Saturday, November 29, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes (and a couple of guys, too)


I can think of few less likely candidates to teach Sunday school than this writer. A ‘wanderer in the wilderness’ may be a bit extreme; but equally, ‘no particular affiliation’ seemed understated – casting mind back over the past forty years. Kind of the equivalent of hiring the fox to guard the hen house – but then that may have been just the job description that had surfaced for our assistant priest when she approached me last summer to do a four-week stint, at the time, eons away.

As you may have noticed, children are disappearing – not in the sinister, Golden Compass, ‘snatch ‘em for research purposes’ kind of way. Just a none too subtle fade away. So, if I may presume to climb inside the motivation of our crafty priest, I’d say she was looking for someone who might ‘connect’ with kids, particularly the senior crowd and hopefully provide a hook that would retain them in the parish for a bit longer. Someone with a sufficiently murky (or let’s just say, ambiguous) past, who, if we lined up the authority figures on one side of the room and the kids’ buddies on the other, might stand somewhere in between. Someone who, while not overtly ‘dangerous’, is not particularly bound by the conventions that populate our culture – and has been known to challenge same on occasion. And perhaps someone with a bit of a track record of being accessible and available to said kids. And so I agreed – with a condition. That I could ‘teach’ whatever I wanted.

November, being ‘the cruelest month’, rolled around too quickly and my commitment began to loom. Lynn began to lobby for some ‘catchy’ bulletin inserts with the attached realization that Sunday 1, as it were, was less than a week away. I thumbed through curriculum materials and reasoned that a cut paper collage was not likely the hook I needed to catch the interest of an increasingly sophisticated group of charges. Deep breath, settle the mind, and see what surfaces. Well that was easy – teach ‘em to meditate. A little juggling of some basic Eastern tenets, a little massaging of the suggested scripture of the week and presto – a four week prospectus that just might fly.

And so we began. ‘Don’t just do something, sit there!’; ‘The present moment: soap-on-a-rope’; ‘Pulling weeds with the Bare Naked Ladies’; and finally the habitual favourite, ‘Wherever you go, there you are: the benefits of going in circles’ – all certainly sufficiently enigmatic to rouse the curiosity of the adults in the parish. But would it snag the kids? As it turns out, I think the answer is a qualified yes. (The feedback was, albeit disinhibited by a glass of wine or two: “You’ve got a gift!”) Our little group ebbed and flowed from week to week – but it survived. What I was least prepared for however was that I would learn!

Mantras, breathing techniques, non-judging, letting go . . . all proceeded on course. We even managed to wedge the whole thing in between the processional hymn and the Eucharist. Right up to the: ‘establish a practice: regular time, regular place, daily if possible – just like brushing your teeth’. Full stop.

As a psychologist in private practice, no small part of my case load is comprised of adults presenting with variations on the theme of dealing with stress, type A personality issues, anxiety disorders, sleep disturbance, dissolving relationships, depressions. . . the list goes on. But sharing at least one common element: reactions to the complexities of an over-busy, demanding, relentless lifestyle – and generally one over which they feel they have largely lost control.

As our time together began to unfold, the ‘evidence’, so to speak, too commenced to build that this little group of mid-adolescents was every bit as vulnerable to these self same issues as were their elders. L, interested and participative as one could wish, would have eyes droop; K would shift uncomfortably in his chair; S would voice his ‘reactivity to just about everything’. No quiet place to sit. Pause for a moment – and be overtaken by sleep. These were very busy, committed (perhaps over-committed) kids – with no time! A simple body scan, intended as much as an exercise in controlled concentration, produced accounts of headaches, stiff necks, sore shoulders, upset stomachs – as the ‘places where you hold tension’ were discussed. A suggestion that we start with five or ten minutes of quiet time a day, evolved quickly into a problem solving session of ‘where I would find five extra minutes’.

