Children and the future

Back in the 1980’s, Whitney Houston released one of the sappiest songs of the decade. Do you remember it? It began, ‘I believe the children are our future—teach them well and let them lead the way…’ Banal platitudes, of course. But the thing about banal platitudes, as David Foster Wallace pointed out in 2005, is that they’re very often true. So it is in this case. The trouble is that we seem to be unable to take it seriously.

I don’t mean that we don’t educate them. They’re pushed relentlessly to achieve in mathematics, science and English. And they are taught what is expected of them in the world of work. Recently, I attended an event at a primary school in the next town, and found a poster in the school hall identifying the traits and skills that would make them employable. Four- to eleven-year-olds need to learn arithmetic and reading and science, of course. But I am not convinced that they need to worry about getting a job. They have a job: childhood. One of the key principles of Maria Montessori‘s educational philosophy is that the child makes the man or woman. Children are fashioning their future selves through all their learning, play-based and otherwise. And it’s hard work.

It’s hard work that’s made all the more difficult by that message I found proclaimed in the school hall: what you’re doing now is about your future. That may be true, but it isn’t what kids between the ages of four and eleven need to be concerned about. Our job as adults is to worry about their future. It’s not fair for us to transfer that worry on to them. They need to be supported in their learning by having their curiosity stimulated and then having the materials in place so that they can satisfy that curiosity. I teach university students, many of whom have managed to get there without having any intellectual curiosity left. Very few of them are there because they had a thirst for knowledge. They’re there because their degree is a qualification they need to be employable.

It’s hard work, too, because there is more to forming one’s future self than learning math and English. We were fortunate that our children’s primary school did a good job teaching them about justice and mercy. But here, too, I think we fail children, even when we have the best of intentions. The kids’ primary school was recently ranked ‘gold’ for promoting children’s rights. While all the things listed are things every child should have—an education, freedom of expression and association, freedom to practice their religion, and so on—teaching children about their rights changes their vision of who they are. No longer are the duties of parents, schools, communities, and governments the responsibility of the adults: children need to know their rights and have the courage to demand that they be respected. If that’s really the case, then we have failed them, and failed them very badly. If it is true (and I think it is) that a society is judged on how it treats the most vulnerable, the fact that we as a society think children need to look after their own rights is disgraceful.

The freedom that children most need is the freedom to be children: to learn through play as much as possible, to be curious and to have their curiosity nurtured, to be free to express themselves in a community—that is, in a place where they naturally bump up against each other and have to learn how to get along with each other, preferably with a minimum of adult intervention. Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy concentrated not on the learning of academic subjects, but on becoming people of peace. We hear a lot about how Montessori-educated kids are self-starters, imaginative folks, entrepreneurs. But Montessori wasn’t nominated for the Nobel peace prize three times for forming entrepreneurs. The true cornerstone of her educational method was forming children for peace through education.

Recently, I came across a meme designed to get us to wake up: ‘If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do during slavery, the Holocaust, or the civil rights movement, you’re doing it right now.’ I wondered how what I do on a daily basis would measure up. Then I thought about Maria Montessori. She was nominated for a Nobel peace prize for resisting fascism. But what she is chiefly remembered for is the path she charted to peace: giving children the space to become people who embodied it. The only way to make the world a more peaceful place is to raise children who know what it looks like and how to maintain it.

The thing is, saving the world, and all the vulnerable people in it is not something we adults can do on our own. It is an intergenerational project, and our most important part in it is to raise that generation who will be the change we hope for. Montessori believed that ‘if help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children’. All the band-aids we adults can put on the world are nice. But without raising a generation of kids who know how to heal its wounds, the sores are just going to get worse. Whitney Houston was right: the children are our future. Now we have to work on that next bit: teaching them well, so that they can lead the way to peace.

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Getting through it

Life seems to be going haywire. No, not life, exactly, but the world. Sometimes I wonder whether I am just getting older. Maybe the world seems to be going off the rails to me just as it has done to every previous generation as they get older, and the next generation rises. Still, it seems very unhealthy to me, unsustainably so. There cannot be such extensive, almost limitless, uncertainty, so much speed and pressure. Who can live like this?

