Zen mom, overextended mom

Central Tibet, 17th Century, Rubin Museum of Art

This picture on my home altar because it is not only beautiful but because I feel very connected to the imagery.  Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, is my favorite bodhisattva insofar as one can have a favorite bodhisattva.  I guess if I was Catholic, and she was too, she would be my patron saint.  Her name means “The Lord Who Looks in Every Direction”.  In Japan she is known as Kannon which means Watchful Listening, or “The One Who Sees and Hears All”.

From the Lotus Sutra:

Living beings are beset with hardships,
And oppressed by limitless sufferings.
The power of Kannon’s wondrous wisdom
Can rescue the world from suffering.

Undefiled pure light,
The sun of wisdom that breaks through the darkness
Is able to quell calamities of wind and fire
As it shines on all worlds.

Compassionate substance: the thunder of precepts.
Kind intent: a wondrous great cloud.
He rains down sweet dew and Dharma rain,
Which extinguish the flames of affliction.

I love the idea of rescuing the world from suffering simply by offering compassion.

But here’s the thing.  When I first sat with this image, I didn’t see it.  For a long time, I saw something more like this:

No matter what I did, it wasn’t enough.  If I had 1,000 arms I should have had 1,001.  Either I was saving the world single-handedly or I was failing.  The harder I worked, the more I began to feel like this:

(You don’t see me in the picture; I’m the half dead animal on the side of the road.)

I became exhausted, resentful, overwhelmed.  In my efforts to embody Infinite Compassion, I was pushing it away.

But as I sat with Avalokiteshvara, I noticed that she isn’t running around, frazzled, putting out fires.  She isn’t shape-shifting, trying to be all things to all people.  She is seated, centered, focused and wise.

She is simply, beautifully, herself.

John Daido Loori says,

One of the characteristics of Avalokiteshvara is that she manifests herself in accord with the circumstances. So she always presents herself in a form that’s appropriate to what’s going on. In the bowery, she manifests as a bum. Tonight, in barrooms across the country, she’ll manifest as a drunk. Or as a motorist on the highway, or as a fireman, or a physician. Always responding in accord with the circumstances, in a form appropriate to the circumstances.

In other words, I am just one of Avalokiteshvara’s arms.  I am in a particular place at a particular time, and my job is to realize my Buddha nature within the context of my particular form: Suburban(ish) Middle-Class Mom.  My manifestation is just as valuable as any other.

My work is not to do it all, but simply to do what is in front of me, right here, right now.

Over time, I began to notice something else.  The bodhisattva is not surrounded by tired, poor, tempest-tossed huddled masses.  She is surrounded by Buddhas.  Her work is not only, or not necessarily, about serving the wretched refuse.  Her work is about living from her own Buddha nature and recognizing the Buddha in everyone else.

Despite slight variations, all the Buddhas are basically the same.

There is not one that is more deserving of, or in need of, compassion.  Each person’s needs look different, and they are all equally valid.  I am not failing to manifest compassion because I sit in a warm home with a full stomach while I deal with first-world problems like car repairs and whether Harry should go to preschool or not.

The problems that my peers and I face may be less critical than those of others, but they are no less valid.  Perhaps our disconnection from community and spirituality leaves us more in the need of Infinite Compassion.  Perhaps it is in touching the Buddha nature in each other that we will begin to responsibly use the power we have to affect the lives of others and the health of our entire planet.  Perhaps I’m exactly where I am supposed to be.

The New Story

Image courtesy of flickr user stef thomas

Image courtesy of flickr user stef thomas

I have had the great good fortune to be accepted into the Metta Center’s Nonviolence Studies Pilot Program – yay!  Our first assignment was to consider the paradigm shift that be required if we are to achieve a nonviolent society and to write our own New Story.  Here is mine:

My 90-year-old grandmother recently called to discuss a documentary she had seen on PBS.  ”They said that all the corn is cross-contaminated with corn from other fields, so there’s no point in spending all that extra money on organic food.”

