Saturday, November 24, 2012

Are You a Dog, a Cat or a Guinea Pig?

The other night, sitting around the Thanksgiving table, surrounded by friends, I got to thinking about the ways we reach out to others and seek affection.  I am so lucky I married someone for whom the act of making connections comes naturally.  I am not that person, and if my husband Sam were not in my life, my community would be a much, much smaller circle, and my life would be much poorer as a result.  Even those friends who haven't come to me through Sam have often come into my life because Sam has helped me become better at reaching out and connecting.

As I contemplated this reality over Thanksgiving dinner, it struck me how much I am like a guinea pig.  I have a guinea pig as a class pet in my 3rd grade classroom.  Sarge is his name.  He doesn't like to be picked up.  However, he is, by nature, a social animal.  So, although he is reluctant and often seems to run away from contact and affection, he  truly needs it and he is a sadder guinea pig without it.  It takes a bit of an effort, and a strong sense of self, to love the Sarges of this world.

Some people are more like dogs.  Dogs joyfully seek affection at every turn, sometimes shamelessly courting it, always giving it with undying loyalty and unquestioning belief that the person receiving their affection is, de facto, worthy of such affection.  They are sometimes wrong about that.  It rarely deters them.  They are the hopeless romantics of the animal kingdom.  I'm not sure I want to be a dog, though they are to be admired.  My pride perhaps prevents me.

I think I aspire to be more of a cat.  Cats appear to be loners.  However, when once they connect with you, they willingly seek affection, but only and always on their own terms. They don't run from it, but they won't sacrifice their sense of self to receive it.

With apologies to dog-lovers everywhere, I here end my ruminations on the cat, the dog and the guinea pig.  Feel free to add your own thoughts on other members of the animal kingdom.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Case Against Being Solitary as an Oyster

One of my all-time favorite holiday stories is A CHRISTMAS CAROL and I'm a purist.  I'm not a big fan of updated, modernized takes on the Dickens tale, because Dickens' language is just too magnificent.  Today, a phrase from Dickens was sticking in my mind, the first description of Scrooge, in which, among other things, Dickens says he is "solitary as an oyster."  What a great metaphor!  Closed up so tight nothing can get in or out without effort, prying, muscle, possibly killing the thing inside in order to retrieve its pearl.

This phrase came to my mind as I wrestled with the heavy oppression of dysthemia which hits me on and off especially as the darkness takes over and the sunlight grows scarce.  When my depression hits, I feel overwhelmingly alienated from others, like I can't fit in and should never even try.  The sense of disconnection is like being on a fog-shrouded island, all alone.  And the effort to reach out and connect with fellow human beings seems like climbing a mountain.  It is all too easy in this state of mind to self-isolate, to become, like Scrooge, as "solitary as an oyster."

But the lesson of Dickens' story is the power of human connection, the over-riding essential value of that connection, of remembering that we are, as Scrooge's nephew Fred puts it, "fellow travelers" on the journey.  Sometimes, when you least want that connection is when you most need it.  Lucky for me, I have a husband who understands this, and, more importantly, understands it about me.  He often reminds me of this lesson at critical moments.  So, as I rounded out my week, even though the grey fog was pulling me down, I made the conscious effort to connect, with my students and with my colleagues. It was worth the struggle.

If you, like me, find yourself on the fog-shrouded island at this time of year, I encourage you to reach out, no matter hard that might be.  Fight the urge to be as solitary and shut-up as an oyster.  An oyster's treasure is only revealed when it's open.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Brave Isn't the Same as Fearless

One of my students, facing his fear
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I worked with a child abuse prevention organization called Community Advocates (now known as Listen To Kids).  We talked to kids about being "inside strong."  We defined it as being brave or asking for help or saying "no" even when you feel scared.  I think it was the first time I understood the difference between "courage" and "fearlessness."  It doesn't take much courage to do the things you're not scared of in the first place.  Courage comes when you step forward and do what you know must be done or should be done even though you're scared.

What makes this tricky is that fear is there for a reason.  It's a survival response.  People who tell you "there's nothing to be afraid of" clearly don't get it.  If you had no fear, you'd do a lot of stupid, dangerous things and you probably wouldn't survive for long (unless y
ou're a super hero).  But sometimes fear stops you when it shouldn't.  So how do you know when to listen to your fear and when you should act in spite of your fear?

That's where the other parts of our brains come in, the parts that act on more than instinct, the parts that take in and analyze all the information plus our own experience, weigh the possible consequences, and seek to make the choice we believe to be right, based on our values.

So, the next time you feel afraid, don't take it as weakness.  It's your survivor's instinct.  What you do next?  That's the rest of you.