Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Struggle

"I remember one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out.  I waited awhile, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient.  I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened; the butterfly started slowly crawling out, and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath, in vain. 

It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.

That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the external rhythm.

I sat on a rock to absorb this New Year's thought.  Ah, if only that little butterfly could always flutter before me to show me the way." -- Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

Today I sat in a coffee shop watching a nine month old attempt to stand.  In his footed pajamas his legs wobbled.  He bit the dust almost every time.  His patient grandfather repeatedly held him up underneath his arms and then reluctantly let go.  The little guy leaned sideways over the table, precariously.  He smiled and every onlooker knew what was coming next...another fall. This time it looked especially painful and we all grimaced but that little toddler sat for only a moment before he attempted the impossible again.  We all knew he was on his way.  He'd be walking in a matter of days or weeks.

For the past two weeks I've been watching my student teachers bust out of their cocoons, dry their wings and attempt to fly solo in their classroom.  Some days the attempt seems easy and things unfold smoothly but most of the time it's a struggle.  How do I get control of a classroom of kids?  When will they listen?  What happens when they don't understand?  Why must Joe constantly be out of his seat? Two kids are fighting on the playground, now what?  What these teachers are attempting is just as hard as the toddler.  There are a whole lot of falls, bruises and doubts that creep in.  There's shame, embarrassment and fatigue.  I marvel at the difference between the one year old and my adults.  Why does the one year old never give up?  Why does the adult immediately doubt himself and consider quitting?

The answer lies in our willingness to struggle.

Once you're an adult, you get pretty good at avoiding the struggle.  We avoid algebra, foreign languages, running the mile in PE and any other thing that doesn't make us feel confident and comfy. We "know our limits" and are satisfied with them.  We no longer have to attempt the impossible...unless we become parents, get married, start a business, write a book or go after a dream.  In short, we get used to feeling comfortable.  We forget that many, many times the learning and the growth is in the struggle. Somehow since becoming an adult we have forgotten that life is a struggle...a struggle for understanding, for meaning, for connection, for acceptance, and yes, for competence in new undertakings.  

The good stuff is in the struggle.  There you will find all that you have been looking for: meaning, acceptance, competence, balance, understanding.  Waiting for the sun to dry our wings, struggling out of the cocoon comes beauty and strength.  We can't rush the process or wish it were different.  Well, we can...but look what happens when we do...we lose the opportunity and the lesson.

Yesterday one of my student teachers looked at me and said something so wise that we both just let it soak in: "Beth, I used some of your ideas today and it was better than yesterday. I could see it being a little better -- just a little.  I guess it's going to be like that...just a a little better each day."  After the pause, I reminded her that there would be days when it wasn't going to be any better and in fact may be worse but that most of the time it does go like that...incrementally better bit by bit.  That's what the struggle is about.

Recently, I've been wrestling with a court decision that just happened in Oregon.  You can read about it here: Wrongful Birth Court Case  In it, the Oregon state court had a jury agree with parents who had a prenatal test called CVS that showed their child did not have Down Syndrome (when in fact she did), and held that both the hospital and the testing lab were at fault.  The parents (unbelievably) testified in court  (for all three of their children to hear, not to mention the world) that had they known their daughter would have Down Syndrome they would have aborted her. Their daughter is almost five now.  Five years of knowing her and still they say this.  How she could be allowed to stay within this family and not part of Child Protective Services I have no idea.  The parents wanted money to compensate them for the "burden" they must now deal with and they were awarded $2.9 million.

So...let's get this straight: according to the court system in Oregon, children with Down Syndrome are a burden; children with Down Syndrome are understandably optional and barely deserve life.  In fact, if you manage to "sneak" through the prenatal search and destroy mission in place within the health care system and survive, your parents can complain bitterly and be financially rewarded in court.  The sad statistics right now for prenatal diagnosis of babies with Down Syndrome are startling: 90% of them are aborted.


It all comes back to struggle.  The outside world perceives that people with Down Syndrome struggle throughout their lives.  This might be an understandable notion since people with Down Syndrome take longer to learn basic skills like walking and talking, reading and writing, swimming and riding a bike.  They are more likely to get leukemia, have a heart defect, have gastro-intestinal difficulties and live a shorter life span.  There's no denying that those things are not something we would hope for any child so why would we allow a child with these difficulties to be born?  Why would we tolerate the struggle when we can so easily put them out of their misery and erase the whole difficult situation.

Here's the secret: people with Down Syndrome may have to take longer than the average person to achieve basic skills but they don't suffer or struggle through it.  Like anybody, they are proud of their achievements, excited about learning new things and eager to try.  They learn things at a slower rate...what is the struggle in that?  Who is that a struggle for?  The parents?  The onlooker? The classroom teacher?  It doesn't matter to the child...they are busy learning, not looking around making comparisons.

If you asked Patrick on this day if he was happy, he would tell you emphatically: "Yes!"  His older brother is home from college, he got to see his cousins and grandparents yesterday, and he is playing with his little sister this minute. Everyday life for Patrick is pretty glorious.  He is fully included in his class of 6th graders and has had the opportunity and the good fortune to make good friends.  He has a school and teachers who believe in his ability to learn and challenge him. He lives in a town that accepts him and has allowed him any opportunity he has asked to try.  His struggles are frankly few.  If only I could tell that to a court in Oregon.

                   By far, Patrick's biggest struggle is in the way the world perceives him.  

Expectations are immediately lowered for him.  When he is older typical women with 46 chromosomes will never consider having a romantic relationship with Patrick.  It's a rarity for someone to consider him a true peer and ask for his advice or expertise, although it should be noted he has quite a lot to offer. Restrictive biases and prejudices are something he has to deal with simply because he has an extra chromosome. The world pities him and considers him a burden.  And now, thanks to the Oregon court system that misconception is reinforced. There lies the struggle.

Someone forgot to give the memo to those parents in Oregon: life is a struggle.  There is no avoiding it, even if you have 2.9 million dollars. And, here's where the irony of life comes laughing in -- the one person that I know who suffers or struggles the least is Patrick.  "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional."  Patrick intuitively knows this and lives his life that way, every day.  He celebrates the little things --which it turns out are the big things.  He loves without limits or conditions.

If only those parents in Oregon could learn from him.

On this day, I'm going to try to remember the lesson: It is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the external rhythm.

I'm going to let my butterfly struggle, watch his wings unfold at the perfect moment and cherish the flight.  He deserves that chance.  We all do.


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