I launched an explanation of GMOs, pesticides, sustainable farming, farm workers’ rights, animal welfare, human health, and the fact that it takes more calories to ship a strawberry from Mexico to New Jersey than the strawberry is worth.  I may as well have changed the subject to the weather (sans mention of global climate change).

I can hardly blame her for her point of view.  She grew up on a farm where she pumped water from a well and carried it in a bucket.  She washed, hung and ironed the laundry for her family of nine by hand.  Every meal was prepared “from scratch” without microwaves, cold food storage, an electric or gas oven, or even Hamburger Helper.

I often say that she is from the Better Living Through Science Generation.  The washing machine meant that laundry took a couple of hours instead of a couple of days.  New cleaning products meant less time spent on her hands and knees scrubbing floors and bathtubs.  Medical advances all but eliminated diseases like smallpox and polio.  Her telephone and medical alert system allow her to continue living independently.  She is by no means “rich” but she lives a life of comfort she never could have imagined as a girl.

She simply cannot fathom why I would create unnecessary work for myself by line-drying my clothes or canning my own pickles.

To my grandmother, who watched her husband, brothers, and sons go off to war and who now lives in a middle-class suburb of New York City, it looks like violence is steep declining.  The women’s rights and civil rights movements have been successful.  The world is full of democracy and no one need fear a midnight knock from the KGB or the SS.  Human rights and international aid organizations build more wells and medical clinics every day

These points are hard to argue, yet they gloss over a great deal of complexity.  While she, like many others, is surrounded by items manufactured halfway across the globe, she has very little knowledge of the lives of people a few miles away in cities like Newark or Camden, never mind the people in China who made her slippers.

Violence is largely more subtle now, making invisible unless you go looking for it.

There may be laws to protect people from discrimination, but centuries of systemic, habitual oppression cannot be easily cast off in the oppressed or the oppressors.  The Iron Curtain may have fallen but people from former Soviet-Bloc countries who are ill-equipped to compete in the global marketplace now live in poverty.  The period of European colonialism has ended, but it has been replaced by neocolonialism which simply uses money instead of guns to wield power.  Americans reap the benefits of outrageously expensive medications while children are orphaned by AIDS or die of diseases that cost pennies to treat.

Violence against humans is just the tip of the iceberg.  Sitting at the zenith of the Industrial Age that has given us washing machines and cell phones, we can see the exorbitant toll it has taken on the natural systems that maintain us.  We use increasingly destructive means to extract resources,  diminish biodiversity daily, manipulate our food systems with chemicals and genetic modifications, all in the name of turning a profit but without a clue as to the effects on our health in the present or our ability to exist into the future.

Lest I leave the impression that my grandmother is an enemy of nonviolence, I will share my youngest uncle’s favorite story about her.  When he was maybe six years old, she took him to visit her sister in Paterson, which was once a thriving industrial city but had begun to descend into urban decay.  They stopped for ice cream on their way home, and while they sat at the counter an African-American man came in and sat a few seats away.  My uncle was nervous and asked if they could leave; in response she sat next to the man and started chatting about his children, where he lived, what he did for a living, and what he liked to do with his spare time.  She never lectured about racism or equality.

She simply respected the dignity of each human being she met.

I see myself as part of a growing movement towards sustainability and harmony, and my grandmother played a huge part in starting me on this path.  My hope is that I will find the grace to live the message of peace and love that is in my heart to show my own children – indeed, everyone I meet – that we have a choice.  We can make world into a place of beauty and nonviolence.

What is the legacy you hope to leave?  What stories about you would you want your grandchildren to tell?

The future of the world passes through the family

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

The future of the world…passes through the family. ~ Pope John Paul II

Actually the full quote is, “The future of the world and the church passes through the family.” Though I’m not concerned with the future of the church (all due respect to those who are), the recognition that the future is determined by what goes on in our homes is extremely compelling.

Compelling, and a little intimidating.

