I’ve heard many authors at signing events respond to someone’s gushing praise of their work with a rote rendition of, “You are very kind.” The use of the word kind, in this context, devalues it. We are not being kind when we show someone how much they are appreciated, we are being grateful. I wish we could see acts of kindness more often. It is not something that is regularly practised, yet when we see someone helping another who has stumbled we recognize a kind heart. I believe in kindness as a form of love. If more readily applied in our behaviour it can improve life on earth.
In University I studied Life Sciences, particularly wildlife biology. I became familiar with the work of Carl Linnaeus, a scientist who developed a system of classification of living things based on precise particulars of biological design. I had fun sorting specimens into well defined categories by kind, using observable physical characteristics. These days it is much easier and more conclusive to use DNA to sort living things. Consequently we have discovered that some species are closer kin than we could ever have imagined.
Some people say they have a kindred spirit, someone so close to their kind of thinking/feeling that they form a bond. The fictional character Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, talked a lot about this kind of friendship. While she gathered kindling for the wood stove she had thoughts of becoming less isolated as an orphan and more kin to the kindhearted community that would become her home. Author Lucy Maude Montgomery writes beautifully of a time where manners and kindness abound yet her stories are not all sweetness. She doesn’t shy away from issues found in a closed society. For example, she exposes Avonlea villagers who could be quick to tell outsiders to “Go home to your own kind!” Since the first printing of Ms. Montgomery’s widely popular stories, there has been numerous interpretations. The latest in Canada is ‘Anne with an E’. This television series is so charmingly sweet it could kill you with its kindness.
Babies, like birds, quickly show they prefer to flock together. Kiley Hamelin has done research work at the University of British Columbia showing that even young babies can sort puppet identifiers according to whether they are helpful or not. They can determine the kindness in others at a very early age, suggesting that figuring out who is kind among us may be a matter of survival and integral to forming bonds of friendship and family.
In British Columbia, Canada, residents have been lucky to have a Provincial Health Officer named Dr. Bonnie Henry. She is held in high regard for the work she is doing to control the spread of the COVID19 virus. At news briefings she is not afraid to show her humanity, often crying over grim news,. Her advisories and updates on the pandemic usually end with a familiar mantra, “Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe.” Indeed: Kindness comes first.
For part of my childhood I lived with my parents and sister in a small two bedroom apartment. I spent a lot of time outside. In winter I would pretend to be Ernest Shackleton trekking across the vastness of Antarctica. In summer I would kill ants in the community rock garden or hang out at the large sandbox nearby.
With just two Dinky cars and a few plastic army men, I could occupy myself for hours sitting in that pile of sand. There were often several children playing in this simple rectangular structure. As I remember the apartment’s sandbox had four partially buried perimeter walls made of 2X10 lumber. Each corner was topped with a small triangle of plywood providing support for the structure and handy as a seat. To have a corner spot was a coveted position in what I came to learn as the hierarchy of the sandbox.
First child to arrive could claim a corner seat. If a parent came with their child, the adult got a seat. The centre of the sandbox usually had a small hill that kids who liked to play together occupied. If a parent was present things were quiet and order existed. I clearly recall being banished from the sandbox one day because I loudly said that a new kid had ‘big ears’ before realizing her mother was sitting nearby.
Without an adult, any group larger than two children required negotiations. Lines were drawn in the sand. What was learned in the sandbox never just stayed in the sandbox because the lessons remained with you for a lifetime. Allies were made. Bullies had to be dealt with. I learned kindness when someone uncovered one of my favourite Tonka trucks which I thought I had lost forever. I learned to share space with complete strangers. When no one was around I learned how to enjoy my own company.
When I bought my first house and was expecting my second child, I built a sandbox in anticipation. I chose a square shape to suggest the closeness I wished for my children. My wife insisted that I make a cover for it so that the neighbour’s cat wouldn’t think it was for his use only. I made the corner triangles a bit larger than I remembered to better accommodate my larger size. I loaded beach sand, which I raided from a nearby lake, into the back of my Chevy Blazer, making several trips before I was satisfied I had enough for my boys’ sandbox.
I became the father of three boys who, like their dad, learned how to take care of their toys, look after each other, use their imagination and value time alone. Eventually they helped me add to their backyard play area by constructing a ramshackle collection of wood bits, bicycle parts and lengths of rope they called ‘The Climbing Thing’. Jumping off the top of the structure into the soft security of the sandbox became their funnest activity.
