Monday, December 24, 2012

All I Want for Christmas

Dearest NIP,
            Today’s letter really isn’t a letter at all. Rather, it’s a short essay that I wrote about 3 years ago after the events mentioned within transpired. I intended it to be read to my AP Human Geography class, but the sentiment is one in which anyone can share. I hope that you and yours have a wonderful holiday season, whether you celebrated Hanukkah earlier this month, are celebrating Christmas today and tomorrow, or the New Year next week. May each of these special days remind you of what’s truly important in your life. I hope to continue with the thematic letters on the five qualities soon.

Happy Holidays,

- Ryan


I want to tell you about a boy named Jonathan. Jonathan is the five year old son of two migrant workers and is the oldest of four children. When he joined Erin’s kindergarten class, it was his first exposure to school and he began more than a month late. He came to her speaking no English and, surprisingly, little Spanish. Salimar, another of Erin’s students, would often try to act as a translator for Erin, but Jonathan just stared at them when they would try to talk with him. Over the past few months, though, he slowly made gains as Erin worked closely by his side. About two months after his arrival, the word “apple” came from Jonathan’s lips along with a huge smile. Shortly thereafter, he could say “yellow,” which is apparently his favorite color.

            About two weeks ago, Jonathan stopped coming to school. By the end of the first week, Erin came home with tears welling in her eyes because she was afraid of what might have happened to him. She wondered whether or not he had enough to eat; she told me that before the school had placed him in the free and reduced lunch program, he would come to school with an ear of raw corn for lunch, undoubtedly food that had been given to his parents in lieu of cash for their labor. An entire second week had almost passed when he finally appeared alongside his mother last Friday. She explained and apologized in broken English for Jonathan’s absence; she had recently given birth to his baby brother and, coupled with not finding any work, the circumstances had forced her, her husband and the rest of Jonathan’s family to move in with relatives in Ruskin. Before leaving, Erin asked for the address so that we could bring his Christmas gifts to his new home; he was the child Erin and I specifically adopted to shower with gifts, especially educational toys that would help him continue to learn English.

            This past Saturday, Erin and I packed Jonathan’s wrapped gifts into our trunk and made the drive to Ruskin. When we found the address, we turned into a large trailer park that was clearly home to only migrant workers. Driving through the park, my eyes caught sight of a dilapidated swing set that sat barren and lifeless with only one chain hanging from the bar that playfully jostled in the wind. It only got worse. As we neared Jonathan’s trailer, his mother emerged from the doorway onto the wooden and weatherworn ramshackle steps with the newborn in her arms. She waved to us as we pulled up alongside their home. I got the presents from the trunk and as we proceeded up the steps the rest of the children gathered about the mother excitedly. Jonathan beamed with his characteristic smile, the same one Erin had described to me when he said his first word in English. Jonathan’s mother invited us in.

As soon as I entered, I was shocked by the emptiness of the home. It was a singlewide trailer with one bedroom at either end. The one to the right was presumably the bedroom of Jonathan’s extended family. Three small girls curiously peeked out of a crack between the door and the frame before hearing their mother tell them to close it. The only furniture in sight in the entire middle section of the home was a lone picnic table, toward which the mother motioned me to sit. Erin had made small stockings for each of the two younger sisters and I’ve never seen two children so grateful to have one lollipop, a canister of generic Play-Doh, and a few stickers. They opened the Play-Doh and looked with amazement as they removed it from the can and squished it in their tiny hands. Jonathan began unwrapping his first gift, a soccer ball, when his oldest cousin opened the back bedroom door and sadly asked me a question: “Where do you put your name in to get presents?” Erin explained that she was Jonathan’s kindergarten teacher and that he was part of a program at school to give students gifts. The girl remarked that they didn’t do that at her school and then closed the door.

