Practicing Parents

Practicing Light in the Midst of Darkness

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Earlier this week I was surprised to hear an NPR reporter refer to “random acts of kindness” at the scene of the Boston bombing. I had to think that if ever there was a situation where kindness must be direct and intentional, it would probably be at the scene of a bombing.

Perhaps the reporter was simply using a common phrase out of habit; or in the midst of a random act of violence, trying to reclaim the phrase and lend it a more positive association.
For me, the phrase hinted at a tendency we as humans have of lending more affirmation to the dark things of this world, and of ourselves, than to the good and to the light.

As I understand it, affirmation can occur with or without condoning a certain behavior. I don’t have to agree with a terrorist attack to affirm its core characteristics.

It is frightening.

It is abhorrent.

It is hard to live in the tension-filled space of knowing that by virtue of being random, it could just as easily happen again.

It is unnerving not to know if it can be prevented from happening again.

You can see by these affirmative statements the power we have lent to an act of terror. They are valid; but now we are out of balance. The scale tips ever lower under the unbelievable weight of an evil deed.

Friends, I believe we have the power to tip the scale. Consider- what capacity for goodness have you affirmed in yourself lately? In others? Do you affirm the capacity within yourself to love? To be compassionate? To do the right thing, when it really counts?

My young violin students have come to recognize the glint in my eye when they reveal an achievement of skill. The first moment it happens is a pure thrill for me- I make a big to-do. The child is proud and happy because they have performed a skill correctly, and I reward them with the requisite pats on the head.  But my happiness comes from knowing they have done something much, much more rewarding and much, much more powerful. I look them in the eye and tell them, “You have just done an amazing thing. You have shown me what you are capable of; and you have just permitted me to expect it of you from now on. And now you are able to move forward even further!”

This usually is followed with a groan or twinge of feigned regret, but also with smiles because we are celebrating not only an achievement, but proof of the unlimited achievements to come. The way is being prepared.

I can’t help but wonder if this affirmation, this expectation of ourselves and of each other isn’t an important part of what we truly need in times such as these. What would the world be like if we, in the same breath, affirmed the capacity of goodness in each other and made compassionate kindness the norm by expecting it every time? What if we treated generosity of spirit as a discipline, where (like generosity of wealth) the act of graciously giving and of receiving are both required?

Too often we treat witnessing or participating in acts of kindness amidst the chaos of violence as salve on a grieved and embittered wound. But what if we treated it- or rather, used it- as preventative medicine? Even the admirable Fred Rogers remembers being encouraged as a child to look for the helpers in scary situations, and it’s a good place to start. This affirmation starts tipping the scale. But it’s not enough.

Every week I spend time in front of my little 45-lb bundles of evidence, showing me with tiny violins and larger-than-life imaginations that human potential is surprising, and vast. The daily discipline of those experiences makes me crazy enough to believe this societal scale-tipping is possible. I learned early on (from a 4 year old, no less) to never, ever limit human potential with negative presumptions or assumptions. When I step back and create the space for possibility to become reality, when I allow it to be, I am very rarely disappointed.

That space can be scary. It’s vulnerable, and it can feel very much like the space between us that invites the possibility for violence and hate. And it’s an important element in compassion to recognize our common human capacity for good and evil.

But I think much more than any phrase or term, we need to be reclaiming that space; the space that affirms and expects the very best out of ourselves and each other, because we believe and know we are capable of it. When we achieve this, the reward is proof of the possibility and the knowledge that even more is yet to come.

For my students, a great deal of practice, instruction and immersion in music is the fertile soil that makes their achievement possible. So let our families be places of practice, instruction and immersion in the Spirit so that we may bear its fruit: Love, joy, peace, patience. Kindness, goodness, faithfulness. Gentleness and self control.

Let us own and build on the strength of our humanity, rather than its weakness.

–Laura Knightly is a Suzuki violin teacher living in Philadelphia, PA, where she is a member of Germantown Mennonite Church.
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2 thoughts on “Practicing Light in the Midst of Darkness

  1. it is precisely because of the expectation of filling the space you speak of that some people never live up to the expectation of greatness, either out of laziness (expectation of hard work) or fear (what will happen if they can’t ever fill that space).

    • So true. I consider most of my job as a teacher to be figuring out how to make hard work become life-giving, rewarding, and not so daunting; and how to make a safe environment for filling the space. (I think part of what makes it a safe place is that mistakes are allowed). And once/if I get those in place, the real practice can begin. But if I take my expectation away, the practice loses its goal, I think, and lacks a certain meaning.

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