss, loneliness, etc.

We cannot assume to take on the burdens of the world as those are far too great, but we can lighten them by teaching kindness, offering help, inviting  and including, welcoming and understanding, discovering similarities rather than focusing on differences.

In a recent Facebook post I wrote, “we are all threads in life, but it is only when we are woven together that we create a beautiful tapestry.”

Don’t teach fear or hatred. Don’t teach our children to see the differences.  Teach them they are wonderful, but they are no better nor worse than anyone else.  Teach them to value their uniqueness and make it a gift to add beauty to another’s life.

What we choose to teach is critical. It holds the power to help, heal, and unite. A drop of kindness may go on forever. Yes, we’ve got to be carefully taught.

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Be Kind. Simple words, but can you live by them?

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There is not one of us that hasn’t been told at some point in our lives, “remember to be kind.”  It seems like such a simple thing to do.  Yet, kindness seems to have waned in modern times. Globally, terrorism seems to have permeated the hearts and souls of nations paralyzingly many with fear, others with indignation. Nationally, we are divided, torn apart by race, by civilians versus law enforcement, by gender, by political party affiliations, by sexual orientation. Amidst the volume of negativity, small voices rise up and periodically plead with the masses, be kind. Sadly, the small inroads in promoting positivity and fellowship are drowned out by deafening shouts of individuals who are determined to promote their agenda no matter who they may hurt or alienate in the process.

Kindness takes courage.  It means doing something alone and regardless of whether or not anyone else is willing to stand beside you.  It means kneeling down to help another up, defending those who are weaker, intervening to stop the bully even at the risk of the the bully’s wrath, forgiving those who would do you harm, and letting go of past hurts.  It takes understanding and overcoming your own fears to reach out to the rejected.  It takes strength to stand by what you believe in even if everyone around you disagrees, yet doing so without demeaning yourself with false accusations, engaging in name-calling, or assuming an air of superiority. You truly don’t stand taller when you step on another.  It costs nothing to be kind, but the rewards of kindness are priceless. Kindness has the potential to uplift your own spirits and that of another.

The dwindling of kindness isn’t because we don’t know how to be kind. It seems it is simply more expedient to throw the caustic comment, find reasons to criticize, and justify anger rather than seek forgiveness, admit wrong-doing, or seek to atone for our words or actions.  Passionate opinions take control.  Frustration in encountering those with a differing opinion shatters the ability to exercise restraint and self-control.  Words simply flow out without thought or consideration as to who may be collateral damage to the tirade.    We forget to be kind because expressing our thoughts and opinions is far more important in the heat of the moment.  In hindsight, pride doesn’t allow us to back down and admit, maybe our words shouldn’t have been so broadly applied.

Nowadays it appears that social media is the forerunner in promoting the unkind. While a handful will seek to remind friends and followers to be kind, it seems that more and more seemingly rationale and intelligent individuals will toss out comments, rant and rave, or post purported stories authored from less than reliable sources for a myriad of reasons. For some, it is with the hope of being noticed in their otherwise lonely and unfulfilled lives. They thrive on stirring up controversy. For others, it is the need to persuade. They cannot conceive that any opinions other than their own could be correct. They contend their opinions are the only ones that are supportable, founded, valid or rationale.  And still for others, they read or hear something and feel compelled to react.

Sadly, the majority of these posts concern the current presidential election as individuals choose up sides  If only they could exert as much fervor in promoting positive thoughts, kind words, encouragement, compassion, understanding, and happiness.  If only, they could be kind.

It is shocking the sources that people will reach out to, regurgitate and cling to as gospel truth.  They pick up the proverbial brush and paint a wide swath across the page accusing and judging.  People readily post words, comments and stories peppered with unfounded statements and claim them as fact.  These are words they would never have the courage to say to another’s face.  They forget to be kind.

Kindness begins with respect.  Respect for self. Respect for others.  It means allowing others their opinions even if you don’t agree with them.  It isn’t about shouting them down, belittling them, or engaging in name-calling.  It means stopping and asking yourself: “would I say these words to my best friend’s face if I knew that they had a different opinion than me or were supporting the ‘other candidate’?” It means understanding that the thoughts, beliefs and values of individuals must be considered first because even when the same candidate is being supported the reasons for lending support may be entirely different.

