Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Liberal Dads: "Progressive AND Paternal"

Jonny and Colin

A shared homily given at the UU Church of Lexington 6/19/11:

FROM Eric Huffer, dad to Will (19) and husband to Susan:

I grew up in what might be considered a “traditional” household. My father was the so-called breadwinner, and my mother was the stay-at-home domestic provider. My mother didn’t even drive(her choice). My dad was the manager of a shoe store, and usually left the house about the time the kids were getting up, and came home shortly before it was time for us to get ready for bed. As a result, most of the parental interaction my siblings and I had was with my mother. Dad was the source of special treats or punishment, while my mom was the day to day get things done person. If we had done something wrong during the day, my mom would utilize a version of the famous “wait ‘til your father gets home!” She would claim to be too mad to effectively punish us for fear of losing her temper, and that it was best to wait until my dad could be there to mete out fair punishment. But this was also the man that would take one of us with him every couple of Sundays down to get Spaldings donuts. So, for us kids, he filled this almost god-like role. Coming down from his realm to administer punishment or dole out favors.
So, after growing up in a family that adhered pretty closely to the traditional gender roles if the 50’s and 60’s, you might expect me to tend to fall into those roles as well. That has not been the case. In our household, stereotypical gender roles and characteristics don’t really play out. We look at our relationship as a partnership, where we play off of one another’s strengths and characteristics. I do most of the cooking, mostly because I love it and it feeds my soul, and Susan handles the finances, because she is so much more organized than I am. And unlike the family that I grew up in, I am not the primary “breadwinner”. From the beginning of our marriage, Susan has always made more than me. While we shared in disciplining Will, Susan was definitely better at it, and was the ultimate authority. I’m a cryer, I tear up at sappy commercials or even when speaking about something important to me. Susan is more stoic, rarely crying, and shows her emotions more subtly.
So Will has been raised in a house where men cook, share household responsibilities equally, and cry; and where women are authority figures, and are strong; and where parents are partners.
While this situation is not as uncommon as it might have been when I was a child, it was still not the norm among Will’s friends. He has told me that most of them thought we were weird, and even hippies. When Will was 9, he started telling us he wanted to go to church. I think he was feeling left out when all his friends at school talked about going to church each weekend, and probably feeling a bit of peer pressure. We were a bit perplexed because we were having a hard time imagining what church we could possibly feel comfortable in. We finally decided that, based on what we had heard around, that the UU church would probably least offend us, and we could meet this need that seemed very important to our child. When we did come, we found a community that fit us perfectly. Here was a place full of people like us. A place that promoted and reinforced many of the same values that we tried to live by and were trying to impart to our son.
Many of you know our son, Will, you have seen him grow up here. We feel like he has turned out to be a pretty cool young man, and many of you have complimented us on how we have raised him. I want to state right now that it was all of us that have raised him to become the young man that he is. You have all been such a major part in helping Will develop, just as we are all helping to do the same with the children in our congregation now. Here at UUCL, he has been in a community that celebrated strong women and caring nurturing men; that practiced acceptance of others, and promoted fairness and justice in the world. He has been shaped by this just as much as he has been by what we did at home. For that I want to thank you all.
So, while we are celebrating Father’s Day today, I would like to suggest that all of us here are fathers, and mothers, to the children of our congregation; and we should celebrate thusly.

From Adam Gase, Dad to Lili, Morrigan & Maia and husband to Penny:

How does being a liberal/progressive religious person affect your parenting? How has fathering affected your "spiritual" life?

I started watching baseball with my dad as a way of connecting with him. That failed, but I did learn a lot about baseball. In baseball, it is very important to develop balance, not only athletic balance while throwing a pitch or swinging a bat, but balance in the skills your team has. You can't win every game with a homerun. You must be good in multiple facets.

The same is true in parenting. I balance two very different parenting styles: Red Forman and Bill Cosby. These are representative of the more conservative "strict father" and more progressive "nurturing parent" models. This has actually pushed me to be more progressive, rather than the other way around. As a scientist, I have to remain open-minded about things I do not yet understand or have enough information about. As a parent, I also have to remain open-minded about my approach. Being progressive pushes you to be more balanced, and being more balanced pushes you to be more progressive.

