What Have We Become and Who Do We Want to Be?

What Have We Become and Who Do We Want to Be?

Two totally unrelated events of the past week converged unexpectedly for me and led me to some deep introspection.

First came the college cheating scandal, where wealthy and influential parents, including CEO’s, two Hollywood actresses and a legendary fashion designer, schemed to get their children into universities through fraud, bribes and lies.  According to court records, parents paid to help their children cheat on college entrance exams and to falsify athletic records of students to enable them to secure admission to some of the country’s elite universities, including UCLA, USC, Stanford, Yale and Georgetown.

Then came the news that 49 people, worshippers in the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques in Christchurch New Zealand, were brutally gunned down by a 28-year-old Australian man  who expressed white supremacist ideology,  who posted a racist manifesto online and who streamed live video of the horrific events on Facebook.  It was the worst act of violence in the country in nearly three decades and was, according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”

There is still much to learn about the college cheating scandal.  What is clear though is the lengths parents were willing to go – and the money they were willing to spend –  help their children illegally gain entrance to college. To me however, this scandal is merely the most recent and extreme symptom of an ailment deep in our psyche as parents and educators across America.

As an educator for nearly 35 years, 30 of which I have served as head of school in one of the country’s most competitive private school markets, I have seen the steady rise of anxiety around readiness, SAT and ACT scores, and the college application process in general.  Though I’m not a psychologist, I can say that from my vantage point it has become a mass hysteria –  a national crisis documented poignantly in films such as Race to Nowhere and Waiting for Superman as well as in books such as The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins.  The questions begin as early as preschool: “What do you think is the best pathway for my child to get into an Ivy League school?”  “What is the average SAT score of your graduates?”  “How many hours of homework do your elementary students do?”.  And so on.

Testing and test scores have become the penultimate goal of school.  Getting into the “best” schools occupies a significant amount or our psychic space.  We spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how our child will “stack up”, whether he or she will “make the grade”,  or if they will “be able to compete.” And whether we would admit it or not, the high schools and colleges our children attend often become status symbols as much as the cars we drive or the clubs we attend.  Meanwhile, our stress becomes our children’s stress, exacerbated by the college prep and entrance process; it has all become one insidious and dangerous cycle, contributing to epidemic rates of clinical anxiety & depression. And along the way we have totally lost sight of the meaning and purpose of education, perhaps because we’ve lost track of our own moral and spiritual compass.

Our greatest thinkers and visionaries –  from the ancient Greeks through the renaissance to modern times – saw a deeper meaning and higher purpose for education.  Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”. Michelangelo could have been talking about a human being as much as a piece of art when he said, “Every block of stone of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”.  According to Maria Montessori, education was intended to be a “preparation for life” and a means for the person to “discover himself”.  More recently the Dalai Lama talked about the “inner values” that should be taught to counterbalance the emphasis on the “material values” which pervade our society.

What does this have to do with the tragedy in New Zealand?  As with so many countries around the world, the USA has seen a dramatic rise in the number of hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center identified 954 hate groups in 2017 – up from 917 documented in 2016.  According to a March 15, 2019 CBS report, the FBI has bout 900 active domestic terrorism cases that include cases tied to white supremacists. The USA has seen a rise in violence by white supremacists, including the murders of 11 people at a Pittsburgh Synagogue last fall.  There was also a deadly clash at a white national rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, the murders of nine people at the church in Charleston in 2015 and the deaths of six at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012. Gun violence takes young lives each and every day in cities across America.

In this climate of extreme violence, political figures stoke fear and anger to their advantage, while the internet has become a forum for expressions of the most vile and debased ideas and perspectives. We as adults, like our more vulnerable children, are left trying to tread water in the turbulent storm of traumatic images and reports that fill our television and computer screens, the emotional scars of which we have not even begun to understand.  We are overwhelmed by it all,  and left wondering what have we become and where we are going.  But maybe the better questions are, who do we want to be and what do we most want for our children?

To answer to these questions will require us to do a major reset, to pause and deeply reflect upon the hyper focus we have created on test scores and the insane competition around college readiness, where students feel that they have to take AP classes to be competitive and that even a 4.0 GPA is not high enough to stand out.  Not only is this path destructive for everyone involved, it is far, far removed from the actual meaning and purpose of education. I have informally asked parents in many different forums over the years what they most wish for when they think of their child’s future, and the most common answer is that in the end they just want their children to be happy. Simple as that right? Well not so much anymore.