I chose parenthood and entered into it with the benefit of personal, marital and financial stability. I actively prepared for it and continue to make it my priority. Still, I feel unequal to the task of nurturing two future changemakers. I make mistakes every day. I lose my temper and raise my voice. I work more than I should, and spend less time with my kids than they deserve. I don’t feed them enough fruits and veggies, and sometimes we have pizza three times in a week.

But at least I have a road map when it comes to my own family; I have an idea of what I want to accomplish. My obligation to my own family is clear to the extent that my goals are clear. What is significantly less clear to me is my obligation to the community at large. It is not my responsibility – indeed, not my right – to tell others how to live. Yet I have a deep conviction that our world would be a much better place if people developed a more peaceful approach to life, and I want to facilitate that shift.

If I want to see non-violence in the world, how can I support other families as well as my own?

I work hard to practice non-violence as I understand it. I encourage my own children to do the same. But we are just one small family, and while our family is important I want to do more.

On my home altar, I have the above message from Thich Nhat Hanh: Peace in oneself, peace in the world. On the one surface it seems obvious, hardly worth stating even, that peace on a large scale begins with individual people making individual choices that support peace. But this is one of those teachings that has layers of meaning that are peeled away the more you sit with it. Taken to a deeper level, peace is more than the absence of overt violence, and cultivating a peaceful heart has more subtle and more profound effect than simply refraining from causing obvious injury to another.

Recently I was listening to a lecture by MIchael Nagler on non-violence and mirror neurons. Neuroscientists have found that we have neurons that behave the same way when we do something as when we watch someone else do it, which helps explain why we feel nervous when someone checks out the strange noise in a horror movie and we cry when we see a Kleenex commercial.

I understand this as an anatomical or physiological underpinning of “vibes”. When I am around someone who is stressed out, I feel stressed. Spending time around someone who is angry leaves me feeling a bit angry myself. But when I am with someone who is peaceful and centered, I take a bit of that with me. My own state of mind is impacted by the people around me.

But it works the other way, too: we impact the states of mind of others. In this way, we can promote peace with everyone we meet without saying a word. If we walk in the world with peace in our hearts and minds, others people’s mirror neurons will reflect that and they will feel a bit more peaceful than they otherwise would have. The more we elevate the level of peace in ourselves, the more it is elevated in the people around us, and around them, and around the world.

How will you boost the peace factor in the world today?

1MM4NV

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Elvert Barnes

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Elvert Barnes

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings nearly two months ago, we are still in shock and looking for answers.  Who is at fault?  Parents?  The mental health system?  Weak gun control laws?  What can we do to prevent something like this from happening again?

Naturally, the issues of gun control and gun violence is front and center in the conversation.  The organization One Million Moms for Gun Control has gained huge popularity, and based on the numbers turning out at rallies and marches across the country, their message has struck a chord.  I’ve been watching the news of their influence and growth with great interest.  What can I say?

I’m a sucker for stories about moms on a mission making waves.

I can’t say that I am in favor of gun ownership.  I can’t fathom any legitimate reasons for a civilian to possess an assault rifle.  I would not knowingly allow my children to play in a home where there are guns.  I just don’t get the fun in shooting another living thing.  I don’t like it when Harry pretends to use a gun (though the fact that he continues to do so despite the decidedly anti-firearm culture in our home is a topic for another post, or maybe a book….)

I understand the immense appeal of the idea that passing laws regulating gun ownership would make our children safer.

 I wish it were so easy, except guns aren’t the problem and stricter gun control laws aren’t the solution.  As they say, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  Admittedly, a gun makes the difference between killing one or two people and killing 28, but people have been committing murder since time immemorial with fists, rocks, knives, fire, water, and all sorts of other implements.

Improving the mental health system in our country gets much closer to the heart of the issue.    Certainly, efforts to keep guns away from clearly unstable people couldn’t hurt.  However, the vast majority of gun crimes are not committed by people who would be identified as mentally ill, never mind the hundreds of accidental gun deaths that occur in the US each year.

