What Exactly Does Great Faith and Great Courage Look Like?

I suppose faith has come easier to me these days. Spending time around children does that to you, I think. But courage? No way.

There is a single prayer I pray every day, often many times a day, and lately with every breath. “God, help me be brave.”

This is still relatively new to me. I didn’t grow up praying. I didn’t grow up in a church. So when I decided I needed to start having a dialogue with God, I did what a lot of people do: I asked for stuff.

“Please let me find happiness.”

“Please let me fit into that dress next weekend.”

“Please smite that chick in the eyeball who stole my boyfriend.”

“Please let this marriage last.”

”Please keep my babies safe. Healthy. In my sights.”

There’s a problem with that, though, and it’s not that all that asking is greedy. I truly believe the universe is a plentiful and loving place. I believe that it wants us to be happy. I believe that it wants us to have what we need and even what we desire, that it wants to rise up to meet us where we are. With the possible exception of wishing that people be smited in the eyeball (even if they deserve it), I think we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for things or hope for things or truly believe in our hearts that we are good and worthy of receiving things.

The problem is that all that asking I was doing was giving me the illusion of control, and control is where it gets tricky. I’m addicted to control the way some people are addicted to booze or sugar or gambling. I crave it. For God’s sakes, I follow around behind my family and reload the dishwasher when they aren’t looking like I’m the only one who can do it right. Like I am the queen of dishwasher-loading, like this is a thing that little girls everywhere are aspiring to right now, like it even matters. Much like anything we are addicted to, control makes me feel powerful and that I have a purpose when at the same time it is slowly destroying my life.

Really, I don’t have control of anything.

It’s a hard time to be a control freak. All we have to do is look at the news or outside at the weather to be reminded of that. The world feels increasingly hard to live in with every passing day and everywhere I look I see people throwing up their hands and asking “Why? What did we do to deserve this?” I’ve been asking it too, whispering it in the dark corners and waiting, waiting, for the answer.

Maybe the answer is nothing.

Maybe the world is just hard, maybe being alive in it takes great faith and great courage. Maybe it takes a slow un-gripping of the wheel, finger by white-knuckled finger, because we were never the ones driving anyway and the truth is the dishes are going to get clean even if they are stacked all wrong.

Of the two – great faith and great courage – I suppose faith has come easier to me these days. Spending time around children does that to you, I think. But courage? No way. I’m not a brave person. I’m the one who watches everyone else jump in the pool from my corner where I have to ease myself in so painfully slow, one inch of stark white goose-bumped flesh at a time, holding my breath for so long that dizziness starts to crowd into the corners of my vision. I don’t drive above the speed limit and I don’t watch scary movies because they make me feel like I am dying (lately that is exactly how I’ve been feeling when I watch the news too).

Also, my depression is back and it has brought its faithful partner along with it, anxiety, and every single bone in my body is calling out for me to hide, seek shelter, and cower.

But I cannot, and that’s where God comes in, at least for me, at least for right now. I am not inherently brave, but maybe I don’t have to be. Maybe all I have to do is ask for the courage to keep going. Maybe getting out of bed and facing the day is an act of tremendous courage sometimes. Maybe that’s how the revolution starts.

I still want happiness. I still want us all to be healthy and safe. And yes, I want revolution too, and healing, and progress. I want to march and sing in the streets and not be afraid every morning when I let my babies out the front door and into the world. None of that is going to be found in my hiding spot. I know. I’ve looked.

So all I want, all I will let myself ask for right now, is to be brave.

God, help us be brave. Brave enough to keep going. Brave enough to live our lives in a broken world. Brave enough, even, to fix it.

This post originally appeared on the author’s website, Liz Petrone.com.

How Raising Freethinkers Is Helping Me Raise Humanist Kids

Harnessing the real potential of wonder requires internal contemplation and quiet moments spent simply witnessing the world and thinking about how it works.

At the end of our annual summer trip to visit family in northwest Indiana, my mother drove me and my sons to the Chicago O’Hare airport, and, as she had every trip before this one, acted as our tour guide during the entire ride. She detailed the histories and functions of the steel mills as we passed Lake Michigan’s southern shore. Then, as we made our way north through downtown, she shared what she knew about Chicago’s many skyscrapers and neighborhoods. She spoke almost without pause for an hour, and I grew agitated in the passenger seat. I wanted silence – an opportunity for the kids to look out at the Windy City and experience the kind of awe I’d experienced the first time I walked through New York City, struck with wonder as I gazed up at its buildings and made my way through the throngs of tourists and inhabitants.

“Please, stop tour guiding,” I begged as we cruised up Lakeshore Drive. “Let them just look and wonder. Let a question arise in their minds.”

After a few refreshing minutes of silence, my oldest son said, “I wonder why the first skyscraper was built,” and I breathed a sigh of relief.