A former girlfriend of mine, after several months of cohabitation, recognized that she had been in love with the idea of me, not the real, flawed person who stood before her. That act of recognizing the truth set us both free to move on from a relationship that had become difficult. It can take a hard look in the mirror to re-establish what we know about ourselves. Sometimes we count on another to reveal what we fail to see.
Knowing myself is very important to me. Self-Cognition and Re-Cognition have been ways I have checked in on myself since my adolescent years. I was a geeky introvert in my teens, often taking myself off to ponder things by a nearby creek. That shifting body of water gave me sound solace when things were puzzling me. I could dramatize further and say I gazed into those waters looking for the reflection of the real me and that might be a step too far, even though I did watch a lot of television drama in those days. That creek was a sanctuary where time, and space alone, allowed me to keep track.
When I have let my emotions take over me and my temper gets lost, I do not like who I am. In those heated situations someone might say to me, in words or facial expression, “Who are you?” At those times I feel wretched, less than, and very contrite. It takes time to rebuild the person I thought I was after such a loss of self. For me, even a few moments of self-reflection can make the restorative difference. Sometimes I have sought out others to verify that I have not changed, just experienced a speed bump of growth. The benefit others can bring to the situation may be no more than an assurance that everything will be okay. That sounds so wonderful to hear.
These others we turn to, may be those through whom we recognize ourselves. These people aren’t necessarily our family. They have traits that remind us of who we’d like to be and we adopt them, in a way, because then we can associate with a collective of similar thoughts and attitudes. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together. They become our clan or tribe. They become as familiar as family portraits in our hallways. They provide a picture that is not unlike a mirror, revealing the truth as well as triggering memories that ground us.
Sometimes I have been so lost that finding myself has taken a military style reconnaissance. Regular re-con missions are easier, keeping me abreast of changes and quickly calling me to account. The best thing I can bring to any relationship is the gift of me. Personal knowledge is powerful because it brings clarity and a map into the following day. I can rely on others for guidance, yet most of the time I navigate the various challenges of life whilst on my own recognizance.
Knowing I am bound by myself means I must respond when summoned.
There is great satisfaction in figuring something out and then taking the time and energy to make it all work. Artists rehearse and rehearse. Editing has a purpose: to try to remove doubt, to seek assurance that the work will be the best it can be.
I think of the word assurance in a forward way. By planning ahead I feel I can cover whatever eventualities might occur and then “come hell or high water” I have some assurance that my plan will reach a preferred outcome. I’m not one for leaving things to chance. I don’t want to gamble my life with a ‘wait and see’ attitude.
Assurance is different from insurance in my mind. Insurance is a bet you make that something is going to go wrong and then you will be compensated. I don’t want compensation. I want confirmation that I have taken steps to reduce the inevitable risks of life. Shit will happen. Assurance is what I provide for myself by checking. I look to see if I am on the right track. I refer to my self designed map to assuage doubt.
I can be slothful, but only after my plans have been made. My plans often come in the form of forecast. I like to see the future as I would like it to be, then take the steps to arrive there. It’s logical to me. Sometimes I will plan down to the smallest detail, laying out various scenarios in my head. The downside of this is that I will often be disappointed.
Being a planner has its benefits and its baggage. When you wish to be in control you must commit time to planning. Truth is, I am not a ‘random’ person. That philosophy appeals to me on a Zen level; live for today and all that. But randomness is too close to chaos for my liking. My planning is my security blanket that I wrap around me when chaos reigns. I feel I have developed a set of strategies for when I have to surrender control. I’m getting better at going with the flow when others are making the decisions yet my patience is still tested until I have some assurance of the outcome.
Some have said that plans are for fools because there is always the unknown eventuality. Robbie Burns in his Ode to a Mouse captured this in the oft repeated line; “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men”. By seeking assurance I am not so naive as to believe that I can eliminate all random acts. I know that you can’t plan for everything. There are some things that we just can’t imagine might happen, these are the unpredictables or the “unknown unknowns” as Dick Cheney once said. He also spoke of known unknowns, which I believe, with planning, you can ameliorate to some extent.
I want adventure in my life. I want to explore even the deepest forest. Assurance to me is about feeling confident that, even if I do get lost, I can find my way back home.
I think that education (formal or otherwise) has a primary purpose: To help us discover our Place in the world. This is vital to the creation of a fulfilling life.
