Nurturing Awe in Ashes

What is the goal of our nurture of children?

Once they have pushed their over-sized, brain-enlarged head through a reduced-sized pelvis (reduced by the questionable innovation of walking upright, see Upright Citizen Brigade), they now face the world, of which they know nothing. But, their (our) “ace in the hole” endowment is that they (we) are gifted with an Original Self, potentiated to explore and engage the world with sensory reception. They have spent nine months or so in a watery environs only to be pushed through a toll-charging birth canal, from darkness into a stark light. The first of many surprises.

What is our intent when we take them home to begin our work of parenting?

I remember for me it was a prayer of survival, as we loaded our young son into my SAAB for a trip from Piedmont Hospital in tony Buckhead to our bungalow in trendy Candler Park/Lake Clair. If I am being honest, what did I, we intend? And the party line would be: whatever he wanted to be! said with sincerity and bridled enthusiasm. But the unconscious truth, and the societal values, not to mention grandparents’ dreams, were mixed, at best.

Nobody says this, and it probably “goes without saying”, as they say. We wanted our child to grow up to be a productive member of society. That implies “fitting in”, finding their place in society, being well-adjusted to the demands of the world, adaptable to the myriad of changes that are a part of the lay of the land of being humsn. So, we nurture this newborn for months, years, in order to give him/her the best shot at survival and then hopefully to move into our society to find his/her place. And the major work of socialization takes place when they leave the nest of home, not for college, but primary school in our education system, which is beginning earlier and earlier with burgeoning pre-schools.

I got to thinking about this on the Saturday morning prior to Ash Wednesday, 2023. That’s the day, the Church will take ashes, hopefully properly prepared by torching the palm frons from last Palm Sunday, but probably bought from some religious supply store. The priest will take the ashes with her/his thumb, trace the sign/symbol of the Cross on your forehead, while saying, Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.


Let’s try that over, from the top. Little more peppy, a slight intonation of optimism. Can I get an editor in here to bump up the script? Not liking “dust”. Is there something fresh, with a bit of quantum juice on it? Maybe a little sarcastic humor, delivered with a Sheldonesque ironic twist? Places everyone. From the top.

Actually, the drama is superb, perfect, blindingly to the point. And the script, straight to the heart. Or as my Scottish-genetic grandmother would say, calling a spade a bloody hoe.

You, mortal, are bound to die.

There is no escape. As my mother would press, How do you like them, apples? Not much.

Remember your death! A spiritual mantra of monks in past and present, a spiritual challenge to those longing for immortality. Memento mortem tuam. Memento mori. I did not need four years of Latin for that. My image of a monk, sitting at his writing desk, with the skull of a prior monk who once sat and wrote at same desk comes to mind. Ash Wednesday rubs our nose in the humus of reality, not to shame us, as stupid human tricksters, but to literally “re-mind” us who we truly are.

I seem to misplace that fact regularly.

I suffer from lots of maladies. Did I mention my quad tendon? But at the top of my list is my amnesia. I forget who I am. I forget lessons that Life, and others, have taught me. And sometimes, I even forget the basics, like: I am on the clock. I only have so many days in this garden to do whatever it is I am going to do. I seem to have to be re-minded often. Reality is an acquired taste, as some recently-minted philosopher from Friends quoted from his recovery group. Ash Wednesday will take no prisoners in this human existential wrestling match.

And so, we begin the Forty Days of Lent, preparing us in the Christian faith for Easter, a hope that runs through the middle of the hard contours of Death with a trumpet blast of hope at the end of the ritual.

Normally, we ask people to give up something that they value, perhaps inordinately so. Such as chocolate. Desserts. Liquor or wine. Or maybe swearing, using profanity. What about that anger that boils below, your impatience? I am giving myself away.