“All” is only three letters, but it is  a very big word.  It is one of the most misused and misapplied words in the English language.  It is rarely applicable, especially when it comes to politics or religion, race or countless other circumstances.  One can agree with core principles without agreeing with the totality of policies or practices.  The biggest mistake that people seem to make is to assume that “all” does, in fact, apply or that stereotypical descriptions are universal. When you think of the stereotypes, do your friends and family members truly fit each and every one of the generalized list? If not, then stop saying all and be kinder and more judicious in your choice of words.

There are so many ways to show kindness. Every time we interact with another human being, whether family, friends, or strangers we are afforded the opportunity to be kind.  It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Even a smile or a nod of the head acknowledging the other person may be sufficient to send a message that tells that stranger, acquaintance, co-worker,  or friend they have worth.

Think of the myriad of adages you have often heard,  the sum total of which send an inspiring message to be kind. “If you have nothing kind to say, say nothing at all”; “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”; “to have a friend, you must be a friend”; “think before you speak”; “the bell, once rung, can’t be unrung.”  There are so many more, but the gist is similar. They are constant reminders, overt and subtle, that we all have a choice in what we do, what we think and what we say.

We possess the option of being kind, or risking the consequences that arise from being unkind. Words are very powerful. They may hurt, divide,  destroy relationships, or even result in a loss of respect, admiration, or trust. Words also have the ability to heal, encourage, uplift, strengthen, and promote goodwill and happiness.

Before writing words, saying words, repeating words, or sharing words stop and ask yourself, am I being kind? Kindness is always preferable to being right. As Mark Twain so eloquently stated, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

 

 

 

Valuable Lessons

 

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Sometimes the most valuable lessons come to us at unexpected times and in the most  unexpected places.  They can be in the form of something we witness or something we hear.  They may come in the form of things we do or things we say.  We don’t always appreciate the value of the moment until we sit back and reflect upon our day.

Yesterday I learned valuable lessons.  It goes to show that you truly are never too old to learn.  I didn’t even realize that I was learning at the time, but the action I witnessed and words later said taught me something.

This past weekend I attended my very first Eagle Scout Court of Honor. It was for a young man who is the oldest of three sons and the first Eagle Scout from our troop.  In fact, he is one of the founding scouts.  On his heels there is another scout who will also soon be lauded with similar accolades marking his achievement. And, in the wings are a group of scouts waiting and working towards earning this rank.

On Sunday, the troop gathered for its weekly meeting.  Our first Eagle arrived for the meeting a little late; not unexpected after such a big night. As he entered the room, a thunderous round of spontaneous applause broke out among scouts, leaders and parents.  It wasn’t that they had failed to clap the night before.  Quite the contrary.  The night had been filled with applause for this young man, his family, leaders, speech givers, and celebrants.  The applause was in recognition of a young man who had reached a summit of success achieved by a very small percentage in scouting and who, in turn, recognized and acknolwedged that the pinnacle of his accomplishment was not the end of a journey, but the beginning.  For all he had accomplished, he understood and had stated, he had more to do, more to learn, and more to share.  He was an inspiration to many.

My first lesson came in that moment. Each of us has the potential for success.  We may even revel in and be lauded for our accomplishments, but we must never rest on our laurels.  Achievements open doors to opportunities.  They are chances to use what we have done to make a difference in the lives of others and they are reminders that there is more to be done.  Our successes are merely stepping stones.  They are not the culmination of all we can accomplish, but enable us to see that there is more we can strive for.  Individually we are all constantly works in progress.

The second lesson yesterday came a little later when I was speaking with that young man’s father.  He proudly beamed, as parents do, of how impressed he was by the confidence his son showed in the speech he gave and in the quotes he found.  The father’s next words summed up something about Scouting that I had never appreciated.  He said, “Scouting teaches young men to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.”

His words rang true.  It is something we all need to learn to do.  We need to find ways to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.  Writers are a prime example.  Many are introverts, content to sit behind the computer screen creating brilliant works, but far less comfortable in stepping into the public spotlight.

When I think back upon my own life, there are many times I can recall feeling awkward, uncomfortable and out of place  My tongue felt tied even as I was expected to speak.  I mentally rehearsed what I would say, but when the moment arrived, suddenly the words were forgotten.

Life is filled with uncomfortable situations.  As adults we are expected to handle them with aplomb.   It is so easy to forget that even as adults we get nervous anxious, and apprehensive. We must face the unknown, deal with people we’d rather avoid, confront our fears, and exude confidence even when internally we are quaking.