Before I became a parent, it was easy to think, "That's someone else's problem" about a variety of things. Having to care for your children forces you to expand that viewpoint beyond your own head, to encompass others outside of your experience. I think this realization, that other people felt the same about their children as I did about mine, that we aren't that different in our love, but perhaps different in expression, that forced me to be more progressive. We all paint pictures, we just use different colors.

There is a tendency, especially in my largely conservative family, to associate boys with being tough and girls with Barbie dolls and being delicate. I understand the history of this view, but I reject it. First of all, if my girls were delicate, they wouldn't survive ME. I play rough. We have taken martial arts lessons together, we fence and play football in the backyard, we hike, we bike, and we have traveled across the country and back, though not in the Family Truckster. Living with a mother who is not mentally healthy has forced some toughness on my girls. They are not limited to the delicate stereotype. Lili especially has picked up on this mentally, developing a wicked sense of sarcasm. She played baseball when we lived in Pennsylvania in 2008. She threw better than at least five of the boys on her team. She once said to one of her teammates who didn't throw the ball well, "Nice throw, Cody - for a girl." She proved to those boys that she could take it and dish it out. Instantly she had 12 friends. Toughness isn't a non-liberal characteristic. Just ask Rosa Parks.

A certain amount of intelligence is required to dish out good sarcasm, and a certain amount of character is built in learning how to receive sarcasm. These skills are useful when it comes to dealing with peer pressure as a teenager. I have no worries about Lili handling her peers. She's leadership material. She spots opportunities for humor and uses it to teach her friends how to be, not the other way around.

Humor is crucial in parenting. It is crucial in life. Humans are the only animals that laugh. Humor is the only thing that comes from the divine unfiltered. It makes every experiencer feel the same - heavenly. In that moment of vulnerability, it's easier to slip in some wisdom. This is how I operate, and both Lili and Morrigna are picking up that baton. Ghandi said that nonviolence is the weapon of the strong. He forgot to mention humor, probably because he was busy chuckling at this thought.

My spirituality is very connected with being a parent, with embracing the 4 billion year-old heredity of life on this pale blue dot. Joining the drum beat of life, fulfilling a biological destiny. As Robert Heinlein said, "the purpose of a zygote is to make more zygotes." Zygotes are a part of us. The purpose of us, humans, is to welcome more humans aboard to live out their destiny of choice between dark and light. My spirituality has been affected by being a parent in that now I see my role in raising children capable of making this wise decision in the scope of our 15 billion year cosmic history. We can learn to appreciate and love the universe that came to make us, or we can squander our precious resources in meaningless self-destruction.

From Jonny Lifshitz, dad to Dylan, Colin & Owen, and husband to Carrie:

