compassion

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Perspective – Stories Told By Trees in a Giant Forest

Published August 22, 2016 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

As the saying goes, sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees – you concentrate so hard on the details that you miss the big picture. By the same token, it’s possible to notice the whole while ignoring it’s individual parts – seeing the forest but neglecting to acknowledge the trees.

Then there are those moments when you see both at the same time. It’s all about perspective.

I remember it clearly. I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, deeply engrossed in my activity, carefully cutting pieces of cardboard and taping them together to make horses and farmers to go with the cardboard barn I had made.

I could play like this for hours in my quiet, safe cocoon, fully content to be alone with my creativity.

Carefully I drew a face and clothes on the farmer with a black magic marker then folded his legs so that he could ride his cardboard horse. My world consisted of just this activity at that moment – the farmer, the horse, the barn – a little cardboard world of my own creation.

As I began cutting out the next addition to my farm, my concentration was interrupted by music floating through the wall that separated my bedroom from my brothers’ bedroom, and with the music came a mind-altering realization: While I sat playing on the floor of my room, thinking my thoughts, doing my thing, my brothers were in the next room listening to music, thinking their thoughts, and doing whatever it was they were doing.

It was a weird, out-of-body moment, a new awareness that this was not my world with all the people around me playing a specific role in it – “brother”, “Mom”, “Dad”, “teacher”. Indeed, all those people had their own world, their own thoughts and likes and dislikes. Some had been alive and thinking thoughts and doing things before I was even born!

At that moment, my egocentric understanding of life expanded. This realization didn’t diminish my feelings of self-worth – it instead made me more open to understanding others and seeing different points of view.

I have had several of these “shifts in perspective” throughout my life, moments when I understand something on a cognitive level that on its surface seems completely obvious but for a lack of recognition – like suddenly seeing both the forest and the trees.

I remember being in elementary school, my teacher quietly asking if my parents could afford to pay for the field trip to the circus, the different colored ticket I carried to the cafeteria every day for reduced-cost lunch, the food stamps and government surplus food my family qualified for – all this fed into my perception that I must be poor. By the time I was a young adult I had built a mythology on the idea that I had worked hard to overcome humble beginnings to achieve my goals.

In my mid-twenties, I interned in an urban school in a section of the city known for socioeconomic challenges.

A moment of clarity came as I tutored a third grader who was reading at a first grade level. He was struggling more than usual this particular day, and he finally looked up at me and said, “Miss, my dad is in the hospital. He OD’d last night. The ambulance came and everything. I’m really worried about him.”

That was the moment I stopped congratulating myself for pulling myself up by my bootstraps.

Because I hadn’t.

Comparatively speaking, my upbringing had been idyllic, charmed even, with the opportunity to play, and be a kid, and create farms out of cardboard – without the burden of grown-up stresses.

Admitting this fact did not diminish the pride I had in my accomplishments – it instead made me more aware of disparity and how vastly different life experiences can be.

And here again, my son and his diagnosis of autism have pushed me out of my zone of comfort into this alternate universe and an entire community I previously never knew existed, a community familiar with struggle and need.

Autism does not discriminate. The workshops, seminars, and support groups I’ve attended are a mix of people of all races, ethnicities, religions, and social classes. We share. We listen. We empathize. Our commonality is that we are all parents of children with special needs, however each of us brings our own history, our own unique personalities, talents, and challenges.

Beyond statistics and numbers, beyond stereotypes – Each of us is a story.

A few months after our son was diagnosed with autism, my husband was laid off from his job. It was 2011 and “The Great Recession” was in full swing, so our story was not unique. But then again – our story WAS unique. The emotions, the fears, and the complications that enhanced them were very much our own.

After my husband found another job and the intense stress and uncertainty subsided, I became active in social media again, only to be confronted by a barrage of memes and comments aimed at shaming the poor, the unemployed, and anyone receiving assistance from the government, despite it being a time of great need. I pushed back, not just in defense of myself but in defense of all those nameless, faceless people comprising the statistics and stereotypes.

