Home Education Magazine
July-August 2004 - Articles and Columns
My Lesson in Semantics - Melanie Lien Palm
"I want to play outside!" "I want to carve my walking stick!" "I want to climb a tree to write in my journal!" We have set a rhythm in our day that begins with "circle time." It is when we sit quietly for a moment and imagine what we would enjoy doing that day and then share our ideas with each other. Sometimes when Jorgen and Siri express their desires and goals for the day, I find myself judging whether or not they fit into any of the categories I would consider as legitimate learning, or that could be recorded into a subject area that appeared on my report cards growing up. Sometimes I judge whether or not to creatively manipulate them into another choice that would help me with my check list. Just by being aware of the fact that I am judgmental helps me to slowly change my habit.
Whenever I catch myself passing judgment on my children, I remind myself of a story I heard while living in New York City twenty-some years ago. It helps me remember to release my judgment. Whether it is an urban legend or a true story, it holds a deep truth for me. First the scene must be set. It takes place on a crowded New York City subway car that can hold more people than the town of Piedmont, South Dakota. All commuters honor the unspoken code of subway riders--protect your own personal space and stay out of everyone else's personal space even when you are squished and in total body contact with four or five other riders while yet another throng enters through the open doors. No eye contact allowed. If you are lucky enough to have room to sit down, then read a book, read the advertisements or graffiti, or at least pretend to read or sleep. Again, no eye contact. The indescribable odor that permeates the subway, a mixture of urine, rats and resignation, seems to be the policeman of the unspoken code.
Okay, now the characters. A man and three children boarded The sparser subways where everyone had delineated their space. The children were wild, loud and in complete noncompliance with the code. They were jumping, screaming, fighting and riding the scale of emotions while leaping over passengers. The man was as withdrawn as the children were animated. He was lost in a blank expression, seemingly oblivious to the children's blatant infractions. The bubbles of thought were visible above each rider's head. "The audacity of that family!" "He's probably some druggie who doesn't give a hoot about his kids, just his next fix." "Well, if I ever had children, they would never act like that!" "I should give him a piece of my mind!"
One woman finally got frustrated enough to break the code herself and speak to the stranger. "Excuse me, mister, would you please control your children?" He seemed to surface from under a murky haze. "Hmm? What? Oh, I'm sorry, we just left the hospital and ... their mother died."
Every person on the subway heard his whispered words. The shift in the car was palpable. As the thought bubbles popped, judgment and negative thought flew out the window, leaving room for compassion to enter. The children's behavior didn't change, but all the adults' did. Their hearts went out to the family. Some engaged the children in games. Some gathered them on their laps and told them stories. Some stayed on the subway beyond their stop to escort the family. All were shifted by the experience.
When I've told this story as a presenter at a homeschool workshop, the response was "But judgment is sometimes a very good thing. How can we let go of judgment when it's helped us know right from wrong, or kept us safe, or guided us?" My response was that I felt discernment is perhaps a better word for that description. But how do you discern the difference between judgment and discernment? And who's to judge which is better? I have played with semantics to help me learn to differentiate. Because "being judgmental" often carries a negative and narrow-minded connotation and "being discerning" often carries a positive and wise connotation, I have chosen to discern when I'm being judgmental.
My husband taught me the best description of the difference between the two words. He was recounting his day with the Mountain Masters Ski Class in the Colorado Rockies. I had not seen so much exuberance and joy in his face for a long time. He and a few other seasoned skiers who wanted to learn more than just negotiating moguls on the double black diamonds went up the mountain with a master ski instructor. They climbed higher than the lift into the trees and prepared for their descent through the trees rather than on the slopes. He gave them only this advice. "Don't look at the trees, look at the spaces between the trees. That's where you want to go."
His theory was if you focus on the trees, you'll be sure to hit them. If you focus on the spaces, you'll be sure to ski through them. According to this ski instructor's assessment, by focusing on the spaces, the trees become objects that help define the spaces. The obstacles become blessings. Judgment seems to focus on the trees, the obstacles, the negatives and "don't-wants." Discernment seems to focus on the space, the joy of the challenge and the "imagine-that's"!
So now my biggest lesson when I look into my children's eyes each morning as we plan our day is to see the spaces. And they smile back and confirm that I am learning much from them.
© 2004 Melanie Lien Palm
July-August 2004 - Articles and Columns
HEM General Information
Subscribe to HEM