I am Jonny Lifshitz – Dad to three boys, who take after me a little too closely for my wife’s liking. My wife Carrie will tell you that she has 4 boys – few will correct her!
Eight years ago, Carrie had an eldest and only son in daycare, whereas I had a younger brother in daycare. The teachers referred to me as ‘big brother.‘ We would roll and play and build and bump and interact in a deep and meaningful way, even if it was for only 10 or 15 minutes – both at drop-off and pick-up. We came to appreciate that minutes of QUALITY TIME are far more valuable than months of time together. We play hard and then we sleep. [Carrie has enough scrapbooking pages to validate this point.]
Through this quality time, I have formulated a few truisms about childhood and parenting (a.k.a. Mike Brady advice). From here on, I will present a few vignettes to illustrate some of these truisms.
Learn to listen: Listen to children, it’s like listening to yourself
Undoubtedly, parenthood is the best self-reflective mirror. Childhood development is a series of trials and errors, in which children mimic those around them. Each child tries on a personality for a while, if they like the responses and feedback from friends, parents, teachers, they will keep those personality traits. [This is the reason for continuing all those irritating behaviors.]
Given the amount of time around their parents, it’s no wonder that they tend to copy our mannerisms, speech, cynicism, and humor. Just ask any child how to drive a car; the responses are both entertaining and enlightening.
Now, when you observe and listen to your children [much in the same way you would listen to the wind, water, earth and fire], it is really you who you hear.
Owen, 2½: At the dinner table, “let’s do joys and concerns.”
Colin, 5½: Thank you Dad for being the best dad in the whole world.
And then there is Dylan, 8½, who is a bit more to the point:
“Dad, I am doing exactly what you did and saying the same thing you said. Why is it ok for you to do it and not me? It’s just not fair.”
Take out your earbuds, turn off your iPod and listen to yourself.
Gain another’s perspective: Experience the world from their level
It is essential to understand a child’s point of view, from their point of view – it’s different world from 3’. Every once in a while, you have to get on the ground to see what they see, hear what they hear, smell and taste what they taste. You have to be them for a while. In a sense, walk in their shoes. This will allow you to view the world in a whole new way. It will allow you to experience it from their unjaded perspective.
From this level, I could now understand why they were unable to see across the room, find a lost toy on the couch, or avoid a water puddle. From this level, I could now understand why they stop at every crack in the sidewalk, pickup lost coins and find weeds so appealing!
As my perspective changed, it was equally important to change the boys’ perspective. I clearly recall Dylan’s joy when we bought him a stool. Now, he could wash his hands, he could watch dinner being prepared, he could grab things on his own. With a stool in hand, he could change his perspective and be a part of every experience.
Kneel down or stand on a stool. The world is a remarkable place.
Life is a coordinated series of mistakes: People are fallible, but we must learn from our mistakes
The boys love their stories, typically the same ones over and over. More recently, they have become intrigued by the stories my parents tell of me or themselves. Knowing that people [even dad] are fallible, provides our boys with the perspective that things do not always go as planned. More importantly, I believe that these stories allow them to appreciate the experience (maybe even expertise) that their parents have gained as a result of these failures – sometimes minor, sometimes as a lack of foresight and sometimes epic. [Ever tried frying an egg without cracking the shell? It’ll save time, right?]
Through similar stories, the boys have come to know Carrie’s parents, both of whom have passed away. These stories allow experience [some people call them morals] to be taught, learned and transferred between generation – without the messy cleanup. We celebrate their lives – as we did yesterday – by sending helium-filled balloons their way [typically Red Robin helium-filled balloons].
I am sure that I could support the idea of coordinated mistakes with a quote or song lyric, but I won’t. If I am wrong, I hope that I learn from it.
Valuing differences help us grow: Expect the unexpected; relish in their joy
Whether it is a new experience or a different take on an old one, children have the most amazing way of putting the awe in awesome. I won’t be the first or the last to point out the mixed logic in awe-some and awe-ful. For example,
ice cream – awesome
Ice cream in a margarita glass – awe-ful

Bendy straw – awesome
Construction piping straw – awe-ful

Forks – awesome
Toothpicks – awe-ful
When we take the time to appreciate their perspective – that unjaded perspective, wowed by the little things in life – the ordinary becomes extraordinary. In our day-to-day obligations and chores, finding this awe is not necessarily difficult, but often overlooked. Children bring out that awe. As a quick example, my boys are always amazed by different promotional pens I pick up at conferences.
“Dad, did you see how this one works? It has TWO colors.”
Awe is having everything be a bright shiny object, worthy of a reflective thought.

For me (and I will speak for Carrie as well), our boys are our spiritual life. They are pure joy (and pain) and life itself. We know this with absolute certainty, because “those things that boys do” can instantaneously halt that joy.
Dylan – broke his leg in two places getting off a swing at 18 mo
Colin – fell forward on a stick scraping his upper palate on this 3rd birthday
Owen – three weeks ago, fell off a chair, knocking out 1 tooth and loosening 3 more.
In the end, however, love brings it all back together. It is near impossible to explain to the triage nurse in the emergency room that your son needs urgent care when they are asleep in your arms. That same love has allowed all three to recover, or be on the road to recovery, and our family bond.
And then there is sleep… ahhh peace.
As a neuroscientist, I have learned about sleep from countless angles. And let me tell you, the true purpose of sleep has nothing to do with rejuvenation, cellular repair, memory consolidation. It is purely to reset that precious relationship between parent and child.
Children can wear on the patience of even the most stoic people. For those tough days as a parent, as well as those blissful days as a parent, there is nothing like seeing a sleeping child to bring peace to one’s life and the world.
And with that… goodnight room, goodnight moon, goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere. Go in peace; Live with joy.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

