Sunday, 22 July 2012

Child Imprisonment

I grew up on the street.  Pretty literally.  No, I was not an orphan and my family wasn't homeless.  It was a perfectly normal middle-class family in Eastern Europe, like any other.  Basic necessities were not a concern.  Everything else was pretty close to illegal, immoral or, in the very least, sternly frowned upon.  Unless you had an "in" with the authorities.

Authoritarianism and corruption aside, however, I was a kid like any other you could see growing up in the folds of socialism.  We were pretty playful, somewhat ambitious, somewhat paranoid but mostly care-free.  And we all grew up on the streets.  As much as the weather allowed, we would be out playing with our play pals from the time school finished, lunch was had and homework was done until the sun set and sometimes even later than that.  Small parks and playgrounds, lanes between old houses, back and front yards, anything and everything that was covered with grass, mud, asphalt or cobblestone - those spaces were ours.  They belonged to the children with only a scarce parent around pushing a stroller and, most often, not even that.

Communications with the mother ships consisted of loud hollers from balconies and windows beckoning us for dinner or having our noses wiped.  We were supposed to be within ear shot.  Not always, though.  And, if we could not hear the call, it wasn't such a big deal.  Sooner or later, rumbling tummies would send us back home for a few scorns and some home-cooked food and then it was out again.  Out, where we were happy, free, unconstrained with walls and scant collection of toys.  Where our imagination would build fortresses, mountains and oceans where we'd turn into knights, cowboys, criminals, Mohawks, kings, divers and whatever else we could come up with.

We didn't all like each other.  The world was quartered off between friends, so-so's, bullies and outright strangers.  We were cautious with each other because of that because we all had to somehow get along or the game would be ruined.  And we would sometimes end up insults and bruises, with scratched elbows and knees and there were the occasional broken bones and bloody noses.  And it was still all fine and it was glorious.

And, once in a while - very rarely, though - something serious would happen.  It was part of the course.  It was something we learned to both live with and protect against.  The same lectures you would hear today about not talking to strangers or getting in cars - we had all that.  Because children are naive, in general.  But they also learn faster.  We did learn faster.  And they can be intuitive, if need be.  And we were, by necessity.  We were street-smart.  And it did not destroy our childhood, it did not necessarily make us tougher and rougher.  No one really worried about that.  It did, however, make us a bit more adept to the world of the grown-ups where things have many more dimensions.

Fast-forward to present day and I am a parent myself.  Raising two children in the West.  In Canada.  As a parent, I am the cat's ass.  Here everything is provided; or can be bought.  Order is strictly maintained; or at least so it seems.  Social values are embedded in laws; or at least the ones that make the agenda.  I am a parent proud that I have made it.  My children are healthy and safe.  They have what they need; they are encouraged to grow, to learn, to make something of themselves.  They are always sheltered from the evils of the world.

And yet, something is missing.  Looking at my ten year old son, with all of the joy and love in his eyes, I see something missing.  Not in him or me, but in his life.  It seems in our strife to eliminate all dangers and risks, we have taken something away.  We have taken away adventure and risk, these key ingredients of adolescence and the joy of life.  We have taken away the unpredictable, the unexpected.  We have scrubbed their environment so well from all risk and unpleasantness, no matter how improbable, that we have ripped them away from their own childhood.  It reminds me of a thought someone once proposed that, if children grow up in an environment that is too sterile, they become more susceptible to illness than if there was always at least a bit of dirt for them to roll in.

