What Are You Packing?

Most people hate moving, whether it is to a new house, a new state or new country. I think it is not the sheer exhaustion of the actual move, I reckon it is going through your stuff and determining what goes in boxes, what gets packed. I’ve gone through the process of moving about 35 times in my life, most of which happened before I was 25. I’ve got to sift through my things and consider carefully what I want to bring along with me. The other day in the shower (best thinking happens there, right?!), I was pondering all these places that I have lived, not just the physical places but the places in my mind and its habits. The different versions of me. Not only do I pack these physical items, but the mental ones. too. I get to purge the worst in me and only bring that which I want to to take forward into my next experience. I think this is the best part of moving to a far distant place because you do not have a personal history to defend. No one knows a dang thing about you and who’ve you been and you can set the reset button if you wish.

I think about the people in my life who have lived in the same place for ages. Sometimes, their stability is seen with a sense of pride, but, to me, I wonder if it is not a prison. A while ago I came to understand why I had this opinion about the “stable” people I know when I heard  this Indian mystic named Sadharguru say,

I am not against wealth. I am not against comfort. I am against stagnation, because if you stagnate, you are only half alive.

It made me realize that I harbor a belief that being deeply rooted to a place makes you deeply rooted in the comfort of your identity. Hating to disappoint others, might one be scared to do or say something that is contrary to the opinion of others? They might never get to experience the lightness and freshness of change! Of course, I do think thamovingt one can reinvent oneself in the midst of these strong attachments, but I think it must be ruthlessly difficult to challenge people’s perception of them. When people have a definition of who they think you are, it’s often difficult to get them to change their mind. But the definition that is the most challenging to change is the one we give ourselves: the one that is full of “can’ts” and “don’ts”. That’s the stuff that needs to be released, the beliefs that we cling to, and no one but oneself can do that.

So as I stare at all of my stuff, literally, and decide what is going to be shipped, I think it is important to reflect on this passage of my life–the China chapter–and consider what memories and insights I want to bring with me:  the ready smiles of my neighbors, the curiousity of locals when they see foreigners, the kindness and generosity of friends found here, the cacaphony of millions of people celebrating, the smell of the orange blossoms and the utter freedom of not giving a rat’s ass of what you look like to others (including the bold public display of excrementing) here. I want to stow that away as well.

No matter if you are intrepridly anchored to a place or a global nomad like myself, I think this exercise of unpacking and repacking our identity is an important exercise. Evaluating the “junk” and “clutter” in our beliefs and liberating them to the garbage heap is so profoundly necessary for our minds to feel the possibility of our own potential. What is truly valuable and extraordinary about oneself that is worth keeping, and subtracting from there might be a useful strategy. I’m thinking of my own list right now of redeeming qualities and wondering what I need in this next journey that awaits me.

What about you? What would you pack?

 

 

Things Life Taught Me

I’ve always been optimistic about aging. Although I was never a kid who was dying to be 10 when they were 9 years old or the 19-year old that was desperate to be 21 so I could get into bars, getting older was never something I longed for nor dreaded.  I distinctly remember a time when one of my friends had a meltdown because he was turning 28 and was nearing the 30-year-old mark, which seemed like middle age back then. That seriously makes me laugh out loud when thinking back to that moment.

Recently I saw this article: 30 things you should know before 30 and I equally guffawed aloud. Maybe 30-year-olds these days are this savvy but I swear I learned most of this stuff just last year. (kidding, sort of).  I’ve yet to have a teacher or mentor in my life who has impressed upon these lessons. It doesn’t mean that people haven’t influenced my thinking but most of what I know if from my own experience, which has been my best teacher. There are no college courses like the school of hard knocks. With that in mind, I’d like to add to this list a few quintessential lessons that I have learned that shapes so much of my thinking today.

The 10 Ten Things You Should Know When By 40.

