Random Hot Tip About Dying #3

(And now that the Modo Adventure has come to it’s happy conclusion I return to the Random Tips About Dying series.  This post is continued from Random Hot Tip About Dying #2.)

The third tip goes something like this:

3) Learn about dying from people who are familiar and comfortable with it.  The terrified can’t teach you much you don’t already know.

One evening I went to a restaurant with a convivial group of people to hang out after a community meeting.  There were about nine of us, all adults except for one young adolescent girl who accompanied her mom.

During the free-for-all discussion that rolled around the table over dessert the young girl, a devoted animal lover, shared with shining eyes that she wanted to start volunteering with the local Humane Society.  But before she could even finish the sentence her mother torpedoed the idea by telling her, “But honey you don’t understand.  They put animals down there.”


I listened to the murmur of assent rising from everyone else at the table and watched the girl’s shining eyes grow stormy as one person after another tried to explain (in the kindest way) that she didn’t know what she was getting into and that, really, she wanted to stay as far away from that kind of thing as possible.

She tried to argue but no one would listen. As a group they were convinced that their deep aversion was in fact the wise and correct response.  In the meantime I was sitting there having vivid flashbacks of the same kind of reaction I received from people when I first shared that I wanted to work with hospice.

Initially, the girl was just frustrated but then I saw a kind of helplessness start to settle in as she felt the door closing on her dream of caring for vulnerable animals.  We could all see that she felt a calling deep down in that place where we get those kinds of messages, but nonetheless every set of arms present was trying to hold her back from answering it. Her shoulders finally sagged as she fell into angry silence.

I heard somebody explaining that the animals are just going to die anyway, and then there was a momentary lull as everyone nodded their heads and gazed at the girl in sympathy.

I finally spoke up.

“But, you guys,” I looked around the table as every head swung my way.  “They still need love before they die. Even more so.”

I watched as each face registered first surprise, then a dawning thoughtfulness as they considered this other perspective.  In the meantime, the girl looked like a wilting flower that had just been watered.

She sat back up, smiled, and said, “Yeah. YEAH!  That’s what I mean, that’s what I wanna do! I’m not afraid of them dying.”

She waxed on with renewed enthusiasm for about a minute as everybody else sat and digested the idea.  Then one of the men turned towards me with a puzzled smile and said, “I never thought of it like that but it’s really true. Why didn’t I think of that before?”

Which leads me back to tip #3.  This story is a prime example of what a closed loop looks like.  Everyone sitting at that table believed the same thing: that dying was something repugnant and horrible to be avoided at all costs, even if it meant abandoning a group of vulnerable animals and thwarting a young girl’s dream in the process. And because they all believed it, all they could do is reinforce and confirm each other’s belief.

Please understand, it’s not that they didn’t care about all those dogs and cats at the shelter.  They did, a lot. Boise is a powerful animal advocacy town and the adoption rates are actually higher here than most of the country.  We love our four-footed friends around here, we really do.

But in this case, the group’s fear of dying outweighed their love for animals for the simple reason that they’d never been presented with a different perspective from someone who didn’t believe that dying is repugnant and horrible and to be avoided at all costs.  Granted people like that are a minority in the population right now, but there are more of us than you’d think and the numbers are growing.  Finding someone who’s familiar and comfortable with dying isn’t nearly as hard as it used to be.

I should add that this story is a prime example of something else that bears noting: There’s a pernicious subconscious assumption permeating our cultural view that anything dying is already as good as dead.  This one drives me nuts.  It’s not true.  NOT TRUE.


Dying animals and people are still very, very, very much alive and, more than almost any other time of life, they need to be gathered in, supported, nourished, and loved…NOT abandoned.  (That is, of course, unless they want to crawl off into the bushes and die alone in which case I’m all for respecting their wishes.  But that’s different than abandoning them.)

In a future post I’d like to publish a list of links to posts, articles, and other resources that  provide a view of dying that’s more holistic than the current, entrenched one. It’s a view that acknowledges the hardships involved but also reveals the moving and luminous beauty that involved in life at it’s last.  But that will take some time to assemble so not today.