Where does that leave us?  Do we just sit back and wait for another Sandy Hook, Jonesboro, Virginia Tech or Columbine?

Obviously not.  But the question begs to be asked:

What is up with Americans and their guns?

Our per capita gun ownership almost double that of the next country.  Americans own almost six times as many guns as Indians (second on the list of total civilian gun ownership), despite the fact that the Indian population is nearly four times that of the US.  A look at the twenty-five nations with the highest gun violence rates shows the United States right up there with South Africa, El Salvador and Albania.

In a 2005 Gallup Poll, 67% of gun owners cited self-defense as their motivation.  Granted, people gave multiple reasons and there was some overlap.  But seriously – 35 million Americans trust their neighbors that little?  Is it just me, or is that outrageous?

Why are we so afraid of each other?

Focusing on gun control is like giving someone with a broken leg an Advil.  It might help a bit, but it doesn’t even begin to address the real problem, and it creates yet another division between right and left, red and blue.  So I propose a new mother’s movement:  ONE MILLION MOMS FOR NON-VIOLENCE.  Instead of lobbying our representatives for new legislation, we go into our homes, our schools, and our communities and treat each other with love and respect.

Instead of fear and fighting, we can choose trust and love.  

We can all commit to finding solutions to our problems that may not be ideal, but that respect everyone’s needs.  This will not be easy.  We do not live in a culture of cooperation.  Maybe it’s the spirit of rugged American individualism, but most of us operate from a worldview of scarcity and competition.  But we need to recognize that this is a choice we make, and we can make another choice.

Who is with me?

Is homeschooling illiberal? Part 2

homeschool child outdoors learning

image courtesy of flickr user spree2010

(My continued rant about Dana Goldstein’s Slate article, “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids: Why Teaching Children at Home Violates Progressive Values”)

No one thinks that teachers or administrators are out to oppress parents or children.  It is the system that is, inherently and fundamentally, oppressive.  Public school staff are placed in an impossible situation.  They are given large groups of children who vary from each other in every imaginable way (except for chronological age) and are expected to teach these children the information they need to perform well on standardized tests created by people who know nothing of their particular students or situation.  Their schools’ funding, not to mention their jobs, depend on their ability to achieve this task.  No matter how hard they work, how much they sacrifice, they are told they are not doing enough.  Curriculum becomes increasingly standardized, laws become increasingly strict, and ultimately schools become little more than child management facilities.  No amount of vociferous debate will change this central fact.

How could it be any different?

If “government is the only institution with the power and scale to intervene in the massive undertaking of better educating American children” – the government that allows children to starve while bazillionaires drive around in private jets, that is more concerned with playing party politics than enacting legislation that will benefit its people – then we are doomed.  Perhaps other Western democracies enjoy a greater investment in public education because in other Western democracies the public enjoys greater government support.  Other countries provide guaranteed health care and paid family leave to citizens.  Other countries take food and environmental safety seriously.  Perhaps other Western democracies have earned their citizens’ trust.

As a counterpoint to Betsy Blanchette, I proffer the story of my friend F. whose son has Down syndrome.  At the time he was required to enter school in order to continue to receive special services, he was non-verbal.  He did, however, have an extensive sign language vocabulary; unfortunately, that did not do him any good.  You see, his school district refused to hire an aide who was fluent in sign language, saying that it was not necessary for this three-year-old boy who could not chew or reliably use the toilet to have the ability to efficiently communicate with a responsible adult.  Despite his parents’ retaining counsel and entering into litigation with the district, exercising their legal recourse, the school would not budge.  I have heard similar stories from other parents of special-needs children.

Are you f*&%ing kidding me?

Luckily, his parents had the means to move to a different school district, one more in touch with its “expertise, resources, and legal responsibility” with respect to this child.  But what if they hadn’t?

Broad scale buy in followed by kicking and screaming at school board meetings is unlikely to cause any meaningful shift in the behemoth that is American public education, at least not any time soon.  On the other hand, is it possible that the best way for education reformers to be heard is to homeschool – boycott if you will?  Gandhi, King, Chavez…need I go on?