My son faces challenges every day.  With Auditory Processing Disorder, the words don’t always come smoothly.  It isn’t always easy to recall things and repeat them. He is quiet and reserved, yet when he let’s his guard down he allows the world to see that he has a quick, dry sense of humor and a brilliant smile.  He is funny and smart, creative, and talented.

So with those brilliant words said so eloquently by that father, I seized the moment to share with my son that just because I am grown doesn’t mean I don’t get nervous or dislike uncomfortable, novel situations.  I told him I get shy and I find it difficult to speak around strangers.  I don’t want to be judged as wanting and I fret over that first impression.  I reminded him, he isn’t alone. I also reminded him that he has a huge advantage.  Scouting was teaching him to deal with the situations so he could appear confident even if inside he didn’t feel confident. I reminded him that his leaders saw a great potential in him and so did I.  I reminded him to believe in himself and to trust in God because he was never alone.  He should cling to his faith and draw strength and courage from it.  After all, a scout is reverent.

Then it dawned on me, scouting is teaching me too.

 

Turning the Page to a New Chapter

Last night I went on a journey through time. I traveled back to the days of firsts. First word, first step, first drawings, first day of school, first soccer game, first gymnastics class, etc. In the back of my mind I could see the baby faces, the little girls, the awkward teenagers. Then I arrived at the present with reluctance and the question that every parent asks; where did the time go?

I casually glanced through the book titles lining the shelves and realized how much they had changed as well. Picture books morphed into classic novels and a myriad of titles in between.  Gone are the days of Brown, Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See and Hop on Pop. Toothless grins and tiny shoes have changed into shades of lipstick and fashionable pumps and sandals.  Before I realized it, my daughters had grown up and now they are away at college. One is already in her last year and ready to enter the workforce.

The most difficult task any parent faces is that moment when we must let go.  Internally we fight against the hands of time, especially in those final days following high school graduation up until the day we do the official “drop off.”  Suddenly, we find ourselves trying to seize every moment and immortalize it in photos and words in an attempt to hold on just a little longer. We endeavor to fool ourselves into believing that those memories will somehow freeze time in the same way they have frozen the moment.  It doesn’t work.  Like it or not, time marches on.  Our children grow up and if we have done our job right they are ready to face the world. They are independent and confident.  They are filled with a spirit of adventure, a will to succeed, a determination to make the most of their novel experience, a drive to discover and meet the challenges they will face head on.  In the same breath that we pray they are ready, we can’t help but hope they still need us.

I remember the first day I took my middle child to pre-school.  She confidently walked into the classroom, sat at a table and began to draw. I waited for her to remember I was there. I knelt down to ask her about her picture which she quickly explained without even lifting her head. Finally, and with great reluctance, I told her I needed to go. She looked up, gave me a kiss and said, “Okay, Mommy. Have a nice day.”  Several days later, the atrocities of 9/11 occurred and living in New York it brought an appreciation for life as we had never known it before.

It still seems surreal that just a few days ago, I stood on the sidewalk outside the apartment my girls are sharing and found myself once again saying those words. “I need to go.”  If I was reluctant before, this time I found myself forcing the words out, fighting to hold the tears back, and releasing the hugs unwillingly.

I can hear the advice of so many. “It’s just college.” “They’ll be home before you know it.” In theory that is all correct, however, there is more to it than simply sending them off to college.  That moment of farewell wasn’t just to my college-aged girls, it was to life as I have known it.  They will come home for visits and still refer to this as “home”, but there is the stark reality that they have grown up. They are making plans and building lives that don’t include me. They are making career choices. While they may ask my opinion and for my advice, the decisions they make are now their own. I am on the sidelines watching from the spectator stands. I can cheer, I can hope, but my coaching days are over. All that is left is for me to trust the lessons and values that I tried to instill will mature, grow, and blossom.  It isn’t only a matter of trusting that they learned those lessons, but trusting that I taught them well.  Did I forget anything? Was there something I could have said or done better?

It is daunting to ponder all the what if’s and to be out of arm’s reach, too far to keep them safe or tuck them in. All those things I took on my shoulders I must now allow them to do. I know this intellectually even if emotionally I am rebelling. Letting go simply isn’t easy. Then again, if I did my job right, it wasn’t meant to be easy. It wasn’t any easier for my parents to let go either. I have to keep reminding myself of that simple truth. They had to trust I would be okay to face the challenges life brings and now it is my turn.