Next post should be about Random Tip #4: A “good death” is good for everyone.  A “bad death” is bad for everyone.  As a group we need to be shooting for a lot more good deaths than we are.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

P.S. The photo of the adorable Doberman puppy above is from a Wikipedia article about dogs and can be found here.

P.P.S. Here are the previous posts in this series:

Five Randomly Useful Hot Tips About Dying

Random Hot Tip About Dying #1 and Follow Through

Random Hot Tip About Dying #2

Some thoughts about the incredible young men who survived everything and finally stopped Jerry Sandusky.

Thor’s battle against the Jotnar

It seems like most of the headlines I’ve seen on Google’s news feed over the last…well, almost a year now…about the sexual predation Sandusky pursued at his college and charity broke down into three basic subjects:

1) Jerry Sandusky

2) Penn State/college football

3) Joe Paterno

So very few have been about child sexual abuse and its survivors in general, or the young men who, in this case specifically, survived and finally struck back.  I feel the vacuum keenly.

Granted, there was a flurry of headlines about the young men involved when a brave handful took the stand to publicly testify about what they’d endured, but even those were disheartening.  Their tone often struck me as patronizing or downright sordid like Witness Weeps As He Testifies To Abuse or, far worse, Accuser testifies that other than abuse, times with ex-coach were ‘nice’.


It seemed like the writers wanted to evoke pity or outrage or even contempt, rather than kindle our respect for the profound resolve and commitment to truth displayed by each and every one of the witnesses.

For those who don’t understand yet, the level of courage it took for those young men to take the stand in open court was equivalent to the kind practiced by heroes in war zones.  The only way to stop Sandusky was for them to expose themselves.  It was like standing up to draw fire in order to reveal the location of the enemy.  The risks were immeasurable.  These guys deserve medals.

I understand that there wasn’t a lot anybody could or should write about them personally because their privacy and identities had to be protected.  But still, there was so much else that could have been said about their strength, cunning, and stamina, about the unbelievably complex set of skills they had to develop in order to navigate, survive, and eventually expose that degree of secret, targeted harm and cover-up.

These young men were amazing.  What they’ve accomplished is staggering.  Both the ones who came forward and told somebody about it, and the ones who couldn’t but still managed to survive and eventually get away anyway.  I’m so glad and grateful that now none of them will have to live for the rest of their lives being afraid that if they tell someone, they won’t be believed.   Because as bad as the horror of the abuse itself was, living with the secrecy, denial, disbelief, or outright shaming that can go on after the fact is even worse.

I just really, really needed to say this to them:

Thank you, gentlemen, for everything you’ve done.  Thank you for enduring and surviving in the first place.  Thank you for finally getting away from him when you could.  And, if you did, thank you for telling someone what was going on.  These things ALL, cumulatively, contributed to eventual justice.  

 And for those of you who risked everything and actually took the stand to testify, thank you for doing what some of the most powerful, privileged, and influential men in the educational world…what one of the most powerful athletic institutions in the nation as well as the vast cultural and financial empire that supported it…were too little to do.

You stopped Jerry Sandusky from ever hurting another child.  You struck the righteous, thunderbolt blow.  Kudos, gentlemen.  With all my heart I wish you the healing, dignity, and wholeness in your lives that you so richly, richly deserve.

Dia Osborn

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Your Early Exposure to Death: Was It Scary Or Curious?

“Children do not respond to death as adults do. Their normal reactions are much more natural, curious and varied, until that is changed by the adult world”.  From Children and Pet Loss.

(This post follows Five Major Influences that help Shape Our Acceptance Or Fear of Dying and Death.)

Before I start, I want to say that every person is unique, so of course the relationship they forge with death over time will be unique, too.

It’s like a lifelong dance we do; each successive loss is a new partner that whirls us about the floor for however long it lasts, then drops us in our chair by the wall again.  Every encounter is different and our perspective on dying evolves with each one.  As John Gray over at Going Gently wisely reminds me from time to time, there is no right or wrong way to look at dying.  Each person’s experience just is what it is, and that makes it absolutely true for them and deserving of respect.