The afternoon sun was beginning to come through the window and I squinted and moved over before noticing the “curtains,” which were black garbage bags that had been split down the seams and then stapled to the window frame. I began to take stock of the rest of the house; not only was it devoid of furniture, but there was no television, no radio, no phone, not anything that most of us sitting in this room take for granted. Besides an old electric stove and a beat up refrigerator, the only piece of “technology” they had was an ancient microwave with a dial timer. After Jonathan opened all of his gifts, Erin gave him a hug and said “te amo”; he smiled again and went right back to his toys. Erin and I then gave his mother some cash to help them through what are sure to be tough times this holiday season. When we left, Erin told me it took everything she had not to cry when she saw how Jonathan lived. Imagine: four adults and seven children living in a trailer, presumably sleeping on the floor with blankets and eating communal meals on their one piece of furniture, a picnic table.

            The other day one of my students asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I thought about it for quite some time and I told him that I wanted him to do something kind for someone he normally wouldn’t. In our American culture, we have the tendency to point the finger when things don’t go our way—we judge, label, accuse, mock, or deride anyone who doesn’t fit our worldview. In high school it’s even worse because peer pressure often forces students to accept only certain people into the fold and shun others. If anything, I sincerely hope that the first semester of AP Human Geography has taught you that life is not black and white. Life, more than anything, is a struggle. And we all rise to meet that struggle in different ways. So before we judge, label, accuse, mock or deride those who don’t fit into our worldview or what we think of as “normal,” perhaps we should celebrate our diversity and try to become a little more inclusive of others. After all, people are people. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, what types of food you eat, the religion you believe in, or where you come from. If you cut someone, I guarantee that person will feel pain and his/her blood will run red. We are all one family after all. We are all human beings. And all I want for Christmas is the same thing we all want: to be good to one another, to be loved, and to accept each other for who we are and not who we want them to be. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Gratitude

Thank you, NIP
            No matter who you are, I owe you a debt of gratitude. At 37 years old, I now fully realize that there are very few things I can accomplish on my own. Our lives are so interdependent upon others, whether we choose to acknowledge this fact or not. The more I have turned toward this realization over the last few years, the more my life has flourished. Even everyday encounters have taken on such a rich texture simply because I am grateful for having the chance to experience them. This transition didn’t happen overnight, however; it has been a gradual growth of gratitude by constantly reminding myself all that I have to be grateful for—from family, friends, students, neighbors, anonymous readers of these letters and other strangers, to even simple moments when I revel in the fact that I am alive and feeling the sunshine on my skin as I breathe deeply and feel connected to all of life.

            For me, the first step toward true gratitude for my life and everyone and everything in it was discovering a powerful mantra from Zen Buddhism. I must tell myself these following three lines umpteen times per day:

Infinite gratitude to all things past
Infinite service to all things present
Infinite responsibility to all things future

The first is essential to this letter, and it may be the most crucial overall because it allows us to build a foundation—a place to start when it comes to making the necessary constructive changes in our lives. Being grateful to all things past implies acceptance to everything that has brought us to this very moment. Our mind has a tendency to pick and choose events/thoughts/actions in a way that shapes our everyday existential experience, but we miss the point if we don’t recognize that everything—whether we choose to acknowledge it or not—has shaped us. Good, bad, or indifferent, all of the moments of our lives when put into a cumulative perspective have fashioned the life we lead in the here and now. Being grateful for even those moments, thoughts, people, etc that have hurt us are important because we have (hopefully) learned something from them. I certainly have had my fair share of those in the first 37 years of my life, but the way I see them now is radically different from how I saw them in my youth.

            Take my parents’ divorce, for example. 25 years ago, it was a disaster in my life. I couldn’t appreciate the dynamics of adult relationships, let alone be grateful for the disintegration of my family. Now, though? I couldn’t be more grateful for my parents getting divorced because of the good it brought into their lives. Both of my parents have found someone with whom they can share their lives in a positive, rewarding way. Moreover, it has only allowed my family to grow to include more members. I feel the same exact way about Erin’s family as well. She also grew up in a divorced household, but it’s a blessing in the sense that we effectively have four sets of parents. Sure it can make the holidays challenging by having to go to so many houses, but I simply remind myself as soon as I cross whichever threshold that I am grateful to spend time with them.