I know lawmakers and parents are all well-meaning.  That is why we have laws against child abuse, neglect and abandonment.  And there are cases where grown ups and even parents should be held responsible.  But, in the effort to eliminate all risks to children, have we sterilized their childhood too much?  Have we forced parents into a second full-time babysitting job?  Worse yet, have we forced them to be the entertainers, the clowns that children need to distract them from the dull-drums of their pallid existence?  How much resentment have we bred that way, of parents against children and children against parents?  Yes, we all find ways to deal with that but is a childhood that depends on computers and video games to fill in the socialization gaps what all parents want?  Or where play time is rationed in fixed time slots of play dates that depend on matching family schedules and availability of parent chauffeurs?  Where, for convenience sake, playtime is closed off between four walls or outside time is paid for with the last remaining minutes of free time of the parent forced to sacrifice?  Where, for the most part, children are left to their own devices in a home with two tired, grumpy, busy parents.  Isn't it obvious how this makes our society even more alienated?  Who wins out of all this?  Is this what we all wanted?

I am not saying that child molesters and abductors don't exist.  They do and they are a very real danger.  But they have always been around, even when I was growing up as a kid.  I had my own exposure to that when I was forced to touch a man's penis and another where I was felt up on the bus.  Pretty innocent compared to what could have been.  Can I say I enjoyed it?  Of course not - I was violated.  But can I say that it ripped my life apart?  Not at all.  It made me a bit more shrewd about the perversity of humankind, a bit more cautious and alert.  It was a lesson I would have hardly learned as well if it was just hearsay from the grown-up tales.  Was I scarred for life?  Singed a bit, maybe.  But I quickly learned what "hot" means.

I do not wish a single parent to undergo the horror of losing their child.  Neither do I wish a single child to be the subject of violence, however "mild".  But what I keep on questioning is whether, in our diligence to protect our children, we have not ripped apart their childhood altogether and taken away the unpredictability that makes childhood what it is - the learning experience that prepares us for the really messy grown-up life.

I will admit, I am confused.  But of one thing I am certain - there has to be a better way!

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Is the Grass Really Greener on the Other Side?

You may have often heard this curious English idiom uttered in a derisive way about someone who is not content with their circumstances.  It may have even been said in an accusatory way: "What, you think the grass is greener on the other side?" implying that, by wanting something other than what is, the person has somehow sinned against the greater common and put under question the values that bind us into a well-functioning society.  Yes, I think the judgment even goes that far.

But I'd like to argue that this yearning for something else is not only normal, it is what defines us as a species in the most peculiar way, beyond mere anatomy and measurable differentiations.  Derision and accusations aside, we should probably celebrate the uneven hues of green on the lawns of our Universe.

In my understanding, "reality" does not "really" exist.  Or, if it does, it isn't all that important.  Shocked?  Don't be!  Remember that all we "really" know about "reality" is our perception of it.  We don't really know for sure that what we think is solid matter or a red colour or a warm breeze is really there.  There is the perception consensus that tells us that "everybody knows" that a rock is heavy, hard and lifeless and that the rainbow has all colours but, in the end, each person perceives those things in their own way and there is no way to be certain that they see, hear, feel and experience the things we talk about in exactly the same way as us.  Sure, there must be some commonalities or some of us would be able to walk through walls and others wouldn't, but no one can really know what an individual's experience of "reality" is unless they somehow stepped inside their skin, saw through their eyes, felt with their touch.

So, when we chastise someone that they think "the grass is greener on the other side", we are really only passing judgment on their perception.  We really cannot know whether, from their point of view, the grass really IS greener out there.  We just assume it isn't; based on our equally subjective, perception.  For all we know, they could be closer to the truth than we are.

Going back to the perception consensus, judging others' views is really about conformity, about making sure that we all march to the same tune and we don't have the odd black sheep disturbing the flock.  If we weren't concerned with that, why would we care whether a person wants to change their status quo, whether they are dissatisfied with what is or see an alternate state as better?  Yeah, enforcement of the common view!  And, to those of you who claim that they really care and that your advice for the curious cats to reign in their yearnings is only to protect them from harming themselves, the fact is that you may only deem they are at risk because the multitude would judge and punish their deviation from the perception consensus.

