Kyra Shaughnessy

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The Number One Way To Raise Environmentally Conscious Kids

” Your deepest roots are in nature.  No matter who you are, where you live, or what kind of life you lead, you remain irrevocably linked with the rest of creation. “

Charles Cook

Lest there be any doubt, let me first acknowledge that humans are part of nature. In talking about “nature connection” we’re talking about connecting to the rest of nature, as well as to our own natures. It’s important to make sure we’re all on the same page about this. The human-nature division has been embedded in our written histories, our language(s) and our minds for long enough that we may need to keep reminding ourselves every now and then that it is an illusion. As you go through this course, please be aware that when we talk about “nature,” we’re also talking about people!

Changing our perception of nature as something that’s “out there,” separate from us and our built environments, is another piece of thinking that could use some tweaking (speaking of “shifting paradigms”). Awareness of our belonging to the web of life is essential if we want to create healthy, regenerative cultures. I’ll explain some of the reasons why further on.

I know some of us are just trying to deal with day-to-day challenges and that thinking about large-scale cultural and social change may seem overwhelming or unimportant compared to the struggles we’re facing personally. That’s perfectly valid. But whether we’re thinking on a macro or micro scale, the way we lead our lives has an impact. We may not always be aware of the ripple effect our actions and choices have. Just by being conscious of interconnection we create subtle change in those around us. We walk in the world, and experience life, in a completely different way.

Why is Nature Connection Such an Important Part of Learning?

“Believe one who knows: you will find something greater in woods than in books.  Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters.”

Saint Bernard de Clairvaux

You may be wondering why I consider nature connection as a core principle of learning. You may, on the other hand, already have your own ideas as to why it is, or isn’t. Maybe these ideas will all be pretty familiar to you, but sometimes it can be helpful to have an outside reminder.

Where do I begin? Let’s start at the personal level. Connection to the rest of nature has been acknowledged as essential to our health and happiness…pretty much for as long as we’ve existed. Have you ever experienced a sense of total wellbeing and joy just from turning your face towards the sun and feeling its warmth on a cool day? Or found yourself calmed by the sound of a stream burbling over stones? Have you ever sat looking out over a distant horizon and felt your mind suddenly clear of all preoccupying thoughts? These are some of the simplest aspects of nature connection.

It’s also in those types of moments that we connect to our own natures. When we connect to nature outside ourselves, we are able to tap into that “center within” – to the peace and grounding that we sometimes forget in the rush of daily living. It’s as if what’s essential in us is reflected back by the natural world.

For more traditional cultures, whether humans are part of nature has never even posed a question. Humans developed alongside all the other living beings on the planet, so obviously we are all connected. Our daily lives used to include rituals and practices directly related to the rest of life on earth. For many nowadays this is no longer the case, and so it may seem less clear to us that we are ultimately connected to the whole web of life.

More emphasis has been placed on “nature connection” as a concept (as opposed to a commonplace part of everyday life) in recent centuries since we actually allowed ourselves to become disconnected. Various forms of documentation in just about every field of study, from spiritual to scientific, have been produced on the subject. Groups are popping up all over the globe teaching regenerative design, nature connection, permaculture, rites of passage…People seem to be starving for earth-based experiences and wisdom.

For the empirical proof-oriented of you, more and more scientific studies are coming out on the positive effects of “nature connection” on human wellbeing. Research is being done on the effect that being able to see trees through hospital windows can have on recovery time (see: Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being by Esther Sternberg), on the decrease in violent behaviour in people taken on wilderness excursions, on the healing of mental illness through nature retreats, etc., etc.

We could say that what is finally being recognized is the fact that we are sensual beings. Our connection to the living world is directly linked to our level of sensitivity – in other words, our ability to tap into our senses. As Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue puts it:

“A renewal, indeed, a complete transfiguration of your life, can come through attention to your senses. Your senses are the guides to take you deep into the inner world of your heart. The greatest philosophers admit that to a large degree all knowledge comes through the senses. The senses are our bridges to the world. “

If we can agree that “all knowledge comes through our senses”, then we can see the importance of being acutely aware of them. Full sensory awareness is unfortunately not a focus of most institutional education these days. And yet, it seems so fundamental to our development as healthy, happy humans! It is, in fact, part of our nature to be aware and connected to the world around us through our senses. This is why nature connection is one of the core principles of learning.

From Interconnection to Stewardship

“…the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.”

