Living in this World

Friday, December 28, 2007

Attention Deficit

We've been so conditioned to think of attention deficit as an internal disability experienced by certain people-mostly little boys-that I was startled to hear the phrase used to describe an external scarcity of resource-a deficit of attention in that's child's environment. It made sense. How many difficulties that children experience would e eased if they were recipients of more warm steady attention? How many of the rest of us-and our communities-could benefit from some good attention?

Paying attention seems like such a simple thing. You just notice what's going on and take it in. Why is there such a deficit in this world?

Sometimes we would choose to pay attention but can't figure out how. I remember when I had two small children and felt that my attention was being pulled in so many different directions that nobody and nothing was getting what was needed. It was a breakthrough to realize that I didn't have to split my attention-which can be as hard a job as splitting atoms. Rather, I could give shorter moments fully to one child, one thing. Our family could still have used more attention, but this was much better than that sense of splintered despair. At least what was there was whole.

It doesn't have to take long to smile at a child, notice the shape of a leaf, acknowledge someone's struggle. If we could realize that even just a moment of full undivided attention makes a difference, the sum of all those moments would be significant.

Then there are the times when we'd rather not pay attention. It can be hard to take in the things that we wish weren't there. The pull to look the other way, to will ourselves to not notice, to protect ourselves from all that grief and fear, can be overwhelming. Yet the alternative is so much worse. The blinders and the numbness that are required for not-noticing actually put us in more danger. Determined not to look, not to notice, not to feel, we can no longer take in what is going on all around us, and we miss signs that might lead to greater safety. The not-noticing strategy also prevents us from taking in things around us that are healthy and right and capable of providing nourishment.

Sometimes we don't want to pay attention because we don't want to feel responsible. If we can avoid engaging-if we can manage to not notice-then maybe nothing will be required of us. Paying attention, however, is not the same as fixing or saving. Ultimately we're really the only ones we can change, and most other people don't actually want to be fixed-they just want to be seen and heard and backed. Rather than fixing, paying attention means showing up, and being present to things that are hard as well as things that are wonderful.

It's basically a matter of choosing to be tuned in to life rather than tuned out. This does require opening ourselves to grief and fear, but the rewards are enormous. Wherever we pay attention, we gain connection. I remember a preschool student teaching job where the teacher discouraged responding to one little boy's repeated requests because he was "just looking for attention." We all missed out on a relationship, and I wonder how long it was before that little boy was labeled with an attention deficit disorder. We all have power to address this deficit, in our children, in our communities, in our world: We can all pay attention.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

#62 Participating in Creation

There is something mystical and magical and deeply satisfying about participating in the process of creation. Where before there had been nothing--maybe just a vision of possibility--through our own efforts now there is something real.

Just recently my husband and I realized that we were present to both a desire in our community for child-friendly service work and some very concrete needs of a struggling extended family. After checking with the family and finding a date, I made a proposal to the community-and there has been enough enthusiastic response that the idea has become a reality. Something exists where nothing had been before. I'm still kind of amazed. I feel like a magician who has waved a wand and successfully produced a rabbit out of thin air.

We are dying to be creators. The eight to eleven year olds I spend the mornings with at a summer conference are wild to make stuff. They will happily spend hours with the simplest of materials, making things that have never been made before-just for the sheer joy of exercising their creativity. The girls at our neighborhood Catholic school, where a friend and I have started a homemade "Simple Gifts" club, want to learn everything-to sew and knit and crochet and embroider and make dolls and doll clothes. (If we had the capacity, I'm sure they would love to learn to saw and drill and hammer and make wooden knick-knacks and toys as well.)