I asked my students, a few weeks ago, how many of them knew someone (or had themselves) suffered from mental illness. Nearly everyone. That’s worrying. If mental illness is so prevalent, maybe we ought to be spending as much time seeking causes and preventing it as we do devising new therapies–especially drug therapies. And I say this as someone who has taken medication for depression for nearly two decades. Maybe, just maybe, something out there is making us sick.

Having said that, though, I worry about the medicalisation of everything. So little deviation from the norm of health and well-being is allowed now, very little suffering is permitted. Not that suffering is a good thing–it’s just that it is an essential and inescapable feature of human life. We have begun to regard suffering as unnatural, an unwelcome intrusion into our life of health and happiness.

The trouble is that health and happiness are never guaranteed. in the world there is beauty and joy and wonder. At the same time, there is poverty, pain, disaster and loss, and sickness and blight. And sometimes the only way out of suffering is through it. In such situations, patience, it seems to me, is the only way forward. Patience and humility seem to be the central lost traits in our human life. Where do we learn patience and humility, and grow in them, in a world that is driven by efficiency and achievement?

We have forgotten how the world changes: little by little, one small act of kindness at a time. Very few are the big acts that do obvious good. And the people to whom the tasks of Big Change fall are not necessarily to be envied. Frodo Baggins did manage–with lots of help–to get the One Ring to Mount Doom, and by luck it ended up in the fire. But the achievement broke Frodo, changed him, so that he no longer ‘fit’ in his world. ‘We saved the Shire,’ said Sam. ‘But not for me,’ said Frodo. Not for me. And so it is, sometimes, that people to whom the world-saving falls do somehow find themselves no longer fit for the world made different.

samfrodo

 

Maybe I am wrong. But I think that more and more people are being taught to desire the Big Things, when what we need, and what the world really needs are people who faithfully do the small things. That’s really the way forward: patience and humility. And Frodo Baggins is not, in the final analysis, the hero of the tale. The hero of the story is the patient and humble Samwise Gamgee, who carried Frodo when he could go no farther. Sam carried on, when Frodo could not. And so the world was saved, not by the wise elves or the powerful wizard, or even the servant-healer-king, though these each had their part to play. the world was saved by the smallest and least of all, and the burden borne in large part by the lowliest of all, who received it as a privilege and a gift.

The world seems very short of Samwise Gamgees today. Everyone wants to be Aragon, or Gandalf, or perhaps Elrond or Galadriel. Maybe even Frodo Baggins. But Sam Gamgee? The servant? Less so, it seems to me, less so. Patience and humility look so small and dull in the world of bright, shining achievements. ‘Nice guys,’ so the saying goes, ‘finish last.’ Maybe so, maybe so. But it has also been said that many who are first shall be last, and the last first. Let it be so.

Deo gratias.

NB This post is dedicated to Bishop Daniel E. Flores, Amigo de Frodo.

the weight of the world

I just finished lecturing on food in my ethics class. Food is a big problem, both for those who don’t have enough and for those who have plenty. The ways in which it is problematic for those who don’t have enough are well known, and well documented. Charities raise funds to fight world hunger; the UN has pledged to eradicate world hunger by 2030. So far, hunger is winning: from 2015 to 2016 the number of hungry people in the world increased by 5%. Have we forgotten about world hunger with all the crises of various kinds happening around the world? I wonder how much the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit campaign (and the aftermath of both) have distracted us all from the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.

The other food problem I spoke about today, though, was obesity. In the past three decades rates of obesity among adults and children have risen across the globe. Those increases bring in their train an increase in hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. This subject causes uncomfortable squirming amongst the college-age set (and probably the rest of us as well). We have been busy pushing back–and rightly so–against the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to conform our bodies to an unrealistic ideal. I grew up in Southern California, spending my summer days on its beautiful beaches, and lifeguard towerlearning to hate my body with a deep and abiding passion. I push back as hard as I can, for the sake of my daughters. I’m not sure my body-loathing will ever go away, but I’ll be damned if I let my girls grow up hating theirs.