War/... the Art of Peace


Homily - May 29, 2011

Given by Geoff Young at the UU Church of Lexington

In your order of service,
Written at least 600 years ago
Imagine you are a child of 6 or 7 hearing your family sing this carol, fire in fireplace

The Cherry Tree Carol

That was a very different time, people’s minds and hearts were less coarse and jaded.
Look at how courteous they all were to each other. Jesus politely asks the tree; even Joseph, who comes right out there with the human, negative emotions of jealousy, suspicion, and resentment, doesn’t expel Mary from his heart. He doesn’t divorce her.
In this song the universe is a friendly, amazing, miraculous place.
Look at the last verse: The 7-year-old Jesus is saying that reality is totally, totally different from the way it appears on the surface, from the conventional wisdom. Life is a miracle. Every individual human life is a miracle.
When I use the word “peace,” this song is what I mean: there are no limits to the possibilities for love, respect, sharing, joy.

So, a lot of events have happened in 600 years. Science and technology have advanced, so I would suggest we are different people today.

Certain historical events are shocking or traumatic enough to affect our minds.

Before World War I, no one could have imagined the horror of trench warfare. The slaughter went on for 4 years. There were battles where in a few hours tens of thousands of young men were killed or permanently maimed, only to capture a few yards of mud. Many soldiers went insane.

WW1 was supposedly the war to end all wars, but then along came WW2 when even more people died, mostly innocent civilians. Part of WW2 was the Nazi Holocaust. There were firebombings of whole cities full of people. And the event that ended WW2 was the instantaneous incineration of two cities full of people by atomic bombs.

Then humanity was forced to watch in terror as the USSR and the USA built more and more nuclear weapons. Other countries built them too. There was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which is probably the closest the world has ever come to a full-scale nuclear war. Then the War in Vietnam. Then 9-11. Then the whole “War On Terror.” Until finally, today, war without end and seemingly without purpose has become an acceptable idea in our society. There is a book called, “War Made Easy” that asks the question, Why in America is it so easy to start wars and so hard to end them?

I’ve read a lot about this history of traumatic events and thought about it a lot, and I think these events, one after another, have had a cumulative impact on our hearts and minds; the mind of every person on earth who knows about them. I’ll give you a couple personal examples. I was born in 1956, 9 years after WW2 ended. I learned about the Holocaust growing up in Massachusetts in a Jewish family. They taught us about it in Hebrew School and my parents and grandparents talked about it with my brother and me. It wasn’t until years later, decades later, that I realized that my atheism probably came directly from finding out about the Holocaust. If God did nothing to prevent the killing of six million innocent Jews in gas chambers, who were supposedly His Chosen People, then either God doesn’t exist, or that God isn’t worth anything. The Holocaust affected my view of the universe. It put the idea or assumption in my head that the universe is a cold place, not a friendly, supportive, welcoming place. Maybe that’s why songs like the Cherry Tree Carol bring tears to my eyes. Such songs are like a still, small voice that gently pokes at this unconscious assumption I’ve had since I was a child that the universe is a cold, cruel place. Maybe, just maybe, I can throw that unconscious assumption away. Maybe the universe really does have a desire for all of us to live and thrive and love each other.

I learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in school. In the early 1960s I remember my parents seriously discussing whether we should build a bomb shelter in the basement of our home. I remember feeling terrified, but in a kind of vague and numb way. I wanted to understand it but couldn’t seem to do it.

For years and years I have wrestled with the question, “If nuclear weapons are so horrible that they could wipe out all human life on earth in a short period of time, why haven’t all of the countries in the world made it their highest, most urgent priority to eliminate all nuclear weapons in a verifiable and permanent way?” Why is the United States government in the process of spending billions of dollars to modernize our arsenal of nuclear weapons instead of working every day to dismantle all of them worldwide? Why don’t millions of people wake up every morning and demand of all the world’s governments: “Human beings made these terrible weapons that threaten our survival; human beings could surely dismantle and outlaw them and keep them from ever being rebuilt; and we demand that you do exactly that.”

