Monday, August 13, 2018

No Love Without Sacrifice: Karen Armstrong and Warren Hardy

I was nearing the end of Karen Armstrong's fine short history of myth when I ran across an assertion that I knew I had heard before.                                                                                Armstrong points out that our ancestors turned to myth, to stories, for courage in the face of danger and suffering. A good myth was neither a fiction nor a diversion; rather, it reminded them that a good life required sacrifice. An effective myth, she summarizes, "demands action."

Myth, stories that told people how to be in the world, allowed our ancestors to "live with the unacceptable," to act heroically in the face of death and suffering.  We now, she says, commonly turn to drugs, music, and celebrities for a whiff of the transcendent, experiences that at best provide vicarious and pale versions of the sort of stories that inspired our ancestors to risk their lives for the welfare of the group.

This all could not help but remind me of my Narrative 4 friend, Warren "there is no love without sacrifice" Hardy. Warren is at the heart of Helping Young People Evolve in Hartford, Connecticut, an organization devoted to offering hope to at-risk youth.

Life is so much better when we find the Warren Hardys of this world, listen to their stories, and follow their examples.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Narrative 4 Summit: Meeting Ishmael Beah and Other Inspiring People

Last month I had the great honor of attending the annual Narrative 4 Summit, which this year was in New Orleans. I got to meet Ishmael Beah, the organization's Vice President. I had read his memoir of being a child soldier when my son was required to read it for high school. Now that I regularly work with refugee youth who are telling their own stories of loss and resilience, it was a blessing to receive some counsel from someone so much more experienced in that work. In fact the gathering, like the organization, offered a feast of widely read writers who excel at describing hard-won hopes.

But what I most enjoyed about the summit was being surrounded, every day, by scores of people who were deeply committed to learning from and caring for others. From Tel Aviv, Israel to Tampico, Mexico, to small towns in the Southern U.S. and South Africa to big cities in the Northern U.S. and Northern Italy and beyond, the rooms and the buses were full of people who were having a blast pouring out their lives in collaboration with others to create bonds of understanding and love.

We are constantly told in the modern U.S. that our principal goal in life should be to pursue and expand our privileges, to get and defend our piece of the American Dream, to "have a good time, all the time"--to "live for the week-end" and "grab the gusto."

But there are many people across the world whose lives suggest that a deeper meaning and even happiness resides in struggling to understand and care for each other. Much of the magic of Narrative 4, I believe, comes from inviting people to experience that way of looking at and living in the world. Being with ninety or so people from across the world devoted to that work revealed and confirmed that an empathetic life is a rich life. Thank you.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Video of Two Brave Story Exchangers

It's a story in itself of how Milen and Zeinab, the two Reynolds High School students in this MetroEast Television interview, became heavily involved with Narrative 4 story exchanges.

My dear friend Michelle and University Studies brought Narrative 4 to Portland State late last year, and I loved the story exchange so much that I started doing them in my freshman inquiry class on immigration. The students loved it, too, and in January several of them started working with another dear friend, Debra, and her Reynolds High School students. Some of the Reynolds students started an official story-share club at the school around issues of equity. In June Narrative 4 invited two students (including Milen), teacher Deb, and I to their annual Summit in New Orleans, where we met nearly one hundred youth and adults from across the globe who are also hooked on story exchanges. Some of the PSU and Reynolds students, including Zeinab, are trained facilitators.

In sum, the power of exchanging meaningful stories has caused a lot to happen in a short amount of time. Bridging the many divides at Reynolds, Portland State, and the broader Portland Metro Area seems impossible. But carrying each others' stories has brought to us all a sense of joyful purpose, even hope. We have become friends who know and count on each other.

Each of the young women wears a shirt with the word "blessing" on it. It's been a deep blessing for me to work with these students and others as we strive to care for each other and do the hard, good work of spreading empathy.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Our Kids, by Robert Putnam

The title of this 2015 book didn't really hit me until the last sentence.

Putnam, a widely read Harvard University professor, does a wonderful job of laying out how children from lower-income families have a more difficult path to socio-economic mobility than I did. Two generations ago children from different social classes were much more likely to live next to, go to school with, and marry each other than they are now. The extra-curricular activities that used to be free are now likely to cost money. Income is now a much stronger predictor of who goes to college than test scores are, and children from impoverished families are much less likely to go to church or otherwise have caring adults in their lives than they were in 1970. Many of them have no idea of how to get to college or pursue a career.

