My grandson started kindergarten this fall. He is going out on his own without his mom and dad. It's a scary experience. He's worried and irritable. I want to protect him from the fears, sorrows and disappointments he will face in his life. I try to assure him that it will be OK.
My daughter, who is much wiser than I, tells me that it does little good to explain things to him. She says that, even though my grandson has a good mind, the behavior of a five-year-old is governed more by feelings than by rational thought.
“Dad,” she says, “His meltdowns are understandable. Don't try to calm him by reasoning with him. Go with his feelings. Say, 'I see that your hard feelings are coming out.' Then hold him or just be there with him. This will reassure him that his feelings are OK and that he is OK.”
She is reading a book to him titled, “The Invisible String.”i It's a story of a mother who comforts her children who are frightened at night by a storm. She assures them that even though she is in the next room, she is connected to them by invisible strings. These same strings connect them to all of the people and animals they love. They don't have to be afraid because they are never alone.
My daughter urges my grandson to imagine these invisible strings when he is worried. She tells him that these invisible strings attach him to her, to his dad, to his grandparents, friends and even Georgia, his dog. He responds, “These strings are stronger than the bad strings.” He gets it.
He still has some meltdowns, but now he has a way to comfort himself. My grandson can imagine invisible strings of love connecting him to all those who love him. These strings are stronger than the bad strings of fear.
We adults are a lot like my grandson. We are more sophisticated in understanding ourselves and the world, but our lives are still conditioned by our emotions. Consider, for example, our response to the Global Warming crisis. Ninety-seven percent of scientists acknowledge that global warming is a fact and is caused by humankind.ii Public advocates have been warning of the affects of global warming for years. These well documented arguments have been successfully countered with emotional appeals not based in fact. As a result, a sizable portion of Americans do not consider global warming an issue for concern.
Recently, two monster hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, slammed into Texas and Florida. News networks and social media beamed daily pictures into our homes of these unfolding tragedies. We saw the pain and suffering of American citizens. Our response was visceral and emotional. The statistics didn't grab our attention, but our emotions did.
We grownups, just like my grandson, need assurance that the world is not as scary and dangerous as we imagine. Without this assurance, we too react emotionally out of fear. Unlike my grandson, we have no adult figure to assure us that the invisible strings of love are stronger than the bad strings of fear. In fact, people in positions of power have been manipulating our fear for their own ends. As a result, our nation is riven by divisions. We distrust those who differ from ourselves. This distrust is reflected in our social structures and disables the very democratic processes that have made our nation great.
This atmosphere of distrust even infects those of us who seek to reform our society. We tend to view the society in terms of them and us. We struggle to defeat those who promote and benefit from a culture of domination and control. Once the issue is stated in these terms, we too are caught in and promoting the very cultural attitudes we abhor.
My daughter's admonition applies here as it does with my grandson:
Even though we have a comprehensive scientific understanding of human psychology, group dynamics and social systems, our behaviors are still governed more by feelings than we care to admit. Our social dysfunctions (meltdowns) are understandable. Reason alone won't calm us.
We need to express and acknowledge these fearful feelings. We need reassurance that these feelings are OK, and that we are OK for experiencing them. We need ways to engage the invisible strings of love that are more powerful than our fear.
The question is, “How can we access those invisible strings of love.” My grandson has his mom. She assures him that he is connected to her and others. Who or what is that “mother” that can assure us?
In the past, the rituals and practices of religious and spiritual traditions provided this assurance. For many, these traditions no longer appeal. Others, who still self identify as “religious” or “spiritual,” no longer engage in the disciplines of worship, prayer and meditation. Religious groups still provide a supportive community of friends and acquaintances, but they often provide little else. This may explain while the Saturday and Sunday youth soccer leagues attract as many people as do religious gatherings.
If we are to counter the death producing culture of fear and domination, we need to seriously engage in practices that allow us to be gripped by the invisible strings of love. Only then, will a culture of compassion challenge the culture of fear and domination.
The outpouring of compassion and support for the victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, is a demonstration that we are concerned and connected as human beings. For a brief time, the bad strings of fear and distrust were overwhelmed by strings of love made visible.
Our challenge is to intentionally engage practices that promote compassion for one another in all situations, not only at times of great tragedy. This requires as much commitment and discipline as that required in the struggle for control and domination. The practice of engaging love and compassion is not a passive act. It is more than a series of emotionally charged moments. It is a practice that transforms us; one in which we are gripped by an empathy for others; one that compels us to reach out to others even in the face of fear and violence.
This practice requires that we use all of our rational abilities, as we analyze and strategize to counter the destructive systems of domination and violence. It also requires that we attend to the dreams and visions prompted by our compassion. Motivated by the invisible strings of love, we can then work to implement our dreams to create a world very different from that which presently constrains billions of our brothers and sisters to live in situations of poverty, war, disease and violence.
If you are a religious or spiritual person, make it a priority in your life to engage in the worship, meditation and actions of your tradition. If you are not a religious or spiritual person, explore what motivates you to acts of love and compassion. Then develop or engage in a practice, either alone or with others, that enhances this commitment.
The culture of domination and violence is literally killing us. It threatens the extinction of human, animal and plant life on our planet. At a deeper level, it threatens the core of what we are as humans. This is the core of evolving consciousness that allows us to understand ourselves as more than just individuals or even a species. We are participants in the ever expanding and creating flow of the cosmos.
iThe Invisible String by Patrice Karst <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVp9ZBmPu8o>