Having said all that, it’s also important to remember that both trauma and beauty are inherent in the dying process.  And with increased, gentle awareness, it’s possible to help ease the first and strengthen the latter.  (That’s actually one of the main goals of hospice and palliative care.)  In practice though, this shift happens a lot faster with a person who’s already open to the good.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while there really is no right or wrong way to look at dying, there are some perspectives that might be more helpful than others.  (Of course, anyone currently reeling with a loss is sacred and off-limits.  Period.  I’m not talking about you trying to change anything right now.  You have enough on your plate.)  But for the rest of us, it wouldn’t hurt to consider at least trying to tweak our view of dying before our next up on the dance floor.  It could make a difference.

So what shapes any given perspective?

Well, early impressions sure pack a punch and go a long way towards forming our view of dying thereafter.  There are a number of variables that feed into whether our first brush with death leans toward the strengthening or scary side, but the top three would probably include, 1) how big the loss is, 2) how the people around us respond, and 3) the manner of the death.

A friend of the hubster’s came for a visit a couple years ago, and when we ventured onto the topic of my work with hospice and my perspective about the beautiful side of dying, he disagreed that there was anything beautiful about it.  He related the story of his first experience with death and, truly, it was not a good one.  He lost his father to illness when he was in his teens, a time when he was particularly vulnerable and unprepared, and he was still, some forty odd years later, carrying a burden from that loss.  In his experience, dying really had been something bleak and terrible; there wasn’t anything good involved to help counter the pain.  Dying was a force that stripped him of the father he still desperately needed and then left him struggling alone in the vast hole it ripped in his life.

So when I spoke about the beautiful side of dying I encountered in my work, he looked at me like I was speaking Swahili.  Because beauty had played no part in his primary encounter with death, it was difficult for him to even consider it as a possibility.

My aunt had a similar devastating encounter with death when her husband died in his forties of colon cancer back in the eighties.  The battle for a cure beforehand had involved five years of grueling, toxic, and unproductive treatment and then, on top of it all, towards the end of the fight his pain was poorly managed (as happened more often than not, back then.)  His death was not pretty and the scars it left for my aunt were profound.   So when my grandmother, her mother, died a peaceful, easy death a little while later, my aunt declined to be in the room when she passed because her prior experience made her believe that dying, by nature, is gruesome and harsh.

I always wondered (privately of course, I never said anything to her) if being present at my grandmother’s benign death might have helped heal some of the earlier trauma but, of course, there was no way to know.

But then my mother, her sister and best friend, died a few years ago and my aunt wound up accidentally being in the room when she passed in spite of her intention not to.  The moment was profoundly beautiful for all of us assembled, a final gift of grace from a woman whose life had been all about love, and it provided me with a means of finally learning the answer to my question.  When I asked my aunt about it later she answered that, yes, witnessing my mother’s good death really did help ease the burden of horror she’d been carrying for so many years.  She felt a little more peaceful with it now.

It was a revelation for me…the realization that our initial perspective on death isn’t written in stone.  That, if the luck of the draw brought us a difficult first death, we’re not helplessly doomed to tremble at the thought forever after.  It is possible to ease some of the fear of dying and create a measure of peace.

Of course first brushes with death don’t always involve a primary relationship, in fact they usually don’t, and these milder, less threatening experiences can provide an opportunity to get one’s toes wet a little at a time.  One of the most common ways that children get a first look at death is through the loss of a family pet or other animal, and these encounters provide a golden opportunity for teaching them how to navigate the dying world with courage and strength.  Children take their cues on how to respond to death (and everything else for that matter) from the adults around them so it’s important what we model for them.

I found the following story on a forum where people were discussing the potential value or harm, for children, of holding funerals for a pet.  I thought I’d include it here because it’s such a great example of how a parent’s response can so profoundly shape a child’s perspective of not only death, but the value of life:

“My parents’ dog died at home when I was two and a half — they hadn’t wanted to put him down at the vet’s. I recall him quite vividly lying there on the kitchen floor on some sheets of newspaper, and I also remember the questions I asked my mom and dad as I grappled with what had happened. I asked if I could pet him, and they said that would be okay. They were quite attached to the dog, which they’d gotten before they were married and had been a fellow-traveler with them in their journey together, and so they both cried a little. I remember trying to comfort my mom, telling her it’d be okay. Later, I watched my dad dig a large hole out in the woods, carry Jonathan out in a fuzzy red blanket, bury him and mark the spot with a large piece of white quartz.

