Saturday, 3 November 2007

Reflections of a dreamer

“This guy is a disgrace - a very bad example to set to the youngsters.”

“If this is the type of superficial hippie that we have teaching our children its no wonder we are turning out people wholly unequipped to survive in the global economy.”

Both these comments were made in an online forum in response to the Edinburgh Evening News article about my bare foot protest. I’m not going to lose any sleep over them but they are interesting to reflect upon.

The first thing to note is that the negative comments made on the forum, of which there were many, are the first that I have had in the month since I began. The response from the staff and pupils at school, from family, friends and all those who have bothered to ask me why I am walking bare foot in October has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, I do not know what is being said when I am not present, but I can say with honesty that not a single pupil at Drummond has used it as an opportunity to openly mock or insult me. I was surprised by this myself. I’d anticipated that a proportion of people would do exactly that. The question I had at the beginning was what proportion? Perhaps what this teaches us is that young people are far more capable of understanding this kind of statement than I, and the cynical online readers of the Evening News give them credit for. One of the great and challenging things about working with young people is that they are ready to shout about injustice wherever they encounter it, and they respect others who do the same.

The comment about an education system that is “turning out people wholly unequipped to survive in the global economy” is an interesting one. While I am certainly not willing to accept the blame, I do see evidence that there is some truth in the statement. When the system works well young people leave school capable of accessing information via the newspapers. Their education has not however, equipped them with the tools to process and act on that information. For this reason issues like climate change, environmental destruction, third world poverty, civil war and indeed injustice in Burma and many other countries are either kept at arms length or taken on board to the detriment of the individual’s mental health.

I am not interested in churning out young people equipped only with the skills to take their place as another cog in the machine that is the global economy. I am excited by the possibility that young people might leave school with the passion and skills to change the world for the better. The place to begin is by confronting the issues instead of pretending that they are not there. Learning about something is a “head” activity. Allowing it to effect you on an emotional level is a “heart” activity and recognising that the pain one feels when confronting issues of social and environmental justice is to be embraced and used as a call to action can be thought of as a “hand” activity. The current system of education focuses almost exclusively on the “head” and neglects the other two parts of the trilogy.

I have been open since the beginning about the fact that I was motivated by pain in the form of grief. Since this is so rarely acknowledged it is in itself a powerful statement. Something I have learned over the past month is that by taking action it is possible to hold onto that grief and still feel good about life. The situation in Burma is still desperate and yet by becoming actively involved I am empowered by the possibility of change for the better. This is the personal benefit of action. I have been accused of being a dreamer and perhaps I am. If the alternative is to be a cynic I am certain that I am better off dreaming.

I heard it said recently that a cynic is someone who has given up but not yet shut up. I was searching unsuccessfully online for the originator of the quote and came across the following:

“The cynic is one who never sees a good quality in a man, and never fails to see a bad one. He is a human owl, vigilant in darkness, and blind to light, mousing for vermin, and never seeing noble game.”
Henry Ward Beecher
(Rather mean to owls I think)

“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Oscar Wilde

“A Cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.”
H. L. Mencken

“Cynicism is not realistic and tough. It’s unrealistic and kind of cowardly because it means you don’t have to try.”
Peggy Noonan

“An idealist believes the short run doesn’t count. A cynic believes the long run doesn’t matter. A realist believes that what is done or left undone in the short run determines the long run.”

“A cynic is not merely one who reads bitter lessons from the past; he is one who is prematurely disappointed in the future”
Sydney J. Harris

“A cynic is just a man who found out when he was about ten that there wasn’t any Santa Claus, and he’s still upset.”
James Gould Cozzens

Back in August I bought a wonderful little book called "Gardening the Soul - a spiritual daybook through the seasons" by Sister Stanislaus Kennedy. I read a page at the beginning of each day and am regularly amazed by how often it speaks exactly to whatever I've got going on. This has been especially true since I began my barefoot protest. It has been a source of encouragement - a kind of reassurance that I'm on the right path whenever I've felt that her wisdom is borne out by what I'm doing. The entry for today - 3rd November - is below:

Jesus said to his disciples: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”
The reason we cannot find good in others is that we are so blinded by our own faults. If the window in our kitchen is dirty we will see the washing on our neighbour’s line as less than clean. The way to clean our window – clear our vision – is to be aware of the limitations of our vision and simply refuse to pick out the weakness in others but concentrate instead on the good.

For your information:

Alastair McIntosh reflected on the comments (positive as well as negative) made on the forum in Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Scotland.

For a Head, Heart and Hand approach to education see


Forthview Visits Thailand said...

Ewen, your actions were being talked about throughout Edinburgh even before the press coverage. Like Forthview's orange ribbons, the point is to get people talking about the atrocities ordinary people are facing in Burma. You're certainly doing that and as you can see on the Evening News Online page, ordinary Burmese refugees are thanking you on behalf of their people. This must be the highest accolade of all.
When I was on the Thai Burma border this summer, the Burmese fleeing Burma said, "What does Scotland think about what is happening to the Burmese people?" I felt shame because at that time, who in Scotland knew or cared. We owe it to these people and these monks to keep their plight on Scottish consiousness. And you are doing just that. Thank you on their behalf.

David said...

Hi Ewen,

I'd like to encourage you for your measured and humble response to those who have attacked or criticised you.

It further adds to the positive example that you are setting for your students and others.

Just to flesh out your reference to Jesus' story about the log and the speck - I've long been dwelling on the nature of what he was saying.

I have realised that along with being about how we view others, it's also an important story about setting an example and how people learn and change negative behaviour.

As human beings we all-too often want to tell others what they're doing wrong and how to be better people.

But human beings learn more by what is modelled to them, not words ranted at them. When I think about my life, the people who have had the most impact are the ones that made me think "I want to be more like them - loving, caring, committed etc etc..."

Too often people interpret Jesus' story about the log and the speck in a way that say "when I've gotmyself sorted out, so I'll earnt the right to criticise others".

It's a dangerous mis-reading of the story. The reality is that none of us will ever be perfect, so the task of getting the log out of our own eye will never be finished.

Therefore if we are willing to respond to Jesus' challenge and turn our attention to that task, we won't have time to waste being cynical and negative about other people.

The result, however, is that focusing on being better people will mean that we live lives that are constantly growing, healing and moving forward, modelling increasingly positive and healthy behaviour that others will hopefully want to emulate, which is a much more positive and powerful outcome than pointless finger wagging or berating, such as many who commented negatively on your actions.

I think it emphasises powerfully the notion of non-violent changemaking that begins with "me" - how can I respond positively in a way that inspires others.

Your embodyment of this principle, in your initial response and ongoing communications, is obviously having a big impact on your students and others.

You will undoubtedly have modelled something powerful and positive to many people that you will probably never hear from or meet.

Be encouraged and keep up the good work. Dream on.