17.12.12

Reclaiming Wonder

Reclaiming Wonder

After living without a television for almost 16 years, Dixie and I (for a myriad of jumbled reasons) allowed digital tv to be installed in our home earlier this month. Friday evening, after several weeks of visible disinterest, I humorously announced to my husband and 10-year-old daughter at the dinner table, "I think I'll go watch the news." They teased me in the appropriate manner that I deserved, and then our little girl Robin settled into our cozy couch in the upstairs living room with her annual winter school magazine, blissfully surrounded by holiday music from our sound system as she relaxed following a week of exams. Dixie followed me to the downstairs television room and we giggled together at the contemporary complexities of having to turn on two separate devices just to view the television when our appliance two decades ago used to fuzzily warm up with the twist of a simple knob.

The surreal image that instantaneously popped onto the high-definition screen in front of us left me breathless and dizzy. An elementary school in my home country was under siege by countless police officers while children were scurrying to safety across an immensely spacious parking lot that I so ridiculously miss here in Europe. The information in front of us was slow to process - we thought we were on a Belgian channel but due to their link with an American station, a familiar voice in my mother-tongue was speaking and her words were all too clear. A shooter. A massacre. Children dead, multiple deaths, unknown numbers. Stricken faces of adults. Panic. Chaos.

My husband was born, raised, and lives for the majority of his time in Europe, in Belgium. I officially moved here in 1998, admittedly blown away by the innocence, and dare I say naïveté, of a place where a grown man in a car without a GPS could pull off to the side of the road and call a young woman over to ask directions. At the time, I didn't know who to scold first: Dixie or the teenage girl who so innocently approached our car without a perceived threat in her mind. Since then we have spent the rapidly passing years building a family, a business, and a life here in our comfortably small and warmly hospitable Flemish village. And I have slowly and systematically watched my new homeland lose some, but not all, of its common innocence.

We are also fortunate to balance our bi-cultural family with a second home in the United States, in Oregon, where just a few days earlier a masked gunman entered a typical American shopping mall during the exceptionally busy holiday season and started randomly shooting, killing two people and wounding several others before turning the gun on himself. As the Connecticut story unfolded before us on Friday night, Dixie immediately and understandably began to express his fear of indiscriminate violence in the United States, backed by the unacceptable number of mass shootings in 2012 alone.

The murderer last Tuesday in the ironically named town of Happy Valley, Oregon (outside of Portland) was 22 years old. The shooter in Newtown, Connecticut was 20 years old. In July of this year, a 24-year-old gunman massacred innocent members of a movie audience in Aurora, Colorado. The gunman who opened fire at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in early August was a relatively mature 40-years-old.

Unfortunately, and I truly wish that this wasn't the case, the United States is not the only country with the rising issue of random violence. It was exactly one year ago, while Dixie was out on the Antarctic ice, that a 33-year-old man with a "grudge against society" opened fire in the centre of Liège, Belgium, killing 4 people and wounding over 100.

The horrifying attacks in Norway in July 2011 by a 32-year-old man left over 70 people dead, many of them enjoying what should have been an idyllic summer day at a youth camp.

Like so many others, I want to do something, to act, to protect. I have spent the better part of this weekend trying to assess my power, however limited and miniscule in a global context, to promote compassion and positivism in this perplexing world.

I am confounded by the deep anger and seemingly detached human behaviour among a generation of young men (and women). Due to my privileged role as step-mother to two young men (now ages 21 and 16), I have repeatedly viewed first-hand their hours-long attraction to über-violent computer games and not surprisingly been the "bitch" who requested that they not play them in our home. During these touchy adolescent encounters, as I calmly tried to explain the dangers of becoming desensitized to violence by repeatedly viewing horrific virtual images, I consistently received the same impatient look in their eyes and the dripping disgust in their reaction. In their limited vision, I obviously was unable to roll with the times and was therefore ignorantly unaware of their generation's interests.

While I am mature enough to admit that I still have a lot to learn, I do know this:
Now, more than ever, our world is in need of human examples, of realistic heroes, of visible dreamers who achieve positive grand goals.

