Imperfect Serenity

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Friday, April 27, 2007


My junior year in college I learned that fear is not the wisest response to danger. The lesson began with an obscene phone call from a young man who called me by name. At first I was so surprised it took me a minute to hang up. A week later he called again. He said he had been watching me and knew I had cut my hair. “I’m going to rape you,” he concluded. I gasped and slammed down the phone.

This time I was afraid. Not only was he right about my hair cut, twice in a row he had caught me alone in my room, making me wonder if he was watching to see when my roommate was out. My dorm was surrounded by fraternities, so he could have been nearby. I started glancing over my shoulder at night and pulling the shades.

Then I heard that a young woman down the hall from me was getting the same kind of calls, so I went to hear her story. Helen was holding forth in her dorm room, telling a small audience about his daily, violence threats. She demonstrated how she dropped the phone and screamed every time he called. Suddenly I realized this was exactly what he wanted—our fear and the sense of power it gave him. That’s why he called Helen more often than he called me. Her screams made her more fun.

The next time he called, he began with the rape threat, but I was not afraid. “I’m concerned about your mental health,” I said calmly. There was silence on the other end. “You must be very sad or disturbed to be making calls like this. Did you know the university offers a free counseling service?” There was still no response, so I gave simple directions to the counseling office on the other side of campus. “I hope they can help you,” I concluded. This time, he hung up and never called back. I heard he stopped calling Helen, too.

I don’t know how my fearless response to the young man’s threats affected him, but it taught me several valuable lessons. First, I learned that fear can get in the way of seeing clearly. When we are afraid of people, we often ascribe them more power than they actually have, which can amplify our fear out of all proportion to the real threat. Second, I learned that I control my own attitude, no matter what someone else is doing. In other words, no one can make me scream (something I need to remember when my son starts climbing on parked cars). Third, I learned that controlling my response is a much better way of affecting someone else than trying to control them. Without realizing it at the time, I won by refusing to play his game.

Learning to be fearless isn’t always easy, so it is good to hear each other’s stories. That’s why I was happy to hear that my friends Miriam Peskowitz and Andi Buchanan over at MotherTalk are featuring a blogging event called “Fearless Friday.” They are spreading the word on the paperback release of Arianna Huffington's Becoming Fearless, a book about women overcoming the fears that can limit us. So today I am joining other bloggers across the country by writing about this theme. If you want to join the fun, visit MotherTalk for details (Non-mothers welcome!).

Monday, April 23, 2007

Earth Day

In the car on the way to school this morning, ten-year-old Megan mentioned that yesterday her father said, “The best things in life are free.” A little bit grudgingly, Megan said, “I have to agree with that. The earth, life, love, family, friendship… but there are some pretty cool things that aren’t free.”

Eight-year-old Luke chimed in, “Limited Too is not one of the best things in life,” knowing that his sister is newly infatuated with the preteen clothing store. “Pokemon cards are not the best things in life either,” he said, since he is newly infatuated with Pokemon cards. “The best things in life are from the earth. We don’t have to pay money for the trees that give us oxygen. We don’t have to pay money for the sun. If we had to pay for the sun, it would be like $80 a day.”

Sometimes I think these kids are turning out OK.

Later we turned on Radio Disney, a station they love but I hate because it is just one insidious commercial for Disney products. They play songs from Disney movies and hype stars from, you guessed it, Disney movies. (By the way, Limited Too also hypes Disney stars, sparking wild speculation on my part about the marketing deal this must involve.) But today Radio Disney had a commercial that was about saving the earth, and it struck me as a positive sign of the times. Environmentalism has turned a cultural corner. It’s now being espoused, not just by a few Quakers and other nonconformists, but by Thomas Friedman, Yale University, and Radio Disney, a cultural trifecta. Friedman’s cover story in the New York Times Magazine and the Yale Alumni newsletter all about the environment seemed like just the latest signs that we’re moving past the once a year Earth Day conversation to a more sober recognition of the impact we’re having on the earth. Yesterday on a train to New York I sat with a train engineer and a wealthy retiree, and we talked about how we could reduce our energy use. I don’t think I even started the conversation.

At dinner tonight Luke refused to eat the meatballs because he said he was helping the earth for Earth Day. Then he asked if you could sue your parents. Tom asked what made him think of that. “Well, today is Earth Day,” Luke responded, “which made me think of the water cycle, which made me think of sewers, which made me think of suing.”

I don’t always understand how the boy’s mind works, but I’m glad that an awareness of the water cycle is part of his consciousness. With Radio Disney joining the environmental chorus, I’m confident that Megan and Luke’s generation will grow up with at least some lip service to environmentalism. The bigger question is whether any of us will really change our ways. Radio Disney is never going to explain to people that vacationing near home, rather than flying to Disney World, is one way to slow global warming. Kids are going to have to learn some other way that the best things in life are free.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


I’ve been listening to other people a lot in the last few days. Some of that listening has left me moved, even energized, while some has left me cranky and depleted.

The retreat on Simplicity and Transformation that I co-led in Kalamazoo, Michigan was energizing. Sometimes the participants talked in small groups, and I only heard snippets of the conversation. Other times they shared in the big group, often movingly. A few people got teary, sharing frustrations with people they love. Their candor elicited love and compassion. Yesterday I had another experience of what felt to me like deep listening. Someone shared with me a very painful story, including the hurt caused by someone we both know. She cried, and I felt my eyes well up in sympathy. But this listening didn’t deplete me either. I felt my listening was part of this woman’s healing journey, and she was sharing with me out of a hope for growth, not out of a desire to hurt the person who hurt her. I don’t feel burdened by her story.

This morning I am feeling burdened, however, by other stories I heard yesterday. Even though the people in question were also sharing out of their own pain, I felt they were gossipping, rather than deep sharing. I tried to draw boundaries and not get hooked by what felt to me like very negative energy, but the fact that I’m still thinking about these conversations this morning makes me realize I didn’t succeed. I remember the advice in The Secret that when people start complaining, we should say we’re sorry we can’t listen to that and walk away. When I first read that, it felt callous and un-Quakerly. Now I’m wondering how I could have walked away sooner.

I’m also wondering if the difference between gossip and sharing is all in the intent of the speaker (my first thought), or if it is also in the heart of the listener. There do seem to be people who like to spread negativity, to stir things up, and there are people who like hearing it. In general I like to avoid gossip, though there have been times when I’ve felt that I was able to help someone by listening deeply to them, despite their uncenteredness. It’s partly a question of where I want to put my energy and how much listening I can do before my inner wall goes up, which definitely happened yesterday.

I’m also trying to figure out how to shake off the after effects of these conversations, which is probably why I’m writing about them now. For me, journaling or blogging is often a way of processing (hopefully without dumping on my readers). In the Simplicity retreat we talked about the Quaker idea of simplicity as clearing away everything that gets in the way of our relationship with God. That’s really what I’m trying to do here, clear away the listening that blocked my spirit yesterday and acknowledge the listening that helped me hear the Divine in someone else.

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