Monday, April 25, 2011

Raising the Abundance Generation

No Pain, No Gain
Basil Waine Kong

My wife and I spent last weekend sprinkling a little stardust and otherwise taking care of two of our six adorable grand children while their parents went off on a week-end cruise. While we live for these opportunities so we can hug up and spoil them, we departed with some sadness because there was literally nothing we could “buy” to spoil them. They already have every material gadget imaginable! But I do not consider it a blessing that our grandchildren have never been out of the supervision of adults, hungry, thirsty, tired, hot, cold or know any other discomfort. We seem to have forgotten what coaches are always saying: "No pain, no gain". Do you really want your children protected from all unpleasantness and never encounter a bully or a criminal? Do you advise them to never fight? With my Jamaican sensibilities, I don’t think it possible to appreciate a sweet apple without tasting a sour one. My children obviously disagree with me, as does their doting, over indulgent and protective grandmother, “Nana”.

If any of our grand children's needs are conceived, they are immediately fulfilled by their parents. This is a time when we should be spoiling our grandchildren but what do you do when every possible avenue for spoiling them is already fulfilled. While we try to nourish their spirit and create indelible memories, I asked them to think big and tell “Pop-Pop” and “Nana” what we could buy them and they cannot think of anything as they have no unmet material needs. While I always eat and drink whatever was provided, if these children don’t like what is prepared for them for dinner, no problem, their parents will fix something else, order a pizza or take them out to a restaurant to get them whatever their hearts desire. Four flavors of ice cream is already in the freezer or being made ready in their ice cream maker, candy and treats of all kind are in the pantry, DVD movies are stacked on shelves and they already have libraries of books, toys galore and computer games. If anything hurts, they are immediately transported to a source of medical care or medicated.

There is no quiet time as entertainment is non-stop. When at home, the TV is always on. When being transported, the video in the car immediately comes on and the children are mesmerized and no longer share in songs, jokes and conversation with each other or with their parents. I am also not sure how I feel about children receiving a reward and a prize for coming in tenth in a contest or race as is the practice at their school. I love my children and take great pride in their success and their good intentions but I do not share some of their modern ideas of conferring happiness upon their children. No pain, no gain.

It may be old fashioned of me to believe that hardship and even suffering makes us more confident that we can handle similar challenges, wiser and therefore better. There has never been a successful leader who did not spend time in the wilderness or struggled. You cannot make steel without experiencing the hot coals of hell. One cannot grow in holiness and faith in God’s grace without hardship. Leaders must come through the fire, experience the depths of despair and experience the victory over death. Then one is ready for leadership. I am not surprised that the pampered upper class never produced any of our heroes or sheroes.

My approach to children’s happiness is to provide incremental and progressive increases. I believe human nature requires us to “do better”. So, if children get everything they need or want, they are doomed to be unhappy whenever this cannot be sustained and they reach a plateau or even regress. Whether you can afford it or not, giving a child a luxury automobile when he obtains his or her driver’s licenses at sixteen is dooming them to unhappiness later, if they cannot progress to something better. Which teenager is happier? The one who fixes up an old car or the one who gets a new car? What a patient wants to hear from the doctor is: “You are doing better”. Employees what to know they are on the right track and improving. We want to make progress. A millionaire who lost one of his millions is unhappy. A man of average means who gets a better job or a raise is happy---for a while. We do our children a disservice if we don’t save some of life’s pleasures for later.

Honestly, I am not attempting to equip our army with bow and arrows or even muskets nor do we wallow in “this generation is going to hell” syndrome. I do wonder what our grand children’s motivation will be for doing the parents bidding or to work hard to achieve. The saying goes: “Soldiers produce professionals who produce artists who produce…” I was shocked to learn that fifty percent of American Olympic athletes were born in another country. What a guan?

About ten years ago, I saw a photograph in a magazine of a boy from rural Mississippi hugging his first pair of shoes with tremendous glee and happiness. I also recall my own childhood exuberance and appreciative expressions when I received a bag of marbles or a packet of jello. My grand children will never know this joy. They get a new pair of shoes every month, their closets are full of clothes that they will probably will never wear because they are growing so fast. I often ask them to slow down because if I miss seeing them for a month, they change on me and learn new skills. They are all engaged in supervised sports and activities. While this occurs for the fortunate few, it is now rare to find pickup games or children just playing together or riding their bicycles outside. It is unfortunate that children do not walk and talk to school any more.

How lucky I was growing up that other than church and school related activities, children had very little supervision. While American children are supervised every second and locked into car seats, high chairs and cribs, no one other than their parents and close relatives are allowed to touch, hug or even discipline them. Everyone in Woodlands District had a right to discipline any child they saw misbehaving. A four year old child in Maryland was actually expelled from school because he kissed another four year old girl. Thank God, I grew up with lots of hugs and kisses from neighbors, teachers, and even strangers.

I honestly believe that bad experiences make the good experiences sweeter, being deprived makes obtaining material things more meaningful, and that absence does make the heart grow founder. I don’t believe any of my grandchildren have ever had a “bad experience”. I am reminded of the Prince to Siddhartha Gautama, who was raised in a perfect environment, given every advantage and protected from evil, or anything that could make him sad, frustrated or bored. As soon as he could, he escaped and founded a religion based on the absence of need. The true road to nirvana is to free one’s self of the need for earthy wealth. True insight and motivation comes from denying one’s self. Earthly pleasures cannot satisfy the longings of the heart and soul.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's advice was: "Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the
better. What if they are a little course, and you may get your
coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly
rolled in the dirt once or twice. Up again, you shall never be
so afraid of a tumble."
We seem to be raising our children to do just the opposite.