Why was there no Peacemaking Subcommittee at this church until I started it about a year ago, and why do only about 3 to 6 people come to our monthly meetings on the last Sunday of every month? Why hasn’t anyone else made a shirt like this that asks the president, any president and all presidents, to end all our wars? Why hasn’t anyone come up to me and asked, “I have 2 or 3 hours a month, Geoff, that I’d like to invest in building peace; could we brainstorm together on how I might use my 2 or 3 hours a month in the most effective and efficient way?” I’m not trying to portray myself as being something great and I’m not trying to guilt-trip anyone; I really want to understand this question. The question of why people do not act, why people seem to be paralyzed over the issue of war and peace, goes far, far beyond the UU Church of Lexington.

Two days ago an idea occurred to me and I looked up on the web the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ll read you some of them:

Frequently having upsetting thoughts or memories about the traumatic event.
Acting or feeling as though the traumatic event were happening again, sometimes called a "flashback."
Having strong feelings of distress and anxiety when reminded of the traumatic event.
Having physical responses such as experiencing a surge in your heart rate or sweating.
Making an effort to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the traumatic event.
Making an effort to avoid places or people that remind you of the traumatic event.
A loss of interest in important, formerly positive, activities.
Feeling distant from others.
Experiencing difficulties having positive feelings, such as joy or love.
Feeling constantly on guard as if danger is lurking around every corner.
Feeling as though your life may be cut short.
Having difficulty concentrating.
Being jumpy or easily startled.
And, feeling more irritable or having outbursts of anger.

I don’t want to minimize the situation of people who are suffering with diagnosed, clinical cases of PTSD, but I would like to suggest that events such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and 9-11 have given all human beings alive today a subtle, undiagnosable form of PTSD, or at least have given all of us some of those symptoms, to a greater or lesser degree. I include myself too; I spend a lot of time, too much time, avoiding doing things that would move the world closer toward peace and the dismantling of all nuclear weapons. But I’m not asking for your every waking moment, ok? If you have children, I’m not asking you to put them up for adoption in order to devote more time. I’m asking for 2 to 3 hours a month, or less if that proves to be a problem. I don’t want to ask anyone to go beyond where you feel you can safely go. It seems we should be gentle, not harsh, with each other as we work toward peace together.

So what to do?

Albert Einstein wrote: “The splitting of the atom has changed everything except the way we think. Thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humankind is to survive.”

If Einstein was right that the problem is mostly in our minds and the minds of our fellow citizens, we need to start by changing our minds. We need to see what beliefs and emotions are in there, especially the Conventional Wisdom-type assumptions. Beliefs about certain historical events, about the nature of our country, about what our country has been doing in the world, beliefs about human nature, beliefs about where hope might come from and where hope will definitely not be found, beliefs about what we need to do first, and beliefs about what we need to stop doing. I’d like us to question as much of the conventional wisdom as we can, discuss it respectfully, calmly, thoughtfully, and rationally among ourselves, like the good UUs we are, to give each other some slack, not to accuse each other of anything, not to expect the perfect answer because there is no perfection in politics, and just enjoy the good feeling that comes from working on the most meaningful and important campaign in the world with other people of good will.

Imagine you are out hiking with your family or friends and you’re 5 miles from home. But between you and home lies Pine Mountain. A little Kentucky geography: long ridge in southeastern Kentucky without any tunnels. Here are some very different attitudes you could take:

1) It’s impossible. No one has ever crossed this mountain before, and we can’t do it either. We need to give up on the idea of ever seeing our home again. We should look for somewhere else to live.

2) There’s no problem at all. If we picture our home in our minds we can be there in no time. Let’s develop a mission statement that expresses our deep desire to get home. Then somebody notices that no one is walking. Well, we just need to wish harder.

3) We really have to start trudging up this huge mountain before it gets dark. This is really tough, there are fallen trees and boulders across the path, we’re all gonna be really sore and exhausted by the time we get home, I just hate hate hate this.

Or 4) Yes, this is a tall mountain and there will be a lot of challenges along the way, but there are also some beautiful views, there are trees and flowers to look at and birds to listen to. You all are the best company a person could hope to have, and our journey together will be just about as much fun as arriving where we need to go.

Let’s start this long, challenging, worthwhile, and exciting journey by looking into our own minds, seeing what Conventional Wisdom-type, untrue assumptions are in there, seeing what fallen trees and boulders are in there blocking our path, and maybe removing some of those obstacles. Maybe I can help you remove some of your obstacles and you can help me remove mine. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll reach the destination and there will be peace on earth.