If we truly want our children to be happy, then we must contemplate and co-create learning environments that balance cutting edge academic classes with courses that foster personal well-being and community.  We have to incorporate opportunities for students to experience cultures and religions beyond their own neighborhoods in order to broaden their understanding and expand their comfort zone.  We should encourage community service activities that help build empathy and human connection.  We can foster forums for dialogue on race and gender so that students feel safe expressing who they are and learn to listen to other perspectives.

In the big picture, in addition to our academic goals, we should strive to instill inner values such as courage, compassion, integrity, justice, forgiveness and respect ( to name a few)  – and to imbue our students with the belief that a life well-lived is one in service to something bigger than one’s own self–interest.  And no, the aim is not to nurture naïve and passive lambs that will inevitably get devoured by the wolves of the real world.  If we must choose an animal metaphor, let’s help create lions of the human spirit who are discovering themselves as human beings, who are passionate about contributing their gifts to the betterment of the world, and who won’t shrink from the immense and daunting challenges we face as nation and a world.  Because whether they become leaders in the traditional sense or not, the moral fiber our children carry within them will impact those around them, whatever sphere of life they may eventually be in.

To bring this conversation full circle, the triumph of love over hate is ultimately a struggle in the human heart.  The journey to overcome ignorance, bigotry, prejudice and injustice begins with the choice of what we value as parents and educators.  As Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”  The path toward creating a more harmonious and peaceful world is educating a new generation of self-aware, inspired and broad-minded leaders.  In order to renew our commitment to those goals it’s time to reexamine ourselves.  It may mean we have to let go of some things we thought were important, but things that we know are not truly what life is all about in the end.  For hatred to be stemmed and ultimately overcome, we need capacities of the heart as much as new ways of thinking.  It’s a long journey, but as they say, it begins with a single step.







Soul Space

Water ripples - sunset

Soul Space

We find our soul-space by the clues

We’ve left before, and enter with a leap,

Like a pebble dropping into the placid lake,

Suddenly we are at the center of waves rippling

Beyond the humdrum of the day to day

Toward possibilities we haven’t imagined.

Our breath spreads silently outward

From still awareness in the deep pool of being;

In our soul-space we are for a moment

The center of the universe unfolding,

We are both the origin of our seeking

And the destination we seek.

Before the waves disappear back to their source,

We carefully place a few words, like buoys,

Where we splashed into joyful abandon,

So we can know the way to return.

Be Like the Leaf

Leaf photo

Be Like the Leaf

Be like the leaf,


Without a plan,

Letting go.

Just spinning

And turning

In the delicate embrace

Of the wind,

Her sweet breath

On your face;

Together transmuting

vibrant light

Into laughter,

Giving voice

To the song of

Minerals darkly aged

In the soil

Beneath you.

Singing the earth,

Embracing the dance,

Green-full and heaven-spread

Under the summer sky.

Be like the leaf.

Skating to the Edge of the Night

As uncle Bob led us across the snow-covered pasture, I looked up and saw Venus shining brightly just above the lavender and pink-streaked horizon.  I took a deep breath, and as the cold night air surged into my lungs, I felt a sense of adventure.  Down the hillside we slid to the edge of the pond.  My brother Matt and my four cousins and I began strapping on our ice-skates as Bob began to gather a kindling for a fire.  The full moon was rising behind the pines across the pond from us.

Soon I was gliding along in circles, as the moonlight glistened on the smooth black ice below me.  Meanwhile, flames from the fire danced in the darkness.  I skated in and out of light beams and silhouettes.  I felt the winter air against my face.  I was in a new world of luminescence, mysterious shadows, crystalline air,  and primeval flames.  I felt a visceral, organic connection between myself and the natural world.  Strangely, as stark and raw and cold as it was, I felt a sense of security and well-being.  I felt at home.  I was existing inside a feeling of total freedom, which kept expanding and expanding. 

 Stopping to rest, we gathered around the fire.  While we’d been skating, uncle Bob had wrapped potatoes in tin foil, punctured them with holes, and placed them in the hot embers. Now we carefully unwrapped the steaming potatoes, cut them in half and slathered them with butter.  I got big morsel onto my fork, cooled it down enough, and put it into my mouth.  The mélange of steaming potato, charcoal, melted butter and bits of dirt was transcendental.  I felt as if I had never really tasted a potato before – so pure, so distinct, so rich was the experience.  Meanwhile, I looked out across the moon-lit ice pond.  I felt happy – alive.