I was very clear on what was happening, for the most part, even at two and a half. I think your daughter would be fine with it at six.

Those events left a very strong impression on me, evidently: they’re my very first memories. Though sort of melancholy, they’re by no means bad memories. My dad still lives in the same house. Occasionally, when I go back home to visit, I notice that piece of quartz a little way out in the woods, half-buried in leaf litter. I think: that rock is a testament to a life not taken for granted.”posted by killdevil at 11:39 PM on May 24, 2007 [28 favorites]

For anyone looking to learn more about how to guide children through the loss of a pet (or anyone struggling with the loss of a pet themselves) The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement has a really terrific website.  A lot of people deny that the loss of an animal relationship can be just as devastating as the loss of a human one.  Whoever runs this website is not one of them.

So our early exposure to death goes a long way towards shaping and sizing our lifetime fear of it, but that still doesn’t mean it can’t change.  I’d love to hear some accounts of other people’s first exposure to dying or death.  Did it influence you more towards acceptance or fear?  (Or no influence at all?)

In the next post I’d like to talk about the influence of the attitude of those who teach us about death.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Last Week’s Poll and Do Children Know When They’re Dying?

First of all, the answer to the question posed in the previous post’s poll is Shit.  Feels a little anti-climactic now, no?  Although I assure you, at the time when I first spoke it aloud, the word was volcanic.  As the most forbidden term in my universe, lettin’ her rip like that tore a hole in the time/space continuum of my life that has never entirely closed again.

Such is the power of language.

And now, for a dramatic subject change (place hands firmly on each side and hold onto heads please) I ran across an interesting article after Googling the search term “do children know when they’re going to die.”  The title of the piece is When A Child Is Dying and it’s written by a couple of M.D.’s working in children’s palliative care over at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

As one would expect with this topic, it’s a powerful, heartbreaking, and inspiring article, discussing both the keen awareness children tend to have of what’s really going on, as well as the higher stakes and corresponding desperation that so often comes to bear on adult decision making in these situations.  Obviously, the two doctors who wrote the article are strong advocates for delivering better palliative care in cases where children are at end-stage, but evidently it can be an uphill battle as quality-of-life issues for the child vie with the powerful parental instinct to fight for life.

Read it if you dare.  It highlights yet another area where 1) our collective commitment to denial about death can wreak some serious havoc if we don’t get out in front of it early, and 2) the huge and beautiful difference it can make for those we love most if we only screw up our courage and face it anyway.

One of the most helpful insights I gained while working with hospice had to do with a rather large, unexamined assumption I’d been laboring under most of my life; namely, that dying = something going wrong.  (Not surprising considering that most of our medical language reinforces the perspective.  Heart failure.  Organ collapse.  Failure to thrive.  Losing the battle.  Disease is the enemy.  War on cancer, etc.)

However, after hanging around with the dying for a while and studying the dynamics first hand, a new and startling perspective presented itself and knocked my world off-tilt.  I’m not entirely sure how it happened but as I watched one person after another…one circle of loved ones after another…migrate across the sweeping terrain of the dying season, the basic, cyclical nature of life began to show itself more clearly, and as it did the word “wrong” was gradually replaced with something else.

What was happening to these people wasn’t wrong so much as it was just time.  Their time.  Like someday it will be my time.  And your time.  And everyone’s time.  (And every thing’s time for that matter.  Nothing lasts forever in a physical world.)   And as this new awareness grew on me I turned to the obvious, bewildering question: why in the world had I been believing, however subconsciously, that people shouldn’t die?  Or that there was something wrong happening when they did?  Where did that expectation come from anyway?

I quickly realized it’s because of how it feels–because of the huge losses involved and the devastating hole it tends to leave behind.  Nine times out of ten, dying is a seriously hard physiological process to go through, and trying to recover after losing someone you love isn’t much better.  The whole thing feels bad.  Really bad.  And because nobody wants to feel that way, it’s easy to mistake the badness of the feeling for something going wrong.

