Four months ago I was reminded of the innocence and beauty that surrounds us, and how being caught up in the busyness of my life, I’m often immune to its energy. We live in a quaint little pocket of Toronto just north of the eastern beach. Like many people in big cities, we have a postage-sized front garden that serves as a little oasis. Our little front garden took on an entirely different meaning this spring when I suddenly found myself on an extended medical leave from work in order to deal with some effects of Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD).
Facing huge blocks of free time became increasingly distressful as it became quickly apparent that as the result of the PTSD, I was unable to concentrate, and therefore, reading and writing were next to impossible. I spent many mornings and afternoons sitting on our front porch watching the world go by; neighbors heading off to work, dog walkers pounding the pavement, and parents walking their children to and from school. I felt like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window transfixed to the intricate tableau unfolding in front of me.
One morning a little girl and her father stopped in front of our garden, and the little girl reached into a make-shift concrete bird bath that we had at the front of our garden. She reached in and took one of the ornamental stones out, and her father saw me sitting on our porch, so he scolded his daughter and told her “she should stay out of people’s gardens." The little girl turned to her father and said: “Mommy lets me do this every day. It’s my wishing bowl. Every day I take a stone out and make a wish.”
I thought this was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard, so I decided to latch onto this idea. I searched around the basement for a piece of old wood to use to make a sign, but all I could find was an old wooden cheese board. I grabbed the board and a Sharpie marker and fashioned a little sign to place beside the old bird bath.
Take a stone out to make a wish….
Place a stone in to let go of a problem.
To be honest with you, my only motivation for doing this was to see the expression on the little girl’s face the next time she walked by our garden. What I didn’t expect was the reaction our wishing bowl would have on our little community. As people were rushing by on their way to work, school, or the store, they would stop and read the little sign, and then they would smile, reach down, and take a stone out of the bowl. Within a week, people were bringing stones from god knows where to place into the bowl to “let go of a problem”. Our little wishing bowl with a few decorative stones was now overflowing with pebbles and rocks from the community. If you sit on our front porch, you will always see people stopping at the wishing bowl. The most surprising thing for me has been the reaction of the groups of teenagers who parade past our house every day on the way to and from the high school down the street. Teenagers love the wishing bowl, and they don’t look embarrassed doing it in front of their friends. There is one elderly man who stops by every morning and takes a rock out and carries it with him for the day. On his way home, he drops another rock off to the wishing bowl. Last week a father stopped to tell me that his kids love the wishing bowl, and he said it reminds him to slow down and appreciate the world through the wonder of his children’s eyes.
Obviously there was a need for more wishing in our community. Before writing this, I starting thinking about the difference between the words “wish” and “hope”. We tend to use these words interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference. A “hope” refers to a person’s desires, and it is attached to strong emotion with the expectation that something is doable with a little effort. For instance, I “hope I pass my chemistry exam.” Whereas a “wish” is often associated with magic or a strong yearning. We make a wish when we blow out birthday candles, wish on an eyelash, or even read about Aladdin’s three wishes. For me, wishes are boundless, and they are magic in that they are not steeped in typical adult pessimism. As I embark on my year of transformation and quest for a life of authenticity, I’m going to start “wishing” more and “hoping” less. If this means going against the grain, choosing to live a life of magic and optimism that borders on naivety at times, then so be it. Our little wishing bowl is not just a neighborhood novelty, it’s a metaphor for a more joyous way of life.”
For the last two weeks, I’ve been walking around in a happiness bubble trying to insulate myself from negativity and what a friend affectionately calls “Eeyores”. The best thing I’ve done to nurture this positive outlook has been to avoid reading the newspaper every morning and to choose not to watch the evening news. This has been a monumental change in my routine because I was a consummate news junkie. In addition to reading the Globe & Mail every morning, I fell asleep to the National every night and was a regular reader of The Economist and Maclean's. Initially I thought I would go through withdrawal not having my daily fix of news, but surprisingly, it’s been the most liberating feeling imaginable. I’ve even unsubscribed to all the news sites in my Twitter feed! I really had no idea the emotional toll that consuming so much negative news had on my outlook and mood.
The latest research in neuroscience appears to back up what I’ve been experiencing, and validate that I am not simply riding on a wave of ignorance-induced euphoria. Focusing on negative, or fear-riddled content for as little as 10 minutes a day can lead to changes in brain chemistry that commonly manifest in depression and increased anxiety. According to Clifford Nass of Stanford University, we process negative and positive information in different hemispheres of the brain. In The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships, Professor Nass states: “Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events, and use stronger words to describe them than happy ones.”
We see this at play each and every day as we tend to focus in on the one negative feedback our supervisor gave us during a performance review rather than on the ten positive points. Problem gamblers feel more distraught from losing $100 than the joy they feel winning an equal amount. Professor Nass points out that there may be evolutionary theory at play here. Those with a heightened awareness of bad things and negative threats would be more likely to survive and pass this gene on to their offspring.
“Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but less urgent with regard to good ones.”
Taking all this into consideration, it looks like I’m fighting an uphill battle to stay positive and avoid the onslaught of negative information that appears to be integral for the survival of our species. But wait, all is not lost. Neuroscience offers a glimmer of hope by showing us that the psychological ill effects of negative content can be overcome by increasing our exposure to positive images and messages. Studies have shown that the ratio is 5 good to 1 bad to maintain better psychological health.