  1. Quit the “Can’t”: With so much research done on neural plasticity and intelligence, there is literally nothing that we “can’t” do. Wgrowth-mindset.027e may not be able to do it this moment, but if we literally put our mind to it, we can become good at something at a minimum of 20 hours and an expert at it within 5 years. The first step is to develop a growth mindset and reframing failure. You can unravel long seated habits and create new skills when you omit this sort of language and thinking in your life. Period. Here’s an example: I became an “expert” at non-smoking because I practiced being a non-smoker. If I made a “mistake” and puffed on a cigarette, I wasn’t harsh on myself but admitted that I am learning a new habit of non-smoking and got back to trying my best. Over time I got momentum with longer times of non-smoking and eventually I no longer identified with this addiction. Now I the only thing I “can’t” believe is that I thought breaking this addiction was hard. It’s not when you embrace the right mindset.
  2. Travel Opens Your Mind: People are a product of their culture + experience. These 2 things create the majority of their beliefs. And our beliefs create the filter in which we see the world. If their culture is rigid and experience is limited, then their problem-solving skills are few and they often feel victimized by the world. Travel exposes people to new ideas and gains a variety of life experience, they can break out of their culture’s restricted perspectives and be more resilient and creative.
  3. Anger Must be Fleeting: My friend Shannon actually taught me this. She experienced a really big betrayal in her life but she explained to me that she could only be angry and rant about it for 3 days. After those 3 days, she no longer permitted this concern to dominate her thoughts or conversation. She set time limits to her emotional investment in the “wrongs” in her life. I loved that and have used that experience in my own life. I actually think 3 days is too generous, but that’s because I have practiced this enough times. I try to let go of my irritation within 24 hours. There are 2 thoughts that usually release me from the grips anger: compassion for others (“If they knew better, they’d do better. They aren’t evil, they just don’t have all the facts/skills”) and compassion for myself (“You made an error of judgement, but now you know. Now that you know better, you can do better”). If I am in a red hot rage, then I do eft/tapping on my meridians points. It looks weird (unless you live in China–you see this sort of thing all the time) but it really helps to diminish negative emotion. Then when I am cooled off a bit more, I make a list of all the things I appreciate about this person or myself. This really helps to reframe the emotion attached to the person.
  4. Life Is A Yoga Tree Pose: Have you ever tried to balance one leg at a time? Sometimes you can stand on one leg for a long time before switching to the other. Other times, you keep toppling over. This is how life goes. Sometimes we can maintain a “posture” for a long time, which I often equate with emotion, but eventually, we have to switch legs. So goes life. Sometimes life is full of absolute joy and sometimes it is shit. But whatever it is, these emotions and situations will pass; and I can always choose to stand on my other “foot” if I want to change my perspective.
  5. Give to Get: True relationships are built on trust and support.  Your generosity is proportional to the generosity you experience. It’s not that you only do things quid pro quo but what you practice in abundance (patience, appreciation, kindness) is tantamount to your experience.
  6. Ask, Not Assume: Misunderstandings happen. Best to ask questions rather than assume someone is doing you wrong intentionally. But don’t be patronizing–be genuinely curious. I gain a lot of insight into their perspective when I ask thoughtful questions and it improves my relationship overall. I do this all the time with my daughter and I can’t tell you how much this has helped me of be a better parent.
  7. Shut Up and Sit Down: Meditate Daily. Your brain and body will thank you. The amount of time isn’t as important as the consistency of the practice.
  8. Three’ss the Charm: 3 is the magic number so they say. Take a hint. When I hear something 3 times, I know it’s something that the universe is telling me to pay attention to and I do.
  9. It’s All Good: Our life’s tradegy is often our best blessing. Lately I was discussing my father’s death and how it took a toll on my adolescence but how I no longer look back with grief and longing. Although I wish he could have been a part of my adult life, I know that my life is for the better as a result of his loss. That trauma in my life helped cultivate so many important life skills that I might not have developed if it hadn’t have happened. There are No Victims, only people who give away power to circumstances. You can make diamonds out of life’s pressure if you choose to do so.
  10. Don’t Wait For The Lesson: If you know what you are doing is not helpful in pursuing the type of dreams you have or develops you into the person you want to become, then STOP it! Don’t wait until there is some drama that you have to contend with. Be smart in advance and make changes that will produce the outcome you want. Right. Now.