I admit, it sounds really strange to say that Yes, absolutely, dying is horrible and undignified and primal and full of suffering and loss and destruction…but hey!  At least nothing’s going wrong.  

It sounds insane and yet it’s true.  Life is so weird sometimes.

But even accepting all that, it feels most wrong when a child dies.  It just does.  That magnitude of loss violates every screaming, primal, dangerous, protective, cornered instinct lacing our genes and honestly, I’m not sure if a rational perspective has any value at that point.  Does it?  I’m pretty sure I’d rip the throat out of anyone who tried to tell me nothing was going wrong if it was my child dying.

And yet…and yet.  That doesn’t mean it’s not still true.  Hmmm.  Y’know, I think ultimately…if I was going through the loss of a child myself…I would rather be surrounded by people who accepted the inevitability of dying, were no longer afraid of it, and had learned how to navigate it gracefully.  It seems like they’d be the ones most likely to offer the compassion, strength, and acceptance needed, rather than feeling conflicted, not knowing what to do, and turning their faces away in horror or outrage instead.

I guess that’s why stories like the one in When A Child Is Dying move me the way they do.  I LOVE that these people are out there; the doctors and nurses and volunteers and social workers and chaplains and counselors and all the other staff working in palliative and hospice care, all trying to oh-so-gingerly raise our awareness in order to try and lift some of our burden.  I’m grateful that they continue to wade willingly and skillfully into the darker waters of our lives every day.

They know that dying can be something better than most people currently believe.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Of Birthdays, Mouth Control, And The Risk of Living

My birthday just passed and the hubster and I headed outdoors to spend the day kayaking and hiking.  We always go outside for my birthday because if I were a compass, the natural world would lie at magnetic north.  This year was particularly inviting because it’s been so radically warm that it already felt like spring.  Everyone was outdoors in fact, not just us.  The young, strong, and nubile were hitting the river in wetsuits, while a caravan of towed motorboats wound its way out to the reservoirs with beach chairs and coolers of beer carefully tucked among the fishing gear.  (We lie somewhere around the middle of this spectrum.)

We’re just starting to kayak…our adventurous spirit is reviving from a near death experience as we finally shed some of this horrible weight…and we spent about an hour on a calm pond next to the river in town trying out different kinds and sizes of boats.  (Or, in the vernacular, “yaks.”)  Afterward we decided to drive up into the reservoir system northeast of Boise to scout for more exciting places to paddle once we spread our wings.

There are three dams on the middle and south forks of the Boise River…Lucky Peak, Arrowrock, and Anderson Ranch…and the reservoirs they create stretch for miles back into the mountains.  Below is a photo of Arrowrock dam with spring flows already being released due to the early snow melt.  Note the sparse snow cover on the mountains back behind.

The lack of snow bodes ill for future irrigation but it was terrific for hiking.  Normally we wouldn’t be able to access the ravine pictured below this time of year…at least without snowshoes…but we caught a great day.  The creek that runs along the bottom was low enough for us to cross since most of the lower snow had already melted and run off.  (The hubster missed one jump and got a shoe wet though.  Fortunately, he survived as seen with Dane the mangy rescue mutt below.)

It was spectacular back there, with snowy peaks capping both ends of the valley.  We had views both coming and going.  This is what it looked like hiking in:

And this is what it looked like coming out again:

As we began our hike we met a couple waiting next to a truck near the trailhead.  The woman, a pair of binoculars in hand, had just slid down a side hill and was engaged in serious consultation with the man.  They explained they were waiting for their three teenage sons who had hiked off along a high ridge running above the ravine some time earlier.  They seemed uneasy as the boys were late returning to the truck.  I got the impression the two weren’t married and that the mother was a lot more worried about her son(s) than the father, a hunting man, was about his.

She asked us to watch out for them and to deliver the message that they were waiting if we saw them, and I assured her we would.  But not before the hubster joked that the word “mother” is embedded in the word “smother.” (Sigh)  He realized from the ensuing awkward silence that it was a glaring faux pas, but couldn’t unsay it at that point.  Really, he’s come so far over the years in terms of filtering the thoughts in his head before they spill out of his mouth, but every once in a while he still just takes a hard right like that and sails over the cliff.