Addressing the health crisis might well make for trimmer citizens. But I’d like to uncouple the body’s health from the body’s image. Good luck with that, says the other half of my brain: plenty of people have been trying to do that for years. Everyone who has been trying to do that ought to keep on trying, and the rest of us ought to join in, because this matters for the whole world. If we are ever going to tackle this problem, the very first thing we need to do is de-stigmatize obesity. The reason for the tension I felt in the classroom today? The phenomenon of fat-shaming. To begin with, that’s got to stop. Right now.

As a society, we have had some practice at de-stigmatizing. Alcoholism and mental illness are two diseases that, like obesity, are noncommunicable. But we no longer lay the blame for the illness squarely at the feet of the sufferer. It’s complicated. Getting better is hard work, but it isn’t self-flagellation. Some of us have health issues, and we need treatment and support to recover. Obesity is no different, except that we haven’t yet had the conversion that we have had with alcoholism and mental illness (which is still underway in both cases). We need to stop thinking of obesity as just ‘getting fat’ and begin to think of it as a complex phenomenon rather than something people inflict on themselves.

We also need to address the rise in obesity in the developing world. This global health crisis is being driven in part by the expansion of fast, processed food and sugary postobondrinks into new markets in the developing world. As US consumers drink less soda pop, new consumers need to be found to keep profits up. Fast food chains are popping up all over the world, and changing the way people see food. Packaged foods compete with healthier local food, and seem to be winning. The results of this corporate growth are devastating: rates of obesity are soaring in the developing world, and the health systems in developing nations are often having to address both malnutrition and obesity-related conditions.

I fear that the wealthy are preying on the poor. So it has always been, has it not? Did Amos not write of the Israelites, ‘they sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals’? I fear that we don’t see it that way, if we see it at all.

Here’s what I would like to see: no more advertising ’empty calories’ as if it were food. Back in the 1970’s, the Marlborough man disappeared. Tobacco companies were banned from advertising, because smoking is bad for you. We know just as surely that processed food and sugary drinks contribute to obesity. Sure, not everyone who ever has a Coke or a McDonald’s cheeseburger becomes morbidly obese. But not everyone who ever smokes a cigarette gets cancer. Not everyone who ever has a drink becomes an alcoholic, yet we are warned about the health risks, and TV advertising is regulated or banned.

If we know about the health risks, and we surely do, then are we not negligent if we fail to inform consumers? The real risk here is doing nothing and seeing the global health crisis escalate. The alcohol and tobacco industries have survived taxation, regulation, and advertising bans. So would Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and all the rest.  Isn’t the health of the world worth it?

 

in the valley

I have always had days like this. More often, far more often than I would like. So my life’s path has been a crooked one through mountain passes. Some days are glorious, inside and out, and somehow then the valleys, seen from above, look less threatening.

In the valley, though, I usually keep my head down. I stay off the social media. I don’t blog. What on earth could I possibly say from down here? Words seem to die on my lips, and those that don’t simply fade into the darkness. But today I’m going to have a good look around, and see what I can see. I am not sure that it will help me get out of the valley, but having a map might at least remind me that this isn’t the whole landscape.

The first thing I notice about the shape of this internal valley is chaos–a sort of verbal chaos, in which I feel I cannot speak. It isn’t so much that I have no words, but that they’re all tangled up. Like Reepicheep (in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), all the things that I might say paralyze me, and I fall silent. I might pick up a pen, and scribble madly in the darkness: but nothing I say there will ever be read by anyone.

The second thing I notice is the emptiness. There isn’t a soul around. Literally, at the moment, there isn’t anyone around–I am ‘working’ from home. Or at least I will be, when the internal fog lifts a little. But it is more empty than that. There is such a deep aloneness here. From this angle, I can see very clearly the despair that inspires suicide. It’s the most painful aspect of the darkness, the sense of being utterly and completely alone in the universe. I know that from outside, the total disregard for how others might ‘receive’ one’s death looks like selfishness. But from inside, the actual love is absolutely imperceptible. (Here my saving grace has always been my children, even before I had any–but that’s another story.) All those others who might miss me are lost to me already in the darkness.