Because the people posting these memes were my friends, they responded apologetically – of course they didn’t mean me. But I understood – they didn’t mean me only because they knew me.

To anyone who didn’t know me I was part of those statistics, recently but also when I was a child.  So, too, was the father suffering from addiction and his son who loved him, the struggling parents in my support groups, and even my son with his special needs – all trees in this giant forest.

It seemed on the surface to be so obvious but for the lack of recognition: To have the complexities of each human life reduced to a number or assigned a stereotype, was to deny each unique history, each individual story.

Understanding this on a more global level does not solve the problems of the world nor deny their existence – but it has given me the perspective to view social issues through compassionate eyes, to dig deeper even when my first reaction is anger or judgment.

I’ll admit, I sometimes find this level of awareness overwhelming. So much suffering and need; so much inequity and injustice. It would be easier to retreat to a place of safety, ignoring the complexities of problems by dismissing them with sweeping statements of condemnation.

In an increasingly cynical age, when compassion is seen as naivety and pithy clichés seem to have lost their pith, it takes a surprising amount of courage to listen to the stories told by trees in a giant forest.

But I will listen, and I will continue to challenge perceptions with those stories in the hope that others might catch a glimpse of the world from another perspective… and maybe even be convinced to stay and share some stories of their own.

 

photo courtesy of Pixabay

photo courtesy of Pixabay

 

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Nature – Surprising Instincts of a Praying Mantis and a Six Year-Old Boy

Published March 27, 2016 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

About three miles from our house there is a white Congregational Church with a tall steeple, giant pillars, and huge, rectangular windows. And behind this church is a shady playground with swings and climbers and plastic houses and a sandbox and seesaws and those bouncy horses attached to giant metal springs in the ground. And around this playground there is a chain-link fence. And on this fence, on this particular summer afternoon, there sat a praying mantis.

I imagine this praying mantis was feeling pretty confident that day, sitting atop that fence, maybe hoping for a yummy insect meal to come her way. Sure there were predators about, in the skies and on the ground. But she didn’t feel overly concerned because her great mantis ancestors had passed on a clever adaptation that offered her protection – the camouflage of a leaf-like body shape.

She knew she wasn’t the foremost predator on the food chain, but in the insect world she was pretty hot shit. After all, praying mantises sometimes ate their prey alive. The females of her species had the reputation for cannibalizing their mates. Some large mantises could eat birds – BIRDS! Not that SHE was capable of that, but still… those are the instincts that demand respect in the world of nature.

She stretched her forearms, rotated her head to take in her surroundings, rocked forward and back a few times on her long, spindly legs, and sighed, settling in for a lazy, relaxing day in the sunshine atop the fence that surrounded the playground behind the church about three miles from our house.

* * *

My son has non-verbal autism.  He LOVES to be outside. He loves nature. He runs with his face to the sky. He smiles and laughs at the wind in the trees. He lies back in the grass or mud or snow, just lies there – listening, feeling, being.

One of my son’s little quirks is that he likes to carry objects around in his hands. These objects can be small toys, or pieces of ribbon, cellophane, or fabric – anything that has an interesting texture. Outside he might carry a twig or a leaf or a long, dry stalk from one of the hundreds of tiger lilies that have taken over our yard.

I can’t say exactly why he carries objects; it’s just something he has done since he had chubby, saliva-covered, toddler fists. Maybe the objects are comforting to him, helping him transition from one space to another. Maybe they distract him from an overwhelming world, giving his hands something with which to “fidget”. Or maybe they just fascinate him. Who knows?

He carried an object out to the car on that warm, summer afternoon – a crinkly straw wrapper from a Capri Sun juice pouch. He dropped it as soon as he climbed into his car seat, trading it for a green, satin ribbon he found on the back seat. I buckled him in as my husband started the car, and soon the three of us were on our way to the playground behind the Congregational Church in town.