            I am also especially grateful for being a teacher. Each year I meet new students and form new relationships, which, as I get older, seem to be the most important aspect of life/living (human relationships). Having a career where I get to “pay-it-forward” by extending toward students the love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience that has been shown to me throughout my life thus far is incredibly rewarding. Admittedly, I have had difficulty sustaining my love for teaching a few times this year, but in those moments it tended to be the peripheral hazards of the career (bureaucracy, politics, etc). What has and continues to sustain me, though, is the magic between the bells. Even while doing our mindful minute after the tardy bell, I find myself silently repeating “I am grateful for this moment” on the inhalation and “I am grateful for these students” on the exhalation. I cannot even begin to tell you how that positively impacts the tone and atmosphere of my instruction, NIP. Know that if you are one of my students—past or present—you have had an indelible impact on my life and the way I choose to live it. All of the students I have taught, whether they realize it or not, have been important to my maturation both as a teacher and a human being.

            The one for whom I am most grateful, though, is my beautiful wife, Erin. I routinely tell just about anyone who will listen that if it weren’t for Erin, I would not be who I am today (or, seeing we just finished Nietzsche in philosophy class this week, who I am becoming). She has been such a source of strength and motivation throughout our entire relationship, but especially since beginning this project of self-improvement nearly four years ago. Every day when I wake, I lie in bed and proceed through my gratitude mantra. This used to culminate in the final, simple line “I am grateful,” but in the last few months has transformed into “I am grateful for all of this bounty and beauty in my life.” More often than not, Erin’s face pops into my mind’s eye when I am reciting that line. I am so thankful for her presence in my life and our relationship in general that it’s quite difficult to put into words how much she means to me. Words—as they often do when trying to convey a powerful feeling or experience—break down and become meaningless; therefore, I do my best to show my gratitude for her and our marriage by simple actions: bringing her coffee when she wakes; giving her my undivided attention when she speaks; holding hands while we walk; making dinner for her; in short, loving her as best I can in each and every moment.

            I don’t remember how young I was the first time I heard someone tell me to count my blessings. All I know is that it took me far too long to heed that advice. By constantly reminding myself of the small gifts each new day brings, I find it much easier to weather the worst of life’s storms. It may take time for it to become habitual, but try to take a mental inventory of the moments for which you’re thankful throughout the day. In time even the most mundane things may become marvelous. And before you know it you’ll be staring at ant colonies scurrying in and out of a knothole in a tree, thinking about how grateful you are to have taken a random stroll outside on a beautiful, warm winter day while the sunlight warmed your skin just slightly yet was kept in equilibrium by the gentle breeze that cooled it.

Be grateful for all of it, NIP.

Thanks again for reading…

- Ryan   

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Compassion

Nobody in Particular,

            I find inspiration for life in many places. A constant source this year has been from a small desk calendar that I received from a student last year as a Christmas gift. Just about every other day or so there is a quote that I really like, and I typically share it with the students that day. And at least once per month there is one that I like so much that I tape it to my desk, my computer screen, or somewhere close enough in the immediate vicinity that I end up taking notice of it at least once per day. Perhaps one of my absolute favorites is a quote from the Dalai Lama: “If you want to be happy, practice compassion; if you want others to be happy, practice compassion.” Though some may think this quote borders on platitude, I believe it captures the essence of the single commonality that runs through all of the world’s great faith traditions—to care for the other.

            A couple of years ago when I first began seriously wrestling with the cardinal virtues that I wanted to cultivate in my life, I read a short book by Karen Armstrong titled Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. The author spent a good deal of her adulthood living a religious life as a Christian nun, and later left the convent to eventually become a world-renown scholar of religion. The compact treatise is based on a TED talk she had given a couple of years earlier during which she championed the need for compassion in a globalized world. Based on her research and own religious insights, Armstrong effectively illustrates that compassion is indeed the single sinew that binds the entire body of global religious beliefs together. Regardless of epoch or cultural context, all of the world’s religions openly express the need to welcoming others and doing our best to help them in whatever way we can. If we enter into all dialogue and/or relationships with others using compassion as a common ground, there is a palpable potential to make lasting connections that overlook innocuous differences.