It’s precisely this kind of wondrous moment upon which the book “Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief” (co-authored by Dale McGowan, Molleen Matsumura, Amanda Metskas, and Jan Devor) teaches secular parents to capitalize. Focusing on “the moment of the question” as the foundation for all free-thought parenting, the approach holds fast to the idea that, in contrast to most Western religious belief systems, there are no un-askable questions and no unthinkable thoughts. “I want the idea that questions can be feared because of the answers they might produce to baffle my kids,” writes co-author Dale McGowen.

When my kids asked me how deep the lake that borders our city is, I followed “Raising Freethinkers’” instructions to reflect the wonder back to the child as a starting point for instilling critical thinking skills, so I didn’t immediately provide them with a measurement. I let them consider the answer for a while as they peered over the edge of a kayak into the water’s depths.

“How deep do you think it might be?” I began, and they replied that they couldn’t see the bottom so it must be really deep.

“What makes you think that?” I asked, and they said that in the shallow water they could see the bottom of the lake.

“If there are only little fish in the shallow water, what do you think might live in the deep water?” I asked, and, thus, the conversation continued with opportunities to add information about freshwater ecosystems and threats to its environmental health.

When it comes to informing my kids about religion, I’m more inclined to swiftly provide the “right” answers than I am to invite wonder and curiosity. Though my goal is to give them accurate details about the major religions practiced in the world coupled with a healthy dose of skepticism without imposing my own cynicism, it hasn’t always been an easy balance to strike. Especially when my mother, in my absence, explains rainbows as “God’s promise to never flood the earth again” and thunder as “angels bowling in heaven.”

My kids chuckled at these magical explanations, describing to me, unprompted, the science of rainbows and thunderstorms which made their grandmother’s explanation seem silly to them, but my internal alarms were raised. As an atheist humanist who gave Christianity a thorough and sincere chance at securing me among its ranks, I’ve long since positioned myself firmly in the nonbeliever camp. I aim to raise my children to critically consider the world around them by inviting them to ask the kinds of questions that religion had expressly banned in my own childhood.

Instead of allowing the rising internal panic to grip me or giving in to the urge to trivialize or mock my mother’s explanation, I applied “Raising Freethinkers’” wonder-and-curiosity method to my kids’ comments about the rainbow and thunder. We talked not only about how these atmospheric features occur scientifically, but also about the reasons people believe stories that science deems untrue.

A few weeks later my oldest son came to me and said, “Mom, I think I figured out why people believe in heaven.”

“Why do you think?” I asked.

“Because it feels good for people who are alive to think that death isn’t the end. That way, it’s less sad to lose people you love,” he said.

Here he’d moved beyond a polarizing clash of beliefs to get at the real issue, the existential, human heart of it. This was exactly the kind of thoughtful critical thinking I had hoped our conversation would invite.

With endless information available at our fingertips, I’ve worried about the welfare of childhood wonder and, by extension, curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking. My kids, now seven and eight years old, know that I can instantly look up the answer to many of their questions by typing them into my Google search bar. Sometimes I oblige them and provide prompt answers, but lately I’ve been more reticent.

Harnessing the real potential of their wonder requires their own internal contemplation and quiet moments spent simply witnessing the world and thinking about how it works. I’m trying to make more room for that process. My role as a parent, I’ve determined in part by reading “Raising Freethinkers,” is not to just recite correct answers or impose preferred beliefs, but rather to invite questions and provide the opportunity to think autonomously.

Not every moment of wonder is as easy to navigate as explaining a rainbow, but the approach for fostering wonder into curiosity and, later, layering that curiosity with “art, science, and the joy of questioning itself,” as the authors put it, is consistent in the free-thought approach. “Raising Freethinkers” insists on a commitment to the word “free,” which means that no question is off limits for fear of its answer, even – or especially – ones with potentially difficult or uncomfortable answers, like questions about bodies, sexuality, and religion.

To help parents formulate responses and follow-up questions to moments of wonder, dialogue scenarios, family activities, and age- and topic-specific Q & A scenarios are provided throughout the book. Topics covered include helping kids understand the risks of sexual activity and develop mutual respect in intimate relationships without letting notions of sin and shame attach feelings of guilt to pleasure; managing the social consequences of being a secular family in religion-dominant settings; creating and contemplating a meaningful and ethical life outside of religion; attaining religious literacy without indoctrination; and creating traditions by celebrating life’s milestones and nature’s rhythms.

“Raising Freethinkers” has helped prepare me for the many scenarios my kids will face as they begin to define their own beliefs, including respectfully navigating social and institutional spaces where their beliefs may clash with the beliefs of the majority, creating meaningful community as a secular family, and handling questions about life and death. In this philosophical approach to parenting and living, there’s “no rock that can’t be upended if you think there might be something under it. And, of course, there always, always might.”