Understanding, compassion, and identification are the beginning of all sustainable solutions. We need to flood all media sources with optimistic stories that encourage young people to feel the desire to balance their virtual isolation of "social" media and step out the door to engage with one another. We need to foster empathy among our young adults, a generation threatened with increasingly disconnected and isolating behaviours. We need to encourage sensuality - smells, touch, vibrations, facial expressions, and flavours - components so vital to full communication.

When I graduated from university in 1986, I immediately entered the professional world as a teacher at a junior high school in Bowling Green, Ohio. My students were 12 - 13 years old in the seventh grade, the equivalent of "eerste middelbaar" here in Belgium. I energetically and passionately charged into my classroom in my first days of school, only to be met by needs that perplexingly exceeded my training: proper nutrition, health care, ethical guidance … these tasks belonged in the home (so I thought). After three years, I exhaustedly crawled out of that classroom and literally flew into the relatively glamorous and much more financially rewarding job of flight attendant. I was 25 years old. Today, with the eyes of a 48-year-old woman, I see clearly the hunger for young people to be led by genuinely enthusiastic teachers and I admittedly feel the pull to re-enter the currently twisted system and somehow make a difference. Schools are the sponges that absorb our deeper external cultural problems, and we need to reorganize them so that the best individuals are encouraged to make a rewarding profession out of education.

As for the issue of gun control in the United States: I would ban them all tomorrow, except for the small percentage of citizens who live in remote areas and need to hunt or kill livestock predators. Lawmakers & politicians must react to the issue of gun laws, and I have yet to discover the ability to make sense there. The 2nd Amendment of our US Constitution (the right of people to keep & bear arms) was established at a time when the imperialistic English government prevented settlers in the 13 colonies from defending themselves from forming a rebellious militia. This was back in the 1770's and is now a clearly outdated and downright dangerous "right." But many Americans don't see it this way - they believe that any right, especially a constitutional right, should be protected at all costs. My deepest hope is that the most fervent member of the National Rifle Association or any other staunch advocate of the 2nd Amendment will view the bodies of these 6-year-old victims in Connecticut and decide that gun control is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, my cynical side knows that the opposite reaction will most likely emerge - that many people will shout for more weapon accessibility to protect the innocent.

Dixie and I spend a large amount of our professional time in corporate settings, generously invited to share our inspiration via a motivational keynote or workshop. Our specialty appears to be our realistic "spark" toward grand goal achievement and helping to release untapped human potential. We humbly enjoy these encounters very much, especially when we receive feedback from an attendee weeks, months or even years later - an accomplishment that was in part spearheaded by our initial intervention. But since these encounters are limited to the corporate sphere, whereby finance & power for a large part determine who will be sitting in that room, we have ensured that we spend at least 10% of our energies in more democratic settings. Prisons, schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centres … these audiences give us much more wisdom and insight than we could ever contribute to them. And every single time we emerge from such an audience admittedly emotionally drained, we always feel hope among the ruins. Prisoners, psychiatric patients, child soldiers, victims of abuse or neglect … these downtrodden individuals often inexplicably radiate hope.

Perhaps the main point is this: instead of trying to change everything at once, we each have the power to make one small effort toward positivism and compassion in a broad social context. Here in my Belgian community, I am no longer intimidated to smile at a stranger on the street. My initial fears of being the superficial American have faded and my desire to spread a bit of sincere happiness reigns. I have chosen to express curiosity, tolerance, and admiration toward the multitude of languages in our community, hoping to radiate to our young people that there is no shame in expressing themselves in their mother tongues outside of the classroom. I also try to lead by example in social engagement beyond the computer, the cell phone, and the television - although I admit that business and social pressures require stubborn resistance to the demands of being constantly plugged-in.

Effective communication can help us all progress toward a non-violent world. Tears of grief and anger really can wash away our hesitation to act, to reclaim the wonder of life, no matter how painful or unjust it may seem.

Dixie, Stefan & I extend our deepest soulful sympathies to all who have lost in both the Connecticut and Oregon tragedies.

Julie Brown
Managing Director, Polar Circles
Huldenberg, Belgium