Usually the emptiness overwhelms me, and I can look no more. Maybe this isn’t a bad exercise after all. The third thing that I notice in the valley, feeling my way along, is a sense of uselessness. I’m not actually good at or for anything. Here I discover the slope I slid down–almost always this is the place I fall in. In the world of social media, instant likes, and numbers of followers, this is a very, very easy place to stumble. It doesn’t help that I have a sought-after spouse. I have four small stalkers, but the rest of the world has absolutely no use for me whatsoever. I’ve lost sight, here, of the things I have done that have not been totally unappreciated, and the things I have been asked to do. I know they are there, but they, too, have disappeared into the blackness: if I did them, they weren’t actually any good; people are just too kind to me to say so. Anyone could have done better. (At the deepest part of this valley, I have no doubt that someone else would be a better mother to my children. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be there today.)

This is difficult, this mapping. This is why I usually shut the computer and find something to tidy. But I’ve started now, and I am too stubborn to give up. The next thing I notice is an eerie sort of timelessness. This moment–or this series of moments–seems isolated from the rest of my life, past and future. If I were to try to remember something that happened even yesterday, I’d struggle. I might be able to recall it, but that person in the past wouldn’t be me, at least not the same me that I am in this moment. As I think back on yesterday–just to try it–it’s like watching TV. I am not in the scene. Whoever it is that I am right now is not in the narrative of my life. Maybe that’s not exactly timelessness. Maybe it’s an aspect of something else.

The something else is a loss of gravity. Obviously, my feet are still on the floor. The laws of physics still obtain. But there is another sort of chaos. I’ve become separated somehow from my past and future, and my words have become jumbled. Nothing is where it ought to be; my thoughts have no foundation, no anchor. I cannot tell, exactly, internally, which way is forward and which way is back. And I cannot ask for directions. If I tried to speak, I wouldn’t say what I wanted: clear thinking is impossible.

This makes me feel slightly crazy. Also a little bit dizzy inside. I don’t know what to do next: this is the final thing, I think. This is the point at which I have to find something to tidy or I will do something bad to my computer. Because I can’t subdue this chaos by writing. I can’t make this darkness lift by describing it. When I was a teenager, this is the point at which I would fling my binder across the room. The rings would burst apart, and the pages of my life story (and some very bad poetry) would scatter around the room. Ah, then the outside would look like the inside, and in collecting and collating all those sheets of notebook paper I would somehow come back to myself.

As long as I can remember, it has been this way. Some days are worse than others. Some days the darkness nearly swallows me up for good. But something always intervenes, and for that I will be grateful. For probably a decade, I finished every single journal entry with the same verse from Ps 42:

Why are you downcast, o my soul? And why so disquieted within me? Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance                   and my God.

Maybe that’s the thing today, the thing that intervenes. Because I remember, really: I was there in that memory, even if it is a memory of utter despair. This is my story. Even if I can only see that I have often walked in darkness, I can see that I am still walking. And I think maybe, just maybe, I am not alone.

 

The Revolution of Tenderness: TED talk

Over the last decade or so, the TED talk – the 18-minute messages given by prominent artists, techies and other cultural figures – has become shorthand for showcasing the ideas the speaker most seeks to put into broad circulation. And at this week’s marquee conference for the program in Vancouver, the usual roster of celebs…

via “The Future Has A Name: Hope” – In TED Talk, Pope Seeks a “Revolution” — Whispers in the Loggia

Canticle for Laetare Sunday

I will sprinkle clean water upon you,                                                                                                     and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses,                                                                          and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you;                                             and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes                               and be careful to observe my ordinances.

