Archive for the 'kids' Category

Punishment does not undo damage

January 20, 2014

Maybe I should have written a reply to a reply one of my NYTimes comments received.

Richard Luettgen wrote about “dreadful consequences” that “cannot simply be expunged.”  I was talking about limiting punishment, especially of juveniles, and not having an adjudication dog them for the rest of their lives with negative consequences — limit the punishment to the actual terms of the sentence.

I don’t think any incarceration expunges the consequences of criminal behavior.  The movie is not run backwards, and then replayed with different action, on account of a participant’s punishment.    The impacts are still there.  But that — how to address the negative impacts — I think is a separate issue.  If we incarcerate people until dreadful consequences have been expunged, I don’t see on what basis anyone would ever be let out.

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Holding back

December 16, 2011

I started thinking about this issue, and at about the point at which I got to wondering whether love includes the desire to protect the loved one, I decided maybe I should reason this out in less fleeting words.

The “holding back” I was thinking about has to do with celibacy and one of its contrasting states, having a family.  Because my impression is that to perceive the highest forces of the universe through our spiritual apparatus (instead of, say, through measuring them with technology and describing them in equations) without distortions and damage, we have to have a very polished piece of apparatus, one with nothing on which these forces can catch and snag, and part of that has to do with not holding back, with complete willingness and surrender.  To put it another way, holding back is kind of like drag on an aircraft; it’ll bring it down under circumstances in which it would otherwise stay aloft.

I don’t want to say that children and spouses can be a drag (how loaded is that?), but I will say that our love and energy for them is love and energy not being applied to higher spiritual relationships — it’s being addressed to them (the kids and spouse), I don’t want to say “diverted,” but it simply is not going vertically upwards.  Loving children and spouses is a good thing but like the saying “You can’t have your cake and eat it to,” if we love our family members and they absorb our love, we don’t have it for other relationships, including with the divine at the highest levels.  I don’t doubt loving one’s family is compatible with a spiritual life of some sorts, and it may even help people find their capacity for loving and help them keep their hearts open and in these ways help them make progress on their spiritual journey, but at some point, I think we need all hands on deck, all the love we are capable of receiving from God to be gifted back to God if we want to experience God at that level.  I think that’s just the “physics” of the situation, and I could be wrong, but that’s my sense of it.

I think going into an advanced spiritual journey with caveats such as, “as long as it doesn’t harm my children,” is very understandable, even endearing and laudable by some measures, but I also think it is dangerous.  It leads to not looking at God head on, but rather with a glancing, indirect gaze.  If we look at God head on, like looking into mirrors on opposite walls in a room, we are drawn into an infinite regress, and if our egos (monkey minds, desires and fears) are out of the way, this is a very positive experience, perhaps the ultimate positive experience.  But if there’s stuff in the way, like an imperfection in a some kind of glass, I think it/we will shatter from the influx of what is being poured in.

So, I got to thinking about what it is about love for our family members that may be getting in the way.  Because I don’t think love per se is the issue, I don’t think love per se does get in the way.  I suspect we tend to include an element of protectionism in love for our near and dear.  I don’t want to be circular in my thinking, and I do realize I started with, “I want to enter into an advanced spiritual relationship but just don’t let it harm my kids.”  But I know that for me as a parent, there is a strand of my love for my kids that is about protecting them.  It’s most appropriate when they are babies and, at the other extreme, can cross the line into being a helicopter parent or an enabler in a dysfunctional relationship under some circumstances.  But I think it’s difficult to have kids, even grown kids, and not feel some kind of desire to help them be safe and happy.

Now, here’s where I think the crux of the issue is: having the thought without turning it into a desire.  That requires some kind of compassionate detachment (and probably other techniques to rearrange the thoughts and emotions, like bundles on a donkey or items in a suitcase, so that the load is carried differently), and what that looks like probably varies with the age of the child, and will be less or more compatible with having spiritual energy for other relationships.  I suspect it’s why celibacy can be helpful, or even just prescribed, for fostering a spiritual life.  So, I think that the ability to love one’s children may be wonderful, it may lead to an ability to love other people’s children and even all people, but that loving relationship with specific family members itself may be an impediment to being able to have spiritual progress after a certain point.

That’s where I think the way human beings can link to one another comes in handy (this idea is somewhere in Plato’s dialogues).  This way, someone can have that intense and monogamous relationship with the divine and also find a compatible way to relate to the person who is the next link in the chain, and so on down the line until everybody is joined, regardless of how many degrees of separation, or whatever we call distance from the source.  The more people who have that primary, monogamous relationship to the divine, the better, but I think that in theory, all it need take is one.