Wendell Berry

On top of the basic common “sense” of nature connection (pun intended), it’s also what allows us to step into a role of stewardship. What I mean by stewardship is the desire and ability to take care of nature as a whole, to live in respect of “natural principles,” and to pass those skills and wisdom on. This implies an intimate knowledge of the world around us. After all, it’s only by knowing something and loving it that we can truly care for its needs. Learning to know and love the earth and passing that connection on to our children and those around us is absolutely essential to any scale of change we may want to see happen in the world.

As author and journalist George Monbiot aptly puts it in a recent article, “Most of those I know who fight for nature are people who spent their childhoods immersed in it. Without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world, without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection.” (for full article see monbiot.com)

Indeed, how are we to learn to love and care for something if we don’t really know it much or at all? Why would we even want to be in contact with “nature” if we haven’t grown up learning it’s intrinsic worth and direct impact on our lives?

Where do We Go to Find “Nature”?

“You didn’t come into this world.  You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean.  You are not a stranger here. ”                                                               

Alan Watts

Nature is all around us and within us, as we have discussed above. We can connect to ourselves as part of nature in any little moment of noticing or pause—when we feel the wind on our faces, or appreciate the colour of new grown leaves or the smell of freshly cut grass. These are things that ground us by bringing us back to our senses. “Finding” or accessing nature is mostly about figuring out how to increase our awareness of those simple things and allow them to penetrate the buzz of otherwise chaotic lifestyles and environments.

At the same time, while being able to see and connect to nature around and within us, no matter what our environment, is definitely a skill worth developing, there’s also something hugely beneficial about being immersed in non-urban landscapes. For many city kids (or adults!) their first trip “out” is completely transformative – and no wonder! Within city limits we are bombarded with sensory input. Whether or not we notice it, our systems are severely overstimulated. Constant noise, constant smells and low air quality, unavoidable flashing screens and lights, electromagnetic waves from radio and cell phone transmitters…We can adapt to anything, even learn to love it, but our bodies still appreciate when they get a break.

Before living in the city as a teen I never understood why people would always collapse and sleep for three days when they arrived at our family home in middle-of-nowhere Quebec. Well, now I get it, because the same thing happens to me. My nervous system reacts immediately to being able to actually relax when I get out of Montreal (where I now often live). Then I actually start to feel the accumulated exhaustion that I’ve been holding at bay with coffee and adrenaline. The same pattern has been visible in every one of the hundreds of people I’ve seen come through my mother’s retreat center where I grew up.

What I’m saying is that there’s a lot of talk about accepting that we live in an increasingly urbanized and populated world, and yes, that’s important. If we do live in a city, and especially if we don’t have any easy access to wilderness, we need to learn how to connect as deeply as possible to the land we’re on. There is so much to learn about the places we live! The names of trees and birds, where our water comes from, where the predominant winds come from, who were the people that were here before us…there is a wealth of exploration to be done, wherever you are! Learning these things is like learning a person’s name. Suddenly they’re not just another face in the crowd. They gain personality – an inch more of closeness every time you cross paths. You start to care about them, perhaps. This is often how “connection” starts to develop.

That being said, if there’s any way at all that you can find windows to wander outside of city limits, do it! Especially if you’re starting a learning journey with kids involved! In an ideal world, we all have time to wander and wonder and play outdoors (speaking of which, after typing this paragraph I happened upon an article in a recent Washington Post called The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory issues”.  Hmmm….).

Three Paradigm Shifts That Will Change Your Approach to Learning

“When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge”  

Tuli Kupferberg    

What are some of the key paradigms, or ways of thinking and seeing the world, that need to shift in order for us to view learning differently? Are we recreating patterns in our children and in ourselves that we would rather change? How do we get to the root of these patterns when they’re so deeply anchored and hard to pin down?

Paradigm shifting is about taking a magnifying glass to all those beliefs and “ways of doing things” that we take for granted. It’s about stepping into the role of observer and saying “this is what I’ve learned to believe and why I was taught to believe it…does it still serve me?” It’s about welcoming in new perspectives that might actually make more sense for the lives we want to create. In this section of the course we’re going to look briefly at the “how” and “why,” but we’re also going to go over three major paradigms that, if shifted, will change your entire perspective on learning and teaching.

kids looking out over water

What You Need to Know If You Want to Break Your Patterns

“We sense that ‘normal’ isn’t coming back, that we are being born into a new normal: a new kind of society, a new relationship to the earth, a new experience of being human.”