There are examples in history where this idea of finding one’s Place can be manipulated by leaders of companies or governments who need classes of people in order to bring about their own vision. Japan once went to extremes by using training regimes with children in order to build a warrior class. Every country has educational training methods that indoctrinate individuals with the intention of building valuable citizens. Companies often require employees to loyally take certain tests so they can be placed in a productive position within the corporation. I personally find these methods of manufactured placement rather creepy. For example the hand placed over the heart while standing for the U.S. national anthem symbolizes loyalty to a national vision while reminding me of the raised hand of Hitler’s Nazi salute.
Finding our own place in society is an extension of familial roles. For example, we can start out being a son or aunt; a rigid place holder dictated by birth. Geography can be a factor in your place view almost by definition and time/space also has an impact. For example, at some points in my life I have identified with another time period, figuring I might have enjoyed a place beside Charles Darwin on the Beagle. Whenever I travel in the present, the time zone can make me lose my place as much as the country’s subway map or its language.
My place in my family was structured by my mother. My functions were clearly defined under the headings: son, brother, student, society member. She had role expectations. I rarely challenged my place in her world. I sought other places where I could experience change: First by going to university, marriage, moving for a job and a taking a chance to build my own family.
I ponder the nature of Place using a simple question, “Where do I fit in?” The talents I developed in my life have provided a sense of place and redefined how I interact with my family or the community. I have wondered, “Once I find where I am in this place how can I best enjoy life?” Most people don’t like to have this question come up too often. There are people who have never moved from their home town, always voted the same political party, never changed their job, or always bought the same products. There is satisfaction in knowing one’s place, so rarely is there a need to question your choices. In fact, to question your choices can be unsettling. While the risk may be worth it.
The search for one’s Place starts with an understanding of one’s self. It’s knowing how it feels when you ‘fit in’. It’s learning to recognize when you are ‘out of place’. Sometimes life is like being in a play. You wonder what your role is. Without a script your world tips. Suddenly you recognize your part.
All is well and the show goes on.
There are some words that you are not supposed to say. Some are mildly frowned upon, while others are clearly restricted to just their first initial. These culturally unsanctioned words are found offensive for several reasons, the most powerful being that they can be used as a slur directed to intentionally hurt another human being.
I’ve used the word Retarded regularly. As a youngster it just flew from my mouth without thought, as an emotional indicator. Those were days when it seemed permissible to put down minorities, although recent events in the United States under President Trump suggest a return to these norms. Anyway, I remember getting a comedy book for Christmas as a nine year old that included in its title, ‘100 Newfie Jokes’. On a recent trip to Newfoundland I was surprised to see books like this in tourist shops. One was straightforwardly titled, ‘Newfie Joke Book’ and is available online with the subject matter promoted as being part of “our Canadian culture” and that Newfoundlanders have a “good hearted ability to laugh at themselves.” Really?
Back in 2011 two cast members Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter, of the television show ‘Glee’, ended a public service announcement titled ‘It’s Not Acceptable’ with a powerful appeal to end the use of the word Retarded and others that demean or degrade. (Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T549VoLca_Q )
In March 2018, Special Olympics Canada produced a dynamite ad about the abuse of this word to support a campaign on Twitter called #nogoodway.
(Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcPv2Ruiuu4 )
And Netflix recently aired a special by comedian Hannah Gadsby called ‘Nanette’ that beautifully addresses the practice of put-downs in stand-up routines. She speaks with much grace about how she will no longer play along with this ethos. I can’t imagine her telling a Newfie joke or saying the word Retarded.
Why have I been reluctant to shed the word Retarded from my vocabulary? Maybe it’s because I feel strongly about censorship, but that’s no excuse. As a teacher of special needs children I often had the opportunity to be a cheerleader for those of differing abilities. A close colleague of mine bore a Down’s Syndrome child, whom I enjoyed watching grow into healthy adolescence. I used the television program, ‘Life Goes On’ as a parenting tool with my sons and Corky (actor Chris Burke) would come up in conversations around our dinner table.
My resistance to ending my relationship with this word has taken years of erosion. A cousin of mine once chastised me for using the word Retarded. At the time I didn’t want to follow her reasoning because I didn’t trust her opinion. I told her that she lacked a sense of humour and was being overly sensitive. I feel differently now.
I’ve been gradually persuaded that there is no good purpose to say the word Retarded. Thinking differently starts with changing one’s perspective. I am making a conscious effort to filter my thoughts more effectively to use a more appropriate word. I’m sorry it took me so long.