Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Reasons Why to Try

I keep thinking about a woman I met at a kids' birthday party the other day, a mom who was threatening to leave because, she said, "I'm a black cloud, ruining everybody else's good time. I'm just in a horrible mood."

I didn't know her, but I can read people, even strangers, well enough to know when they're reaching out.

"You're not bothering me," I said. "Just stay, what are you going to go do instead?"

She guffawed. "Just go home, I guess, and yell at my 13-year-old for not cleaning his room, have him wonder why I'm back, why I'm bothering him."

"Sounds to me like it'd be a better idea to stay here!" I said. She did stay, not even grudgingly, and we got into a conversation about room cleaning, whose job it is, how one can get kids to take responsibility for their own things.

"I just want some small sign that he's even trying," she said, exasperation and defeat showing clearly from her sad eyes down to her sagging shoulders.

I was reminded of this moment today when I went into the bathroom at the Y and saw a woman stop, look at a faucet left running by the last person, and move on, without touching it, without turning it off, into a stall. I stepped out of the stall I'd just stepped into and turned it off. How could I not? How could she not have? As I parent and just as a person, living in the world, I wish there was an easy answer to how to teach the lesson of attentiveness, of taking responsibility for things, of going the extra half-step to do something, even when you don't have to, even when no one is going to make you.

I left the gym and ran into a friend, a fellow parent at my sons' school, who began talking as if she was reading my mind.

"I'm trying to get the school to give homework on the weekend," she said, "because my son won't go beyond what he has to do, won't read on the weekend if he doesn't have to, and I'm worried. I tell him all the time, 'you don't want to be dumb and beautiful.'"

I laughed. Her son, at 9, is a successful model, his sweet innocent face found on the pages of major magazines in ads and fashion spreads my kids come upon excitedly. He is no dummy, either, putting together intricate Lego ships with rapt attention, for hours at a time.

"It's funny," I said. "I was just thinking about this, about what actually makes people learn to try hard. But I don't think it's our desires, our demands that make them learn. I think, somehow, we have to give them their own selfish reasons for doing it."

I imbued some teachings from the Torah. I know, can you believe it? My faith usually rests more in flying insects, but it is the High Holidays after all, and for the first time ever, I was asked, as a member of my extremely open, fabulous temple, to look at a verse from a prayer with my older son and share thoughts on it at services.

The verse was the V'ahavta, which, loosely translated from Hebrew into English, means "And you shall love God..."

The Rabbi, a fabulous and insightful woman whose own gay lifestyle and non-Jewish partner gives her a wider take on things than some other religious leaders might have, asked us to question how we might feel about being demanded to do something that it might seem more appropriate to come to ourselves, to decide on our own. She had offered some thoughts, some teachings she had found, that suggested that by following other verses, such as "love thy neighbor as thyself..." and "love strangers as thyself," we might more naturally come to our own faith in God.

As I discussed this with my son, it occurred to me so clearly: Wow! That is exactly what giving out gold stars does for me! As I think about the efforts of others, neighbors and strangers alike, as I take a moment out of my own internal world to reward them, it gives me faith, faith in myself, faith in others, faith in the universe and, though I don't often imbue the G word, faith in some sort of higher power.

I shared this story with my friend in regard to her situation, in regard to getting her son to try harder.

"So, you don't think my screaming at him all the time will work?" she asked sarcastically when I finished my rant.

"No, probably not," I laughed. "It's hard, though."

She stared intently at me. "So this gold star thing, this is like a new religion?!"

"Absolutely!" I said. "Actually, it's just like all religions are, how they should be, how they begin, as a movement, to make people think."

As I enthused, I began to worry. My new film-producer friend had told me about a whole slew of people stuck in mental asylums in Jerusalem, having come there because they thought they were Jesus. Part of the therapy was to introduce them to one another, "Jesus, meet Jesus," the psychiatrists would say.

The story had hit a little too close to home. A friend and I who hung around a lot, talking and walking, thinking our deep conversations might change the world, used to get into scuffles when one or the other got too high and mighty. "OK, Jesus," one of us would say. "No, you think you're Jesus," the other would most often respond.

For the record, I don't think I'm Jesus, don't desire to be. But I have been wanting to buy a cross lately, just for fashion sake. You never quite know why some things start to look more appealing. Hmmm. WWJD?

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