As a mother, I could relate to her worry because…well…that’s just what we do.  We know what can happen.  But at the same time I didn’t take her fears seriously because I was picturing boys in the sixteen to seventeen year range.  Around here, boys of that age with a hunting father are already experienced in wild terrain, so a simple hike on a clear afternoon wouldn’t usually pose any kind of meaningful risk.

We were only about a half-mile in when we sighted them up the trail and I immediately realized her worry was based on something more substantial.  The boys were younger than I thought…more in the twelve to fifteen year range…and her son, a pale, slight boy with glasses, looked to be the youngest.  By the time we met we could see that all three of them were agitated, a little scratched up and dirty, and they pounced on us wanting to know how much farther it was back to the trailhead.

They told us they’d been hiking along the ridge on the other side of the ravine when…for a boyish lark I suppose…they decided to climb down the mountainside, cross the creek, and climb back up to the trail we were on.  They pointed out the spot where they chose to make their descent and my blood went cold.  You can’t really tell from the photos but the sides of that ravine are quite steep and the boys had not only picked one of the steepest spots of all to climb down, it was a rocky, north facing slope that still held a thin layer of snow.  The descent was far more slippery and treacherous than they realized and they all exclaimed that they’d wound up slipping a few times.  If one of them had lost control of their fall, it would have meant tumbling wildly down a thousand feet of hillside, battered against jagged granite outcroppings the whole way.  Even the oldest boy (who seemed to be the son of the hunter) was visibly shaken by the experience.

We gave them the mother’s message and sent them on their way (although not before the hubster…imploding under the pressure of a stern admonition not to…helplessly blurted out to hurry because their mom was crying, which only made her son even more upset.  He then tried to backtrack by calling after their swiftly receding backs, no, no, no, it was their dad crying, not their mom, but both the intended humor and the correction sailed right over their heads.  I was just grateful she’d be gone by the time we got back.)

We talked for a while about boys of that age and how unpredictable they can be, how an older child can so easily lead younger ones into situations that escalate like that one did, and how all three of them now have a great story to add to their growing cache of adventures.   We shook our heads and reminisced about our own early scrapes, marveling yet again that kids ever survive to adulthood at all, and it made me think about the growing trend these days of trying to protect them from more…and more and more…of the perennial dangers that always lurk in the world.

To my eyes, some of these efforts lean towards the irrational, to the point where some regulatory attempts (not to mention some of the things parents are being prosecuted for) can not only interfere with basic parenting but a child’s ability to explore their world as well.  I sometimes wonder what kind of people our children will turn into under so much legislated fear, and what kind of society it might lead them to create in their turn.  Hopefully, the pendulum will eventually swing back to an attitude that’s more balanced…something that moderates the current hyper-vigilance with at least some acceptance of the fact that the very nature of life is, and always will be, unpredictable.

We stayed out for a couple hours and, as we headed back, the setting sun broke through the clouds turning the whole valley golden behind us.  A parting gift from the weather gods.

We ended the day by impulsively stopping by Mon Pere’s house on the way home and catching an impromptu dinner with him, his girlfriend of twenty-five years, and her daughter and grandson.

By the end of the day I was a very happy camper; relaxed and supremely content.  It was a most excellent birthday, to be sure.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Learning How Not To Be Violent

With the vandalism and violence of so many (primarily) young men in London, I’ve naturally been thinking about our youth in general; how we’re supposed to teach them to behave in a civilized way, and what it looks like when we fail.

It made me think of a small incident I overheard last week.  There are three small children who live next door and, since they’re home-schooled, I often hear them playing in their backyard during “recess” while I’m working in the garden.  The youngest is three years old (with the shriek of a banshee) and, listening to an exchange she had with an older sister, it forcibly struck me,

1) just how not-civilized we are to start with, and

2) how grueling it is to train us to try and cooperate and respect the rules instead.

Only not in the way you’d first expect.