Frankly Ms. Goldstein, your judgement regarding social values practiced versus preached is offensive.  Your accusation that I either enroll my children in public school or practice piecemeal philanthropy is disrespectful.  I want my children to grow up to be kind, compassionate, honest, generous, courageous, self-disciplined, wise and principled individuals who are motivated and passionate about making this world a better place.  After my daughter’s short time in our public school (in one of the top-rated districts in our state) it is clear to me that although lip service is paid to these qualities, they are not really valued.  Obedience, academic performance, and conformity are most highly prized.  In order to be taught, they must first be subdued.

If you can convince me that children who are trained to obey, conform, and be people-pleasers are well situated to bring about broad social change, then I am willing to reconsider the whole public school thing.

Good luck with that.

Is homeschooling illiberal?


is public school or homeschool more liberal, progressive

image courtesy of flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography

Dana Goldstein’s Slate article contending that homeschooling is antithetical to progressive social values has hit a nerve.  Homeschooling supporters Astra Taylor, Conor Friedersdorf, and Stephanie Baselice have offered rebuttals.  Since we are leaning toward homeschooling Bess and Harry, I am eyeing the debate with interest.

Goldstein’s thesis is this: Truly community-minded, liberal, progressive parents enroll their children in public school, become involved in the PTO and/or school board, and work to make things better.  I used to see her point.  I have come to understand that no amount of money or parent involvement is going to make public education anything other than what it is: too big and dysfunctional to be fixed.  I believe with every fiber of my being that each human being on this planet deserves an education.  American schools contain children but, unfortunately, fail to educate them in fundamental ways.

For what it’s worth, here are my two cents:

  • The number of homeschooling families who fail to support public education with their children’s presence (an estimated 1 – 2 million children) represents only a fraction of the children not enrolled in public school.  There are 5.5 million children enrolled in private schools, yet the focus of Goldstein’s argument is on homeschoolers.  Why should this be? Is there some fundamental difference between withdrawing from the public school system and placing your resources in a privately funded school as opposed to no school at all?  Is her gripe really about taking resources (i.e., children) out of public school, or out of school altogether?
  • Homeschooling parents will be the first to tell you that it is hard work and it isn’t for everyone, but that even single parents and families who struggle financially can make it work.  This does not stop Goldstein from accusing  homeschoolers of exercising class privilege ”rooted…in the dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families, in which at least one parent can afford (and wants) to take significant time away from paid work in order to manage a process—education—that most parents entrust to the community at-large”.  Does having money make it easier?  Of course it does.  But wealth or unemployment are not requisite.
  • Molesters in schools are bad for PR, but they aren’t driving people to homeschool.  Parents are afraid of school violence and bullying.  These things are not rare.
  • Homeschooling is about teaching children to respect and trust themselves.  If that means having a distrust of public institutions, maybe that lack of trust is justified.  When children starve and go without medical care in the richest country in the world, when lies are used to justify sending people to war to kill other people, such trust is hard to defend.
  • Low income children attending middle-class schools may earn higher test scores, but correlation does not imply causation (Statistics 101).  Is this a peer effect as Goldstein argues?  Or is it that middle-class schools have more money, resources, and good teachers?  If you created a school with identical conditions and filled it with disadvantaged children, would they perform just as well?  And what of those low-income kids, anyway?  Their test scores may be higher if they go to school with middle-class kids – but what does that mean for them in real life?  Anything?  Nothing?  Just because school is capable of addressing poverty doesn’t mean it actually does.
  • Goldstein declares that public school makes children better people.  As evidence, she cites research suggesting that “adult graduates of integrated high schools shared a commitment to diversity, to understanding and bridging cultural differences, and to appreciating ‘the humanness of individuals across racial lines.’”  Though I did not read the research, I think it is safe to assume that the comparison is between individuals who attended integrated high schools and those who attended homogeneous high schools. I wonder what such research would find if they compared either (or both) of these groups to homeschooled children.

