inspiration 2 : what you wish to experience, provide for another

I first conceived of this week’s mission as a kindness “assignment” back in September, 2001. I was offering an online version of my original kindness class, what I call “The Practice of Kindness.” Per usual, the first week’s assignment was to do something kind for yourself. A couple of days after sending out that assignment, the attacks of September 11th took place. So here I was, trying to facilitate an online class on the subject of kindness for dozens of people located all over the world. As you undoubtedly recall, that week and those that followed were filled with many confusing emotions, some of them even at odds with each other. Much for myself, I created this theme back then to give me something concrete to do that honored the kind of response I wanted to have to the events of September 11th. And I credit a co-worker for the inspiration.

September 10th, 2001 was the first day of the new year for the school I co-founded with my wife and direct, Puget Sound Community School. We held an all-school overnight that night, meaning we awoke to scattered news of the attacks. We didn’t have Internet access or cell phones then, but an enterprising parent managed to reach his child and in a bit of a panic suggested that Seattle might be a target. Another student located a TV and turned it on, the wall-to-wall news coverage contributing to the confusion and for some students what was fast becoming a very scary situation. I made the decision to turn off the TV and focused on seeing that all the students got home safely. All in all, this wasn’t terribly difficult.

Like most everyone else, I spent the rest of September 11th glued to the TV set trying to make sense of what was happening. I was also trying to imagine how to structure the school day coming up on September 12th. Arriving at school on the 12th, I gathered all the adults present, staff and parents, and offered some guidance to how I wanted the day to unfold. I said that there would be some students who would want to talk about what was going on and I wanted to be sure we provided space for them to do so. And I said that other students would not want to be subjected to such conversation and we needed to provide space for them. I told the adults that they were all welcome to stay but they had to be present in a loving, supportive way. That meant that I did not want them adding to any fears the students may already be having, nor, worse, creating new ones. If a student asked a question, I told them to answer it honestly and factually. “‘I don’t know,'” is an honest and factual answer to provide a child when you don’t know an answer,” I said. “Don’t make things up or guess at answers.” I also told the adults to trust their own instincts for possible things to do.

Under these guidelines, we had a brief morning meeting with the students. Collectively, activities emerged. We had access to a gym so gym games emerged, thus providing an all-day physical outlet for students who wanted to simply play and not think about world events. We had access to a private conference room in which conversations about world events could take place, all questions being welcome. But the most meaningful activity emerged from the desire of one of the members of the school staff, a man named Dave, to be doing something proactively kind and loving. He had learned that an Afghani man named Wali, the owner of an Afghanistan restaurant a couple of blocks away from where we were meeting, had received threatening telephone calls. Dave offered to show this man support by being present at his restaurant during the day. Students received permission from their parents to accompany Dave. As the day unfolded, the group cleaned up outside of the restaurant, which Wali decided to keep closed during the day, thus providing a physical presence of support. Dave talked with Wali and convinced him to open the restaurant for dinner, and then members of our school community filled it to capacity the night of September 12th. It was an incredible outpouring of support, engineered by Dave’s desire to do something positive for himself.

This was the event that inspired the creation of this particular “assignment,” which became the focus of the second week of that kindness class back in 2001. I’ve offered it a handful of times in my kindness classes since then. Of all the themes I’ve offered, it has generated the most confusion, maybe even angst, among kindness class participants. One past participant voiced her confusion this way, “So, I have found this homework puzzling. What do I want… World peace? If I could give that I would be going to Oslo. $10,000? If I could give that, I wouldn’t want it myself.”

I offer her comments here to provide a voice for any of you who may be feeling the same way now. In response, I want to encourage you to look for other interpretations of this week’s mission, perhaps those that may sound simple or even superficial. For instance, if you want world peace, providing a moment of peace for someone contributes to world peace. And if you want to experience wealth in monetary terms, giving a child a small amount of money may achieve the same thing $10,000 would achieve for you.

In terms of inspiration, perhaps you can take time to turn back the clock to September 11, 2001 and think about your own thought process and what you did in response to the events of that day. To assist this process, consider these words written by William Sloane Coffin and published in The Nation on January 12, 2004 under the heading “Despair is Not an Option:”

We will respond, but not in kind. We will not seek to avenge the death of innocent Americans by the death of innocent victims elsewhere, lest we become what we abhor. We refuse to ratchet up the cycle of violence that brings only ever more death, destruction and deprivation. What we will do is build coalitions with other nations. We will share intelligence, freeze assets and engage in forceful extradition of terrorists if internationally sanctioned. (We will) do all in (our) power to see justice done, but by the force of law only, never the law of force.”

Lastly, to see the concept of this week’s mission spread throughout a community, take a look at this video about the residents Gander, Newfoundland in Canada who found themselves hosting thousands of stranded airline passengers beginning on September 11, 2001. There is an even better one, much longer, told by Tom Brokaw, that aired during the Olympics in 2010. If you can find a link to it, please share it with me.