Charles Eisenstein

The first step in “shifting paradigms” is taking a look at what we’re already carrying in terms of learned patterns. What are some of those invisible beliefs that influence the choices and actions we take in the world? Of course everyone’s background is slightly different, but there are a few major themes that most of us have in common given the recent history of the human species.

For many generations we have learned that “life is hard”. Ancestors uprooted from the land through war, famine and forced or chosen migration, women and men who lived through the rapid-pace upheaval of industrialization and globalization…Institutionalized religions worldwide have preached the gospel of earthly suffering until it has become ingrained deep in our bones. We are in an era of massive, constant change.

There are multiple reasons why what I like to call “The Passion Approach” is not the standard norm yet. On a family scale, people have learned for many centuries that conformity is the only sure way to survive – veering from the path laid by society is often still frowned upon. Sticking out is not encouraged. Security is of primary importance and the only way to ensure it is by following the rules. Go to school, then get a well-paying, stable job and have a family. Of course this path can be great if it’s what makes your heart sing or feels like your true life trajectory! But for a lot of people it’s a default, or worse, a “choice” forced upon them by family and society. We’re told to buy into consumerism, wear the right clothes and measure success in material wealth and vacation time.

Believing that doing what we’re passionate about will lead to true self-fulfillment and service in the world is (i.e. making the world a better place for everyone, in whatever small way)…well…I don’t know, are you, like, a total flaky new age hippie? (To quote some folks who shall remain nameless…)

Secondly, the fact is that the current social order is based on exploitation. “Woah! That’s a little extreme don’t you think?” Not really. Whether or not we feel directly “exploited”, there’s no denying that on a global scale, capitalist consumerism is fueled by low-cost labor, class inequality, etc. To connect this back to learning and learning models, the institutionalization of education came hand-in-hand with industrialization – as a way of mass-manufacturing employees, among other things.

As a result, people have been being taught to obey, to be submissive and to fit inside “the box” ever since the inception of the current standard learning model (and, on many other levels, preceding that…). For the most part, creative thinking is discouraged and physical needs and nature connection are ignored. What I’m trying to get at here is that there is a HUGE system that is benefiting from us giving up our power and living in a mode of constant fear.

But things are changing. More and more people are shifting from a paradigm based in fear to one nourished by an awareness of interconnection. If you’re lucky, your parents already did some of the work of wading through ancestral beliefs and trauma so you could be free to walk a different path.

How Passion Can Change the World 

“If we are ever going to see a paradigm shift,                                                                                                        we have to be clear about how we want the present paradigm to shift. ”     

Gary L. Fancione

Once we’re aware of the inherited beliefs and patterns that influence us, we can consciously choose whether or not to repeat them. From there we can start asking ourselves other questions. What would the world look like if we lived in cultures that enabled and supported people in following their passions?

One response I’ve gotten: “that’s fine for you, but if everyone did that there’d be no more employees! Things would shut down! ” Ermmm….the problem being? Oh right. Society would change drastically, everything would have to scale down and the people on top would have less income and less power while we rebuilt a world that met the needs of the majority. Shucks.

All of these slightly more “edgy” statements aside, this is a question that I ask myself daily. How do we create cultures in which people feel supported in following their calling? It all starts with the patterns and beliefs that we instill in people while they’re young or, some would have it, even from conception and gestation! Ergo, all this talk of beliefs and heritage. And yes, let us acknowledge right off the bat that being in a position of no longer worrying about ones basic survival, to the point of being able to focus fully on personal evolution and fulfillment, is indeed a huge “privilege,” in a certain sense. Only I believe that if systemic issues of social injustice were addressed more directly most humans could potentially be in this position, given the surplus (yes, surplus) of resources and technology available today. But that’s a whole other can of worms!

Shifting the prevalent paradigm means learning to look beyond imposed limitations to our highest potential as individuals and as a collective. It means being an example of living a truly meaningful, authentic life. It means mentoring the next generation through the hurdles of self-discovery and growth. It means creating space in our hearts and minds for new ways of being and doing. It especially means tapping into the innate curiosity, wonder and wisdom of all humans beings!

#1) “The Passion Approach”: Natural Learning

All this background is great, but what if I’ve already thought about all this stuff? How do I move out of observation into actual, concrete change? One of the first things we need to look at is a new way of viewing and experiencing learning!

There’s a huge amount of material out there about the philosophies of “natural learning,” “life learning,” “unschooling,” “homeschooling,” etc. If you’re looking for a ton of reading material, a great resource is the A.E.R.O. website at: www.educationrevolution.org

For this course, I’m going to try to summarize some of the perspectives we can use to orient this whole new learning journey.