As impressed as I am with the abundance of America, I lament. My daughter (Melanie Shaw) reminds me that: "Being happy has little to do with "stuff" and much more about personal achievement, sense of purpose, feeling appreciated, the feeling that you're making a difference... and having friends and loved ones to share and give witness to it." It is going to be harder to teach these lessons to children in this abundance generation. I have to believe that there is more to life than having everything.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Saying Good bye: Death and Dying in Woodlands District in the Fifties

Basil Waine Kong

I grew up in Woodlands District, St. Elizabeth Parish, Jamaica. My grandmother who raised me (Mrs. Rosella McKenzie) believed that when people died, they get to talk with God about others left behind. If the living want a good report, they must have excellent relations with others and particularly for those who are going home. In our community, the care and feeding of those who are in the process of dying was treated with great reverence. Granny was particularly helpful to the sick and unabashedly reminded them that they should not forget to recommend that God send her a special blessing when they saw Him. Sick people in our community were always treated with kindness as a testimonial of their virtue with an expectation of a reward. Duppy have power. Occasionally, someone felt a need to clear their conscience and confess their sins before they pass on. This, however, always implicated others, so the chalk man would be called to make sure he or she stop “talking”.

Everyone believed that death is a journey of the soul from this world to a better place where there is no pain or sorrow. It was a curiosity to me that a land of milk and honey with angels flying about was the best they could do to motivate the living to do God’s will.

The death of a loved one would be accompanied with the tolling of the bell at Springfield Moravian Church calling the entire community to gather at the home of the person who passed on to pay respects to the deceased and to comfort the bereaved. Some of the women would wash, anoint the body, tie the big toes together and tie a scarf around under the chin and around the head to hold the mouth closed. The corpse will be dressed in his or her best clothes and made available for the viewing. The men measured the body, dig the six foot grave (east and west), in the church cemetery or family plot and construct a simple cedar box to specifications---all done in the dead person’s yard. Granny would invariably say: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you and me.”

Other women would immediately start a wood fire on three large stones, cooking in a washed out kerosene can. The white rum and water would help to drown out their sorrow as well as quench the thirst of those assembled. For the following nine nights, the community would gather to keep vigil on the family, pray, play dominoes, sing and dance with tambourines, cry, tell dumpy stories and talk about the life of the dearly departed.

While men were restrained from showing much emotion and may cry quietly, women wailed. Granny said the nine night (set up) custom started because they didn’t want to make a mistake and bury a person who was not dead so they would wait nine nights to give the person every opportunity to wake up. Lots of noise were made in an effort to wake the dead. A second reason is to ward off evil spirits and assure that the dearly departed is not prevented by the devil from their ascension into heaven. Generous contributions from neighbours would cover the tremendous cost of the food, drinks, and materials for the funeral. Often a cow was butchered. For the carpenters, grave diggers, the women who prepared the food and the body for burial, this was a labour of love and no one expected to be paid.

The number of songs at the wake was endless and as most people could not read, a song leader would (track) call out the next line of a song for everyone else to follow. My favorite nine night songs were:

Mi sa mi ole man dead and he no lef no will; He lef a likkle piece of land fi feed the whole a we; but mi bigger breda tief it way from wi; Glory be to God, Glory be to God fi de whole a wi.

"Adam in the garden hide him self, hide himself, hide him self; Adam in the garden hide him self, hide himself from God

"You have longed for sweet peace
For grace to increase
You have earnestly and fervently prayed
But you cannot have rest or be perfectly blessed
Till at last you are on the alter laid"

After the ninth night, the coffin would be nailed shut and transferred to the church. The entire community would attend with men dressed in black suits and the women in white dresses. The choir would sing, the minister would preach and pray, and the family would weep being supported by friends who would fan and hug them. The attentiveness of friends kept grieving family members from hurting themselves when they inevitably fainted. About a dozen people would offer affectionate remembrance and the spouse was expected to wear black and be in mourning for six months.

After the service, the six pallbearers would pick up the coffin and start a parade to the burial site at the church yard or to the family plot with everyone singing as they walked. A second service took place at the grave. The coffin would be placed over the grave and finally lowered to the bottom. I can still hear the sound of the two ropes as they were pulled out after the coffin came to rest. Several people would say: “Good bye Mass Georgie, see you soon.” No one left before the last shovel of dirt is tossed and many would linger for hours after to partake of the vittles that was provided. Granny would remind us that dust to dust, ashes to ashes was the way of all flesh. Soon and very soon, we all have appointments to see the King. She just wanted to remind us that she does not want to be looking all over heaven for her family so we better live a good life so we could join her up there. For the following weeks after a funeral my brother and I would have nightmares and wake up screaming as we dreamed that we were being covered with dirt.

As scary as funerals were to us, Granny always pointed out that once upon a time, people lived forever. There were no births and no deaths . But the people asked God to give them children and He said that would only be possible if people would also accept death. They unanimously agreed and so it was that every time a child is born, someone dies. In Woodlands District, Invariably the news of a death was always accompanied by news of a birth.