It can be an enormous pleasure to shop for beautiful fabric, or richly colored and textured yarn, or the best cooking ingredients, or fine quality paints to create with. But buying too much of the process can sabotage our creativity. Gluing little foam or metallic shapes or pretty papers to precut forms, or cutting slices off a cookie dough roll to put in the oven, just isn't as satisfying-somebody else has already done too much of the work. I prefer the presto-change-o something-from-nothing projects: making patchwork quilts from fabric scraps, paper beads and butterflies from old calendars and magazine pictures, cushion covers from discarded neckties, candy from orange and grapefruit peels, flexible little people from colored telephone wire, snuggly bunnies from odd socks, bouncy balls from found rubber bands.

I wonder sometimes about all the people I know who identify as artists and would love to spend more time doing art. I don't think it's because we're more creative than we used to be. I think it's because we have fewer outlets. Where we used to create, we are now expected to consume. Games that my family played with pencils, paper and imagination are now sold in boxes. We buy ready-made clothes and dinners and toys and furniture and art work and birthday parties and entertainment-all of which used to provide opportunities for creativity.

Our initiative and power are sapped. Somehow we have to believe more fully in our ability-in our right-to create. Every time we choose to act on that ability and that right, we choose against passivity and for participating in the creation of our future.

#61 Measurement


It's useful to be able to measure things. While I'm happy to make a soup or a stew with a pinch of this and a dollop of that and whatever vegetables we have on hand, I value the security of a recipe in baking. I measure my teaspoons and my cups and can be confident of the outcome. Measurement helps in sewing-in making clothes that fit and quilt squares that line up. It's important in carpentry; you wouldn't want to build a bookcase or a house by guess, hoping that the pieces will fit together one way or another. There is an important place for the precision that measurement can provide.

There is something reassuring about things that can be measured. Three teaspoons will always equal a tablespoon, the biscuit recipe will always produce biscuits, and twelve inches will always match a foot, no matter what medium you are using. You know what you are working with, and if you're careful, you can be pretty sure of how it will turn out.

The problem comes when we start trying to measure things that aren't quite as tidy as flour, fabric and 2x4s. Economics, for example, prides itself on being a science based on fact, on measurable data than can be relied upon for accuracy. So we measure interest rates and return on investments and median income and ups and downs in consumer spending and stock market activity and profit margins. We measure the gross domestic product and the gross national product. They are all hard numbers, like inches and tablespoons. When the numbers are good, we must be doing well.

The flaw in this system is so fundamental that it's hard to detect. In order to have a science of economics, in order to measure reliably, we have to leave out of the system everything that cannot be measured. Joy, satisfaction, human connection, sense of purpose, security-since there's no satisfactory measure for any of these, they have no place in the picture. They are irrelevant to the scientific determination of how well-off we are. Neither clean air nor quiet nor open space nor free time have any measurable economic value, while polluting industries, leaf blowers, urban sprawl and long work hours are all part of our nation's wealth.

There are similar issues in philanthropy. Foundations want to be responsible stewards of the money they hand out, so more and more they are requiring measurable outcomes. It's not enough to tell stories of growth and change. Stories can't be measured. So, to prove that they've spent this year's dollars well, social programs scramble to produce numbers about degrees and grades and jobs and income and immunizations. They can't talk about what is often the heart of their work-growing love, or courage, or hope for the future, or lives of meaning, or bright spirits-because none of these things can be translated into tidy numerical outcomes at the end of a year.

Measurements can play a role in economics and grant reporting. The number of people who have indoor plumbing or high school degrees or jobs at a livable wage or health insurance is likely to be indicative of overall well-being. But is the sum of all these things the measure of a good life? Does that sum plus a million dollars add up to happiness?
Let's keep things like inches and tablespoons and dollars for what they're really good at-like making biscuits and book cases and change at the store. But let's not settle so easily when we're talking about ourselves, our community, our well-being, and our future. When we're dealing with human beings we need a little more humility, and a little more understanding of the importance of that which cannot be measured.