            Compassion is ultimately about understanding. But while we tend to think of compassion as oriented toward the other, it really begins with ourselves. Much like we see in the Dalai Lama quote above, being compassionate starts when we recognize the need to accept who we are and embrace its totality, strengths and weaknesses. Whether due to culture or otherwise, we all have a tendency to be our own worst critics. Even if we don’t express it outright, very often we are berating ourselves in our own minds. I could be wrong in this, but I certainly was this way (and perhaps still am, though to a much, much lesser degree). Many others with whom I have spoken about this topic seem to agree that this has been their experience as well, whether it’s my students, peers, or elders. If this type of self-criticism is as universal as it seems to be, then its recognition is the first step on the path to becoming more compassionate toward our own faults and working to improve them. It is only a matter of time before we begin to extend this empathetic understanding toward others.

            If there were a caveat to compassion it’s this: compassion requires a fine line to be tread, ethically speaking. It’s one thing to say that we must accept others for who they are and to treat them with encouragement and understanding, especially when they are trying their best to improve their lives for the better. But it is another matter entirely when we allow ourselves to accept those most in need of help but are not willing to take a stand against them when it is for their own good. Far too often people think being compassionate is a sign of weakness or a lack of conviction on the part of the person who is empathetic toward someone’s suffering. I think true compassion, however, requires a perfect blend of what MLK, Jr. called “tough-mindedness” and “tender-heartedness.” We must be “tough-minded” in the sense that we should strive to live out our values / moral code, and yet we must be “tender-hearted” in that we have to do our best to love ourselves and others openly. The trick is not letting one impetus override the other. Instead, we must do our best to allow compassion to flourish in an organic way—a constant give and take of showing our loving acceptance and sharing with others strategies for successful personal change. Ultimately the only person you can work on is yourself, NIP, but it’s necessary if you want to help others in the long run.

            You may have noticed the same dynamic at work in the previous letter about love. To some extent I think this has been the case for all of the five attributes. Whether it’s love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, or patience, we must begin by making these subtle shifts internally before their outward expression can have any lasting meaning or impact. Just as we cannot love others without learning to love ourselves, we cannot accept shortcomings in others compassionately without examining, understanding, and accepting our own. Acceptance is only the first step, however; once we accept, we need to commit ourselves to improving our foibles with all due diligence.

            Thanksgiving is tomorrow and, though a time traditionally seen for gratitude, it’s a good time to practice compassion both with ourselves and others: ourselves because many (perhaps even most) Americans tend to get upset about weight-gain and worry about what and how much they’re going to eat (on top of all of our other stresses and pressures); others because the holiday allows us to gather with family members, some of whom may be sorely in need of compassion and with whom it would be easiest to practice. For those fortunate enough to have some time off of work, we could use this time to reflect and be grateful for the compassion that others have shown to us or for those moments we had the wisdom to bestow it upon ourselves. Whatever you choose to do during this holiday, I hope that you at least spend it in the company of family and friends, NIP. Hopefully this time of healing and celebration will act as a springboard into a more compassionate life in the near future.

Practice compassion, NIP.

- Ryan 

P.S. - Click here if you'd like to watch Karen Armstrong's original TED talk. I didn't mention it earlier, but TED annually gives a $100,000 award to the best TED talk to help transform the person's idea into a reality. Karen Armstrong's idea won this prize and she used the money to research and write her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On Love

What up, NIP?

            Have you ever heard Peter Gabriel’s song, “Love to Be Loved”? If you haven’t you should check it out, it’s a great tune. He sings, quite simply, “I love to be loved.” I do too. Who doesn’t? Who wouldn’t? I love to give love as well. Why is this? Why does love / loving feel so natural to human beings? Is it because we are inherently social creatures? Survival instinct? I know some who claim it’s biologically related to neural networks and chemical transmitters. Whatever the case may be, we’ve been discussing this idea a lot in philosophy class and we keep coming up with different answers to the same question—what is love?