The collections of books, dolls, trophies, and certificates all stand as a testament to who they are today and are capable of becoming tomorrow.  They are poignant reminders of learning, creativity, imagination, accomplishments, motivation, perseverance and success. Turning to accept our collective new beginning my eye caught hold of one last memory, a tiny scrap cut from a purple cast worn after a particularly nasty fractured ankle. I was told to never throw it away. Suddenly, it made sense.  That scrap symbolizes the greatest lesson for us all. When you get knocked down and slowed down, allow yourself time to heal, plan for the future, and triumph to face another day.

The longest journey does indeed begin with the first step. Through slightly watery eyes, I can smile now with confidence. Yes, I did my best and taught them well. They are strong, independent, confident, and motivated. They will handle the setbacks, they will reach their goals, they will embrace success, and one day down the road, they will say, “I need to go.” The cycle will begin again. image

 

 

Never Underestimate the Power of Thank You

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“Please” and “thank you” are words we are all familiar with and use frequently. Simple words, but even in their simplicity they possess the power to make an impact upon a situation or individuals. This past weekend, I was blessed to be reminded of the breadth and magnitude of that power.

Time was not in my favor. I had a lot going on and invariably discovered that the fish food had run low adding one more stop to my list. I needed to make a run to Petco. I chose to go to a smaller store than usual because it was closer and I as soon as I arrived I knew that the hand of fate had brought me here for a reason. Entering the store I passed a small SUV with a handicap placard hanging in the front window and stickers that said “Air Force Veteran” and “Korean War Veteran” in the back window. As I entered the store I passed an elderly gentleman leaning on his cart. His extremely thin build made him appear frail, but he was so focused on his purchases I didn’t want to interrupt, even as wondered if he was the veteran parked out front, or was it someone else in the store. I continued on to get what I needed and went to the cashier.

There he was, the same gentleman, and now I caught sight of the words on his baseball cap, “Korean War Veteran.” In that moment I knew it wasn’t happenstance I ended up in that store at that moment. He approached the cashier with a soft-spoken weak voice and asked to order something. The cashier, much to my disappointment, was impatient and called for someone else to come and assist the man. Then he rang up my purchases. Before I left the store, I turned to the man and thanked him for his service. He looked at me with confusion and surprise. How long had it been since someone had thanked him? I continued by sharing that my father is also a veteran of the Korean War. His face lit up. His eyes brightened and a wide grin appeared. He inquired as to my father’s unit and where he had served and shared that he had flown bombers out of Okinawa. I thanked him again before leaving happy to see that this seemingly frail man now stood taller and prouder.

As I settled back into my car, I was smiling too. That momentary exchange, those simple words, thank you, had made a difference for both of us. His smile said it all. If he had to do it again, he would without reservation and I admired not only his patriotism, but his courage. I cannot say I would possess the same courage as those who have or do serve in our military. I wondered if anyone, other than family, has ever said thank you to my father for his service? I pondered why those words, said so often under a myriad of circumstances, are not said nearly often enough. Do we really show our appreciation even when we do feel a sense of gratitude never comprehending that the small gesture can make a tremendous difference not only to the recipient, but to the giver.

If We Do Our Job Right

It is hard to believe that it is already March 2016. I find myself torn between wishing to place life on hold to make these days last longer and marveling at all that these days are bringing. This month marks the passage of several milestones in my family. My middle child will turn 18, she is performing in her final high school performance, when the month ends the last of the colleges will let her know their admission decisions, my oldest came home to visit for the first time in nearly a year as work kept her away, my youngest has begun to find who he is with more confidence and assurance.

In every respect I am blessed. Yet, these same blessings remind me how quickly time is flying by. Another bird will soon leave my nest. The house will be quieter. The day-to-day juggling of schedules will be simpler. I will stare at the pages of the calendar counting the days until my home is once again filled and my family is once again under one roof, if only for a short period of time.

As I revel in the joy of my children’s accomplishments and applaud their independence and success, I can’t help but wage an internal debate asking, “did I have to do such a good job?” Every parent yearns to raise a child who is confident, successful, motivated, independent, intelligent, kind, compassionate, generous, accomplished, selfless, encouraging, caring, loving, and spirited. I am eternally grateful that mine took to their wings and learned to fly, but in the same breath, I secretly hope they will still need me and always remember I am here. It is one more lesson in the life book of parenthood.