What I began to consider was that this little group, so typical in many ways, had learned their lessons very well. Had learned what we teach – not by our ‘good words’; but by our not so good deeds. We had imbued them with our busy schedules; our value systems built on growth, expansion, achievement, productivity. And by extension, had taught them to be suspicious of ‘down time’, emptying one’s mind (instead of relentlessly filling it with even more information), letting go of worries (instead of clinging to anxieties about the future and guilt over past ‘failures to meet a mark’). A recent article in the New Yorker reviewing a trio of books on what is euphemistically now referred to as ‘helicopter parenting’, convincingly underscores that, in our urgency, our compulsion to have our children achieve to their ‘highest potential’, we schedule them to capacity, we coach and obsess over performance, we lobby to secure access to the ‘best schools’, and so on. The result it seems, in the short run are children who feel stretched to capacity; in the longer run, ones who will cultivate the same debilitating, perhaps counter-productive neuroses as their well-intentioned parents. Certainly not the blissful, reflective and contemplative, grounded individuals we would hope.

That some folks may have picked up on this generational hypocrisy and the need to start at an early age is evident in some very encouraging materials emerging, I think appropriately, in Australia (that would be the geographic, and evidently philosophic inverse of we Northern Hemispherites) and focusing on teaching meditative principles to children commencing as young as ages four or five. Now there’s a concept!

And as the bard would have it, all’s well that . . . Our final meeting was structured around an ‘active meditation’ – a little less of a stretch for such a busy crew. We were fortunate enough to borrow a full, eleven-ring labyrinth from a neighbouring community’s church – allowing us to ‘walk our way into awareness’. Seems like actually ‘doing’ is a bit less of a cultural leap than sitting cross-legged and chanting. And there’s hope for this old teacher as well. Actually signed up for some ‘labyrinth training’. Bit of an oxymoron, I suppose – but as close as I get to balancing bliss with productivity.



David Howard

Friday, November 21, 2008

And, Furthermore.

Very recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi travelled together to two of the notorious concentration camps of the Third Reich. Both call for a renewed recognition of the fundamental humanity of those with whom we disagree.



The website of the Archbishop of Canterbury is herewith linked so that you, please, read their individual reflections on their visit. It seems an appropriate addendum to the previous blog.



You can find the website http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/2038.



Amen,

Nicola Adair

Friday, November 14, 2008

Adult's Dirty Laundry

In case you missed it, the letter to the editor of the November 2008 edition of the Huron Church News from reader Patti Patstone bears repeating:

Dear Editor:
I was sickened to see the article in the Huron Church News (Oct.’08) on “Children’s Festival 2008”. I participated as a musician at that event so I was aware of the program and the day’s events. I was horrified when I read the following: “...if you could preach in church, what would you talk about? Laura responded: I’d preach about the importance of same sex blessings”.


This article was about a CHILDREN’S FESTIVAL. It is unfortunate that Laura has not received better preaching from God’s Holy Scripture. But what is worse, is that you printed it!! It is very sad that this issue is being placed on the same page as a children’s event. The adult’s dirty laundry is polluting the minds of our children. It is no wonder that the world wide Anglican church looks at the Anglican Church of Canada with disdain. I am certain that an article about a Children’s event taking place in most parts of our world would not be paired with this issue.


I am concerned that this comment was included with this article and I pray for the “Lauras” in the Anglican Church of Canada. I join with the prayer from the world wide Anglican church that the Canadian church would repent of her waywardness and return to the truth of the Bible.
Sincerely,
Patti Patstone


After reading Ms Patstone’s contribution to a benign journal, I, too, was sickened. I’ll explain.

Some weeks ago, I happened upon a TVO programme that studied the British Empire’s involvement with slavery. The researcher was in Ghana at a former British slavery depot. She was standing in a basement holding room with her Ghanaian guide; the room was about the size of St. James’ lower parish hall. The guide explained that, typically, the room would have been filled with about 3000 men. Their wives and children would have been separated from them and held in different rooms. All would be waiting for their deportation as slaves. Families separated forever; lives changed forever with horrid consequences.

What sickened me, aside from this factual representation of what occurred in that basement room, was the fact that a Christian chapel stood over the room. And, ‘the truths of the Bible’ were being preached while thousands of native Ghanaian suffered in inhumane conditions, not unlike the concentration camps of the Third Reich.

Just last week, we were called to remember the lives of those who suffered death while fighting for the freedom of humanity. Our rector told his parish how he will remember the name of a two year old Jewish child, Dora Rosenblum, who succumbed in a concentration camp.

I was reminded that the German Jewish community was one of the targeted groups for the Nazis as they sought to purge Germany of race enemies and “lives unworthy of living”. Six million Jews were slaughtered. Five million Russians, Poles and Roma died in this purging as did four million Catholics and thousands of mentally disabled, other religious minorities and approximately 55,000 German homosexuals.