Protesting and the next person

November 11, 2011

The Penn State scandal and the failure to protect subsequent boys by pursuing earlier cases sufficiently reminds me of a situation I encountered about five years ago.  I didn’t realize at the time what I was up against, which was probably a good thing.  I pursued investigating the system’s (lack of) compliance with its own rules, and redressing the particular shortcoming in its provision of services that had come to light.  I did finally get someone to pay attention, a couple of vice presidents in the administrative structure I think responded to my written complaint, although the remedial actions consisted of a long and drawn out process which ended up meaning that by the time the remediation of the underlying problem was agreed to, there was no time to implement it — the calendar said time was up.  But besides feeling that I had done all that I could, I did also feel that what I had done also meant that the next folks who came along would start off in a slightly better position, because one result of the investigation was that the institution was now going to follow the already existing requirement that they present a written treatment plan to families at intake.  Of course, I also know from experience that the existence of the document does not assure that it is followed, but at least it’s better than having no document at all.  Small incremental steps.

Bursting bubbles and breaking hearts

October 13, 2011

I’m writing about broken hearts and Blondie comes on the radio singing about hearts of glass — I’m encouraged that there is something here to “surf,” some artifact to dig out or even splinter to remove.

Michele Bachmann spoke the other night of having broken hearts for disadvantaged kids.  Henri Nouwen spoke, and wrote, a lot about brokenness, and I would connect broken hearts and brokenness to things falling and breaking.  I suspect it works best when we fall, our hearts break open, and that flower inside opens like one of those blossoming teas my friend Kathy used to brew — when that inner strand, that core we each possess, becomes more accessible to our conscious mind.  I suspect that falls for some people may actually consist of separate incidents over time that eventually, like the straw that breaks the camel’s back, breaks open the heart.

We learn that broken hearts can be healed, even broken souls, but in the meantime we learn compassion for others that is more easily applicable to others and their situations than a piecemeal approach of trying to assess situations according to a cipher.

When our hearts break, all that stuff we’ve accumulated for years spills out, and like our financial bubbles bursting, the clean-up can be lengthy and painful.

Here’s where I think some people get stuck:  that inner core that we gain access to from a fall is like a parachute.  What happens when someone jumps, the parachute seems to them not to open, and they are damaged in the landing?  They may not want to jump again, try jumping again.  First of all, because they are concerned the parachute is defective, but also now just out of understandable desire to avoid pain again.

One solution could be borrowing somebody else’s parachute, so to speak.  But here’s where a new issue arises: you still gotta take the fall, that part can’t be borrowed, I don’t think.  But when people are able to relate to each other in the way that would allow them to do this parachute-borrowing thing, there is a huge temptation to borrow the parachute without taking the fall, and the result is kind of like Phaeton — the borrower is in the position to drive but without an important component that is necessary for the drive to be accomplished safely.

I would characterize that component as that extreme willingness that we sometime call surrender.  I have learned from difficult experience not to lend under these circumstances, even under the influence of romantic love.

Why is it so difficult for the person borrowing to surrender?  My guess is that’s it’s a little like that line “Did she put on his knowledge with his power?” from “Leda and the Swan” — the borrower can see where this is going and balks.  I know I would not have had the courage to proceed had I known where my willingness would lead me — which is not to say I regret the entirety of the experience, but I doubt I could have undertaken it had I known then what it would entail.  But I had the gift of not knowing.  I also suspect the borrower doesn’t realize that the surrender is actually necessary.

I’m not sure what to tell someone who has to make the decision whether or not to take the fall with more information than I had.  I am wondering whether with enough willingness the heartbreak part will be accomplished in some other, some newly unexpected way.

Hearts and codes

October 5, 2011

When my kids were in elementary school, I remember hearing on the school playground another mother admonish one of her sons to be kind to his brother, and follow it up with the “reminder” that since he was his brother, he needed to be especially kind to him.

I don’t think I had ever heard this notion before, it certainly wasn’t one I had heard growing up.  I had heard to be kind, period.  It wasn’t about family, or even friends.  Maybe the grown-ups in my life then took it for granted that I would understand the limitation to family, but I didn’t.