The Passion Approach is basically about creating learning environments where inspiration, wonder and curiosity are what drive the process. No more force-fed lessons, no more authority dictating the “right” way to approach a subject. There are just two fundamental principles:

  1. People of any age are natural learners.
  2. People of any age have valid interests, questions and desires worth pursuing.

Consider what that really means. It means that your five-year-old wanting to spend two hours hanging out in the dirt checking out the daisies is as important as your burning desire for them to spend time learning how to read and write. It means if they don’t want to do math, there might be a reason other than laziness or “lack of focus”.

When we are allowed to follow the lead of our curiosity, we inevitably take in huge amounts of information and acquire valuable skills. When we are forced to memorize or integrate things we don’t see the point in, the process is often excruciating! Context is key. Think of some of the things you clearly remember learning as a child or young adult that you still use in your life. Chances are you learned or discovered those things in a context that felt meaningful to you. Whether it was a particularly inspiring teacher, a nature adventure or an older friend sharing a couple gems of wisdom, things usually stick with us because they feel relevant to our lives in some way.

The outcome of shifting to passion-driven learning is that more people will reach adulthood with enthusiasm for life, a sense of self-worth and personal purpose.

What would some of the impacts be if there were suddenly more creative, engaged adults in the world? It’s true; there would certainly be less folks willing to spend their lives as menial employees.  There would also almost definitely be more entrepreneurs and more people with the creative thinking needed to effect positive change and find solutions to the large issues facing us as a global community today. On a smaller scale, being in touch with your passion and creativity means being in touch with your heart. Being in touch with your heart means feeling empathy and compassion, which generally means treating other humans and other beings with care. Sound like a recipe for a better world to you? ‘Cause it does to me.

When we take this into consideration – shifting from learned patterns to ones that reflect our true values and selves and seeing passion and curiosity as the driving force of actual learning — it becomes clear that creating our own learning models is a gift to the world at large. I like to think that in doing so we become “ambassadors of possibility”.  We model a way of being where authenticity and integrity are top priorities in everything we do! As such, we – and our children – will be able to inspire others to shift their thinking and lives towards doing and being their highest selves.

#2) The “Anything is Possible” Principle  

“Anything is possible as long as you have the passion.”

Guy Forget

Another key principle of the “passion approach” is the idea that anything is possible. There is no dream too big. For some people this can mean a huge shift of perspective, but it really is something worth working on. Passing this on as a baseline attitude about life can have an enormous impact on our kids. Balanced with a healthy non-attachment to outcome, and openness to plans shifting, it opens up possibilities we can’t even imagine! I’ll return to this whole concept of non-attachment to outcome a bit later on in the course, so don’t’ panic if this seems like a totally foreign concept to you…

Feeling that anything is possible allows us to become who we really are. Without this fundamental vision of things, we get caught in a game of self-sabotage and aborted idea(l)s. “What I really want to do is X, but it would never work…” When prodded further as to why their dreams are totally unfeasible, the response is usually “just…because…” or “the world doesn’t work that way.” The number of times I’ve heard this from fully grown, generally optimistic adults is unbelievable.

To me this just goes to show how hard it can be to dislodge our learned beliefs in limitations! Self-realization is sooo much easier when we have models to show us that living our dreams is actually possible! Who is going to do that for the next generations if not you and me?

#3) Letting Go of “Power Over”?

“The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.”

Mahatma Ghandi

The third big piece of this whole approach to learning is being able to let go of “power over.” I touched on this a tiny bit earlier on but it’s worth a bit more exploration. It’s pretty much accepted in a most cultures that parents “have to” control their children.

The only “hic” here is that it’s really hard to respect the choices and free will of another person if we believe we fundamentally have authority over them. It’s almost inevitable that this sense of “power over” will get in the way of non-institutional learning, unless you are able to be aware of it. How many arguments arise between parents and kids simply because parents think their way is always the “right” way? When you get into an argument with someone, be they a child or not, try checking in with yourself about whether there’s an actual practical reason behind what you are insisting must be done, or whether it’s just become about “who’s going to win?” Is there an actual reason why your daughter needs to eat NOW as opposed to in twenty minutes when she feels ready? Maybe there is! Or is it just because you’ve decided now is the time, and her disagreement feels like a threat to your authority?

How do we become collaborators with kids – or anyone else – without our egos getting involved in power struggles?

