Heart of the Universe: Parenting is a great revealer and teacher

 

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NOTE FROM SHEM ON BAD JOURNALISM

Last week we posted the Boston Herald’s maceration of an op-ed piece I sent them.  Without contacting me, the author, to ask for changes or cuts, they cut about 25% of what I wrote, which distorted and debased my essay.  Writers of integrity beware! Here is the complete essay:

Seeing Through Our Daughter’s Eyes or Post-Election: What’s Our Hope?

December 15, 2016  

Around the table in this post-election holiday season, differences have been sharp, cause for anger, withdrawal, and hurt on all sides.  There are terrible stresses in our country, especially along deep economic and racial divides. All of us have trouble seeing these differences as adding to our strengths—and those of our country—rather than diminishing them.  It’s often “I” versus “You.”

Differences can either divide or connect. The issue is how to hold the fact that, almost always with families and friends, there is an ongoing relationship. Instead of just “I” and “You,” there may well be a long-term “We.”  And if some of us can, at the moments that seem most fraught with these sharp edges, hold that “We”, that relationship, gently and honestly, we might be able to move through difference and disconnects to better connections. Differences can heal.

In 1992, Janet Surrey and I adopted a four-month-old girl from China. We were soon opened up to profound differences—race, culture, class, and for me, gender.  These differences, in the world’s eyes, were not equal: the two of us were in a privileged group.

After several weeks of looking into our baby’s Asian eyes, when we went out and saw “white” babies, we were startled to find that these babies looked strange to us.  It was a wake-up call.  We had crossed a divide of perception to a “new normal”—our new “We.”.

In public, we were often horrified to see racism disguised as casual questions.  Strangers would say in supermarket lines, “How much did you pay for her?” or “She’ll  be great in math.”  Or, to Janet, “You can’t be her mother!”

Later, we saw her targeted for racial assaults:  boys on a playground would pull their eyes up in slits to mimic hers.  One day she came home crying, “I’m outsidered!”

On Parents’ Day in  5th grade in her “Draw Your Family” picture, the faces of her stick figures of me and Janet were white, her own face dark brown.  A stunning moment, a glimpse into her basic view of herself, and of us.  Embracing this difference helped us understand other differences, other families—especially those with children of different races or cultures.  Parenting is a great revealer and teacher, an enabler of true diversity.

As doctors, Janet and I brought men and women together around gender.  We designed gender dialogues to work through these differences and disconnects to better connections. While both genders have inner struggles that go unseen, the subordinate group—women—is much more astute in seeing these subtleties in men than vice versa.  One example: at a medical center, in gender dialogue with doctors that was focused on differences in the workplace, the women asked the men: “Have you ever felt seen or treated differently at work because you’re a man?”  The men looked at each other, and said, “No, never.” They paused, then asked: “Why?  Have you?” The women erupted: “All the time!  Don’t you know?!”  Suddenly the men saw deeply into the hidden experience of the women. Together, the invisible now visible, they began to explore, with real zest, and to understand.

Studies of newborns and their mothers show that we all—male or female, black or white etc.—come into the world with a primary desire for good human connection.  This desire is in us, and can be awakened, given a chance.  Nobody gets relationship right all the time: we can still do or say harmful things, often inadvertently.  These micro-aggressions can lead to disconnects between us, and much worse.

But it’s not just what we say or do, it’s what we say or do next.  To say “We’re in a disconnect” is a connecting moment, and can move things from an adversarial “I”/“You” to a shared “We.”  As in: “We’re in this together.”  Good connection needs to come first: if you’re in a good connection, you can talk about anything; if you’re not, you can’t talk about anything.  Using “We” can help greatly.  Words make the ephemeral real.

Our country is now more vocally divided than ever in our lifetimes, but there is still hope.   Seeing through our daughter’s eyes, seeing others blind to our daughter’s inner world, it became clear that one way to break through divisive perceptions is in close-up relationship, engaging across difference at a fundamental, experiential, level.  We can bring our nation together, but it will take opening our eyes and listening to those that need to be heard.  Creating safe ways to expand awareness can help light up the “other’s” experience of feeling, thought, and imagination, and move toward a mutual vision, to a “We”—as in “We the People.”

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