This playground had become a favorite of mine since the first time we visited it with one of my son’s therapists. For one thing, a gigantic maple tree shades a good portion of it, which is unusual for playgrounds in our area. It has a wide variety of equipment for children to play on. Although popular on the weekends, it is often empty during the week. And best of all, it is completely fenced in, meaning I can actually relax when I bring my son there instead of hovering close by and chasing him every time he bolts. Here, he’s free to roam and run as he pleases, without Mom cramping his style.

He sprinted through the gate, dropping his green ribbon as he stopped to examine the bouncy horses with their huge metal springs. Then he took off again, heading for the swings. I stooped to pick up his ribbon, sliding it into my pocket for the car ride home. My husband and I slowly followed our boy, with no particular desire to move too quickly in the heat. We watched as he flitted from one area to another, making happy, excited sounds, occasionally finding a new treasure to hold – a small scrap of paper, a sandbox toy, a blade of grass.

A few minutes later, he slowed his pace and drifted toward the perimeter fence. Even though there were no other children around, he was still drawn to this place of safety. He made his way along the fence, keeping his eyes open for anything of interest on the ground or in the skies.

Near the back corner of the playground, I saw him reach out and pluck a leaf from the top rung of the fence. He walked a few steps then opened his hand to examine his leaf with a look of surprise. After a quick glance, he gently placed his other hand over the leaf, walked back to the fence, and put the leaf back on the exact spot he had taken it from. He scrunched his nose a little, brushed his hands on his pants, and hurried away to find a new activity.

Suspicious, I strode over to see what had prompted my boy to return the leaf from whence it came. And there it was, teetering unsteadily on the top rung of the chain link fence – a large praying mantis.

My voice shot up an octave as I half-breathed, half yelled to my husband, “Holy crap! Praying mantis! Honey, he picked up a praying mantis! Did it bite him?! Do they bite?! Check his hands!”

The mantis appeared to be in shock, and although my son had been very considerate in placing her back on the fence, he hadn’t quite gotten her completely balanced before letting go. Now she was slipping off the side, her legs desperately clinging to the wire links.

Not wanting to freak her out even more, I grabbed a stick and used it to push her body onto the bar at the top of the fence where she could position herself better. And there she stayed, posing as I snapped a few photos with my cell phone.

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My son was fine. The praying mantis was fine.

And an interaction that had amounted to no more than a few brief moments had left me with a feeling of great respect for my son. Because I know what I would have done if I had accidentally picked up an insect instead of a leaf – I would have made a high-pitched yelping sound, dropped it on the ground, and backed away whilst shuddering and carrying on in a ridiculously embarrassing manner. I’ll admit it. I’m not proud.

Besides those like me who would react with fear, consider the fate of that praying mantis in the hands of a more thoughtless, more reckless human.

With all his anxiety and impulsiveness, meltdowns and outbursts, my son’s instinct was to be gentle, to protect, to correct his mistake. He exhibited amazing self-control in that moment, given that he had no idea what he held in his hands and if it posed a threat to him.

Praying mantises are so bizarre, so alien in appearance. I wonder what flashed through my son’s mind as he beheld this strange creature, with its triangle shaped head, bulbous eyes, elongated thorax, and long, serrated, multi-jointed forearms. He had no way to ask; he could only search his own memory for a category in which it might belong and, in a split second, decide what he should do with it.

I admire his decision. I admire his instincts.

How sad it is that kindness, gentleness, and compassion are often viewed as weaknesses. In the natural world, the predator is feared and respected. In the human world, it’s the biggest show of force that is respected, the loudest voice in the room that is acknowledged. Power and dominance are associated with strength.

However, I will argue there is a different kind of strength, a deep, sometimes quiet strength, required to resist those predatory instincts,

to do the right thing in spite of fear,

to be kind and compassionate in an unkind world,

to listen and feel and be, without the desire to dominate.

* * *

On a fence surrounding a playground behind a church about three miles from our house sat a praying mantis recovering from a harrowing day. As the sun retreated leaving a warm, damp dusk in its wake, the introspective, humbled insect put her forearms together and thanked her mantis god that she had survived her ordeal. Her leaf-like appearance had been a disadvantage that day, but she had gotten lucky. She was a changed mantis and promised to pay it forward, vowing to never again bite the heads off her mates in the future. She swiveled her head, sensing night’s arrival, as the skies turned pink, then purple, then a deep, deep blue above the chirping playground behind the sleepy church about three miles from our house.