The treatment of homosexuals detained in post-war concentration camps went unacknowledged by most countries or churches. Some that did escape were even re-arrested and imprisoned based on evidence found in the Nazi years. It was not until the 1980’s that the German government acknowledged this episode, and not until 2002 that the government apologized to the gay community. In 2005, the European parliament adopted a resolution regarding the Holocaust where the persecution of homosexuals was mentioned:

27 January 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany’s death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau where a combined total of up to 1.5 million Jews, Roma, Poles, Russians and prisoners of various other nationalities, and homosexuals, were murdered, is not only a major occasion for European citizens to remember and condemn the enormous horror and tragedy of the Holocaust, but also for addressing the disturbing rise in anti-semitism, and especially anti-semitic incidents, in Europe, and for learning anew the wider lessons about the dangers of victimizing people on the basis of race, ethnic origin, religion, social classification, politics or sexual orientation...


Slaves in the basement; gays in the post-war concentration camps: all while churches were filled with those “receiving better preaching from God’s Holy Scripture”.

Fast forward to the new millennium: not only are Afro-Americans allowed to marry but, and merely 150 later, a powerful Afro-American couple will soon reside in the White House. Homosexuals are no longer jailed (1969, Canada decriminalizes homosexual acts) but are serving as priests in the Anglican Church. Today, same-gendre parents are supported by the positions of a number of organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the Child Welfare League of America, the American Bar Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the North American Council on Adoptable Children, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

The American Psychological Association has stated that:

There is no scientific evidence that parenting effectiveness is related to parental sexual orientation: Lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children...research has shown that the adjustment, development and psychological well-being of children is unrelated to parental sexual orientation and that the children of lesbian and gay parents are as likely as those of heterosexual parents to flourish...


As well, from the Children’s Development for Social Competence Across Family Types, a major report prepared by the Canadian Department of Justice, in July 2006, but not released by the government until forced to do so by a request under the Access to Information Act, in May 2007, reaches this conclusion:

The strongest conclusion that can be drawn from the empirical literature is that the vast majority of studies show that children living with two mothers and children living with a mother and a father have the same levels of social competence. A few studies suggest that children with two lesbian mothers have marginally better competence than children in traditional nuclear families, even fewer studies show the opposite, and most studies fail to find any difference. The very limited body of evidence with two gay fathers supports this same conclusion.


By failing to offer same-gendre marriage blessings, the church promotes a form of double-standard mongering: relationships in the heterosexual constellation are right; those in the homosexual constellation are wrong. And as social tolerance endorses the non-traditional nuclear family, the church continues to turn its eyes as it did, for too long, with slavery and homosexuality.

In the United States, the F.B.I. reported that 15.6% of hate crimes reported to police in 2004 were based on perceived sexual orientation. 61% of these attacks were against gay men. The important word here is ‘hate’. Open acts of violence against gays are socially unacceptable, we would all agree (I hope). But what about what ‘soft’ acts of hatred...like a letter to the editor.

Hate: to dislike intensely or passionately; feel extreme aversion for or extreme hostility toward; detest.

My sickened response to Patti Patstone’s reply to Laura’s answer came from the awareness of hate mongering. “The adult’s dirty laundry is polluting the minds of our children”. I would agree with you Patti: but it is the dirty laundry of political, social and religious intolerance and discrimination that pollutes minds.

My hope rests in the “Lauras” of her and future generations to come to power who will forgive the sins of their parents and will tear down the walls of this type of discrimination and intolerance.

For you, Patti, I recommend these words for prayerful contemplation: Matthew 25:40, "Truly, I tell you, just as you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.". From St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel every day; if necessary, use words.” And from Martin Luther, “Love is the image of God.”
Nicola Adair






Friday, November 7, 2008

So, How Big is Your Amygdala?

So what is a psychopath anyway? For most of us, say the word and the Charlie Manson’s, the Hannibal Lector’s, the Jack the Ripper’s spring to mind. Tough to argue that these characters definitely do qualify. Clinically, it’s a tad more complicated though than donning a goalie’s mask when you own a carving set and no skates; or firing up the latest version of your Stihl MS 460 and waiting for the next, na├»ve, car load of unsuspecting teenagers to roll into the front yard. There’s that penchant for telling porkies; for picking fights – just to pick a fight; for generally finding yourself on the questionable side of the bars – the steel ones, not the fun ones; for sporting an emotional ‘body temperature’ somewhere between cold and frozen – that would be conscienceless; for having the capacity to sustain relationship somewhere between a junk yard dog and a hooker (without the heart) . . . to mention a few of the more endearing features.