Getting Grounded

“You are grounded.”
I delivered this proclamation to my 13-year-old daughter with sternness and grace. I was measured but emphatic. Cool and unruffled. Controlled. Unemotional.
Later that day, I sent her an email outlining the terms of her grounding:
•    No devices. No screens. Books and music only.
•    No friends, no plans, no phone calls.
In addition to what she couldn’t do, I was sure to include what she was expected to do:
•    Participate in family activities
•    Do chores with a joyful spirit
•    Complete homework
•    Exercise
I also sent her to her room with an imperative: “I want you to think about what you’ve done.”
As I was shutting her door, I swiftly remembered that when I was grounded at that age, I did not use the time to think about what I’d done at all. Instead, I stewed for a bit about my parents, life, the whole stinkin’ world, and then I likely put on music, started doodling, looked at photos, or made a collage.
My teenage brain was not quite disciplined enough to actually sit and think about what I had done, certainly not in the same way I assess my choices as an adult. But in those grounded moments alone in my room as an adolescent, with no TV, phone, or video games – the “devices” (or are they vices?) of the time – I was contemplating something.
By turning off and tuning out, I was changing my daily reality. Interrupting the patterns of my days forced me to see the world through a different lens and possibly think about the world in a different way. Even if I wasn’t ruminating on the error of my own ways, I was certainly contemplating the world, and my adolescent place in it.
This break, this pause, is so essential. As adults, we crave it. Time to unplug, to unwind. Time to get grounded. Literally, getting “grounded” means to reconnect with the Earth.
According to Cami Walker in an article for Psychology Today, “Grounding yourself is a way to build a relationship with Earth. Grounding means to make a conscious connection between your self and the source of your life force energy. …Earth energy is life force energy.”
Adolescents don’t know they need to get grounded, until they crash up against something or an adult in their lives who loves them says, “Yo! Slow down! You better go check yourself before you wreck yourself, kid.” A reflective practice is critical for humans to develop wisdom.
Reflection can make learning more effective and experiences more productive. In “Learning By Thinking: How Reflection Improves Performance” (Harvard Business School, March 2014), the authors note that, while “In our daily battle against the clock, taking time to step back and engage in a deliberate effort to learn from one’s prior experience would seem to be a luxurious pursuit,” performance, learning, and self-confidence often increase with time for reflection.
The authors conclude, “our results reveal deliberation to be a powerful mechanism behind learning, confirming the words of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey (1933:78): ‘We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.’”
My daughter’s imposed break in daily routine seemed to work. She even missed a communitywide, multi-school dance. Maybe “getting grounded” isn’t like clipping the wings of a free flying bird. Maybe we can see it as supporting the process of being more reflective, of getting Earth-bound, centered, re-focused. aybe we both needed it.
Maybe we both needed it.
See, what my daughter had done shocked me. In our household, we monitor and limit screen time. We live in Vermont, and she attends an independent school modeled after a homeschool cooperative. Up until five years ago, each classroom was heated with a woodstove, and the students were responsible for bringing in the wood and feeding the fire.
We eat whole foods and have dinner together every night as a family. We attend “community resiliency” meetings with our neighbors. If our recent election and current political climate highlighted that there is a national divide, we are solidly enjoying the privilege of living in our progressive “bubble.”
So, when my daughter told her younger brother that if he and his friend made any noise, came in her room, or bothered her in any way that she would “stab you two little bitches,” I nearly fainted. She didn’t deny it. In fact, she seemed to take a sassy pride in having said it.
How had this language and tone infiltrated my home? Hadn’t I striven to do all the “right” things for my kids? No sugary drinks? No “inappropriate” media? Consistent communication with her friends’ parents? For anyone who has raised a teen knows, their favorite thing at this stage of their development is to test boundaries. It’s their job, and they take it seriously.
Before I spiraled into a pit of parenting-fail despair, I recollected that, while I was I growing up in a large family, we threatened each other with violence all the time. My siblings and I certainly said “I’ll kill you!” to each other often enough, but my daughter had delivered her threat with a certain 21st-century flair that I can assure you is not aligned with our values.
In a frenzied, media-saturated world of reactive tweets and instant gratification, we have effectively normalized aggressive, sarcastic, threatening speech. Even though my husband and I had done our due diligence in protecting our kids from the negative influences of mainstream culture, it seeps in like an insidious fog.
One antidote to this acrimony is a reflective practice. Our children, our families, and our nation need to adopt a reflective practice. We must take time to contemplate the consequences of our speech and our actions.
Right Speech, one of the tenets of the Buddhist Eightfold Path, asserts that hateful communication breeds disharmony and can engender physical violence. We often think of violent language as being less harmful than violent action. But violent words, thoughts, and actions are intertwined. Kind words, thoughts, and actions similarly arise together to take flight into the world.
My daughter benefited from getting grounded, and it will likely not be the last time she receives this gift. Meditation and mindfulness are popular alternatives to detention in schools around the globe. Perhaps it’s time for parents to reinvent the discipline of “grounding” kids, without guilt, but with gratitude and intention. Perhaps we simply need to reframe and redefine it as a powerful tool in the discipline towards an educated mind and a compassionate heart. Perhaps children and adults can adopt a reflective practice to assist us in looking outside of ourselves, beyond our bubbles.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” A reflective practice allows us to exercise our minds and build our imaginations to hold multiple perspectives.
This is the path to wisdom and peace.
This post was originally published in Living Education.