What am I missing? What would you add to this list?

 

Deliver Us From Evil

There’s a question that’s been floating around my brain for quite some time, and that is, can we create “good humans” without religion’s fear of a haunting afterlife or using a penal system to punish “bad” behavior by locking people away.  As an educator who pines for a more peaceful and equitable world, you might understand why I ask such a question as I do believe that I can make a positive impact on a human life.

During my high school psychology class, I remember learning about an experiment in which a social scientist, Stanley Milgram asked if the Holocaust could happen again.  In his experiment subjects played a role of the “teacher”, and they were told that the student was about improving memory. If the “student” could not remember something, they were to apply increasing amounts of electric shock to the finger. They could go all the way up to 4blindobediance50 V, and not surprisingly, “students” pleaded and cried to have the shocks stop, fearing that it might be fatal. At which time, the “teachers” were reminded by someone in a lab coat (not a real doctor or professor) that they have a job to perform and this shock treatment was for the “students” own good. With this reminder, the “teachers” continued to provide shocks to the “students”.  This experiment involved over 1000 participants and demonstrated the idea of “blind obedience”, in which people can be easily coaxed into mean and corruptible acts when they believe that the person giving the directive is a respected authority. This same experiment inspired other experiments that explored good people doing bad things; in particular, the most controversial and telling one by Dr. Phil Zimbarbo, who created a  prison simulation whose good kids were turned “evil” by the social situation in which they found themselves. (The experiment was supposed to go for 2 weeks but had to be stopped after 5 days due to the sadistic acts done by the “prison guards” to these mock prisoners.) Ironically, the images of Abu Ghraib in Iraq were eerily similar to the cruelty exhibited by these prison guards done in his experiment. When he was interviewed about the shocking similarities, Dr. Zimbardo came in defense of the soldiers who took on these roles because it was the expectation of the authorities above them:

Most American soliders are good apples and what we have to realize that someone put them in a bad barrel and we have to know who are the “bad” barrel makers are. And this becomes the metaphor: bad apples, what is wrong with the individual vs. bad barrels, which is situational analysis; and of course the system is the bad barrel makers, the people who make those situations and sustain them.

-Dr. Phil Lombardo-

He calls the impetus to do bad the Lucifer Effect, which if you want to know more about, you can watch his TED talk below. It’s fascinating and uncomfortable to learn about.

I postulate that this is true for all people, whether we analyze slavery, Nazis in WW2, gang violence, the genocide in Rwanda, Columbine shootings or the more recent terror attacks done by the Taliban and ISIS.  I think this is the same reason why American police officers have such a bad reputation and why the Black Lives Matter campaign began to humanize people of color so that people of authority can start to see their humanity and stop stereotyping them as criminals.  Never the less, all these people started off as “good apples” who got sucked into a system in which the lure of evil seduced them and they began to follow the orders of people they see as superiors.

 

Christians around the world say “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” And the point is that evil comes in many sizes and many shapes. There is the evil of action, doing bad things, but there is also the evil of inaction, not doing the right thing when you could.  This is the bystander effect. …People around the world do not come to aid of someone in an emergancy who needs their help. It’s so easy to cross the line…..but what about those people who resist the temptation and  power of the group, especially when everyone in the group is doing it. I began to think of them as everyday heros.

-Dr. Phil Zimbardo

 

That’s an interesting perspective and definition of “heroes”-the people who question authority and the system that allows for the dehumanization of people. As someone who was raised with Christianity, I always found Jesus to be a social deviant, caring for lepers and befriending prostitutes. He was an extraordinary and courageous man because he challenged the cultural structures of his time–and you know what that got him?-crucified!   It’s challenging to go against authority but in one of the scriptures,  Jesus tells his apostles that they can do what he does and more, encouraging them to stick their necks out for the greater good.