Letting go of “power over” requires HUGE adjustments to what we’ve learned about parents having to keep their kids “in line”. We learn that a firm, disciplinarian hand is the only way to “make” children behave “properly.” On the other end of the spectrum, we have parents who bow to the whim of their child-gods, creating disturbingly self-absorbed little humans.

Rather than having to choose between these two polarities, neither of which is much fun for kids OR parents, why not rethink the whole picture? What if we didn’t have to be in a relationship of dominance or submission with our kids, or anyone else? What if there were a whole other way of approaching things?

When mutual respect is developed from day one, the need to rebel and act out is much less. This is true at any age and in any context. Power struggles playing out in workplaces are just about as common as in family households – our strategies just change with age! Instead of outright tantrums, we may engage in badmouthing and subtler forms of tension and conflict. All this can be avoided if we shift the dynamics of our human relations so that they are no longer based in hierarchy and dominance. A lot easier said than done, I know. It’s a matter of calling to question just about every aspect of a worldview that’s been around for centuries, that’s deeply anchored in our personal, familial and cultural histories. Sound like fun? Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s get this party started!

Living Our Freedom Together

To me, the title of this post encapsulates the crux of most modern-day existential and relationship dilemma’s. How do we go about balancing this, relatively recent, cultural obsession with  personal freedom with the unavoidable reality of interdependence? How do we deconstruct the belief that being “free” means not letting our choices be influenced by the needs and desires of others?

The Holy “I “

I look around me and I see a palpable struggle going on between the ideology of independence and the age-old values of follow-the-herdism. I see, one the one hand, people convinced that in order to have “healthy” long-term relationships they must sacrifice their own paths, callings and desires. On the other, a movement of dissatisfied, disillusioned, headstrong individuals who “need no one” and cling to the dogma of personal advancement as life’s only goal. Okay, so we’re talking extremes. But basically, that’s what’s going on. We are torn between the oppositional forces of believing we either have to “submit” to lives and choices that negate the self OR reject any thought of compromise and go for the gold, leaving everyone else to eat our dust. (again, there are books written and to be written on just this “self vs. other” dynamic but I’m going to leave it there for the moment….).

When it comes to romantic relationships there is an ever-increasing trend towards seeing relationships and thus, people, as disposable. People don’t want to be “tied down” by relationships. They/we want the diversity of limitless choice. We don’t want to have to compromise…anything…at all…ever. I see this as inextricably linked to both our perceived “failure” of previous relationship models (and yes, a lot of things were pretty shitty in the past, especially for women…but this could start a whooole other very long diatribe) as well as to the pressures of consumerist capitalism. Even those of us aware of the push and pull of these dynamics find ourselves in a bind.

I see the majority of people of my generation flailing around in search of something different…We don’t want to repeat the stories of our parents and grandparents…but we’ve inevitably integrated a slough of beliefs and fears based on the relationships we witnessed around us as children. The demons of ancestral history are wont to rear their ugly heads at the most unexpected and inconvenient moments. I find myself spending a huge amount of time reflecting on, discussing and reading about what could be Possible. Perhaps the pendulum has swung as far as it will go and we are coming back to center. Perhaps many of us are ready to believe in the existence of a middle ground? Perhaps we’re ready to really consider how we can live our freedom together?

What Does Being Free Together Look Like?

If you haven’t gathered as much already, as far as I’m concerned, our intimate relationships are where we live out our most fundamental beliefs and fears. The territory of the heart is rich and fertile ground for both paralyzing neurosis and repetition of old patterns and incredible, exponential growth. The growth part is really great but seeing yourself in full light is at times bloody humiliating…(I say from personal experience!).

Any number of “alternative” relationship models have been being explored by adventurous, idealist, curious, revolutionary and, lets be honest, the occasional escapist, individuals since the beginning of…well human life I would hazard. We just didn’t have to name them until someone created social “norms.” We have polyamory, polygamy, polyandry (yup, there’s actually a name for women having multiple male partners…who’d a thunk it, hm?), open relationships, “swingers”…and the list goes on. Basically, think of your ideal formula and there’s some kind of label to put on it if you should so choose. But this, to me, is aside the point.