            I must admit that I have an issue with the word itself. I think part of the difficulty of discussing “love” lay in the fact that the English word is far too broad in scope. People will tell you that they love ice cream, but they in no way mean the same thing when those same people are talking about family or friends. I’ve always gravitated to Greek myself, which has three different words for what love in English entails. The first is philos, what we might think of as a strong, affectionate bond between friends, or the deep, blood bond of family.  The other relevant one is agape (pronounced a-GAH-pay), which would be akin to altruism in the sense that we are to help others without the expectation of anything in return. Most of the time when “love” is mentioned in the New Testament translations, for instance, the corresponding koine Greek word in the original text is agape. They may appear dissimilar, but in reality are inextricably linked.

            After my yoga this morning, while doing my mindfulness practice as I lay in savasana, I kept focused on these two aspects of love, philos and agape. To keep my mind trained on these ideas, I began mentally saying philos on the inhalation, and agape on the exhalation. I also noticed my mind began conjuring up images of what these types of love look like in action. Very often I kept coming back to an image of Erin when I thought about philos and the faces of an entire classroom full of students when I thought about agape. While I tried not to think too much in the moment as to why those images popped into my mind’s eye, I did reflect on it after I had finished and began eating breakfast.

            It makes perfect sense as to why the word philos would conjure up the face of my beloved. While I will always love my family very much for all that they have done for me, the bond I share with my wife (and I would imagine this to be the case for most marriages) will always be slightly stronger. My parents’, brothers’, and extended family’s love all helped mold me into who I am to a certain degree, but that love only pushed me up to a certain point in my personal progress. Before I met Erin that growth certainly stagnated a bit due to my increasingly cynical worldview; after meeting my wife, however, I began to see two critical components of love—that I was worthy of love, and that I was capable of loving in return. 

Erin in some sense untied the knot that my parents’ divorce and its residual emotional effects had created. In my early 20s, I thought I would never get married mainly because—as I mentioned in La Familia Es Todo—I had doubted my capacity to love, especially that certain someone with whom I would potentially spend the rest of my life. Meeting Erin—the beautiful, excellent woman that she is—acted like a sunrise in my life, dissipating the clouds that had gathered on the horizon before the dawn. Though I didn’t understand this immediately, I began to realize it more and more as time deepened and strengthened our bond. And precisely because Erin loved me, I wanted to be a better person in every way, whether that be as a husband, son, brother, friend, or even teacher. Being loved by her allowed me to realize what love is—service. There are several ways I can tell her how I love her, but an almost limitless number of ways I can show her. They may be little things like bringing her a cup of coffee when she wakes each morning, or trying to do house chores before she gets home so that she can relax upon arrival. I try my best to show her how much I love her in these simple ways throughout the day, and these little gifts of loving service bring me immense pleasure.

The more that I learned to cultivate my love for Erin, the more I realized how interrelated philos and agape truly were. In some sense my marriage to Erin taught me how to love well, how to sacrifice my own desires for those of another. And at some point along the way, it all hit me: to love someone allows us to focus on that person more than ourselves. This is first learned in the context of family as we all have the responsibility of taking care of those younger than us; parents must care for their children, older siblings must help younger, etc. Helping others in turn alleviates many of our egocentric issues, because once the focus is placed squarely on the other person many of our own seemingly large problems become rather small or disappear altogether. But why stop there? Why not love everyone as best you can? Sure it can be difficult at times, especially with those who reject our love and or help. But what else is agape other than a test of our humanity, of our ability to love?

Throughout antiquity, cultures constantly extolled the virtue of welcoming the other, as you never knew who that person potentially could be (an incarnate deity, for example). In the Torah alone, the most oft repeated commandment is to “welcome the stranger,” which is mentioned no fewer than 30 times in those first five books of the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus tells us that loving (agape) one another should be our highest human aim. We see the same endorsement given in all of the world’s major religions, in fact. Love is an ancient and powerful feeling. To me, it is the human emotion from which all others emanate. If you find that you lack love in your life, NIP, why not try to cultivate it? Think about ways that you could give and receive more love. The more you make love your primary motivational force, the more you’ll have it returned to you. It may be cliché to say that we get what we give, but I think this couldn’t be more true when it comes to love.

Love yourself and others, NIP, it’s the first step toward true change.

- Ryan