To experience life directly, head on, without any buffer, is what skating on the ice pond provided for me. The feeling of gliding freely in the winter night, beneath the light of the moon, lives deep inside of me.  I can still taste that fire-roasted potato from uncle Bob as if it is right in front of me.  There is a beauty to the rawness of life experienced in the wilderness, and that beauty can stay with us forever.  These experiences were common in my youth.  Now it seems such experiences must be sought out with intention, especially amidst our world so influenced by technology,  and where most of live removed from natural world.

In the modern world, with our dominating interest in machines and technology, we have harnessed the forces of nature and made them work for us.  But it can be easy to forgot that we are not the source of those natural forces, the source of that power.  The source of nature’s power and beauty is what sages from time immemorial have contemplated.  It prompted ancient priests and priestesses to describe Earth as a goddess – as our Mother.  It inspired poets like John Keats to say, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”  It’s what drove Cezanne, Monet and Van Gogh to tirelessly fill their canvasses with the ever-changing mystical light of southern France.

The idea of allowing our children to experience the natural world sounds simple enough, but it carries with it a deeper significance.  Nature is a reflection of our own spark, our spiritual essence.  The natural world is like a mirror of all of the beauty that lies within us.  And as such, the more we can bring our children into contact with nature, the more our children can experience a reflection of their own inner selves.  Nature is a refuge where all of us find ourselves again.  Its puts us all back in touch with the greater cosmic harmony in which we all participate.

Maria Montessori felt that the experience of awe and wonder is the primary goal of education – and by extension of childhood.  And the natural world is where awe and wonder live.  When our children look at a flower, hear a bird sing, touch a turtle’s shell, see a snake slither or spot a butterfly, these experiences become touchstones of their spirit.  When our children roll in the grass, jump in the creek, play in the mud, skip stones at the lake, catch a fire fly or poke the embers of the campfire, they are embracing first-hand the essence of life.  Those experiences fill them with a joy we hear in their exuberant squeals of laughter and we see reflected in the light of their eyes.

So as life seems to speed up, slow it back down.  For a day, live organically not virtually.  Become fascinated again by the little miracles of nature – whether it’s in the woods or on a farm, on the mountain or in the river, at the lake or at the sea, on the ski slope or on the ice pond.  Be intentional about finding experiences of the natural world with your children.  Grow a garden.  Go for a hike.  Or get on the bike.  Pick some apples.  Make a plan.  Put it on the calendar.  If you live in the city, get creative.  Visit the arboretum.  Find the local community garden.  Go to the natural science museum.  Nature is closer than you think.  Be like the bees and seek out the flowers.  For like the bees we are pollinating the next generation, so they too will seek the nectar of life.  In so doing, our children’s lives – and ours – will be enriched.

Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.“ Ralph Waldo Emerson


Activity:  Go on a mini vision quest. 

Take your child to a creek.  Walk to a place along the creek where you cannot see the road or hear the cars – away from the trail and other people.  Tell your child that you just want to sit quietly for ten minutes along the water without talking; that you just want to watch the water flow, hear the creek ripple over the rocks and the birds sing above, feel the sun and the breeze on your face, rest on the rocks or moss beneath you.  

If you want, you can share the idea that native people would do this kind of thing to get in touch with the earth, to feel reconnected to nature and to even hear the messages from the animals and the plants – messages even from the water and the stones.

After the ten minutes is up, take a deep breath and stretch.  Ask your child how they liked the experience?  What did they hear or see?  Was there something special that drew their attention?  Like the native people, did they receive any messages while sitting by the creek? Was there an animal or plant or insect that spoke to them?

As a follow up, you can have notebooks or drawing pads with you – and spend some extra time either writing / sketching what’s in front of your or describing the experience you just had.  This has the added advantage of creating a permanent memento of the experience.

The activity suggested above is for one parent and one child.  Of course, you can do with more members of the family, but try it first with just two of you.  Be sure you won’t get interrupted by the ring of your phone – or distracted by checking your messages.  Try to be fully present.

 If you like this experience together, why not make it a tradition?  You can go to a different part of the creek each time – or go to a different nature place altogether. You can also expand the amount of time you sit in silence. These mini vision quests can become an important bonding opportunity – just you with your child and the natural setting you choose.


Uncle Bob was a shaman of sorts when it came to building fires, cooking potatoes in the embers, pointing out planets in the night sky, finding the best fishing holes, showing us hidden raspberry patches, spying the hawk on the branch of the oak tree, finding an owl feather on the trail, or telling tales of olden times.  I will always be grateful to him for spending time with us during those formative years of childhood and putting us into such direct contact with the elements of life.  Those experiences formed who I am and instilled in me a deep love for the natural world and an appreciation for the small things in life.























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