One Woman’s March

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards, where white clouds of bloom drifted above the green land. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines.”

These are the opening lines of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. A book often credited with starting the modern environmental movement, as it called into question not just the unchecked mass use of pesticides but man’s increasingly fractured relationship to nature.

Upon publication over 50 years ago, it sparked a public uprising, a well-orchestrated industry response replete with “alternative facts”, congressional hearings and eventually regulations that not only curbed the use of pesticides, but also laid the framework for all the environmental battles and progress that would follow.

Before Silent SpringCarson was already a best selling author whose simple and beautiful prose created a sense of wonder about nature – specifically the ocean. Much like the opening lines of Silent Spring, she painted pictures of a world in which we wanted to live in harmony with all that was around us – thinking that we would protect that which we appreciated, understood and loved.

She chose her words carefully and while her message was alarming – she was by no means an alarmist. In fact, the passion and anger that burned deep within her was channeled into a warm illuminating light that added credibility and converts.

In her lifetime, her march was a slow and sometimes lonely one. Her legacy is the millions who have since picked up her baton.

The lessons of Carson’s life were unknown to me until I stumbled upon a PBS documentary last week.

Just days later, I found myself in my daughter’s classroom dissecting an owl’s pellet – essentially a giant fur ball they regurgitate after eating their prey.

We all went into this exercise with trepidation, children saying, “This is gross”, we parents thinking the exact same thing.

But as I watched these 9 year-olds delicately extract the bones from matted fur and proudly catalogue their discoveries, it was hard not to notice the look of awe and wonder in their faces and the unbridled amazement in their voices. 

This was education – a moment that connects them to the world around them. Perhaps for one or two, this would be their first step in a long march. One that started with fear and unease, but now grows with respect and love.

We are all marching in our own way. Every step measured by what we buy, how we spend our time, or how we talk to each other. Is this march for something or against someone?  Are we burning things down or shining light for others to see? And will our children or those that follow pick up our baton because we have marched well?

Now, More Than Ever?

Now more than ever, I’ve been hearing and reading the phrase “Now more than ever.”
When you google that phrase, you will be bombarded by hundreds of thousands of results from election day to today.
Most are calls to arms from organizations and individuals who understandably feel threatened by the changes they anticipate. Their intention is to create a sense of urgency that will translate into more support – both financially and otherwise.
That anticipation of negative outcomes has some obvious merit.  But as psychologist Amos Tversky, said the problem with pessimism is that “you live the horror twice.” (He himself was a Jewish refugee during World War II.)
The reality is that in a macro sense, worrying about the future is a natural reflex. Yet on the micro level, it is energy that could be channeled to make a meaningful difference in someone’s life instead.  
The child who suffers in poverty needed a mentor as much on the day before the election as she needed it today.
The struggling worker in Pennsylvania needed a job with living wage as much in 2016 as he does in 2017.
Our environment needed you to conserve natural resources in October and much as it does in January.

When we throw the phrase “Now more than ever” around too lightly, our attention gets misplaced on the collective circumstances of our political system and away from the individual circumstances of the people who need help moving up.
“Now more than ever” can show a lack of appreciation not only to the plight of people who are struggling but also of our own history and how much we have accomplished. For a little context, please take two minutes to read:

  • some good news about how much progress the world has made in the last several years and
  • an article that will blow your mind to learn how some of the phrases we throw around today are literal descriptions of the poor living conditions experienced by our not so distant ancestors.

The best antidotes to worry are being grateful for what we have NOW (not fear of what we might lose later) and using the positive feeling to fuel action NOW to support someone who has an immediate need.
“More than ever” is hollow.  “Now” is full of promise.
So, what are you doing now?

I’m Not Throwing Away My Shot

For the last few years, I’ve resisted the hype over the Broadway show, Hamilton.  After all how can one play be that good, that transformational?

While I still haven’t seen it, Santa Claus did place, the cast recording in my daughter’s stocking.  And from the music alone, I can say definitively that I was wrong.

It is a masterpiece on many levels – a historical primer on our nation’s founding and a paragon for using music and art to entertain and educate.

But perhaps most important, it is a moving and nuanced illustration of the challenges and glories when trying to rise in America that are as true today as they were over two hundred years ago when our country was founded.  

Recently I read an article critical of an initiative designed to give over 100,000 children from low-income homes the chance to see Hamilton. Despite the fact that it had a built-in curriculum where students would use art to explore a piece of history or a social issue, it was viewed as a luxury – when these funds could have gone to provide these same children with more “fundamental” needs. 

