Tags: apocalypse, environment, harold camping, lorax, may 21, may21, rapture, second coming
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For a while, when I was about five years old, I would wake up each morning around 5 or 6 am. My room had an east-facing window through which I could see the masses of cloud lit with the flame-bright colors of sunrise. It was so beautiful, I thought, that maybe – just maybe – this would be the day that Jesus returned.
I was raised in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, which strongly emphasized the Second Coming. Any moment could be the magical moment when it would happen – and we had to be sure that we were prepared. Of course, the church insisted that nobody could “know the day or hour”, a caution born out of its predecessor’s disastrous fling with Rapture mania in 1844.
At any rate, I was determined to be ready, and I read my children’s Bible with great fascination – particularly Revelation, with its mysterious beasts, angels and fiery cataclysms. If Jesus did return in my lifetime, I was pretty sure it was going to be during such a brilliant sunrise, when the sky was already so majestically illuminated. And so each morning I watched in breathless anticipation…and mixed disappointment and relief as the sunrise faded.
Similarly, I watched yesterday as the world crossed into 6 pm, May 21, 2011. No earthquakes, no crowds rising into the sky, no cars or trains suddenly colliding due to Raptured drivers. Of course, I really hadn’t expected anything to happen. Much less did I want billions of people to die in a fiery Apocalypse. But once again, somewhere inside me was…just a tiny little sliver of disappointment.
Last week Kristy (a fellow Tweeter) and I were discussing Revelation and the Second Coming. She wasn’t a member of the May 21 movement (she describes herself simply as a “born-again Christian”). But she was adamantly certain that Jesus would return, probably very soon, and when he did, everything wrong with the world would just…vanish. We’d live with one another in perfect harmony, free from any temptation to treat each other badly. Our devastated planet would be replaced by a pristine paradise, untouched by human greed. And Satan himself – the source of all evil – would be destroyed forever.
She spoke about her hopes for a new earth. “Personally, I look forward to a new one. I don’t want to keep this one with what we’ve done to it. It will only get worse as time goes on….I would love to start all over again.”
But, I argued, isn’t this a sort of a cop-out? Like a little kid going to their math teacher and saying “this assignment is too hard – just give me the answers?” And what about the suffering that we’re causing for countless millions (or billions, as things get worse) due to our misuse of the Earth’s resources?
My mind came back to our conversation several times that week. Yes, it’s understandable to want someone to come solve our problems. Clean things up and give our world a fresh start. I think we’ve all had that feeling of being overwhelmed by all the things that are wrong with this world, to the point where we feel like just throwing up our hands: “Someone else can deal with this mess – it’s not my doing.” And yet, even if Jesus did return to fix things for us…wouldn’t this be too easy?
Thinking over the environmental aspect in particular, my mind went to one of my favourite children’s books, The Lorax…the tale of a natural paradise, once perfect, now turned to a wasteland by human greed for profit. A young child listens as the “Once-ler” responsible for the devastation tells his story of the Lorax. The long-vanished Lorax who “lifted himself away” into the sky “without leaving a trace”, and would one day in the future – just maybe – “come back”…
“The Lorax said nothing. Just gave me a glance…
just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance…
as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants.
And I’ll never forget the grim look on his face
when he heisted himself and took leave of this place,
through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.”
The Lorax: a mysterious figure that appears miraculously to warn the greedy Once-ler about the consequences of his thoughtless actions. But his words are disregarded until “the very last Truffula Tree of them all” is chopped down (a symbolic martyrdom of the one who “speaks for the trees”). Finally The Lorax vanishes into the sky leaving behind only a strange, enigmatic prophecy that someday he will return…the Second Coming of the Lorax.*
Robert L. Short, in his book The Parables of Dr. Seuss, argues that reading The Lorax as a book only about environmental issues misses a major part of the point – and I agree. As we listen to the Once-ler’s tale, it becomes apparent that his rampant destruction of the environment is merely an accidental byproduct of his utterly egocentric worldview. In his quest for riches he is eager to manipulate everyone he can into buying the ridiculous (yet, for advertising purposes, highly “spinnable”) Thneeds. Long after his business empire has collapsed, he still exacts a petty and useless toll from a child – “fifteen cents and a nail and the shell of a great-great-great-grandfather snail” – in exchange for the privilege of hearing his story. He utterly disregards the suffering that his actions have caused; he allows himself a cursory moment of “feeling bad” for the starving, child-like Barbaloots, but concludes that “business must grow/regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.” Like those who run so many of the world’s major corporations, the Once-ler is a deeply psychopathic individual who can only see the world and others through the lens of profit.