The point is that no matter WHAT you choose to practice or to name your type of “relationing” the important piece, or rather, the truly “radical,” transformative part of the process (on both an individual and social level) is that of undoing the layers of conditioning, fears and unconscious dynamics that exist within all of our relationships. It’s about bringing our awareness to how our intimate relationships reflect the values and models we’ve been exposed to….and then doing what it takes to shift towards what really reflects who we are (and the reality that who we are is intimately connected to the rest of Life on earth!). It’s about separating our true selves from our learned selves. It’s about establishing our own limits, and then pushing them.  It’s about bringing the vulnerability of that true self to the table in all it’s glory and awkwardness and being willing to be the one to ask…”May I have this dance?” To truly engage with Life we have to learn how to welcome uncertainty, play, the illusive quest for balance…and constant, cyclical change. It’s much easier to do this by ourselves in an ashram than it is to continue practicing responsible, interconnected freedom in relationship with others. But I think we’re ready to come out of the proverbial closet and start facing each other, honestly.

Living our freedom together is an ideal, to be sure. But it’s an ideal worth shooting for, one we can practice in our daily lives and in our most intimate relationships. It requires accepting people where they’re at. It’s not always fun.It requires a willingness to wade through the bullshit, to be accountable and to be able to laugh at oneself.  But I for one feel ever more strongly that it’s an ideal worth committing to and making a reality. How about you?

 

We Are Leaving: A Nation Of Women With Wings

Bell Hooks puts into words a question I ask myself on the regular: “How do we hold people accountable…and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” In the wake of the Laval University break-ins and the ensuing flurry of emotions (not to mention that just about every day of my life I am in contact with sexual violence of some kind) I feel the need to write…something! 

We Are Leaving…But Who is “We?”

In 2013 I put out my album Waiting for the Light, which included a song called “We Are Leaving.” I wrote the song as way of channeling my sense of powerlessness in the face of many friends (of all genders, though primarily women…) experiences of abusive relationships and sexual violence.  At different times male friends approached me to say that they felt very uncomfortable whenever I would sing that song at my shows because they felt they were being “accused” or pigeon-holed as oppressors by dint of their gender.

Okay. There is a lot to be said there…but to sidestep a bit, my main desire was to have men see that speaking out about sexual violence was NOT equivalent to saying “all men are evil.” Almost the opposite in fact. It’s an attempt at underlining the role we all play in creating the social environments we are part of…it’s just that as far as this specific issue goes, you could say men have a “lead role”. So I started introducing the song differently. “This song is an invitation to people of all genders to leave behind (i.e. no longer participate in or support through silence and inaction) cultures of violence and dominance…”And that’s exactly what I feel is important now…

THIS, this massive exposure of rampant disregard for the sacredness and beauty of human sexuality; THIS, this deeply entrenched toxic relationship to power and freedom as “dominance;” THIS, this total return to zero on how to relate between genders without carrying forward the wounds and damaging patterns of the past; THIS, this culture of sexual aggression that goes unnamed and unchallenged at every level of our social interactions; THIS, this courageous voice that is speaking out in so many forms today across the globe…THIS is an invitation, this is a rallying cry, this is a warrior song telling us we have the CHOICE to participate in perpetuating the current culture or to create, through every day action, a new one. This is an opportunity to live by certain basic standards of respect and to hold ourselves and others accountable. This is an invitation to learn how to dance together again instead of maintaining the divide.

There is no way I can cover the many layers involved in this issue. Any failure to provide a connection between thoughts is just because I could spend my life digging through the rubble of humanity’s struggle with sexual violence. My hope is that this ongoing flood of exposure of sexually violent cultural norms (from the stories of gang rapes in India, to Val d’or and the many Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, to the Jian Gomeshi case, to Donald Trump, to Laval University and on and on…) is the final precursor to some major-scale healing that has been desperately needed (and has been taking place on a small scale) for a very, very long time. 

Why This is not “Just” a “Women’s Issue”

People are starting to talk about the fact that sexual violence is not a “women’s issue,” but everyone’s issue, and perhaps even…a “man’s issue!!!???” Oooh I know, it sounds like the beginning of the blame game. But here’s the thing: this in no way means that all men should walk around feeling paralyzed by guilt and shame for the violence enacted by people of their gender. It simply means that men, as people who can have a whole lot of influence on other men, have an added responsibility and opportunity to create a shift in male culture. As I said above, it’s an invitation….and an urgent one.

It’s unfortunate, but it still has a lot more impact when another man, or ideally several men (wouldn’t that be nice?), calls a dude out for his unsavory behaviors/acts or attitudes. Sure, it’s not easy to be that guy who gets labeled an over-sensitive “pussy” by some for objecting to the normalization of sexual violence, but it’s a worthy challenge and one that will make a huge difference in the lives of everyone, of every gender.