Having an open heart is not just about being kind to members of what one considers one’s own family.  Nor is it antithetical to following codes, applying moral principles, preaching religious precepts.  To my way of thinking, it’s the reliable lubricant to social relations that work; in contrast, techniques such as superficial politeness and manipulation eventually, if not sooner, exhaust their ability to keep things going.

Kids and parents

September 25, 2011

As I wrote in my comment to Tom Friedman’s column about wanting leadership in today’s Times, Jonas told me on Friday, in passing, how this kid and that kid and the other kid had told him while they were playmates in elementary school that their parents had told them they couldn’t be friends with him.  The full sentence was, “He told me his parents said he couldn’t be friends with me because I’m black.”  Jonas then went on to say how he didn’t think the kid himself came into this world thinking that way, how he thought it was taught to them by their parents, and on this subject Jonas displays no bitterness or anger (on other subjects I can detect some).  Maybe I need to note that there wasn’t anything in Jonas’s behavior that would have made him an unsuitable playmate at the time, and in fact other parents often volunteered to me how polite and well-behaved he was.

My surprise wasn’t that there was this bias, because that became apparent to me when Jonas got to middle school (for example, when his friends refused to walk with him to school the first day they attended middle school; by high school he reported that only the “druggies” were accepting of him), but that it started so early, that it came from “good” families who purported to have other values, and that it occurred in a town that displays banners about its inclusiveness; and that the parents would agree to play dates but tell their kid he couldn’t be friends with him.

And it’s not that I think my naivete is particularly instructive to anyone, but I put this experience out there to make the point that our society accepts a lot of pretext, pretending, hypocrisy, denial, two-tiered thinking, whatever we want to call it: we don’t do what we say and say what we do, and in fact, I have heard this praised as a form of sophistication.

I raise the issue now in part because it happened to come across my radar the other day and in part because maybe that’s the elephant in the room in Washington that is driving the destruction of our country, and we are all going to sit by and be too polite to even discuss the possibility.   Maybe it’s not about politics and re-elections and differences in philosophy but about racial bias.  How will we ever know?

Modeling behavior

September 20, 2011

President Obama gets criticized for compromising with Republicans on the basis that it pegs him as an easy mark and leaves him in a worse bargaining position for the next negotiation.  My context is much more mundane but I’m wondering whether there’s a common theme: offering my kid a ride home from the T (the subway — he’d normally take a bus from a different T station) since we’re going somewhere between here and there together in the car afterwards anyway.  To me it is being efficient, reasonable, courteous, considerate, etc., but part of me wonders whether this is going to set a precedent and I’ll be getting requests for pick-ups from Alewife Station in the future for no particular reason other than, “Mom, my backpack is heavy,” “Mom, it’s raining,” “Mom, I fell asleep on the train and ended up at the last stop” (my older son did this years ago when he was in high school and went to a dance near where his girlfriend lived, only he managed to end up at the other end of the line, down on the South Shore at 1 o’clock in the morning and with no obvious way to get home, since I think the trains had stopped running; and no, I didn’t pick him up, I forget how he got himself home; my younger son, at a similar age, once missed a last commuter rail home after visiting a friend, but figured out a way home without calling me first).  I do realize I can always say no to these potential future requests, but that takes energy, sometimes a lot of it.

There’s some fine line, maybe, between taking into account the likely reception from a particular audience and getting into their stuff too much and getting ahead of oneself.  The issue of why a likely reception may be not what one would hope interests me.  Why do some people say, in effect, “I really liked being on the receiving end of that, I’ll do that unto others too,” and other people say, by way of their ensuing behavior, “That’s a person who will do things for me”?  To some extent I have learned to calibrate for likely reception, to some extent I don’t do it — whether due to ignorance on my part, my ineptitude, or a refusal by me to behave in a way I can’t justify on other grounds.  In some ways the refusal part really is for me a way I “take care of myself” — I give myself fewer behaviors to unlearn later that impede my openness.  People have suggested to me that I cultivate an ability to do the behaviorally manipulative thing that takes into account the likely reception, at one level, while not losing the openness at another level, but quite frankly I don’t know how to do that — in me it doesn’t seem to work that way, but it’s quite possible I’m missing something obvious.  Maybe it’s that I really don’t know how to put up and take down boundaries over the variables of time and context, so I kind of end up getting stuck on “open” since that’s something I do need for myself for other reasons.  But I have come to realize, at least, that if I’m going to be so open, I have to also have a way of dealing with the consequences.