Some younger clergy friends I know, tell me that they are giving up social media for Lent. Theoretically, these disciplined and difficult amendments of life are intended to free us up from these distractions so that we can focus on our spiritual life. Often, it feels more like the display of physical feats of strength like that of Festivus in Seinfeld. But I hope you do better in your Lenten pursuit of growth and transformation.

For me this year, I am going to be intentional in my taking time for awareness of what is going on around me with the hope that I will experience awe, that is, an awareness of my deep connection to the vastness of the reality that I live within. It is so easy to miss in our, my, preoccupations and distractions. A Lenten discipline of intentional focus on the present moment, what Howard Thurman called the Eternal Now, in order to catch a glimpse of wonder, of awe.

Back to my starting question: What do we intend when we attempt to nurture and develop these young humans that have been entrusted to us, fresh from the birthing process? What is result we are looking for? To transpose the old Covey maxim, what “end” do we begin with?

Last week, I spent time relating the genius insight of psychology professor Dacher Keltner in his new book, entitled Awe. One of the more incisive insights comes near the end of the work as he addresses the impoverishment of our children of their native sense of awe. This is what launched my reflection on our intent in nurturing our children.

Studies and research have demonstrated children natively are gifted with curiosity and wonder, leading them to simply, and profoundly, experience awe, as they sense a connection with the larger world, reality. This natural gift leads to better performance in their continuing development.

However, Keltner notes that “one of the most alarming trends in the lives of children today is the disappearance of awe. We are not giving them enough opportunities to discover and experience the wonders of life.” He offers a laundry list of deprivations of such engagement. Art and music classes don’t survive the budget cuts. Free-form times of recess and lunch are replaced by drills to boost the all-important scores on “achievement” tests. Teachers are forced to “teach to the test” rather than engaging students in open-ended questioning and encouraging the creative process of discovery where the “unknown” is the center of attention. Every minute in the classroom is scheduled, human interaction minimized, and teacher/child ratio is growing. “It’s no wonder that stress, anxiety, depression, shame, eating disorders, and self-harm are on the rise for young people. They are awe-deprived.”

Time out for a Galloway side trip.

I grew up in public schools where I was fortunate to have some of the best teachers who gave me attention and encouragement in my development of curiosity and exploration. I think of Mrs. Ruby James who took my interest in earth science and sent me off on a quest that led to a love of geology. Or Mrs. Eason, whose enthusiasm for biology was infectious, not the bad kind, but fueled my questions. And the whole raft of English teachers, in the honors program encouraged my exploration of classics as well as contemporary literature, a passion that still drives me today. Or Mr. Phil Hood, a person of color, who clued me into some historical and sociological realities that I was missing in my white cocoon. Or Pam Allen, with her distinctive voice for the North, who hipped me to politics, national and international, and lit the flame of my love of democracy and its inherent tensions. Mrs. Day, our librarian, who went out of her way to introduce me to legendary Dr. Benjamin Mays of Morehouse, a life-transforming moment. And notably, Mrs. Melvin creatively crafted a way for Tom Elder and Pat Whaley, my partners in crime, to go to a junior college class on law, designed for law enforcement. Even more, she stormed the barriers to get me the week to witness famed F. Lee Bailey try a case in Clayton County. And got a group of us into Ft. Mac, now Tyler Perry’s studios, to watch the trials around misconduct in Vietnam. What a stunning cast of characters that would make one hell of a sit-com. Why did I not write that?

But all that creative exploring was set up by an amazing cast of elementary teachers who took time with me, nurtured me, encouraged my native curiosity, even when it didn’t fit lesson plans. I remember walking into my fourth grade class at Mt. Olive Elementary in the Spring, my family having moved to East Point, an airport suburb of Atlanta. I saw a lone bespectacled student, David Montgomery, standing in the back of the classroom, in the midst of beakers, test tubes, and wires. He was conducting an experiment, electrolysis, that resulted in a resounding “pop” as he carefully ignited the sequestered oxygen derived from water piped in from the water plant on the Chattahoochee River. As I took my seat in Miss Watt’s class, Debbie Horne and Cheryl Smith sitting to my front and behind, I knew that I was in the right place. Later, David Montgomery, the Master of Oxygen, and I, Master of Time and Space, would drive over to Emory University together for an academic tour, and would start college together the next Fall.