3 thoughts on “inspiration 2 : what you wish to experience, provide for another

  1. Hi Andy,
    Your comment “What were you thinking and doing on September 12, 2001” provoked me to find the document I wrote about life with 4-year-olds the day after the attacks, below. Thanks for bringing me back to that remarkable time.

    September 12th, 2001

    Today many Sunlight kids had more information than they did yesterday about the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Following the advice of colleagues and other early childhood experts, I wanted to offer children a chance to share what they knew. I began our morning meeting with a very open-ended question, and offered each child a chance to speak if she or he wanted to.

    I quite purposefully did not add information to the children’s comments, or correct their conception of the events. The point of this meeting was not to create anxiety or inform children about the disasters. Rather, this was purely a chance for them to speak what was on their minds, and then move on with their day. It was clear from the conversation that most of the class had seen pictures on television, and/or talked with their families about what happened. Here’s a transcription of the meeting, which I tape-recorded.

    Sarah: I’m curious if any kids have heard something about airplanes crashing?

    RuthMabel: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

    Sarah: Is there anyone that wants to say a little bit about that before we make work plans?

    Tayla, RuthMabel, and many others: Me! Me!

    Sarah: You know what I’ll do? I’ll start with RuthMabel, and I’ll just go around and I’ll check with each kid. If you want to say something about it, you can. If you don’t want to say anything, that’s fine, but sometimes it helps to just tell a little bit what you’re thinking about.

    RuthMabel: An airplane crashed into the building. Carlo told me. And the people was running away from the dust, and some of the workers that were putting out the fire even got hurt. And my mom couldn’t go to work because it smashed on the building that she sometimes goes to – Piper Jaffray in Yew Nork. Sometimes she has to go to Piper Jaffrey in Yew Nork, and that building crashed onto it, so Mama couldn’t go to work.

    Jesse: A building crashed onto…the plane crashed onto it, and the firemen even got hurt.

    Katie: Kind of from the bedroom I could see two planes crash into each other, and then they were landing down and I kept seeing things like “zoop, zoop, zoop, zoop” all over the place, and I kept wondering, are those the people getting off?

    Viva: The plane crashed into a building, and I saw it on a TV, and they found some people in the building. When the plane crashed into it, all the people on the plane got killed.

    Quinn: In Myrna’s class I saw a book with my daddy, and I saw the airplane like this and the building crashed up into little pieces. And on TV I see a car crashed into a building.

    Sarah: I noticed in Rainbow Room this morning that you were reading a book about firefighters with your dad. Is that the book you’re thinking of?
    Quinn: Yeah.

    Tayla: My dad told me that all the people… My Susie lives in that state of New York, and that was her building, and she lived in the building. And that’s good that she was not there in her building, because she was on a trip. Isn’t that keeshy?

    Sarah: What’s “keeshy?”

    Tayla (giggling): A word. And all the people died in the building, and my dad told me there were people waiting at the airport so long. The airplane crashed into a building, and all part of the building there was fire comed out.

    RuthMabel: Yeah, fire, yeah, I saw that on the TV.

    Tayla: And some firemen got died. Did you know that? From the fire.

    Adam: Because they went inside the building.

    Quinn: Sometimes they wear something so if fire comes on their bodies they wouldn’t get burned.

    Adam: I wish the firemen weared masks on.

    Tayla: They wore their masks on – I saw on TV. When they were going back, they were so tired, and people can’t wait forever to get their flight. They wait for very long, very, very, very long. But they can’t, so all of them went back home.

    Jaeger: A airplane crashed into that building on TV, and then it crashed into the road. And there were fires in that building, and the people got hurt from fire. And they were firefighters, and they were have a gun to shoot those firemen.

    Peter: One time on TV, when I was at my grandpa and grandma’s house, a plane crashed into the road where they take off, and the wheels came off.

    Sarah: Thanks for telling your words about that. You know it’s fine to talk to your teachers about it if you’re worried or if you’re upset. And I just want to tell you that we’ll keep you safe here at school. Your moms and dads will keep you safe at home, and your teachers will keep you safe here at school.

    I ended our meeting there, and kids made work plans and went on with their day. I was glad to see that they jumped right into play, seemingly glad to engage in the familiar rituals of sand and water play, drawing and dressing up, and all the other activities that fill a day at school. I must admit, I was grateful for the normality, as well. We had a pleasant and playful day here, which truly feels like a blessing.

    • I hope lots and lots of people read the above comment from Sarah, an obviously gifted teacher, on what SHE was doing on September 12th, 2001. Makes me wonder about those 4 year-olds now. Today they’re 15. What might they remember, if anything, about that day? And if they remember nothing about it, I think that may well be the best tribute to Sarah (and others) who helped them at age 4 have “a pleasant and playful day” after getting a chance to talk about what they heard and saw.

  2. Tonight I reached out to a friend to share how I felt lonely, something I have not done. I risked being rejected, and I was received. She then shared some challenging things in her heart and from the place in my heart that was hurting, I gave to her, in a small way, what I wanted to receive.

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