Thursday, October 17, 2002
Wednesday, October 16, 2002
The debates and resolution authorizing war in Iraq reminded me of an insight I had 15-20 years ago when the country was awash in its first awareness of something called "codependency." The concept of codependency arose from the alcohol and drug treatment field where it was discovered that the family members of drug- and alcohol-dependent clients/patients had a strong tendency to become co-dependent, dependent with or on the alcoholic or drug addict. The codependent's life became co-opted by pre-occupation with the chemical addict to the extent that the old joke was true, that when a codependent died someone else's life passed before her eyes.
Having worked in that field myself at the time, and being the daughter of an alcoholic father in a family where alcoholism extends back through both sides of the family as far as the eye can see, I was deeply affected by the literature of codependency and was very much aware of family members who truly could not answer the question, "How are you?", but would instead launch into an update on their addicted spouse, parent or child.
At one point codependency was said to affect 80-90% of all Americans of my generation, and I couldn't help but wonder why this would be so. Why was there such widespread family dysfunction in a generation only removed by a few generations from our pioneer and immigrant ancestors? Had the dysfunction been there all along? Had it come with our ancestors from Europe or elsewhere? Or was it homegrown here in America? No doubt some of our immigrant ancestors had brought their alcoholism with them from their former homelands, but how had drug dependency and codependency become so pervasive?
As I thought about it, I somehow made a connection between codependency and the state of a country at war. When a husband or son is fighting on a battlefield far from home, thoughts of them and prayers for them are never far away. Anxiety for their well-being is ever-present and motivates industry at home. The culture hones that focus on "the boys over there." Everything is done for them; all sacrifices are made in their name; all wishes and dreams center on their safe homecoming. The state of a country engaged in a foreign war is a school for codependency!
If the object of that intense focus, the husband or son at risk, is among those who return, they remain the center of attention. Many who waited anxiously for their return discover that the man who left has changed so much that he is unrecognizable as the same person. Physical and psychological handicaps abound. Many who return have become alcohol- and drug-dependent in their stint and remain so as they seek escape from the pain of their memories. They have difficulty finding meaning in everyday life; they can't seem to hold a steady job; they can't communicate what they are experiencing to their families.
This was certainly my family's experience following World War II, and many of the people I've talked with in my own generation have had the same experience. Could this be the way codependency and family dysfunction spread throughout our society? If so, it looks like we are in for a new wave of drug dependency and codependency long before we've cleaned up the mess created by former wars. The War on Terrorism expanding into a possible (probable?) war on Iraq means more families at risk now and in the future. When will it end? As the '60's protest song asks, "When will we ever learn?"
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Wednesday, October 09, 2002
We read a lot these days about how greedy and selfish the CEO's and other top executives of our largest corporations are and how their greed has led them to commit crimes that have undermined the economy, bankrupted their employees, and may lead them to spend years of their lives in jail. I don't dispute this analysis, but I think greed and selfishness are far more pervasive in the American psyche than we are inclined to admit
I have read that Americans make up 5% of the world's population, yet use 30% of the world's resources and generate 80% of the world's waste. I have no way of knowing if these statistics are accurate, but I certainly can vouch for the fact that most Americans shop for recreation even though they already have more stuff than they can enjoy and house and take care of. Why else do we have an abundance of rental storage facilities even though the houses and garages we are building get larger and larger? Why else are there columns of garage and yard sale ads in every newspaper? Why else are our landfills overflowing? Why else does consumer spending make up two-thirds of our nation's economy?
I'm no better than the rest. I'm composing this on a computer that I'm told has as much power as the huge computers the Department of Defense had to run World War II just 60 years ago. Why? Because I can. In fact, one of my fears about approaching retirement is that my income will no longer allow me to keep up with the latest in technology. I also keep buying books even though I have several bookcases full of volumes I haven't read or haven't finished reading and there is an excellent library available to me that has more books than I could read in a lifetime. Why? Because the book I don't own somehow looks more enticing to me than the books I do own. I have trouble admitting even to myself that I have enough, more than enough, too much.
When I'm buying more things I feel guilty because I'm using up more than my share of what is available for the more than six billion people on this planet. When I'm not buying things I feel guilty for not doing my share to buoy our American economy and show the terrorists they can't make us afraid of going out of our homes to shop. Have we built a society that relies on our continued greed and selfishness for its continued health and growth? Why? Because we can.
What are we really buying when we head to the mall? Well, we are buying fun and diversion from the work we do to pay the bills for all the things we have. We are buying a sense of meaning, the feeling that the things we do all week are "worth it" because now we have money to spend. We are buying a way to express our personality through what we wear, our hobbies, our cars. We are buying our way to a sense of belonging to a desired social group or class. We are buying to sate a hunger we don't understand and can't seem to get rid of for long. We are buying because we don't like what we already have. We are buying because we are lonely and feel unloved and unwanted for who we are. We are buying because we are bored and don't know what else to do with ourselves when we aren't working.
If we are going to build a better, more humane world, we need to reduce our greed and selfishness. That means all of us, not just the CEO's in the headlines. We need to invest our time, attention and presence in ourselves and one another instead of in shopping. We need to have fun with our children, our pets, our friends. We need to be doing meaningful work, not work whose only meaning lies in what it allows us to buy. We need to express our personality through our laughter, our caring, our strength, our love for one another. We need to spend time with our families and friends and a few chosen groups to get the feeling of belonging we crave. We need to avoid those ads and activities that stimulate a hunger for more and more things. We need to care for and appreciate the things we already have. We need to love ourselves just as we are and reach out to others with confidence that we are worthy of love. We need to learn more about ourselves so we can find our passion for life and never again be bored.