Maybe you’ve heard this all before, but standing up for a culture of respect makes a difference whether or not you have experienced sexual violence directly because we all have partners, families and friends who have been directly affected. In Québec one in three women has experienced some form of sexual aggression  (fact checkers, here a link’s). Think about it. One in three. If you have a hard time believing the stats, I invite you to open the Pandora’s box with female friends and family and see what you discover. I can see why you might not. It’s easier not to believe because it’s not something anyone would want to believe! Plus, it’s not a comfortable subject and we mostly avoid it…which is a big part of why sexual violence continues on such a widespread scale! On the other hand, just about every couple I know, including my own, has had to deal with, or suffer the consequences of ignoring, the scars of sexually violent cultural norms that come up, inevitably, in our intimate relationships.

For myself and other women, we deal regularly with being told to “fuck off” or being labeled an “angry man-hating feminist (oh no, not the F word!)” for objecting, however diplomatically, to sexually violent jokes, films or other media. Yet, whatever peoples responses, I feel validated each time I manage to overcome my fear of rocking the boat. There is a sense of incredible dignity and self-respect that comes with standing up for ones values. There’s a feeling of having stood by the many, many women, men and LGBTQ people I know who have experienced directly the impact and trauma of sexual violence, including myself.

I’m pretty sure that if I wasn’t assaulted by images and stories of male sexual violence, I would feel a heck of a lot more comfortable getting close to people. And I know this is the case for most of my female and LGBTQ friends, at the very least. On the flip side, many of my male friends have at some point brought up feeling that their sexuality as men was being influenced by the sexual violence and pornography they were exposed to for most of their lives…the process of undoing that type of “patterning” is also long, painful and involves a hell of a lot of humility, self-love and willpower. How can we expect ourselves to build healthy, balanced sexual relationships with our partners when the culture we live in bombards us with toxic images of what sexuality means and how we “should” experience it?

While I may be emphasizing the importance of men’s role here, it’s implicit that people of all genders have a responsibility to change the social culture surrounding sexual violence. And yes, perhaps there’s a limit to being “politically correct” that can become overly “rigid”…there are extremes to anything. However, I for one never have and never will find jokes about sexual violence funny. ESPECIALLY given the fact that this type of humor seems to dominate when I’m in majority-male circles. To me, the fact that rape and sexual aggression are  made to seem banal, and worse, funny, indicates something much more insidious and deep-seated about our society.

The System is Down…Where Do We Go From Here?

There are other basic everyday manifestations of sexually aggressive culture that can and should be addressed which will take some larger scale action. Everyone knows it and says it, but how about the over-sexualized representations of women (and men!) in all forms of media? How about the fact that sex and violence are seen as selling points for just about everything? How about the fact that people, especially men, of a younger and younger age are exposed to violent porn? How about the lack of childhood education around empathy, communication and respect of others? Parents, educators, politicians, people on every scale of society need to come together to address this issue in a systemic, and a very grounded, way. Fear and “security-measures,” (as are taking place right now at Laval University to keep female students safe from the possibility of continued break-ins and sexual aggression by male students) are not long term solutions. Nor can these situations be written off as “isolated incidents.” The problem is rampant and it is rooted in some deep and complex narratives. And there is no snap-of-the-fingers abracadabra solution. There is actual “work”, actual communication, actual emotions, actual ACTION involved!

We have to build this thing back up from the ground, people. And we need men to be on board for things to truly change! I know needing each other became kind of unpopular for a while there (I mean…”needing” any one or any thing is sign of “weakness,” right? You may not say it out loud, but how do you feel and think when you need something or someone? Do you feel slightly ashamed and frustrated?), but I think it’s time to bring it back big time. We need models of what healthy relationships between men and women can look like. We need to relearn how to be powerful without being dominant, how to trust, listen to, love and heal each other and ourselves, how to be allies and partners and co-creators of something totally different. We need to be able to witness each others wounds and perhaps also the darkest, shittiest parts of each other, and still believe that we can change, no matter who we are or what we’ve experienced or done. We need to create space for massive scale healing and all the upheaval and mess that may involve.

In my life I have been honored to witness the strength of both men and women who’ve had the courage to face the writhing mess of emotions that comes with being subject to sexual aggression. I’ve also witnessed the incredible healing that can come when those perpetuating violence are able to dig deep enough to find the roots of their actions, to change for the better and, in doing so, change others. I have seen the courage of those who choose to stand up for cultural practices and norms based on mutual respect and love. And I ask myself daily… “”How do we hold people accountable…and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” There is great potential and possibility reaching out it’s hand…inviting us into the challenging, beautiful process of birthing something new…inviting us to “just bloody-well walk out cause this is total bullshit!” as one part of me would have it….and I don’t know about you, but We are leaving!