Putnam points out that this is a problem that cuts across racial or ethnic divisions. Moving out of poverty is unlikely for white, Latino, and black children. In fact immigrant children often have stronger social structures than native-born citizens do.

There are some policy recommendations in the last chapter that seem sound but, in this polarized political moment, remote. But Putnam reminds us that most of us can do at least a little bit to help at least one of the millions of children who are struggling by being a mentor or, I would add, being a dependable classroom volunteer or otherwise present in the life of a child outside your social circle.

There is so much judgement around children who are struggling. We too readily complain about other people and their children. Yet many struggling parents are working very hard and deserve as well as need our help. In any event, the children certainly do, and shouldn't that be enough? As Putnam points out in that last sentence: "They are our kids."

I have a friend who is mentoring more than one hundred low-income youth, and he has an extremely demanding job plus several children of his own. Imagine what sort of world we would live in if each of us committed to be there for just one child we don't now know, if "those kids" we complain about became "our kids" that we care for.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Few thoughts on Selfie, by Will Storr

Selfie: How We Became so Self-Obsessed and What It's Doing to Us is the latest in a series of thoughtful books by journalist Will Storr. I was attracted to the subject because I think that the rise of the "Imperial Self" has done so much to shape and degrade modern life.

Storr examines the modern self through several lenses, such as Esalen ("be what you are"), Ayn Rand, the self-esteem movement and, of course, the rise of social media culminating, including the selfie itself. He points out that our growing emphasis on self-actualization flies in the face of and denies a central reality of life, namely that we control much less of it than we'd like to think we do, that we are flawed, mortal beings living in a fluid, even unpredictable world and that we therefore need each other.

Of course the emergence of the self has been positive, even liberating in many ways, particularly for members of oppressed groups. But the emphasis on self-actualization has been accompanied by a decline in curiosity about or empathy for people different from ourselves and has commonly led privileged people to discount the idea that privilege entails responsibility. A focus on the self is also behind much of the social isolation that is responsible for high rates of depression and other mental-health problems.

Monday, July 9, 2018

You Don't Need to Be "Fearless"

One of my pet peeves has long been the phrase "and I am fearless" used to describe people who have done something courageous.

In the first place, courageous acts are seldom solitary. Courage usually arises from working alongside and encouraging each other. We are at our best in the company of others.

Second, I doubt that many of us actually are without fear when we face a difficult task. If fearlessness is a prerequisite for courage, then most of us have good reason to not even try.

The students in the year-long Freshman Inquiry class I recently completed at Portland State certainly taught me both of the above. We worked together to encourage and support each other as we shared vulnerable stories with each other, confronted personal fears and hardships, and volunteered more than 1,000 hours with vulnerable youth, often helping them to overcome their own fears.

Many of us often confessed, including myself, that we often felt afraid. But, as the adjectives we selected to describe the class reveal, we were also  "courageous," "strong," "caring," "together," and "family."

We don't need to be fearless to do great things if we care for and support each other.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

My Promotion and My Mother

I thought of my mother upon recently learning that my application to become a full professor, effective in September, had cleared its last hurdle.

Bessie Priscilla Barber Peterson had a deep love of learning. She had taught for a few years in one-room school house during the Depression, and she made sure that we always had plenty of reading material around. There was always money for books and time to drive me to the library. It also helped that we didn't get a TV until my childhood was more than halfway spent. So I also thank her for that.

Of course my debt to her runs much deeper. I gave up my tenured job in British Columbia nineteen years ago for family reasons, so that we could live in Portland, so my route to this academic honor or accomplishment has been circuitous. Mom didn't like it when I did unconventional things, whether it was growing my hair long, becoming a single foster parent, or giving up any sort of secure job. But she was exactly the sort of person who set aside personal ambitions for the good of her family, so she couldn't really get after me too much about my unconventional academic career or for sometimes defining "family" pretty broadly.

My mother's quiet life suggests to me that our most important contributions come through showing up every day for the people we care about. It made her nervous when her children took risks. But she was the one who taught us and showed us that we could and should do something to help people less fortunate than ourselves. I wish that I had reminded her of that more often. She never realized what a big difference she made in people's lives, directly and indirectly. Most of whatever love I have in my heart is from her.

The committee who recommended my promotion noted that I had an unusually strong record of teaching and particularly service to go with my scholarly production of books and articles and such. Having the mother that I did, it has been difficult for me to do or be otherwise.