And, inevitably, his actions lead to an Apocalypse. The water is poisoned, the trees cut down, and the sky darkened with “Smogulous Smoke”. Seemingly abandoned by both the Lorax and his family, the Once-ler goes into denial. Hiding in his Lurkem from the hellish wasteland outside, he endlessly waits for something to change, thinking about the moment when the Lorax left. Might he someday return to fix what went wrong – to make the Truffula Trees regrow, the sky blue, the water clear again? To magically undo the Once-ler’s mistakes, re-creating the paradise that once existed?
“And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks, with one word…
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess.
That was long, long ago.
But each day since that day
I’ve sat here and worried
and worried away.
Through the years, while my buildings
have fallen apart,
I’ve worried about it
with all of my heart.”
But the prophecy of the Lorax remains hopelessly obscure, no matter how hard the Once-ler tries to decipher its secret code…until a third person enters the picture.
The child listening to the tale.
“But now,” says the Once-ler,
“Now that you’re here,
the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
Catch!” calls the Once-ler.
He lets something fall.
“It’s a Truffula Seed.
It’s the last one of all!
You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back.”
If the Lorax is a Christ figure in this “parable”, and the Once-ler represents the worst in human nature, who is the child? Us. Every one of us alive today who has the potential to change things, to undo the bad that has been done and sow the seeds (Truffula seeds!) of good.
Inspiring, right? Well, yes…when I read it as a child. This time, though, my first impulse was to shout furiously at the Once-ler. “Someone like me?? Why not someone like YOU! I didn’t make this problem. You guys did, now you fix it. It’s all very well and good for you to shout “Catch” and happily toss me and my generation the responsibility. Why should we clean up your mess?”
“We didn’t start the fire”, the Billy Joel song insists. We didn’t put the hole in the ozone layer, spark the centuries-old ethnic conflicts that continue today, force young children to work in a sweatshop. Other people did. Why is it our job to fix their mistakes?
Well, on one level it *is* our doing. Merely by living in the society we are born in we find ourselves complicit in its collective actions. We get into the car, or even take public transit, and automatically contribute to climate change. We throw out a plastic bag and add to the ever-growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We stroll into a clothing store in the mall and buy a $60 pair of jeans that a young child, halfway around the world, earned a few cents for sewing. We don’t deliberately choose our actions to have these consequences. But often they are an inescapable part of the economic and cultural system we find ourselves in. If we want to eliminate our individual contribution towards an impending planetary Apocalypse, this will have to involve working to change the system as well.
But, on a more pragmatic level…it doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is. Nobody but us is going to fix it.
The Once-ler won’t. He doesn’t have the knowledge, or vision, or optimism. (In many cases, he might not even be alive anymore.)
The Lorax won’t…because unless we learn to solve our problems ourselves, “starting over” would do us no good whatsoever. (Sure, give the Once-ler another “Eden” filled with brand-new Truffula trees – just how long would that last?)
_Nobody_ is going to fix our planet except us…and if we sit waiting for Jesus, or somebody else, to do it, we’ll still be waiting when the world burns, and nobody comes to save us from the very real, literal Hell we’ve created for ourselves.
Jesus is not going to come back and give us a new planet to pollute and consume as we did this one. (Sorry…)
Jesus is not going to come back and magically end all the wars and generations-old conflicts between ethnic and religious groups.
Jesus is not going to come back and stop human beings from exploiting one another for greed and profit.
Jesus is not going to come back and instantly change us all from self-absorbed, anger-prone, judgmental individuals to perfect beings who can live together in peaceful community.
Jesus is not going to come back and fix our problems for us. If He comes back, it will only be after we fix them ourselves – and, in doing so, become the sort of people who are able to live in Heaven for eternity without destroying it…or each other.
In a book by one of my favourite Christian authors, Brian McLaren, the character “Chip” describes how, to him, Christianity had always been mainly about two key questions:
1. If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain that you’d go to be with God in heaven?
2. If Jesus returned today, would you be ready to meet God?
But now, Chip explains, two different questions have become equally central to him:
1. If you were to live for another fifty years, what kind of person would you like to become – and how will you become that kind of person?