I recently attended a symposium conducted by one of the more renowned researchers in this field, Robert Hare, as I searched for interesting ways to spend my summer vacation – and do the regular upgrading that allows me to distinguish these folks from those of us in the general population. (Not everyone carries a loaded assault rifle and dresses in Goth or army fatigues.) Bob has not only identified the twenty, cardinal features that single out likely candidates; but has managed to demonstrate some rather interesting differences in the way these characters’ brains work when presented emotionally charged material. In a nutshell, it amounts for your average psychopath to reacting (at a cortical level) in about the same way whether you’re looking at Rembrandt or road kill. (Seen No Country For Old Men yet?)

But the truly telling feature is the absence of a little, very human feature called ‘empathy’. The everyman definition of empathy goes something like: ‘the capacity to understand and identify with another’s perspective; to experience the same feelings as another; putting oneself in another’s shoes’ . . . and so on. A slightly more discerning element is ‘the ability to accurately discriminate the emotional state / response of another (to one’s actions)’. And Bob has tossed us another curve in his most recent book, Snakes in Suits. These folks are not only walking around amongst us – but are so good at insinuating themselves into our good graces, are so superficially attractive to us that we actually welcome them, admire their 100 watt smiles, and are impressed by their firm hand shakes.

As is so often the case, Lynn’s eloquent homilies trigger lots of thought for me – just not always the bright and sunny ones. Her deconstruction of the metaphoric meanings of ‘salt’ – in particular, the “you may be the only gospel your neighbour reads” closing – really stuck with me; and sure enough, reflections on not only how we speak and conduct ourselves, whatever our best intentions might be – but also how these words and actions are perceived by those on the receiving end; how we are experienced by others, began to boil and bubble.

So what does all this have to do with the closet Ted Bundy’s lurking in the narthex? Well, in making this connection, partly it’s helpful to be inside the mind of a psychologist whose charge it is to spot and tag such specimens – although Nicola’s forever pointing out that “not everyone thinks like you!” (I can only assume that the unexpressed parenthetical is – “and a good thing, too”.) At the risk of being a bit too reductionist, a view commonly held (and seemingly supported by Hare’s research) is that ‘psychopaths are born, not made’. This is certainly not to say that this is strictly a nature (vs. nurture – you know, the genes we walk around with vs. the families that ‘brung us up’) issue. But essentially, the brain is subtly different in structure – and therein lies the root of many of those nasty little predispositions I’ve listed above. And that would include the capacity for empathy and it’s extension; namely our capacity to monitor the impact of what we say and do and to ‘read’ the impact these words and deeds have on those around us.

In short, if we accept the teachings of these extremes in behaviour, some of us can ‘see’ what we’re saying and the potential good (or ill) it might engender; and some of us can’t – all a function of the hard wiring we bring to the task. Some of us get stuck in the ‘rightness’ of our perspective and are really unable to get past the content of our ‘personal gospel’ (that our neighbours are reading). And some of us are better equipped to ‘take the temperature’ of the exchange, let go of the content to an extent, and adjust our ‘message’ – largely predicated on the reactions of that vulnerable and under-read neighbour. Some of us are pure teachers (in Lynn’s metaphor, the ‘book’ on this subject or that), secure in the knowledge that what we’re sharing and how it’s framed is, well, just what is. Some of us are endowed with a capacity to attend – in our empathic model, to listen to our words, our gospel and appreciate not just its message, but its impact, its reception. All a function of a little structure buried deep in our brain and one most of us would struggle to spell, much less pronounce: the Amygdala.

So as we venture ‘out there’, as Lynn homilized, as we carry our particular gospel to those next door, two blocks over, or beside us on the bus, let us be mindful of, let us be sensitive to – to the extent we are able – the ‘what’ we pass along and most particularly the ‘how’ we are heard. We forego, ignore, or are simply insensitive to the latter at our peril, alienating where we most wish to foster; disaffecting those we most wish to include. For we may indeed be the only gospel our neighbour reads.


David Howard