Now that I have the science to back me up, here’s my game plan for the coming month. First, I will continue to avoid the news because there is enough negativity in my day. Second, I will smile and say “good morning” to at least 5 people on my morning subway commute to help negate the sour scowls we all encounter on the train. Also, when I need to give negative feedback to one of my students, I will be sure to package that with lots of positive statements about what they are excelling at. Finally, I’m going to give my wife at least five extra hugs and kisses each day because I know I’m not the easiest person to live with.
One of the issues I am struggling with in my year-long commitment to embrace vulnerability in an attempt to live a more authentic life, is the feeling that I should relinquish control and power in many of my interactions. For me, vulnerability does not entail aggressiveness and attempts at dominance, but rather aims to approach relationships based on equality and co-operation. No matter how noble that sounds in theory, putting it into practice in the “real world” is another matter entirely.
Many of the interactions I have throughout the day would be sabotaged were I to appear weak or overly vulnerable. A few days ago I watched a Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy on the role of Body Language. Most of us are well aware that body language speaks volumes in terms of how others interpret our social, psychological, and spiritual comfort level. As a teacher, I can easily gauge my students’ mental state by their posture and body signals. Working with immigrants from around the world, I’m well aware of subtle and sometimes great differences in the signals that students transmit via their body language, and their reactions to my body language in turn.
What is so fascinating about Amy Cuddy’s work is her theory about how we can manipulate our body language to not only change others’ perception of us but also change our own state of being. Cuddy proposes that we can undergo drastic physiological and psychological change by adopting a power pose for 2 minutes periodically throughout the day, and especially before an important meeting, interview, or presentation. One of the power poses is affectionally coined the “Wonder Woman Pose”, whereby you stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hands on your waist with your elbows straight out. Keep your chin up and inhale deeply. By adopting this simple pose, our body creates a 20% increase in testosterone and a 25% decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. Research as shown that we not only look more powerful but also appear more powerful. When we appear confident and powerful, people are more likely to hear our message, and therefore, an element of trust is instilled in the relationship or communication.
Now here’s the “sticky” part. No one appreciates it when we come in guns a blazing and try to dominate every interaction through power. Cuddy is suggesting that these “power poses” be incorporated prior to the interaction but not during the interaction. The premise is that by releasing your fears and inhibitions before the interaction, you can allow your vulnerability to surface during the interaction. This will act as a conduit for your relationships to operate on a more authentic and fruitful level. The key is to engage in body language that is warm and inviting, such as making direct eye contact and avoiding slouching and making ourselves small.
I had the opportunity to try this today before entering a potentially confrontational meeting with a supervisor. I went to a quiet area and adopted the power pose for 2 minutes, and then went into the meeting feeling powerful and confident in my mind but not aggressive and confrontational like some in-your-face Alpha male. I'm not really sure how it works, but I did feel more empowered when I entered the room, and this allowed me to express what I needed. My vulnerability flowed through my words, thus engaging my supervisor in an authentic conversation in which I didn’t feel weakness but strength in my resolve. I think I just may be a convert to this body language theory. Now, who can tell me where I can buy a sparkly Wonder Woman costume?
As another summer draws to a close, I, like many other teachers out there, am filled with a sense of excitement tempered with a strong dose of dread about returning to the classroom to face another school year. Tomorrow will mark the beginning of my 23rd year as a teacher, and I’m entering this year with the expectation that it might be my last year in the profession. The possibility that my days in the classroom are waning have afforded me the opportunity to look back on what I believe to be “my role as a teacher” and “where I’d like to see change in my teaching methodology.”
We can all remember a magical teacher in our lives who unlocked our potential and nurtured us to be not only better students but also better people. For me, it was my grade 3 teacher, who as a recent immigrant from Ireland, seemed to tower over all of us as he delivered lessons in his thick Irish brogue. His wry sarcasm was a breath of fresh air in our conservative Catholic elementary school. In addition to being my teacher, he was also my cross country coach, and it was his love of running that kindled something in me that eventually grew into my passion for long distance running that has been both a refuge and and salvation throughout the difficult times of my life.
Having a firm grasp of your subject, or curriculum, is but a small part of what constitutes a “successful” teacher. More than many other professions, being an effective teacher is all about “making connections” rather than imparting knowledge. To be honest, there have been times in my teaching career when I consider myself to have been a great teacher, but there are also times when I was indeed less effective. Coming to terms with that deficiency in my teaching has not been easy, but it is rooted in times when I’ve been “disengaged” from my students. It’s this disengagement that allows me to rationalize all sorts of disingenuous behaviors that in a sense rob my students from unlocking their true potential.
During the past 2 years, I’ve lost my love of teaching, and as a result, the love for my students. Intuitively, I know that I have had a huge impact on my students’ sense of empowerment and that I continue to be a beacon in their lives. The question is as I enter what may be my last year in the classroom, what can I do to rekindle the spark in me, and therefore, become re-engaged with my students? I have the pleasure of working with adult “newcomers” to Canada, who are not only grappling with the language but also navigating the nuances of a new culture. There is no doubt that this group of students is sensitive to my mood and approachability. The most important life skill I’ve learned during the past four months in my treatment program for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse is the need to “embrace vulnerability” in all aspects of my life, and in all relationships in my life. I was always taught that vulnerability is weakness, when in fact, it is the most authentic manifestation of courage.
When I return to the classroom tomorrow, I will engage my students through the lens of vulnerability and I will strive to show them that what they “fear” the most may actually be their “greatest assets”. Removing some of that false armor that I have fashioned around me for years, and allowing the “authentic me” to be present in the classroom will foster real engagement with my students and allow me to be the teacher they need me to be in their lives.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is that it’s never too late for this teacher to become a “student” of his students.