2. If Jesus doesn’t return for ten thousand or ten million years, what kind of world do we want to create?
As I think back to those early childhood days of reading Revelation, my favourite part – despite all the excitement of the middle – was, of course, the ending.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new Earth, for the first heaven and the first Earth had passed away…Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
A beautiful image – who wouldn’t long to live in such a place? But wait…
In my childhood church (and nearly every interpretation of Revelation I’ve ever read) we’d always been told that God would create this perfect paradise for us, and all we’d need to do is sit back, relax, and enjoy it. But the first line doesn’t read “Then God created a new heaven and a new Earth, while humankind watched passively…”
Perhaps we’re meant to play a part in creating this new Earth? Perhaps we’re even required to? Isn’t it likely that UNLESS we take on some responsibility and at least attempt to change this world for the better, God is not just going to do it for us?
But if we do…then it could truly become a Rapturous place to live.
- The Contrapuntal Platypus
*Of course, I’m hardly the first one to notice this similarity, as a quick Google search revealed. See Heinz Fenkel and Robert L. Short‘s writings for more on the subject. (I find Short’s argument the most convincing of the two…but Fenkel’s is interesting as well.)
Positive Piano Teaching May 12, 2011Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Childhood, Music, Teaching.
Tags: kinesthetic, learning, piano, rhythm, talent, teaching
“How can you stay so positive?“
Last year I wrote a post entitled “Nix the Negativity, Please” and I thought the above would make an excellent springboard for a discussion of the opposite – being positive
Last Wednesday, I was talking with the mother of two of my students. Let’s call her Katy, and her two boys Joel and Travis. Joel is the oldest of the two boys; though highly talented at math and other logic-based subjects, he finds kinesthetic activities – like tapping or moving to a beat – far more difficult. Travis, on the other hand, is the epitome of the “right-brained” child: dance, gymnastics, art all come to him with great ease.
We’d just had the lesson, in which both boys had made good progress and passed several of their songs. Katy and I were chatting in the car on the way to the bus afterwards, and all at once she burst out with, “I don’t understand it! How can you stay so positive?”
“Well, I really love teaching…” I ventured tentatively.
“No,” she elaborated on her theme. “It’s more than that. If it were me teaching them, there’s no way I could truthfully say ‘That’s great, you’ve made so much progress on this piece.’ Of course when I help the boys practice I try not to be critical, it’s my job as a parent to be encouraging. But listening to them from the other room, I could hear so many things wrong with their playing – and all I could think was “That really sucked, how could you mess up there again, why can’t you get it?”"
Part of what fueled it, of course, had been a week of frustrating practice with Joel. I’d assigned him a simple metronome exercise, and asked Katy to help: tap along with him, one beat per metronome tick, then fade out and let him take over. Then two beats per metronome tick, alternating right and left hand (just like playing the bongos).
It had driven her crazy, or nearly so. “I just don’t understand how he can’t get it. He tries to tap along, but he’s *waiting* for the tick and taps after it, too late. I don’t think he’s getting any better. Travis finds it easy, of course.”
“Actually, Joel was much better at it this week – at least with me,” I assured her. But she remained skeptical. “It’s great that you can be so positive about it. But I really wonder if he’ll ever learn it.”
A week later, I was back at Katy’s house for the boys’ next piano lesson (in which they both did quite well, passing most of their pieces and showing a lot of improvement on the others.) In the car after the lesson the subject of Joel came up. “I have to say,” ventured Katy, “he does seem to be getting better at the rhythm thing. He found the metronome exercise a lot easier this week.” (Her expression told me she’d found it much easier as well. ;))
“That’s great!” I responded. “And then,” she went on, “we were sitting in the car, driving, and there was pop music playing with a heavy bass beat. And all of a sudden I saw him moving to the beat – and tapping along! ‘My teacher said I needed to practice this,’ he told me.” (I was astounded to hear this – even I hadn’t expected him to practice in his “free time”, and in such a creative way!)
And I realized I had my answer…this is why I stay positive. Not because I’m self-deceptively optimistic or naive or walking through life with stubbornly rose-colored glasses, but simply because I’ve discovered two general truths about learning:
1. It is pretty much possible for anyone to learn any skill, no matter how “bad” they seem to be at it at first.
2. Intelligent, persistent practice generally pays off much faster than anyone imagines it will.
Our society, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, puts far too much emphasis on the myth of “talent.” Note that I’m not denying there’s such a thing as – let’s call it – “aptitude”. Obviously everyone finds some things easy and other things not so easy; that’s universal. But the idea of “talent” – that you’re endowed with a particular genetic heritage which makes you good at some things and bad at others, and will determine everything from your hobbies and interests to your career path – is absolutely a myth.
