Making Inquiry

Courage came into my life the other day, and taught me a few lessons.

It is not often that we are given the opportunity to look back in our lives, to take a deep look at a dark time, and reflect on what we have learned, and what we still need to do.

He had asked me for help.

“I’m not sure what to say here,” he said.

The counselor had given him a big assignment, the last challenge he had to complete to finish the treatment program.

He had to write down his thoughts about a terrible time in his childhood, a time that still causes him nightmares. Once this was done, he could move on with his life.

I read the assignment out loud, giving voice to the three pages of questions and the writing assignment that required him to relive the bad times, and maybe make some sense of it.

To do this work, he had to look to a time when life for him was upside down, nonsensical. He knew that now. Time away from all of that had given him some perspective, some maturity, an ability to see all of that for what it was, and understand the why of it all.

The questions shook me to my core. If this was my book, my treatment program, could I be strong enough to answer all of this, to put into words the thoughts I’d had? Could I be objective about the actions I took, way back then, and reflect on what I’d learned, how I had changed?
Or would I run away from that, ignoring these questions, and pretend it had never happened? Often, I see that as the easier path.

“Could you write it down for me?” he asked. “I’ll just talk and you put it into words on the paper.”

I could do that, to be his witness, his scribe.

He was Courage today, and I was his student.

He took a breath and began.

Almost matter of fact, he told his story and answered the questions in order, detached at times, reflecting on a long ago life, seen now from a safe distance. Now, an adult, a graduate of years of treatment and therapy and discussion groups, he spoke with authority. Everything was clear to him. What had happened, what he did was in the past; it was that old way of life, that old way of thinking.

His words flowed, organized, methodical, and I wrote them all down. Sometimes, I’d prompt him with the next question, the next exercise in the book where I wrote.

I looked into his eyes, and saw glimmers of the old pain, the guilt, the shame; tempered now with a blaze of forgiveness and wisdom. The time of judgment and condemnation had long passed, and today, we were moving on. I witnessed his fire, the spirit of a new man, who had grown beyond the old, and was able to make sense of that story, his story — history.

Those questions he had had long ago now were answered. He’s made a new life for himself, orderly, peaceful. He had a purpose now, a direction. It was down on paper, proof that he’d moved on.

The poet Rainer Rilke writes:
“Love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually live your way into the answer.”

My young friend is doing his work, looking at those questions, breathing in the answers, and figuring out who he is, and how to move on.

Our journeys through life are not without challenge, and not without peril. Seeking the truth is not for the meek or the timid.

Were I to be as wise as him, as determined, I, too, could ask my friend to take his pen and write down what I had to say.

Making inquiry is part of our work here as we live our lives, pausing now and then to look inside.

–Neal Lemery
July 10, 2016

Spare the Rod, Save the Child

Someone recently commented on how they felt children should be disciplined and raised, saying that a good swat on the butt was a good thing, and that “discipline” helped their child learn right from wrong.

“If you spare the rod, you spoil the child.” That’s old thinking, and I’ve seen the harm and the failures in that view of parenting.

I spoke up, disagreeing, expressing my opinion that violence teaches violence, that physical punishment demeans a child and fuels their anger. Instead of building up a child, violence in any form sends a message that they are worth less than others, and that the answer to a situation is pain, tears, and degrading another person. Words are weapons and you are successful when you conquer your enemy on the battlefield.

Parenting is tough work, and requires a wide range of skills and approaches, especially when the child learns more from what you do than what you say. And, yet, the method we fall back on, the one that comes first to mind, is how I was raised, and how I was treated.

As a parent, I have always tried to be a good example, to be, as Gandhi said, the change you want to see in the world.

“How do I change behavior, how do I teach this child that there is another approach to how they are dealing with life?” I ask myself, when conflict arises, when a lesson needs to be taught, when change in behavior and thinking needs to occur.

If I spank, if I slap, if I use loud and demeaning words, then I only teach by bad example, and, later on, I will reap the harvest of shame, anger, and even rage. The family will suffer, and, so will the community. We will have another angry person, whose approach to problems and difficulties in life will be the path of violence, and being able to communicate only through a fist, or a string of mean, vicious words loaded with sarcasm and degradation.

Is that what kind of world we want for our kids, an atmosphere of put downs, power struggles, and pent up fury? Is that what we want to be remembered for as parents, the one who instilled fear, a sense of powerlessness and frustration, the one who struck the match to the bonfire of self loathing and blind rage?

Or, do we want to teach compassion, unconditional love, and a pathway of exploring one’s emotions, and celebrating our humanity? Do we want to teach effective problem solving, self love, and peace making in this world?

That dialogue stirred up some strong feelings, and several voices talked about their own violent and frustrating childhoods, and how they’ve struggled with forging a new direction, a new approach to how they raise kids, and how they deal with their own angers and frustrations.

In my parenting, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my own childhood, and the parenting methods of my family. And, I’ve hopefully learned a lot, and I’ve changed and grown. I’ve learned that real parenting is teaching by example, by modeling, and by a great deal of listening and empathy. I’ve learned to talk things through, to name the emotions that are flying around the room, and in the hearts of my kids. I’ve tried to value emotions and the struggles we all have in dealing with difficult situations and conflicted hearts.

I’ve also learned to throw away the paddle, and to not inflict pain. I’ve learned to curb my tongue, and not use the hurtful, warlike vocabulary that leads so quickly to tears, rage, and frustration, as well as a lifetime of self doubt, low self esteem, and a sense of being a failure as a human being.

I’ve learned to say I’m sorry, that I’m not perfect, and that I’m looking for a better way myself. I’ve learned to get my emotions out on the table, so that I can take a good look at them, and see myself in all my glory and all of my foibles and deficits. And then, when I’ve named all of that mess on the table, I can sort through it, and find my path towards the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of person I want my kids to be.

I want to change the world, and I know that happens one person at a time, beginning with me.