#60 The Penny Jar

When I first came back from Nicaragua, I was appalled by the in-your-face wealth in this country. The transition from a society gasping for survival to one gagging on excess left me shell-shocked. I needed some way to hold on to the reality of what I had experienced, to not go back to taking this affluence for granted. But I didn't see any advantage in flagellating myself with guilt, or ranting to everyone I met about how terrible our society was.

How to remember? Maybe I could be more thankful for things I have that I would truly want for everybody in this world There's plenty of plenty that I don't feel thankful for, that I don't actually want at all, for me or anybody else: mind-boggling choices in junk food, three car garages, living rooms so cavernous nobody likes to spend time in them, the opportunity to buy a whole new wardrobe every season, limitless ways to "improve" our looks. I chose running water.

What a miracle to turn on a faucet and get good clean water whenever you want it. And, though it's probably not the best use of this precious resource, what an incredible luxury to be able to send off human waste with the touch of a handle. This is not something to take for granted. How to remember? I made a little jar with a slot in the lid and put it on the windowsill beside the toilet. Every time I flushed, I put a penny in the jar. It was a time to give thanks for running water, and to remember my connection to all those people in this world who don't have it. Gradually I collected pennies into rolls, took rolls to the bank and sent off checks to an organization whose mission is to address the joint evils of overabundance and poverty through funding development work in poor countries.

The amount of money is insignificant, but the opportunity to feel connected is priceless. (One thing that has happened as a result is that I've gone back to picking up pennies on the street. Most people leave them these days as not being worth the effort of stooping. But if in stooping, I remember, then they have real value. And I can add them to the jar on my windowsill.)

How could I share this simple little discipline with others, and invite them to a greater sense of thankfulness and connection? Leading a weeklong morning program for eight to eleven year olds at a summer religious gathering over the years, I've offered a theme of playing and creating with materials that might be available to children anywhere in the world-and put out my little penny jar as a possible stop on the way back from the bathroom. I remember how thrilled I was one year when a thoughtful sixth grader said she wanted to have one in her bathroom at home. The idea might even have stuck, though I'll probably never know.

So the penny jar sits on my windowsill. The habit has grown so strong that a flush without a penny seems somehow incomplete. Indeed I have not forgotten. My commitment to taking every opportunity I can to act on this connection, to throw my weight toward right sharing of the world's wealth, has not wavered. But I've felt lonely at times-me and my little penny habit.

Late this summer, I answered the doorbell to find a family I knew on a walk, with the twelve year old in immediate need of a bathroom. She had been in one of my groups two or three years past. I sat on the stoop visiting with the others, and when she came down she had something to tell me that warmed my heart. "Pamela, when I flushed, I found a penny in my pocket and I put it in the jar."

#59 Language learning

People talk about the value of growing up in a bi-lingual family, but this was something else. As the story goes, Maximilian Berlitz (of language school fame) had an extended family with a rich mixture of ethnicities, and many different languages were spoken around him. When he was very little he thought that everybody spoke their own individual language, and if you wanted to communicate with them, you had to learn it. So he did. The way I heard the story, he was not overwhelmed or upset by this situation; it was just a fact of life.

I was recently with a group of people discussing the challenge of communicating across religious language barriers. If you and I don't have a religious language in common, it's hard to communicate. I think this is true of political and values language as well. And it's particularly confusing when we think we're speaking the same language, using the same words but mean different things by them.

Perhaps that little boy has something to teach us. Maybe before I start making easy assumptions about what you are saying, I need to consider that I don't know your language. Maybe I need to stop and do a lot of listening (as I'm sure he did), and asking questions so I can hear your words in many different contexts, and sort out what a comparable word in my language might be.

Maybe I need to ask the question, "What will allow me to understand you?" It's hard to be around language we don't understand, hard to feel drawn toward others whose words we can't make sense of. Yet, rather than seizing on the signs that the chasms are too deep to ever be crossed, maybe we can stay in learning/translating mode, waiting and doing the work that will allow us to move toward the other person. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have the confidence of little Maximilian Berlitz-that we can learn any language, decipher any human being?