It’s amazing how much resistance to this idea I’ve gotten from fellow musicians in particular. (There was a piano forum in which I stated, very seriously, that anyone could achieve concert-level performance ability with enough persistence and a good teacher. I was thoroughly laughed at, but I still stand by that comment.) Perhaps it’s because we have a bit too much invested in this idea of talent? That we, as musicians, were showered from On High with an ineffable, special, divine talent which mere drudgery alone will never match? That if (horrible thought!) anyone could match our achievements under the right circumstances, maybe we’re not such amazing, “gifted” people after all.
Well, of course, we are…just because we’re human. But not because of our so-called talents. Because we are all incredibly adaptive, creative beings who can learn to do pretty much anything we’re interested in, and who can’t be pinned down by labels like “klutz” or “tone-deaf” or “unmusical.” (Or, for that matter, “dyslexic” or “hyperactive” or “slow” or “autistic” or “unimaginative”…or any more of the Negativity-labelled pigeonholes adults will often try to stick children into.)
…And really, what more reason does one need to be positive?
- The Contrapuntal Platypus
Tags: amy chua, asian parenting, childhood, education, learning, teaching, tiger mother
My response to Amy Chua, Part 2
“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” – Mark Twain
Student: (sarcastically commenting on a challenging piano exercise I’d assigned): “Oh, fun, fun.”
Me: “Maybe it will be fun – why not? You haven’t played it yet, so how do you know for sure it won’t be?”
Student (after a moment’s reflection): “You win.”
Last week I wrote Part 1 of my response to Amy Chua’s article on “Chinese parenting” featured in the Wall Street Journal. A storm of controversy followed Ms. Chua’s article; in the intervening week her book has been released and she has given several interviews, such as this one, which help to “moderate” the tone of her WSJ piece. Ms. Chua emphasizes the book is more a memoir than a parenting guide and that she is not trying to tell others how to raise their children. Yet, even in the interviews, she still makes some sweeping claims about “Asian” vs. “Western” forms of parenting. It’s these statements I’ll be responding to now.
In particular, one quote from the article leapt out at me.
Western parents romanticize the idea of pursuing passions and giving your kid choices. If you give a 10-year-old the choice to pursue his or her passion, it’s going to be doing Facebook for six hours. I don’t think it’s going to be playing the violin or doing any school work very seriously.
Ms. Chua, it seems, is convinced that Children Are By Default Lazy. If they do have “passions” – perhaps to play an instrument or win a sports competition – these are transitory flickers of desire which will soon fade, leaving nothing but TV-seeking apathy behind. Children don’t have the planning or time management skills to work towards a long-term goal. Above all, they aren’t interested in learning, because learning is Hard Work and couldn’t possibly be fun. Hence they must be forced to learn, as they certainly won’t do it on their own.
Is this the case? When I think back over my own childhood, here’s a small sample of “fun” activities I remember:
- Going to the local library with my mom, picking out armloads of books and going to a nearby park to read beneath the trees. (In the following years I would read thousands of books).
– Drawing maps of various fictitious countries described in the books I read (The Phantom Tollbooth, “Ponyland”, Narnia…)
– Learning various math concepts from my mom (before their introduction in the school curriculum): place-value, negative numbers and tessellations.
– Playing soccer from age 6 to 14.
– Major roles in four school plays: Titania (Midsummer Night’s Dream), The Goose (Charlotte’s Web), The Wicked Witch of the West (Wizard of Oz) and the First Witch (Macbeth).
– Taking piano lessons through Grade 12 (and flute until Grade 11; I also played in a youth orchestra.)
– Making a large hooked rug for my room.
– Writing a short story which won first place in a city-wide competition, as well as dozens of poems and other short stories.
– Memorizing a large amount of Romantic poetry, including Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, around age 9. (I still know it today!)
All of these activities have three characteristics in common: (a) I had fun doing them, (b) I learned something in the process and (c) they were totally voluntary. Some of them my parents suggested or provided help with, others were entirely my idea, but I was never coerced or “bribed”. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who remembers these sorts of childhood activities being “fun”…so why do we take for granted that children need to be forced into doing them?
This vast disconnect between what we expect from children (laziness) and what’s actually there (energy, creativity and curiosity) goes right to the heart of what’s wrong with our educational system today. Our society has a collective idea that Learning Is Boring. “Obviously” children are not going to want to learn about negative numbers, write stories or practice piano on their own initiative, right? So either we have to bribe or coerce them.
Bribery comes in all sorts of forms in our educational system. Most often it’s a sensory form; for example, a computer game that will let you practice your times tables by lighting up and flashing every time you get the right answer. Exciting, isn’t it? From a post by my fellow blogger Montecelery: “Somewhere along the line, the idea that children need stimulation went horribly, horribly awry…there’s just this conception in our society that children need or want brightly colored stuff, stuff that lights up and makes noise, whatever.” If it isn’t loud or flashy things, it’s cute dancing cartoon characters, the promise of a movie after class, or chocolate. But, so goes the conventional Western wisdom, they will not swallow that bitter spoonful of educational medicine unless we promise them some sugar to go with it.