When our children are born, we are under the misguided notion that it is all about teaching them. The truth is we learn as much from our children as we are taught. We are reminded of long forgotten lessons our own parents tried to instill and we discover things we never appreciated before. There’s no manual. Every model is one-of-a-kind. Customer support and troubleshooting pages are figments of our imagination. When assembling you simply hope and pray that all the pieces will fit together knowing that our part in the process is limited and a significant part is about shaping ourselves.

We find that our capacity to love is endless. We learn what patience and forgiveness truly mean. We understand that what is valuable and priceless is not the objects in our life, but the people. A broken vase that was a family heirloom is worth far less than the broken heart of your child. You unearth an inner strength that rivals that of every superhero. You accept sacrifice readily if it means your child will be more content and secure. It doesn’t bother you to put less on your plate so your child doesn’t go to sleep hungry. You adapt to sleepless nights and learn to function in a tired mode. You silently cry tears of worry, tears of joy, tears of pain, for your child, with your child, and because of your child. The very instant that you discover you will be a parent, everything changes. You open your arms, embrace your child, nurture your child, protect your child, and then the moment comes that is the hardest of all. That moment you’ve been preparing for and for which no preparation can ever be enough. It is the moment we have to let go.

That single moment is the greatest test of every parent. It is a moment we anticipate with dread and with elation. A myriad of thoughts race through our minds. Are they ready? Am I ready? Can they fly? Will they fly? Do they know their way there and can they find their way home?

As night falls over the emptier nest, shrouding us in quiet darkness we are left with a choice. We can choose to see nothing or we can look up and see the stars. If we have done everything that is expected of us, to the best of our ability, those stars will always guide our child home; home to where the heart is, home to where we are waiting with open arms and a smile that says it all, “Welcome back, I love you.”

Heroes and Helmets

In the after-morning of the Super Bowl, when analysts and the general public review the plays, the game, the players, and the commercials, I have found a constant thought running through my mind. Helmets. As snow swirls and falls outside my window this cold Monday morning, I found these words pouring out on the page.

The loud blare filled the air, echoing for miles. It was time, the moment they’d anticipated. They’d trained and practiced in preparation. They’d prayed about it and committed themselves to its success, uniquely understanding its importance. Day in and day out they’d worked tirelessly to learn the true meaning of teamwork; honing, perfecting, and sharpening their skills.

Silently they donned their protective gear, then pulled on their uniforms, tying their laces, and gathering for some last minute words of encouragement and advice from their captain. They nodded to each other in understanding that each was dependent upon the other before strapping on their helmets to face their foe.

The sun had set, but the sky was illumined with the bright lights of mortar fire that pounded out in relentless bursts. There was no explosive applause or cheering crowds, just the bellowing yells of commands urging them to take cover,watch their backs, get down, move forward, and never yield.

These weren’t heroes racing out onto the football field with cheerleaders, mascots and millions of eyes watching their every move. Coaches weren’t calling the plays, refs weren’t deciding if the yards were met or tossing penalty flags. The media weren’t standing on the sidelines or in sky boxes reviewing, critiquing, or predicting.

These heroes were on their own, facing an opponent whose tactics and plays didn’t follow any rule book. Their objective was simple. Making sure every member of their team who stepped onto the battlefield stepped off. Their families weren’t sitting in the stadium seats, but anxiously waiting at home, praying, worrying, and helpless to know how the moments were playing out, the moments that weren’t measured by any clock. Still, they were a team and the coordination and synchronization of their movements were critical.

They hadn’t signed multi-million dollar contracts and companies weren’t lining up seeking their endorsements. Few of their names would ever be known, they’d certainly never be worn on the back of a jersey or paraded on a t-shirt declaring victory. These heroes signed something entirely different. They’d signed an Oath where they promised to defend and uphold the Constitution, to protect the citizens of this country, and do all in their power to ensure the perpetuation of freedom so on a Sunday night in early February two teams could gather on a football field, people could fill a stadium or gather in front of televisions and for a few hours lose themselves in the glory of sport without worrying.

As these heroes slip into their beds at the end of the day, weary and worn, too tired to remove their uniforms, still vigilant because they can’t afford to be less. In the days and months to come there won’t be trips to Disney World, ticker tape parades, or grand celebrations. When they return to their home towns it will be to a much quieter fanfare of open arms of loved ones grateful to have them return. And, maybe a so-called grateful nation will pass these veterans, these heroes who stood watch while we slept, and whisper the simple words, “thank you.”

Two different helmets. Two different heroes.