Dr. Zimbardo explains that small acts of evil can become an unconscious habit of compliance in our system and are compounded unless we make a conscious effort. In Confuciusism, there is a saying that “the small man thinks that small acts of goodness are of no benefit and does not do them; and that small deeds of evil do no harm, and does not refrain from them; hence wickedness becomes so great that it cannot be concealed.”  Dehumanism is the first symptom of going down that slippery slope of evil and happens easily when we begin to label people—perhaps you recognize these some of these labels:

Mexicans, terrorists, Muslims, Christians, immigrants, blacks, women, men, Republicans, Democrats, Communists, Politicians, WASPs, Jews, Kooks, Asians, Blonds etc…

helpers

I agree with Fred Rogers, it’s vital to shift our focus toward the people who are helping others. And hopefully, those people are us. Maybe we can stand up or our children who stand up and make a difference.

These are easy to spot and quite obvious, especially when one turns on the news, as it shamelessly glorifies violence and hatred as a form of entertainment.

However, the antidote to evil is to begin to look at others as humans–people who share the same life struggles as we all do–then it is simple to do more good towards one another. It’s easier to stop and give that “bum” (a common label in society for people who are poor and homeless) a dollar when you act with compassion toward a person, knowing that ANY of us could be in that situation and connect with the thread that binds us all. Currently, the research shows that only 10% of people globally practice “mindful disobedience“–Zimbardo’s term for heroism–these are the whistleblowers and the everyday individuals who take extraordinary actions that defy the norms of the system they find themselves in. Not many people choose to challenge authority because of the negative consequences that they may encounter as a result of their action. For example, the Private who disclosed the abuse at Abu Ghraib had to hide him and his family for 3 years due to the death threats and emotional suffering that he encountered. Not everyone can go into exile like that, which is why so many people shy away from such acts of heroism.

But I do think we can do something about that 10%. 

The first step begins with us as individuals. Awareness and reflecting on our actions and words–are we participating either actively or passively in dehumanizing others, demonstrating agreement with exerting power over individuals that deny them dignity and compassion? C’mon–there’s a 90% chance that we are. Look hard enough and you can find ways that you are contributing to hatred and evil in the world.  Goodness knows that I’m searching my conscious and definitely find ways in which I could improve and be a kinder and more involved human.

And of course, it’s about education. I believe that you can teach children this skill of recognizing our humanity and helping them to develop the courage to stand up for each other, even if it means ridicule from our families, our religious community or other cultural structures that they find themselves in. If we can teach guide dogs for the blind intelligent disobedience  (the dog’s ability to know when not to execute a command it’s given when that command would bring harm to the person), then we can teach kids mindful disobedience as well.

Hopefully, newer generations will feel compelled to take positive action in the face of what may be the status quo of their culture or the system they find themselves in.  This could take the form of telling someone politely that their racist joke is actually quite offensive or disagreeing with your pastor’s advice to vote a certain way, or choosing not to post something on social media that dehumanizes others.  Deviation from these behaviors will hopefully cultivate a “new normal” over time, in which we begin to understand that the rights of others are everyone’s responsibility, regardless of race, religion, gender or beliefs. Respect and acceptance can become commonplace in our political and social systems if we develop awareness in ourselves and our children. I do believe that we can be “delivered from evil”, and I hope that you will take a moment to pause and consider how you might become a better human being as well because it’s simply the RIGHT thing to do.