It signaled to me a lack of appreciation for how transformative a single exposure to a work of art can be in the trajectory of a youth. Yes it may exist in a singular moment of time, but the impact of that moment can reverberate for the rest of our lives.

Generally, we can probably all point to a book, song, play or other work of art that “changed us.”  

Now imagine, you come from a poor neighborhood and someone hands you a ticket to Hamilton. You take your ticket that people have told you others are paying a thousand dollars for and you watch a story about another poor kid who is trying to find his way.  He takes his shot. Sometimes succeeding but also failing – both in epic proportion. You are mesmerized by the music and the story. Later, members of the cast talk with you about what they learned in taking “their shot”. Finally, they tell you that you have something worth saying and show you how to start “taking your shot” by creating something that may be performed before a Hamilton matinee.

Now tell me how that does not fill a “fundamental need”?

It is not a meal but it nourishes.
It is not shelter but it provides warmth.
It is not school but it teaches.
It is not transportation but it provides direction.

Often we think we have to give kids the basics in order to have any shot in life. And this may be true.  But it is equally valuable to show them lessons learned through the examples of others and inspire them to have the confidence needed to take their shot when the time comes.

If we don’t, they won’t be throwing away their shot, we will. 

So take a shot at investing in arts education.

If you need a little extra inspiration, listen to “My Shot” from Hamilton.   

What Is A Real Rags To Riches Story?

This Friday is the birthday of the person whose name is so synonymous with rags to riches tales, they actually refer to them as “Horacio Alger stories.”

However, there are many fallacies associated with both the man and the over 100 stories he wrote about boys rising out of poverty. 

  • Generally speaking, the boy never ascends to riches.  It’s a middle class life they aspire and rise to. 
  • It is less about poor boy becomes rich and more about poor boy makes good.  It is not rags to riches but more accurately, “rags to respectability.”
  • While the protagonist does work hard and takes initiative, his rise is typically tied to a big break when someone (typically a wealthy person) notices a good deed he has done and rewards him for it. 

Alger’s own life was full of conflict and contradictions. He was born into a young American aristocratic family but his minister father later faced severe financial troubles that shamed him. He suffered from heath ailments that often isolated him from his peers but later exempted him from serving during the Civil War. During the course of his lifetime, he made over a $100,000 (almost $2,000,000 in todays dollars) but died with almost nothing.  And most significantly while all his own stories featured boys who were rewarded for acts of bravery or courage, he himself was fired from his job as youth pastor for improper conduct and relations with the youth in his charge.

Whenever I hear the term “Horacio Alger tale” ascribed to someone, I wonder if the person using it has ever read a Horacio Alger story or if they know anything of his life.  I suspect not on either count. 

Instead it is ironically the perfect example of how when we oversimplify a person’s life we do disservice to both them and us. 

So next time you hear a person refer to someone else as having lived a “Horacio Alger story” perhaps you can continue to feel a sense of inspiration for their rise.  But I also offer a word of caution. There is always a lot more than meets the eye beneath the surface of any life.

What Will Be In Your Nature This Year?

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

This memorable passage closed Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Address. As we embark on our New Year and face seemingly similar uncertain times, I wonder about the “the better angels of our nature.”

We often use and hear the phrase, “it’s in our nature.”  Whether forged by instinct, genetics, experience or habit is irrelevant.  It essentially means, “who we are” or perhaps more accurately  “how we will act.”

It’s surprising then why we are so often mystified or frustrated by someone’s behavior or even our own.

  • A terrier puppy will chase squirrels, dig holes and want to chew anything. It’s in his nature. Yet we get angry when they chew our socks after we leave them on the floor.
  • A narcissist will constantly draw attention to himself, take credit for things they haven’t done and believe they can do things better than anyone else. Yet we get distracted by their boasts and claims.
  • A leader of any family or group will always look to take care of their own first. Yet we are dismayed when we they see “others” as threats.

We don’t take the time to understand the nature of things – whether animals, systems, people or ourselves. Instead, we simply judge their actions.

It is near impossible to change the nature of someone.  What if instead we channeled that nature towards a better outcome for themselves and others.

  • With a terrier it’s playing hide and seek with his toys so he doesn’t find and chew our socks.
  • With a narcissist, it’s showing how helping others makes him look better so he doesn’t just do things for himself.
  • With a group leader, it’s demonstrating how someone else’s betterment improves their group’s lot in life. 

I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t always take the time to stop and think about what is driving someone’s actions, to really try to appreciate their nature.  And I certainly don’t always do it for myself. 

But if 2017 is to be a year, that in the words of Lincoln, “will yet swell the chorus of the Union, “ I suggest we all start soon.