I learned from a friend recently that the most common phrase (command?) in the bible is “Do not be afraid.” Yet, how many of our decisions are based on fear? Fear of what others will think, fear of whether we are making the right decision, fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of doing the wrong thing crosses our minds daily. Notice these are not big fears like fear of dying, fear of zombies, fear of snakes or spiders. They are simply every day fears that cause anxiety.
Another friend of mine shared her concerns that many churches she has attended left her feeling sad and anxious. Their message tended to be about the sin in each of us and how we can’t get to heaven through our good works and essentially, we are all doomed to hell, so what’s the point? Why not just die and get it over with? The church my sister goes to has a different message, or at least a different presentation of the same message, in that yes, we are all a bunch of screw ups, but Jesus died to take care of all of that. We just have to admit that we are a bunch of screw ups and accept him as our savior.
The divinity issue gets in the way for me, but in my studies of Buddhism, psychology and now educational philosophy, I’m beginning to take a different type of message from Christ’s sacrifice. The sacrifice was to relieve us of our worry, fear and anxiety. Essentially, He said, “Look, we’re all screw ups. We’ll continue to be screw ups. It’s gonna happen. We can’t change all of that. But through my sacrifice, I’m just saying you don’t have to worry about it anymore, about heaven and hell. I’m taking care of that. All you have to do is go out and love each other. That’s it. Everything else is all good.”
The overarching message is simply “Do not be afraid or anxious or worry about the hereafter, just go out and love one another.” It’s that simple. Live in love for each other, for everyone, for the beggars and the rich, for the lepers and the doctors, for the gays and the straights. If everyone simply loved one another in the unselfish and forgiving way that Jesus modeled, we would all be fine. That’s not to say that there would be no suffering. That cannot be avoided. But we have to change the way we react to things. We have to react to suffering with compassion. Only through that compassion can we get a more accurate perception of the causes of that suffering.
Instead, we react with fear and anger to the person who cuts us off in traffic, to the lazy bum on the street corner, to the rebellious kids in our classrooms. And through our own fear and anger, we model behavior to those around us, in particular our kids. Despite the command “do not be afraid”, we threaten “One, two….don’t make me get to three”; “Wait until your father gets home!”; “I brought you into this world, I can take you out!” “You’re gonna get a spanking!” We react without thinking in a manner we deem expedient. It provides a short term solution through power and inspiration of fear. We react without compassion, and out of fear of losing control, of giving up power and our children not learning right from wrong and our fear of what will happen to them if they don’t. We react from our initial perception of events without considering the root causes of the issue or another perception. We inspire fear and obedience rather than love and understanding.
Here is where Buddhism, educational psychology and democratic free schools and the true meaning of Christ’s message all kind of come together for me. Through Buddhism and probably other factors in my life, I tend now to take a step back from adversity, and I try to examine its causes. Instead of reacting angrily to a kid who’s causing trouble in class, I try to figure out what’s causing his behavior, even though an expedient expulsion from the classroom might help the class get back on track more quickly, but what is the long term message to the offender and to the class as a whole. And what of Christ’s message “whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you also do unto me”? What do I do to the rest of the class when I use power and authority to expediently solve my short term problem, rather than responding compassionately? What do we do to society in general?
Of the many correlates of achievement I learned in graduate school one of the most significant was the effect of socio-economic status. Psychology and sociology tell us that families of lower statuses tend to have rules and enforce them with no explanation; that is authoritarian parenting. In the context of the above, then it seems that rules are enforced from power and authority without regard to the needs of the child, without compassion or understanding. “Do what I say because I am the father/mother/authority figure!” No explanation is necessary. (here is where I have problems with the old testament) What I am beginning to understand now is that provides only short term help. It actually inhibits self-regulation later in life, and self-regulation is turning out to be a key predictor of academic success.
Granted the lens through which I view the world is necessarily slanted. But it seems that the modern world of social, and educational psychology and the great religions are all coming together for me to present a picture of a world in which compassion, rather than fear and power and competition, should be the driving force.
A.S. Neill theorized that the democratic free school which he founded, Summerhill, creates fearless kids, who know themselves and who can make good choices because they have learned self-regulation by being free. Power and authority at the school are in the hands of the kids themselves, rather than the adults. The rules are written by children, enforced by children and breaches are adjudicated by children. The adults are there as equal partners. They are trusted by the children because they wield no power.
So, given freedom and surrounded by compassionate adults, children grow up to be fearless, comfortable in their own skins, and achieve success in business, non-profit work, academia, law and medicine. This seems to be a good end goal for our schools. In fact it is the confluence of the messages of the wisdom religions and modern social, developmental, educational psychology that lead me to believe that democratic free schools might cure much of what ails our nation.