My native curiosity and drive to explore were encouraged by this education system. And for that, I am grateful. But I am also aware of the way that my education trained me to be a “good boy”, compliant, in-line, controlled. My report cards would testify that I was a good boy, did not talk in class unless I raised my hand and was called upon. Always an A in conduct, which my mother would remark upon proudly, as she had raised a well-behaved child that would not disrupt order. It was not until I reached the end of my junior year in high school, that my compliant, Creative Self, seemed to rebel, pushing back against the onerous totalitarian rules of a particularly capricious teacher. She would appreciate my word usage, but not me.

I took this side trip to note the tension between nurturing the Creative Self, prone to explore, push at the boundaries, driven by curiosity, and the Created Self that is made to “fit in”, react in respectable patterns that do not disrupt. It’s not an easy call to artfully balance this tension in the dilemma of creativity and conformity, both for parents and for systemic education systems burdened by the numbers of students, and the need for uniformity.

Keltner emerges again, this time to quote an early environmentalist, Rachel Carson, who was asked to care for her nephew of 20 months after her sister died from cancer. She grew him up, playing on the Atlantic coast beaches and the wonder of the Maine woods. Carson wrote: “the true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” She ponders the possibility of supporting “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation of things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

It was a pleasant shock to me to discover an article that she wrote in the Women’s Home Companion, entitled “Help Your Children To Wonder”. She offers a plan to provide a life of awe for children, a plan that seems applicable to adults as well, even worth looking at for Lent.

First, she suggests finding awe and wonder in our senses. Nothing radical here, just slowing down and taking the time to look around. Look up into sky; observe the clouds like you did as a child. Listen to the wind, the sound of nature that surrounds. There you will discover anew the gift of “living music”, as she poetically writes “insects playing fiddles in insect orchestras.” Having lived and meditated by the marshes of Glynn, I know those fiddles, and other members of the orchestra.

Secondly, trace some sound that you hear back to its source. Open your mind to the vastness of the world and take in the complexity of connection. Observe the systems of nature as they happen. Open your eyes to see afresh the wonders of the world, this Creation of which you are a part. Look for inter-connectedness.

Thirdly, avoid the “work” of analysis, our trained tendency to label and classify, reducing your experience to words. Try to simply be. Take in the sensory data that is coming to you. Imagine you are seeing something for the first time. Enjoy. Or savor.

Fourthly, mysteries open us up to systems that get lost in our analysis of slicing and dicing. Watch the change of seasons, the end of winter and the subtle and sometimes shocking emergence of spring. If you are on the coast, watch the tidal change. Attend to the changes as Creation awakes with the sun peeking over the horizon, when the noon sun is shining, and as the world darkens and shadows lengthen.

Hopefully, as we enter this Lenten time of reflection, we will encounter the epiphanies, the manifestations of Mystery that surround us, joining ” those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” Carson ends her essay with a quote from Otto Pettersson, an oceanographer who studied the tides, the fluctuations and life in the sea. At the time of his own death at ninety-two, he observed, “What will sustain me is an infinite curiosity as to what is to follow.”

So as I publish this on Tuesday, Mardi Gras day, before Ash Wednesday, I am doing it two days earlier than my normal day of Thursday. Just seemed like a good idea, that some may read it and decide to attend an Ash Wednesday service. Some parishes are even delivering “drive-through” ashes, and I trust the intent is good and holy. But there is something about the litany of confession, the corporate pause to acknowledge brokenness. However you choose to enter into these Forty Days, formally or informally, religiously and/or spiritually, I hope you take a pause for the cause of you and your being in this world we share. Blessings. +

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