To be continued…

(This post has been featured on the front page of BlogHer Family, and is part of the Seasonal Celebration Sunday Linky Party at Natural Mothers Network.  If you’re visiting from one of those places, WELCOME to Ahimsa Mama!)

Disney Corporation: Yoo hoo!

Not Harry's finest smile...

Today I have a guest post over at Humane Connection describing some of my observations from a recent trip to Walt Disney World:

I know, I know.  Disney, the the embodiment of what ails us as a society and a species.  It’s not my favorite place, but it holds fond memories for my husband, my kids enjoy it, and their grandmother lives in Orlando.  And so we go.

As a student of humane education, I found abundant opportunities for considering all sorts of issues and for practicing critical thinking with my kids; an entire book could be (and has been, many times over) written about the company.  For the purposes of creating a blog post of reasonable length, I’ve decided to focus on four popular rides that could use some tweaks – minor ones, really – in order to truly “weave the importance of diversity and inclusiveness” into guests’ experiences.

Go check it out (please), and add your own ideas!

Mother lit – what I’m reading these days

It's a beautiful thing, isn't it? image courtesy of flickr user nSeika

One organization that is near and dear to my heart is MOTHERS (Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights), an organization which works for policy changes that will increase the economic security for care workers, especially mothers, and especially especially mothers who take time out of the paid workforce to care for their children.  I occasionally guest post on their blog (see here and here), and I do book reviews for their MOTHERS Book Bag group on GoodReads.  I hope that you’ll visit, leave some feedback or suggestions for future reads, or maybe even join the group.  Some of my latest reads include:

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Fans of Joan Didion’s previous works will find something entirely different between the covers of Blue Nights, but then how could one possibly turn an objective, journalistic eye towards the topic of the death of one’s child? In this effort to understand, to come to terms with the loss of her daughter, Quintana Roo, Didion does what she does best – she tells stories.  Read More…

 

Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood by Cori Howard

Cori Howard’s collection of essays, Between Interruptions: 30 Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood (now available for Kindle and Nook), falls squarely and beautifully into the category of Non-Fluffy. In each essay, Canadian writers offer honest explorations of the agony and the ecstasy of motherhood in a way that is easy an interesting to read. In sections exploring the topics of ambition, anxiety, guilt, devotion and redemption, writers explore each of these experiences that is shared by all mothers, everywhere. Marina Jimenez leaves her toddler son to travel to Baghdad as a foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail. Joanna Streetly gives up her beloved house boat for the love (and safety) of her daughter. Randi Chapnik Myers has a complicated relationship with her nanny. Susan Olding is an adoptive mother; Lisa Bendall, the mother of just one. Rachel Rose attends cocktail parties looking for the sperm donor who will make her and her partner, Isabelle, mothers. Cristina Sampang leaves her children in the Philippines to find a job caring for someone else’s children in an effort to give her own a better life. Every mother will find herself between the covers of this book.  Read More…

Making It Up As I Go Along: A Novel by Maria Lennon

For a woman whose previous identity hinged on bearing witness to the atrocities of war as a reporter for the London Times, attending pool parties and lunching with ladies for whom only Catherine Zeta-Jones’ favorite diaper cream will do represents a bit of culture shock. Heaven was a self-made woman who had taken over her husband’s real estate company and earned millions with it, but she raised her daughter to value ambition over comfort. Even as Saffron settled into live in Malibu, more or less, she continued to long for Africa even with its danger and hardships.  Read More…

Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life by Stephanie Staal

In an effort to understand where she had gone wrong, or perhaps where feminism had gone wrong, Staal decided to return to her alma mater, Barnard, to re-take the course Fem Texts to see if the words and ideas of her foremothers were able to shed any light on her situation. First commuting from Annapolis to Manhattan once a week (pretty sweet, right?) and continuing after her family moved back to New York, Staal re-studied the works of such thinkers as Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Betty Friedan and Kate Millett. From a different vantage point than the other students in the class, as well as from the person she was when she first read these texts as a young and idealistic college student, she begins to understand herself as a wife, mother and person in a different way. Throughout the story, we watch as the author comes to peace with her marriage and motherhood as she studies patriarchy, society, and feminism again.  Read More…