Let's take this a step further, however.  As dubious as the benefits of progress may be (more on that some other time), none of the things we take for granted today: electricity, the modern car, indoor plumbing, modern medicine, would be possible until someone, sitting in the dark, anticipating a long walk to a germ-infested outhouse to answer Nature's call, thought to themselves "There's got to be a better way!"  You got it, they were yearning for greener pastures.

It can be argued that discontent is embedded in the human condition.  From the time humans gained self-awareness, the time it occurred to us that each of us is a separate entity from the rest of the Universe and from other human beings, the concepts of the ego, the "I" and the "other" were born.  The fence separating us from that greener patch of grass on the other side came into being.  And, since then, we have wanted nothing more than to get rid of it.  It is a defining moment for humanity.

So, now that we have theorized all this, what happens when someone wants to get to the other side?  Do we still try to talk sense into them?  Do we help them?  Do we smugly watch as they rip the bottom of their pants over the barbed wire?  And, isn't our judgement over these nosy oddballs really a different way of yearning for the greener grass?  For a world where we wouldn't have to be challenged by those nuisances?  Where we can lay back and enjoy our misery because we simply wouldn't know better?  Is it fear or just mere laziness that stops us from being a nuisance ourselves?

The bigger question really is: "Is the grass really greener over there?"

In reality, it probably isn't.  Or better yet, no one knows and no one could know.  And better yet, it doesn't matter.  But, until we get over the fence or figure out how to dismantle it, anyone peeking over with yearning should be celebrated for being an active agent of who we are as a species, at least at the present time.

Nothing wrong with understanding and accepting yourself as you are.  It is the only path to figuring out who you want to be and how to get there, on that greener patch.  On the other side.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

To My Beloved

So, we are different, you and I.  That I know.  After over a decade together, after seeing the children through the tough early years, the promises we promised not to make but secretly hoped the other would keep without uttering - I know now.  We are different and separate.  You do not complete me.  I do not complete you either.  You never could and neither could I you.  No one completes anyone.  One can only strive for one's own completeness, completion and beyond.  The only hope, your own self.  There's nothing more than that.

Is this desperation?  Far from it, I hope.  I love you.  More than I knew I could, I think.

I am a crazy bastard, I know.  I get mad at you, I lecture you, I try to guide you and I sometimes impose my authoritative opinion over you.  I am sometimes possibly even downright rude to you.  And you get mad.  And you are right to be mad at my disgusting tactics.  And then you sometimes agree.  And sometimes I am triumphant that you did, and sometimes I am mad because you should have got there on your own.  I am a curse to be with, I know.

And none of what good it may bring you makes me right.  None of it makes doing all these nasty things right.  And yet it still does not mean I don't love you.  Because I do.  Because we are different and yet I want you.  Not just in the carnal sense though that is nice, too.  But because I want you to be happy.  No, not in a limited, controlled way that would please me.  Cast me away after you are done with me, for all I care.

I want you to be complete on your own.  Strong, independent, powerful and capable to deal with every challenge you face on your own.  Able to expand upon that quantity we self-deceptively think is limited and call the "I".  To seek your ultimate breadth, to find the passion that ignites you from within and lets you burst through the muddle of life with fire, with purpose and obstinate but mindful determination.  I want you to reach sublimely above yourself and feel the fervent tremors of knowing you can.  Barely, maybe, and possibly doomed to failure but to just feel, if even for brief moments, the dizzying ecstasy of being something beyond your wildest dreams.  To feel that you are truly, madly, deeply alive.  I want that for you.  If I could only help you get there...

And we are different.  And you probably don't even want that.  And you probably don't even care that I want that for you.  And you are right not to.  You are probably comfortable and safe where you are, under your cozy blanket, safe from the big, mean Universe out there.  But that won't stop me.  I am rude that way.  I can care less about your fears, about what you think may be nice and comfy.  I am a bastard that way.

Because I want you to be free.  I know nothing better in life, I could treasure nothing more.  Even my own life I could care less.  It is the best I know.  So I want you to have it.