Personal style

September 9, 2011

I suspect this is a pretty universal parenting thing, but it may be amplified by other factors, I think: our kids may go through life with very different personal styles from those that we who raise them use.

This bit of dissonance I am being forced to face as my younger son goes back to attending college and trying to manage all the administrative stuff that comes at the beginning of the new year.  (And it’s in addition to the “I’ve got it all under control, Mom” that I have trouble believing after weary past experience from the fallout when these claims — from either son — have proved not to be true.)   But I cheer myself with two recollections.  One is that of Ted, who used to, at least back before the advent of all that airport security, say that he would prefer to miss his plane than arrive more than ten minutes before his flight.  Maybe that’s a cultural thing (Ted’s Canadian), I don’t know, but I found it fascinating, and Elizabeth seemed to confirm that these weren’t just words, that Ted actually missed planes implementing this strategy.

The second involves my older son.  We were in Washington because I was giving a paper, and for some reason that I can’t remember, we all (this was before Jordan was born and after Joice was no longer living with us) went, and Willy and Jonas went to museums and monuments and the zoo and such while I attended a conference for two days.  Jonas was a pre-schooler at the time.  And at breakfast one morning he was hoping for waffles and they weren’t on the menu in the hotel restaurant.  I can’t remember how the conversation went, but he charmed the waiter into having the kitchen make them for him anyway, and Willy and I looked at each other and said, “I never could have done that.”

So, I try to remember what a former Buddhist monk I went to law school with used to tell me, that we all need to find the personal style that works for us.  I guess maybe my gripe with my kids is around whether their personal style is actually working for them, but I suspect they and I have different criteria for what constitutes “working for them.”

A point of reference

September 3, 2011

When my younger son was in nursery school, I remember dropping him off there one morning (my husband was out of town on business) and getting into a conversation with him and a teacher I didn’t otherwise see (she was the drop-off teacher, not his regular teacher).  He was coloring, and something came up in which he referred to the color purple as blue, or to the color blue as purple.  So, the teacher and I embarked on an effort to help him distinguish between them and to keep them straight (blue like Grover, purple like Barney, that kind of thing).  The teacher and I were both puzzled — we knew he was “smarter” than mixing up the colors this way, but the issue persisted without resolution.

Well, six months later, what do you know, at his annual check-up with his pediatrician, Dr. Nau tested him for color blindness.  Bingo.  (He doesn’t see the red in the purple, so the two colors, purple and blue, look indistinguishable unless there are other cues present he can use.) Boy, did I feel sheepish, and beyond sheepish.  The teacher and I apologized to him.

I remind myself of this experience, of having tried, under the assumption that they could, to get someone to do something they didn’t have the hardware to do, when I encounter a person whose behavior baffles me — I entertain the notion that maybe they can’t, as in, can’t do better.  Some issues are less obvious than color recognition and rods and cones and all that.  But these issues still may involve physiological underpinnings, and even when they don’t, there may actually still be a reason that I can’t see that would explain why they persist in behavior that makes no sense to me.  It helps me feel more compassion, seeing people as having limitations, and then I find myself less frustrated with their behavior (for one thing, it’s a lot easier for me not to take it personally).

New frames for an old experiences

August 30, 2011

This is a not so much an expansion on my comment to David Brooks’s column in the NYTimes as it is a further reflection on my reaction to the column.

Because it was very nice to read something positive about the characterization of “haimish” all these years later after being so characterized by my grandmother-in-law, and she did not seem to mean it as a compliment.  (On the other hand, she called my husband “Evan-David-Michael-Billy,” running through all her other grandsons’ names, even Willy’s younger brother, before she got to the earlier incarnation of his name, so it wasn’t clear how to take any of this anyway.)

But I think it was reading about a 12-year-old boy going on “spontaneous mock hunts” with his dad that got to me.  It got me thinking about how vulnerable boys are at that age, at least how mine were.  Jordan was 11 when Willy died, Jonas was going into 10th grade, and, to put it all too clinically, watching them struggle with their emotions without having the cognitive development to handle them well gave me new appreciation for figures in religions whose hearts break over their children’s suffering.

Reading this in a David Brooks column also reminded me of what I went through to see to it that my sons stayed in school and got their high school diplomas nonetheless (David Brooks’s book The Social Animal is said to have received its impetus from trying to figure out why so many kids don’t graduate from high school); but I gotta say, it may have been a worthy goal and preferable to the alternative, to obtain those high school diplomas, but it certainly didn’t stanch the cascade of losses.