The “Boy Crisis”…and why it doesn’t exactly work out to be such a crisis after all

Check out my guest post at Your (Wo)Man in Washington today:

If you read books like The Wonder of Boys and Raising Cain, you will learn that today’s American boys are in crisis.  As schools become more heavily focused on academic achievement and test scores, children are expected to spend more time seated quietly at their desks while physical education and recess are being squeezed out of their schedules.  The crunch is on after school as well, when time is spent going to organized activities and completing homework instead of running around outside, playing stickball and manhunt and generally letting off steam.

Boys, who on average are less inclined to sit quietly at desks and have more of a need to move their bodies, are suffering disproportionately under the current state of affairs.  Some even argue that the bias against girls in academic settings is a relic of the past.  With teachers under ever-increasing pressure, they tend to favor girls who (again on average) are more able to sit and focus for long periods of time.  This is borne out by the fact that young women are currently earning more post-secondary degrees than young men.

If women are doing better in school, and are earning more advanced degrees, then logic would dictate that the number of women in positions of power and prestige should be at least equal to, if not exceeding, the number of men.  And yet…women continue to be underrepresented in business, science, academia, medicine, and government.  The reason seems obvious:  biology is destiny, and motherhood makes the difference.

Mental Health for Activists

Words from Thomas Merton:

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence and that is activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful. ~Taken from Radical Self-Acceptance by Tara Brach

These are powerful words. Maybe a little too strong, but I wonder how many activists can relate to them. Is it just me?

As someone who subjects themselves to this:

Images from flickr users US National Archives, Wagner T. Cassimiro

every day how could you not be a little depressed? Animal abuse, child labor, slavery, the destruction of our environment…it’s a drag. When I think about the world we are leaving to my kids and my grandchildren, on my better days I a little bit want to cry. On my worst days I want to crawl under my bed and never come out.

In order to advocate on behalf of the abused and downtrodden, we have to open our eyes to their pain and suffering, to really feel it, own it almost as if it were our own. But I wonder how we can hold this space of awareness and compassion while simultaneously giving ourselves what we need to stay healthy. I know, action is the antidote to despair and all that, but let’s face facts: sometimes action is not enough to stave off despair.

As someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression for my entire adult life, I am particularly sensitive to this. I wonder if my baggage has predisposed me to a life of activism. Maybe it’s a way for me to find meaning when I feel like life is meaningless. Maybe it’s a way for me to deflect my own pain by focusing on that of others. Or maybe it’s the opposite, maybe misery loves company. Maybe it’s just the “active” part of activism that appeals to me, because as long as I’m doing something then I’m okay. I often compare myself to a shark: if I stop moving, I’ll die.

Then I heard the quote above and it gave me serious pause. The idea of activism, of wanting to help others, as violence to self keeps rolling around in my head. I don’t really buy into it – in fact, I believe that the opposite is actually true, that service to others is an important part of mental health – but where is the line between being of service to others and caring for self? Is there a line? Is it a balancing act that I just haven’t mastered yet?

A part of me had a jolt of recognition upon hearing this: by taking the peaceful place within myself that I had worked so hard to carve out and filling it with Stuff I Have To Do, I am actually becoming a much less effective advocate for peace, not to mention a much less healthy and happy person and mother. I think about people who have devoted their lives to service – you know, Mother Theresa, people like that – and I wonder what they were like in their quiet moments. How were they able to sustain themselves over the long haul? I wonder if they were fundamentally stronger than I am, or if they prioritized self-care and self-worth better than I do, or if they were closet nut cases just like me.

So, what of it? How do you you keep yourself from falling into a pit of despair as you think about the dark underbelly of life, of the cruel and destructive things that go on around us? Please share!