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photo courtesy of Pixabay

Luck – The Humbling Unpredictability of the Dinosaur-Filled Island of Life

Published August 4, 2015 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

I’ve written about fate and destiny and cosmic conspiracies, but luck? Luck was something to which I hadn’t given much consideration.

In fact, I used to bristle if someone said I was lucky. Saying “you’re lucky” makes it sound like you’re undeserving, like good things had come your way by chance rather than through hard work and perseverance.

Of course, when “bad luck” struck and things didn’t go as planned, I used to comfort myself with the belief that everything happens for a reason, and there was a significance I might not understand for years or even a lifetime. The comfort was in the knowledge of a larger purpose – everything would work out in the end.

But I understand now that some things just…happen. There is no reason.

Whether you want to call it luck or chance or happenstance, some things in life are random and unpredictable. The very thought of this makes a wild-eyed, breathless, hand-wringing control freak like me break out in a cold sweat.

Honestly, in the grand scheme of life I still believe in a higher purpose – the gifts we were born with that, with hard work and perseverance, lead to what could be considered our “destiny”. But I’m struck by the reality of just how many things in life are determined by mere chance:

At birth: your genetics, innate talents and intelligence, who your parents are, and where you are born – all beyond your control. As a child: your health and nutrition, socio-economic status, and the opportunities available to you to learn and develop skills – again, beyond your control.

It is not until we reach adolescence and young adulthood that we begin to realize some semblance of control. At that point in our lives it’s easy to attribute our achievements only to things that are within our power (like good-old hard work and perseverance). Although luck is all around us in different forms – from fabulous blessings to miserable misfortunes, it’s easy for this fact to be lost in a youthful sense of destiny.

Through experience, I’ve lost a bit of that self-assuredness. There are times when life is less like a box of chocolates and more like a dinosaur-filled island after a tropical storm has knocked out the electricity to the T-Rex and velociraptor paddocks with the supply ship having already departed for the mainland leaving you at the mercy of genetically engineered, carnivorous beasts.

It is, indeed, humbling when there’s a humungous T-Rex eyeball staring in through your window in the form of a pink slip or medical diagnosis or any of a million unforeseen challenges life may throw at you.

It might be mental and emotional fortitude, a soaring intellect, an amazing talent, athletic ability, or quick-wittedness that saves you from being devoured by life’s monsters…if you were indeed lucky enough to be born with such attributes and lucky enough to have had the opportunity to hone such skills.

But even then, you might need help.

I’ve written about my son being on the autism spectrum. The truth is we’re all on a spectrum of sorts, with different levels of abilities and assets to utilize and disadvantages and deficits to overcome.   It’s how we take advantage of the good luck and how we adapt to the bad that sets the course of our lives. It helps shape our character – a character that is ultimately defined by our words, our actions, and how we treat our fellow human beings.

Looking back I realize there have been times in my life when victories came from battles long fought. And, yes, there were times when good things happened seemingly by chance. But it strikes me that, especially in my most anxiety-provoking, dinosaur-filled moments, my good luck came from the kindness of others.

You can’t always be airlifted off your island, but a much-needed supply-drop, the guidance and advice of experts, or even just some words of support and encouragement can make a world of difference.

So I guess you could say I’ve been lucky. I’m grateful for the talents I possess and for the opportunities that have presented themselves along the way, but mostly I’m grateful for family and friends and people in my community I’ve never even met who have helped and supported me when I needed it most.

I truly have an amazing village helping to raise my son.

Whether life is a Whitman Sampler or Jurassic Park, the significance of our struggles and sorrows is their ability to connect us to others, to build understanding and empathy.

And the beauty in this colorful spectrum of humanity is our ability to use our gifts as a positive force in the lives of others – to be a source of someone else’s good luck.

 

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