Ezekiel 36. 25-27

Makes me wonder what all the fuss about free will is about. ‘I will put my Spirit within you,’ says the Lord, ‘and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.’ I will cause you to follow the law: this is how God consoles a wayward, hard-hearted people–not by relaxing the law or even by forgiving and forgetting. The Lord forgives, but does not forget: he remembers that we are but dust. He washes our sins away but remembers our fallen condition and provides for us accordingly. As St Paul observed, at the right time, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

In Christ we have more even than what Ezekiel promises: a paradigm. Christ is the one with the heart of flesh; he is the one in whom the Spirit dwells fully; he is the one who keeps God’s law perfectly; and he does this all freely. That is the work of the Spirit, to restore our freedom. God does not cause us to follow the law by thwarting our will and desires, but by healing them, transforming them. Under the Spirit’s guidance, we do not act as puppets. We act as we were created to act. We live according to our creation in the image of God. The Spirit does not cause us to follow an alien law, but the law that has been written on our hearts.

I suppose this is the natural law, in the view of philosophers who study such things. It is the law, that is, of our nature. In our fallen state, however, being true to our nature as creatures of the living God requires grace. Fortunately, it seems pretty clear, from Genesis all the way through, that grace is exactly what God wants to give us.

Deo gratias.

passing: a reflection for World Down Syndrome Day

Duke of Edinburgh I love the fact that there is a World Down Syndrome Day. The videos produced to promote awareness are encouraging, showing people with Down Syndrome as happy contributors to society. This year’s video, which resists the claim that people with Down Syndrome have ‘special needs’, does this perfectly: what people with Down Syndrome need is the same as what everyone needs–opportunities, education, relationships, etc. girl with DS

True. And yet…I have a daughter with Down Syndrome. Her needs are more complicated than that, and I refer to those needs as ‘special’ without hesitation. Not that she doesn’t need education and opportunities and friends. She needs, and has, all those things. We are extremely fortunate in the level of provision for all of my daughter’s needs here in the UK. But I am worried about the suggestion that people with Down Syndrome are ‘just like everyone else’ for two reasons. (NB: the adorable girl pictured is not my daughter.)

First, people with Down Syndrome can lead lives that are remarkably typical. But this cannot be guaranteed, and it cannot be forced. Like all young children, those with Down Syndrome develop at their own pace and their skills and achievements will vary greatly. To participate in some of the things that typically developing kids do easily, most children with Down Syndrome will need extra support. My daughter has just achieved her Bronze Duke of Edinburgh award. The fact that she had to have certain allowances and modifications doesn’t make me any less proud of her. If she had to compete with typically developing kids, doing exactly the same things, she would not have been able to have this incredible experience. Of course I hope that she will achieve the kind of speaking ability that the young woman who narrates the video has. But she might not. So to be properly ‘aware’ of what Down Syndrome is and means, I have to keep in mind that even if my daughter doesn’t ever speak that well, she deserves to be treated with the same dignity and respect as those people with Down Syndrome who can carry on a conversation with typically developing peers.

young man with DSSecond, and more importantly, my daughter has an incredible gift to give me and all those who take the time to listen to her and go at her pace for a bit. What the video doesn’t help us see is the way that I have to slow down and look at the world differently when I am with my daughter. Every day–when I am paying attention properly, anyway–my daughter reminds me that life is not about rushing from one thing to the next. Life is not about what I can achieve. Being human is not about being utterly self-sufficient and autonomous. All the practical things that I can do, my capacity for self-direction, and my ability to interact with the world in an abstract and reflective way have their place in the way that I live my life. Indeed, these things enable me to care for my daughter and to see her for who she is. But very easily I forget that who I am and what I can do are not coextensive. I am more than a bundle of capacities, more than a cache of memories and ideas. My daughter reminds me that the time I have been given is first and foremost for love. Without that, my capacities would have no direction and my memories and ideas would lack the principle that integrates them. I love. The rest is only really about how I express that love, how I live it out in the world.

Passing, in the novel by Nella Larsen, refers to Clare Kendry’s ability (and that of other characters) to ‘pass’ for white. So doing opens to Clare a life that she could not have otherwise had, but it comes at great cost–and to no good effect. In the context of intellectual disability, there is a certain degree to which ‘passing’ is possible. But doing so doesn’t change the way people with more profound intellectual disabilities are regarded. If being able to play on the level field is the goal, then a lot of people with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities are going to be left on the sidelines. football DS

And we will never see how desperately the rules of that game need changing.