The traditional “Asian” method is rather less subtle. Why bribe the children if we can coerce them? It’s their job to clench their teeth, buckle down and learn those math concepts or spelling lists, distasteful, boring and tedious though it may be. No spoonful of sugar needed here; they’ll learn to take their bitter medicine each day and do it promptly, or they’ll have an angry parent or teacher to answer to.
In contrast, I’m going to advance an alternative theory.
(1) Children – in general – are naturally creative, curious, and enjoy learning. (Obviously, some children will have more energy or passion for a given subject than others. However, if there’s a child out there who has absolutely no interest in learning, I haven’t taught or met them yet. :D) There’s even a school in Britain named Summerhill, where the children are under absolutely no obligation to go to classes, take tests or learn anything at all. But, amazingly enough, they do!
(2) Though children enjoy learning, they won’t just spontaneously learn if they’re entirely left to their own devices - not through lack of motivation but lack of tools. It’s absolutely essential to expose them to a wide range of possibilities (teaching them to read or introducing math concepts at a preschool level; signing them up for soccer or other recreational opportunities; going on nature walks; taking them to the library to borrow books; and so on.)
(3) If you want your child to enjoy learning, the best thing you can do is spend time interacting with them. Opportunities for learning will naturally come up. If there’s one thing that almost all 5-year olds have in common, it’s that they never stop asking questions! Learning is much more fun when there’s someone else there to do it with.
(4) “Educational” TV shows and DVDs, by and large, do far more to dampen intellectual curiosity than to sharpen it.** They teach children that learning consists of sitting passively and absorbing information. (Of course this prepares them very nicely for the mainstream educational system…which involves 12 years of sitting passively and absorbing information! Is it any wonder that parents, a few years down the road, bemoan their children’s “apathy” and “lack of motivation?”) Learning is an active process, and watching TV is by nature passive.
And most importantly…
(5) Learning doesn’t consist of stuffing information into one’s brain. It’s a process of exploring the world around us and finding out how it works. An interest in learning, and “being well prepared for tests”, often have very little to do with one another.
This is why the Asian model is so self-defeating. It supposes that one can generate curiosity through hours of drudgery. Does Ms. Chua truly believe that memorizing lists of spelling words, or doing pages of long division, will give one a passion for literature or mathematics? Of course, spelling and arithmetic are useful skills in our society; I’m not denying that! But the very idea that one can “drill” a passion into a child through rote repetition is, to my mind at least, absurd.
Children do not need to be “motivated”. They come that way naturally. The danger is that they will become “demotivated” – either through passive TV-watching (usually when both parents work outside the home) or through an educational system that emphasizes “right answers” and “good marks” over intellectual curiosity. But, if they are given the tools that will let them pursue their passions, they won’t be spending six hours a day on Facebook.***
Of course, these may not be the same passions that Ms. Chua appears to personally value, such as academics and music. For example, one of my cousins has an amazing talent for renovating older cars and re-selling them. Why shouldn’t he “pursue his passion”? If a 9-year old longs to be in a school play, or on the school basketball team, why does Ms. Chua not consider these good choices?
The truth is that children come with a wide variety of interests and this is good. Yes, our world needs doctors, lawyers and engineers. It also needs teachers, plumbers, computer programmers, entrepreneurs, retail workers, dental assistants, musicians and far too many other careers to mention here. Your child’s interests may not match your own, and that’s fine – but it’s also none of your business to tell them what they “should” enjoy.
In closing, I’ll hand it off to my dad, whose advice on careers was always as follows: “I have only three requirements for what career you pick. One, you need to enjoy it. Two, it has to be legal. Three, you need to be able to earn a living at it.” That’s all any parent should insist on. After that – hands off.
- The Contrapuntal Platypus
* Just for those who are curious, the maps of imaginary countries, the short story/poetry writing, and memorizing the Ancient Mariner were entirely on my own initiative. (Nobody could have been more surprised than my parents at that last one.)
** To clarify, I am not telling parents never to turn on Discovery Channel or to borrow educational DVDs from the library. This shouldn’t, though, make up the bulk of the child’s “learning time.”
*** Unless, of course, their passion is for network design or computer programming…in which case they may be the next Mark Zuckerberg. That wouldn’t be so bad either.