Fortunately there are resources available to help us. Check out The Simple Living Network and Gratefulness for a start on a new way of life. Go to the library and check out Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. Find a spiritual path to Full-fill-ment. And when you've found your own way to peace and contentment and having enough in life, share it with others, especially the children of the wealthy who will inherit the means to gobble up the earth if they don't find a better way to live. Remember the words of the old song, "We gotta love one another right now." In the end, only love for ourselves and others will reduce the greed and selfishness of our way of life.
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Wednesday, October 02, 2002
Few people would argue that our American way of life is satisfyingly well-balanced at any stage of life. I believe that our school system has a lot to do with that. In order to free up the maximum number of adults for productive employment outside the home and minimize the number of those adults employed to teach our children, we crowd 25-30 kids into a single room often with a single teacher. This is a prescription for chaos unless the children are required to sit still and keep quiet most of the school day. Then we wonder why our children and adults exercise too little, become obese and only want to passively watch TV when they're not working.
Again, I think educational excellence is essential to a democracy and is a mighty poor place to economize. So let's be idealistic for a moment and think about what our children really need in order to lead a satisfying, well-balanced life during their childhood that will set a healthy pattern for the rest of their lives.
First of all, we need to strike a better balance between active doing, passive receiving, and quiet reflection and absorption. That means kids need to have room to move, both indoors and out. At the primary school level (preschool through grade 3--see IDEA #7 below), nearly everything should be done with movement, mostly large muscle movement with gradually more fine, small muscle movement as the children mature. At the elementary school level (roughly grades 4-8), half of each school day should still be spent in motion (a mix of large and small movement, indoor and outdoor).
I wish I could remember the name and author of a tiny book someone once lent me about a small Japanese school started after World War II where the children spent the morning in the classroom and each afternoon walked as a group through the adjoining neighborhood, parks, and downtown with their teacher exploring everything they saw and heard in the world around them. I'll bet the graduates of that school still enjoy a more active, balanced, healthy lifestyle today. I'll also bet that teacher didn't have 25-30 kids to shepherd around town.
At the high school level (roughly grades 9-12), students should already be spending large amounts of their school day in workplaces as volunteers and apprentices. They need to be exposed first hand to a wide variety of career and service activities, both active and sedentary, indoors and outdoors. Only in this way can they begin to get a sense of where they fit into the world around them, what kinds of work interest them and use their special talents.
Secondly, our schools need to strike a better balance between receptive and expressive learning activities. The days are long gone when psychologists thought of children as being blank slates to be written on, or clay to be molded into whatever shape society finds useful. Today it is widely accepted that children come into this world with different personalities, paces, and perceptions. Those differences are only widened by their early relationships with caretakers in the isolation of our nuclear families.
By the time they get to school, most children have a lot to say about what they need and what they prefer. Parents are offering choices to their children: Do you want blueberries or strawberries on your waffle? Would you like to wear the yellow dress or the green jumper to school today? All that changes on the other side of many schools' doors. Children are expected to sit attentively and take in whatever the teacher/school board/textbook writers think they need to learn hour after hour, day after day. Correcting written work or listening to students read their essays aloud or having a consensus decision-making session on what project to undertake all take up too much of the teacher's limited time. Expressive subjects like art, music and dance are considered frills we can no longer afford in many schools.
Hence we end up with many youngsters who cannot adequately express themselves in a positive, constructive, creative way. This leads to incoherent frustration that comes out in graffiti, vandalism and violence. A democracy depends on the expressive skills of its citizens as well as its leaders. We need to take the time to allow our students real choices in the schoolrooms, real debate and decisionmaking about the things that are important to them in their daily lives.
Thirdly, our curriculum needs to strike a better balance between teaching children about the societies humans create (language, culture, history) and teaching them about the environment (universe, planet, ecosystems) that created and sustain us as human beings. These two facets of our knowledge and experience should be of equal importance. Knowing our essential nature and being thoroughly rooted in the web of life of which we are a part gives us a sense of belonging, of being a part of something greater than we are as individuals and as a single society among many. As the saying goes, We can only give our children roots and wings. Being grounded in nature is every bit as important as learning how to soar with the societies we imagine and create. Things that are of equal importance need to be given equal time and resources throughout our school years.
Finally, we need to strike a better balance between the abstract and the experiential. There is currently too much emphasis (time spent) on theories (stories) of history and on literature and too little time spent on researching the lives of everyday people in our communities and reading the biographies of the people who have shaped our culture. We need to teach our children how to make mindful choices, evaluate the conseqences of their actions, and share their experiences with one another. We need to help them see how the times in which a person is born, the large-scale events that shape history (technology, recessions, wars) interact with the unique personality of each person and can bring out the best or the worst in them. We need to help them learn from the precious, dearly-bought experience of their elders, their fellows and themselves.
Our goal in education, as in life, should be to find a daily balance that supports our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves. We need whole people, well-balanced and -centered, to be the productive participants in our democracy and economy. The daily lives of students as well as workers need to be reasonable, sustainable and satisfying. Only then will we have a society with a balanced, healthy lifestyle for every member.
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