Are Being “Nice” and Being “Honest” Really Mutually Exclusive?

There seems to be a dichotomy set up in some peoples minds between being “nice” and being “honest.” Not in the sense that “nice” people are constantly lying through their teeth, but rather a lot of us seem to believe that in order to be “nice” we can never ever tell people what we really think if it involves any kind of critique or disagreement.  If we are backed into a corner then maybe maybe we might formulate some kind of meek opinion, squished into a few words saidasfastaspossibleandquicklymovedonfrom. Then there’s those who seem to think that expressing your opinions means completely disregarding the feelings of the person you’re speaking to. Being “honest” and “direct” becomes equivalent to bludgeoning someone over the head with words. What’s this all about?

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Debunking Nice

I think it’s really important for us to start debunking this whole concept of “niceness.” To me, there is nothing “nice” about not telling me what you really think, or refusing to tell me your true thoughts about me or something I am doing, or anything else I could benefit from feedback about. In fact, it’s incredibly frustrating. Besides, most people can definitely tell when you’re saying something “just to be nice.” For those of us sensitive to incongruities between what someone is presenting to the world and what’s really going on inside, it’s really, really unpleasant. There is a distinct difference between consciously choosing not to engage in a certain kind of exchange because you just don’t feel like it, or know your true feelings or state of being won’t be well received in a certain environment or will cause ripples you don’t feel like dealing with–versus forcing yourself to always be perky and good-humored because you’re fundamentally afraid of people not liking you as you are. If being nice means pretending to be someone or something you are not most of the timr, then I am all for dropping the whole act!

Of course there is an element of social “survival” here. We’ve learned from generations past not to rock the boat too much and that diverging from the mainstream opinion can be dangerous, that being an outlier can lead to banishment, exclusion or worse. There are times when self-preservation requires self-effacement. Many of us don’t live in those types of environments on a daily basis however.

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The Set Up

The other thing is that often when we spend all our time being”nice” we eventually end up having to blow off some steam somewhere, sometimes at very unfortunate moments and in ways that actually do come off as uncalled for. Often these mini explosions end up being directed at people close to us who most likely don’t have anything to do with the true source of our frustration. If this hasn’t happened to you yet, it may just hit you once you’ve reached an age where you no longer “care what people think” (see “crotchety old person” stereotype). On the other hand, it may be coming out in ways that you just aren’t recognizing. When we don’t allow ourselves to speak our truths in the world our bodies inevitably accumulate and manifest those emotions in one way or another!

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Striking a Balance

Of course all this doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be said for tact and diplomacy. I think knowing how to voice ones opinion in a way that is sensitive to the audience you’re speaking to is an incredibly useful skill in the world. It’s part of the work of “peacemaking” in many ways as it involves being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to see things from multiple perspectives and “hear” how you might sound through the filter of those receiving your words. It means knowing how to “translate” your raw emotions or thoughts from the language that might come out naturally into words that will accurately communicate what you want to say to the person listening. In other words, different people understand language differently. We need to sometimes be able to re-word things in order for other people to understand what we actually want to say. When we have a full awareness of any situation it is then up to us to judge when we need to express ourselves delicately and when we just need to “let it out raw.”

Kindness

This is where the distinction between being “Nice” and being “Kind” or compassionate becomes important! Rather than thinking that in order to be a “good” person we have to hold in our emotions and opinions all the time, we can redefine things and simply use our judgment and intuition as situations arise. Sometimes it is much kinder to give someone feedback about the way they present themselves in the world rather then let them go on doing something that may be having effects they aren’t aware of. Sometimes people around us are in deep need of someone brave and sensitive enough to tell them something direct and honest in a way that they can actually receive. Learning how to hold both honesty and kindness/compassion in our hearts while addressing situations can have huge implications for ourselves and those around us!

There will also be times when the healthiest thing for you actually means disregarding everybody else and just saying what you have to say. That’s okay too! It’s all part of the process of being yourself, not in some cliche way, but in a way that also encourages that kind of authenticity in those around you! Some of us spend all our time thinking about other people’s needs to the point that finding balance means swinging completely to the other side at some point and learning how to take care of our own needs as well. Just observe yourself, see where you’re at on this whole spectrum and act accordingly. Simple enough, right? ;).