 

 

NEXT.

universeLooking back I can see all the uncanny signs that Barcelona, Spain wasn’t meant to be, but I didn’t imagine that we’d be moving to Laos. Yes, that’s right, I’ve accepted a contract and we are moving to Vientiane, Laos. For the last two months, my husband and I have had the mantra: let’s create a move that works for all of us (My husband, my daughter and me). This triple win was an essential component of our decision-making process. We’ve been grappling with making this choice for the last 2 weeks since it meant that I would have to defer leadership opportunities at other IB schools and merely be “just a teacher”–when I shared my worry out loud, one of my cherished colleagues at school reprimanded me for framing it as an insult. I’m really grateful that she told me off because she gave me an important perspective and I needed to reflect on my litmus test for my next position. Making decisions based upon job titles when our life’s work should be about joy, is how our ego can be our own undoing.

Ego always prevents you from accomplishing the success that you want to have. ..It’s not that ego prevents you from what you want to do. It’s that ego prevents you from what you want to do next….So you can never stop being a student because students are humble-they know that there is someone above them that can teach them.

Ryan Holiday, author of Ego is the Enemy

Last year I read Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson and this book’s premise of the moving towards the adjacent possible has left a residue on my soul. I caconnectionnnot shake the excitement of developing innovation, especially in education. I’m a progressive educator and I really wanted to work at a school that was absorbed in this process.  When I shared that I had interviews with Vientiane International School, several of my colleagues got excited for me, and more than one person said that it was a “dream school”. As I engaged in dialogue about curriculum and education during my interviews at VIS, it was the oddest sort of communion that one might feel when they are undergoing a vetting process. I began to understand why it was such a highly respected school in Asia.  I feel like I have signed up for a journey towards this “adjacent possible” and I am grateful that I get to be a “just a teacher”, fully engaged and focused on cultivating the next generation of leaders, inventors, writers, diplomats, engineers, doctors, artists, entrepreneurs, and educators. Etc….

Even though it may seem on the outside that I have strayed from a certain professional trajectory, I have come to trust my intuition, being infinitely surprised by how magic and miracles show up when I lean in with faith. It felt the best fit for our whole family, and I look forward to seeing what opportunities will emerge for my husband now, as he looks to work at NGOs and/or in the hydroelectricity field.  Life is full of surprises and zig-zags, and sometimes you just have to adjust your sails so you can catch the wind. This past year has definitely been the case.

Although I intend to savor my current experience here in China, I am finishing the sentences of this chapter of my life.

Next.

 

 

To Africa, with Love 

A long time ago I had a friend from Senegal who used to admonish me for telling kids at camp to finish their food because “there are starving kids in Africa”. He would tell me that there is so much more to the continent of Africa than kids with bloated bellies and he didn’t want me to spread this message. It has taken me years to finally grasp what he meant. I owe him a sincere apology.

I reckon most people from the western world don’t travel to countries in Africa unless they want to go on safari or are involved in some religious/charity work. I don’t know what compelled us to journey to South Africa exactly but we ventured there during our long Chinese New Year holiday. It’s been, hands down, the most amazing time spent as a family.

From the moment we boarded our Ethiopian Airline’s flight in Shanghai, the whole atmosphere of the airplane was different. It was a full flight with seeming strangers but I immediately felt like we were apart of a community, in which fellow African passengers helped each other with their luggage, made jokes and referred to each other as “brother” and “sister”-even though they were not even related.  I am not a person who knows much about the history and culture of many African nations, but it was obvious to me that they shared some common values which were easy to connect with, no matter the age or language barrier between them. I’ve done a lot of traveling but I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Needless to say, it left an impression on me.

I’ve known quite a few people who feel drawn to the soils of Africa and now I totally get what they cherish about it. Even though I only spent time in Addis Abbas and Cape Town, I believe that you can be anywhere in Africa and have a similar experience. And what experience is that? An experience of breath-taking beauty–not just of nature but of the human spirit. And it was a place full of contradictions, particularly between poverty and wealth. It’s really hard to even relate this in words. Words can not capture what it is that I want to say, but I am utterly grateful for my experience there. And, I urge you, the reader, to go visit and experience for yourself. And if you keep your mind and heart open, I believe that you will have an unforgettable experience that will leave an indelible mark on your consciousness.