Third Child has reached the stage where she understands the basic rules of cooperation: Thou shalt not hit or call names or take anything by force, Thou shalt talk instead of scream, and Thou shalt use your words to try and work it out with your sisters before tattle-taling to mommy.  So when her older sister tried to pull a fast one and tell her that, no, no, no, you pick up the dog poop, Third Child understood that she had to raise her verbal fists and talk about it before resorting to other options.

Noooooo!!  We have to take turns!  We’re supposed to take turns!

I know…and it’s your turn.  (With age comes cunning.)

No it’s not!  It’s your turn! (Youth was not gullible.)  We have to take turns!  You have to take turns!!

Okay.  I’ll do it later.  (Age doubled back to try and throw her off the scent.)

No!  Nooooo!!  It’s your turn!!  You have to do it now!!  We have to take turns!!  We have to take TURNS!!!

By this time, Third Child had reached the limits of a three-year old’s self-control and her volume was climbing accordingly.  Older sister, realizing that mommy was likely to hear, finally capitulated and went off grumbling to pick up the poop while Third Child breathed raggedly for a minute or so, trying to de-escalate her emotions.

By this time I’d stopped what I was doing on the other side of the fence and was just standing there, fascinated and floored.  Third Child’s performance was absolutely amazing to me.  The discipline and effort she displayed in her attempt to deal with the problem in a civilized fashion (the above version is actually abbreviated–in reality she must have repeated We have to take turns! twenty or thirty times before she finally started to lose it) was really, truly impressive.

And, not to take away from Third Child’s achievement in any way, but I also instantly recognized the amount of mind-numbing, soul-sucking time, patience, and repetition required on her parents’ part, to get her to the point where she finally internalized the rule she kept repeating. Children don’t learn something as complex as what it means to be civilized from just telling them to do it once.  Either do adolescents or adults for that matter.  It’s the kind of thing we all need to hear over and over again, to observe by example in the behavior of others around us over and over again, to practice for ourselves–making lots of initial mistakes while being patiently corrected–over and over again, before it can finally be internalized as a first response.

And even after all that, it still needs to be continually reinforced or we’ll eventually slide back into the powerful impulses of our more primitive selves.

I look at the lawless, uncontrolled, destruction and violence of the last few days and can’t help but wonder how this happened?  Clearly, the young men participating aren’t behaving in a civilized way, but why not?  Where did the grueling training required for them to learn how to do so not materialize?  Didn’t they have someone to teach them when they were small?  Or didn’t they have enough role models showing them what it looks like along the way?  Or didn’t they have anyone who cared enough to patiently correct them, over and over again, when they inevitably made mistakes along the way?

In other words, in a civilized society, how in the world did so many of our young citizens reach manhood without learning the fundamental tenets of what it means to be civilized?

I firmly believe that those who have done harm should be held accountable for what they’ve done.  Justice and fairness are essential components of successful cooperation.  But I also think that, as a society, it’s possible we’ve all been negligent, and we should also hold ourselves accountable for that.  It looks like the majority of the damage has been done by disadvantaged young men, with few or no opportunities available to better their condition, and I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone when I mention that the hopelessness and anger of grinding poverty has always had a de-civilizing, de-stabilizing effect.

I also can’t help but notice that, worldwide, it’s been the most vulnerable populations bearing the vastly disproportionate burden of the downturn.  Which begs the question; are the rest of us playing the role of the older sister here?  Are we shirking our duties and trying to make the least powerful among us pick up all the poop?

I don’t know what the answers are to these questions…they’re far too many and too complex for simple explanations.  But I do know this: Each of us can, ourselves, strive to behave in a more civilized manner towards others.  Even if they’re not.  Those of us who did learn the rules of civilized behavior can stand in as the desperately needed role models for others who didn’t, or for those who have just temporarily forgotten and need a reminder.

Third Child actually stood in as a role model for her older sister, with great success.  Maybe we can all try to be more like her in our thoughts, words, and deeds.  We can refrain from hitting, calling names, or using force, we can try talking instead of yelling and, if there’s a problem, we can try to communicate directly instead of just blaming, belittling, or otherwise lashing out.

Violence has a capacity to spread, but then so does respect.  Acting with discipline and emotional restraint in the face of injustice is always hard, but if a three-year old can do it, surely…surely…the rest of us can at least try.

Learning How To Get Along

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn