Archives for posts with tag: virtue

Let me tell you a story.

I started playing the cello in elementary school orchestra. I was lucky to go to school in a district that took the arts very seriously (more so than the sciences even, somewhat to the detriment of STEM-inclined students like my sister), and so orchestra was an option beginning in fourth grade. Every year my teacher would recommend I take private lessons, but dance and gymnastics were more important to me at that point, so there was never time for one more thing. Still, I had a decent theoretical and intuitive understanding of music thanks to my pianist father, so I did fine.

In middle school, I started developing joint pain. Gymnastics fell victim first, followed by ballet. I managed to keep up enough for theater, but by my junior year I wasn’t even engaged in that the same way. So at 16, I started private cello lessons.

My teacher, who had his pick of brilliant students, agreed to take me on because I was “interesting.” I could read music fluently, in multiple clefs. I could handle complex rhythms. I was keeping up with the other members of my high school orchestra. And as long as I did, my technique had never been dealt with. I was going to have to start over.

From scratch.

My first lesson, I wasn’t allowed to play a single note. After bow-hold exercises, I held the bow in my right hand, with both hands resting on my knees. I picked them up, and placed them correctly on the instrument, drawing two wide loops in the air. I put them back on my knees. I put them back on the cello. I put them back on my knees.

The next lesson I played open strings.

The lesson after that I played four-note scales. Then eight notes.

Then I finally had music placed in front of me. Suzuki Book 1. The first song? “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

I started to cry, just looking at it. I had been playing the cello for seven years. It was so humiliating. My friends were playing Bach, and here I was, playing baby music. My teacher, bless him, didn’t seem phased by this. He explained that we’d move through relatively quickly, but that my technique needed to be addressed at a foundational level before we moved on to more complex things. And that it would require hard work and practice, and a huge dose of humility, but never humiliation. There was nothing to be ashamed of in striving to be better, no matter what it looked like to someone on the outside.

I stayed after school every day and practiced by myself. Twinkle Twinkle. French Folk Song. The Song of the Wind. The Happy Farmer. Minuet in C. My orchestra teacher commented that it was so nice to hear the old songs again. I did move quickly, practicing every day. And I improved.

The next year, I found myself a section leader. My teacher moved to another country. But I’ve never forgotten the lesson in humility he taught me when he watched me cry to see a book of children’s songs.


I serve as a tutor of study circles, which are intended to raise capacity in individuals and communities to serve their communities. Each of the courses these study circles goes through includes three related units of study, and at least one practice. Both of these elements is essential for capacity to be built, and neither is particularly effective without the other.

The thing is, we all live in communities. We think we must know how to live together. After all, haven’t we been doing it as individuals for twenty, thirty, seventy years? Haven’t our families been doing it for thousands? Who doesn’t know how to be a community, anyway? A hermit, maybe. Certainly not us.

But the truth is that, while we’ve often been getting by, our technique is, frankly, terrible. And we need to start learning at the beginning.

From scratch.

This is why people who feel at the height of their influence struggle with the Ruhi sequence of courses. Book 1, called Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, includes three units, two of which have a practice component. The first is to read the Writings, carefully and with intent, every morning and evening. The second is to visit two Baha’is and study a prayer with them. Not even to pray, but to study the prayer itself, the same way the first unit teaches us to study on our own.

I have literally had people refuse to study with me, insisting that it is a waste of their time. As though looking at a few words together with fresh eyes were somehow a demeaning task when they were capable of so much more.

I’ve had people agonize over whether visiting someone in their home, even invited, were an appropriate avenue of service. Whether it was patronizing to study a prayer with someone else. Whether there was any use in it. Whether they shouldn’t just skip it and get on to the real acts of service, the exciting ones for books down the line.

But of course, if you can’t study fifty words with a friend, you can’t facilitate the study of hundreds in a group. If you can’t will yourself to talk about spiritual reality, you won’t be able to teach an entire class of children to pray. If you aren’t willing to visit a friend in their home, you will never work up the courage to build bonds of friendship with someone previously regarded as a stranger.

You won’t build community in your neighborhood.

You won’t build unity in your world.

It takes so much humility to understand that how we’ve learned to be in the world may have helped us cope, but it’s on some level fundamentally broken. That we need to re-learn something as basic as friendship, or neighborliness, or meaningful conversation.

It’s a real struggle to overcome the sense that we’re meant for something better than this, that we’re not children, after all, that we already have so much capacity already if people could just see it …

But if we can set it aside and practice the basics until we’ve really mastered them, the resulting music is so much stronger. And I know because I’m still here, trying my best, playing away.



I don’t usually talk much about my professional life here, because I have another blog for that. But there are times when certain aspects of my career push me into musings that are a bit too rambling and philosophical for that setting. This is one of them.

There’s a bit of a schism in the massage therapy profession. Really, in the complementary care community as a whole, but what I know best is the massage world. It has different names: materialists vs. spiritualists. Science vs. Woo. Whatever. And I find myself oddly placed in it.

On one hand, I’m solidly on the science side. My massage education emphasized basic science education. Our instructors had PhDs in Anatomy. I do not perform energy work or other techniques for which there is no evidence. I’m not a “healer.” I don’t “detoxify” my clients. My bosses have been physicians and physical therapists, not yoga teachers or New Age gurus.

But I am also a person of deep religious convictions. I pray daily. I believe in God, and an afterlife, and nonphysical reality. So why don’t I incorporate these things into my work? Is it not hypocritical of me to compartmentalize my life and seal off a huge part of me daily experience from my faith? Am I wronging my clients by failing to offer them all of the tools for health and wellbeing at my disposal? Is it dishonesty to offer clients exclusively materialist assistance when I am not myself a materialist by belief?

I don’t believe so.

In fact, I don’t believe that I have removed my faith from my practice. Do I pray for my clients? Of course I do. In private. Just as I pray for all the people I care about. I choose to work in a way that exemplifies the teachings of my faith: with compassion, trustworthiness, and a profound sense of gratitude. Another tenet of my faith is truthfulness, which is why I cannot claim to offer spirit-based healing. I cannot in good conscience claim to understand or control such things. Accepting payment for them would be akin to accepting money for making the weather pleasant, or for a meteor shower. It isn’t right.

Beautiful, isn't it? That'll be $20.

Basic lovely weather package is $50, but only $10 extra gets you blooming flowers too.

It’s easy to get caught up in the sense of control science offers us. If I let the ball go, I can make it fall to the ground! If I angle this glass correctly, I can bend light! If I split an atom, I can create an explosion! Truly, it’s a lot of fun. Babies adore it. So do adults. We’re wired to control things like this in order to survive.

But if you believe in the Divine, you can’t approach it with a microscope or telescope. Revelation in one form or another might give you guidelines for how all this spiritual stuff works, but the thing about being the creation is that you don’t get to order the Creator around. Making up rules about what God must or must not do based on your personal desires is ridiculous. It’s effing the ineffable. And it makes you look foolish not only to people of science, but people of faith.

I’m not saying there are no services that faith can offer to others. I would be an awful hypocrite if I thought that. Absolutely pray for people. Lay your hands on them if that’s your thing. Anoint them with oils or chant or draw symbols on their skin or just hold them in your heart and love them. There’s nothing wrong with seeking spiritual aid on a suffering person’s behalf. But don’t take money for it. That’s like being baptized in a church and then next week receiving a water bill. 

Do I think people have things to gain spiritually from massage therapy? Sure. Being cared for with respect and compassion by another human being touches far more than skin and muscle. But it’s not my place to tell my clients that, and it’s not my job to try and make it happen. The ineffable doesn’t need my chatter to do its work. I wouldn’t believe in it otherwise.

photo credit: code poet via photopin cc

Remember when I said that this was my no-guilt-for-not-updating blog? Yeah, I did that. I got busy, I got stressed, I was so busy writing professional stuff that my urge to write for myself was next to nil. But now I’m back, with all kinds of new words in my head.

Really cool things have happened to me lately. I got really involved in working with some older youth (ages 15-18) in Cleveland, who have turned into some of the coolest people I know. I attended a research conference in Boston, which fueled my passion for science even more, and actually rekindled some of the social science love that I thought I’d left behind me when I dropped out of college. I started getting some writing clients outside of the health and wellness industry, and it turns out I can write for photographers, lawyers, and bookkeepers just as well as I can write for massage therapists. And then, WHAM! We moved to Texas.

It pretty much happened just like that. April 1, Jef was given a choice between a promotion in Dallas or getting laid off in Cleveland. On the 10th he formally accepted the position. A few days later he started work, leaving me in Cleveland to settle our lives and pack. And May 17th I first set eyes on our new apartment in a town I’d never visited before. Whee!

I’m learning a lot about being detached from material things. All of my jewelry somehow got lost in the move? Need to cut down our book and record collection by a third in order to fit into a smaller apartment? No more need for my Cleveland-sized collection of heavy sweaters, long underwear, and scarves? Okay. Harder is dealing with being new and largely isolated for the moment. But people seem friendly, so I know I can overcome my shyness and meet new people.

My life mostly consists of unpacking boxes at this point, but I’m eager to learn more about my community here. I know that there are several junior youth groups in the area, and it’ll be really interesting how they are similar and different to the ones I knew in Cleveland (and Cincinnati, and Lilongwe, and Albuquerque … me and my silly nomadic life).

Anyhow, new insights will undoubtedly arriving soon. For now, I’m turning a mountain of boxes into a proper home. If that’s not a creative endeavor, I don’t know what is.


brazil junior youth group

A junior youth group in Portal da Gloria, Brazil plants a flower garden.

It occurs to me that, despite how much I talk about being a junior youth animator, I’ve never really explained what the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program is all about. Not in a concise way, anyhow.

Junior Youth

A junior youth is someone between the ages of 11 and 14. In some places the “junior youth” designation starts at age 12, but here people start middle school at 11 and move on to high school at 14, so it’s a really logical social group. Junior youth is that time in between childhood and youth when we become more independent, start to look critically at the world around us, think more abstractly, ask big questions about the nature of things, and feel an awful lot like an adult, even if we don’t always act like one. Heck, we even start to look more like adults, too. Growth spurts and hormonal changes are a part of this time period too, for better or worse.


The qualities of the human spirit: courage, compassion, truthfulness, trustworthiness, love. Many people (junior youth, as well as those younger and older than them) navigate their spirit through the medium of religion or faith. Many people do not. So while religion inevitably comes up in conversation (and if you think junior youth aren’t interested in discussing religion, think again), it’s from a perspective of sharing and inquiry rather than proselytizing or catechism. The goal is to deepen the spirit: for the Muslim youth to be excellent Muslims, the Christian youth to be excellent Christians, the Baha’i youth to be excellent Baha’is, and the humanist youth to be excellent humanists. For those young people that are exploring religion in the hopes of choosing one to follow, the goal is for them to do so from a place of understanding and respect. Don’t forget, curiosity and creativity are also qualities of the spirit.


Empowerment means “to endow with power.” When junior youth work to make positive changes in themselves, it endows them with the power to change their communities. When junior youth serve the community in increasingly complex ways, it endows them with the power to change themselves for the better. Youth already have amazing capacities inside them: physical capacities for athletics and dance, mental capacities for critical and creative thinking, spiritual capacities for kindness and justice, and other uniquely human capacities for things like verbal communication and artistic expression. To empower junior youth doesn’t mean stuffing them full of power they don’t yet have, it means drawing out the capacities that are already latent within them and bringing them to fruition.


While each junior youth group develops organically, there is a basic framework for the program. There are study materials that encourage discussion. Service to others is a major component, whatever form that may take. Artistic, athletic, and social activities are also important; forming strong friendships rooted in mutual respect is vital at this age.

All these things grow as the youth do. In the beginning, they read simple stories. While the topics may be profound, the depth of the conversation may or may not be. This isn’t problematic, it’s just a natural result of being 11. Service projects may be simple, like visiting the sick, reading books to young children, or cleaning up litter in a neighborhood.

After three years, the youth are reading stories at an adult level. Not only are their services to the community more long-term and complex (like holding a regular class for children or maintaining a vegetable garden for local hungry families), but they have taken on most of the responsibilities themselves. They call organizations to arrange a meeting or businesses for in-kind donations. They plan the lessons they’ll teach. They write the public talks they’ll give. (And arrange the venue. And write to the local paper about it.)

Does this seem like a lot to ask of a 14-year-old? Of course it is. But 14-year-old gymnasts with three years of training under their belts can do backflips. Imagine the citizens that 14-year-olds with three years of systematic empowerment behind them could be.

So what happens after?

Obviously, we don’t just ditch these youth on their 15th birthday. What happens next depends on the paths of service that each youth chooses to take, but many take all these skills for consultation, service, reflection, and community-building, and decide to become trained to animate their own junior youth groups. At around 16 (sometimes earlier, sometimes later), often with the assistance of an experienced mentor, they become that older sibling to a group of 11-year-olds who are just entering adolescence.

So when you hear me talking about my junior youth groups, this is what I mean.

It’s a process of empowering young people ages 11-14 to make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of others. It’s frustrating to be told that your entire life is a time of preparation for eventual adulthood. The best way to prepare for a life of service is to start making a difference now.

Photo used with the permission of the Baha’i World Center.

letter j

Who puts their hands on their hips, stomps their foot, and shouts, “Thanks not fair!

A spoiled brat?

An immature child?

How about a champion of justice?

Justice means seeing with your own eyes, hearing with your own ears, and not relying on thirdhand information before you judge.

Justice means equality, except when it doesn’t.

Justice is a sense of right and wrong that permeates the consciousness of adolescents, whether their vision jives with that of the adults in their lives or not.

And surprisingly enough, justice promotes some decidedly un-childish qualities. Generosity. Compassion. Determination. Self-sacrifice.

If your knee-jerk response is, “Well, life isn’t fair,” you’re missing out on an opportunity.

How isn’t it fair?

Why isn’t it fair?

And most importantly, how do we go about changing that?

photo credit: Leo Reynolds via photopin cc

letter i

It’s rare to see the quality of ingenuity encouraged in school. Generally speaking, who, when, and where get answered, while, “How might you?” is left behind as too messy to grade. It’s one of the most difficult qualities to foster in people who’ve so far been encouraged to dedicate their lives to arriving at the correct answer, not a new one.

When I lived in Malawi, I was talking with a group of secondary school girls who were complaining about a teacher. They told me, “He puts things on the test that he never teaches us in class.” This seemed like simple poor pedagogy to me, until they continued, “He says we’re supposed to think for ourselves. We shouldn’t have to think for ourselves until college or something.”

While it’s rare to find an American student so forthright about their expectations, the attitude itself is common.

But practice makes perfect, right? There’s always hope.

If you run into a problem while working with young people, enlist their help. Work through it out loud. Brainstorm. Be creative first, then be logical. Between those two attitudes, you can get pretty far.

I’m not a very clever innovator or problem-solver, by nature. But that’s why I have my junior youth to help me. We’ll get there together. As for the exactly how, that remains to be seen.

photo credit: Leo Reynolds via photopin cc

letter g

When my sister was young, she wrote a letter to a kid, about her age, who was in juvenile detention awaiting trial for murder (he was later found not guilty). He wrote back, “It’s so hard to be good here.”

Most of us aren’t living in the prison system, but it can still be pretty tough to be good.

Some people will tell you it’s most important to be smart.
Some people will tell you it’s most important to be cool.
Some people will tell you it’s most important to be successful.
Some people will tell you it’s most important to be tough.

If it’s most important to be smart, you’ll do what it takes to show how smart you are, even if that means making others look stupid.

If it’s most important to be cool, you’ll do whatever the cool people do, whether it makes any sense or not.

If it’s most important to be successful, it makes sense to cheat, as long as you don’t get caught.

If it’s most important to be tough, you’d better not show gentleness or compassion or show sadness or fear.

It can be hard to be good, unless goodness is the goal. So how can we restructure our communities to make sure that it is?

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc

letter e

A lot of people say that youth need things to be exciting if it’s going to interest them. This is probably true. But what excites them?

When I was a preteen and a teen, I got excited when I was able to experience things that weren’t allowed when I was younger. Signing up for elective classes of my choosing, going away to summer camp, and wearing pointe shoes in ballet class all fell into this category.

I got excited when I accomplished something that took a lot of effort. Finally getting my bar routine in gymnastics in one continuous motion was exciting. Being accepted into the Senior Youth Orchestra and playing more difficult music than I’d ever tried before was exciting, too.

I got excited when I was able to make new friends. Student council and after-school clubs were exciting.

I got excited when people recognized my achievements. Best poem in the whole school district? Exciting. Being asked to co-sign a declaration (which I’d written), with my mayor and my congressional representative as a high schooler? Very exciting.

I’ve forgotten most of the parties, the games, the shows. They were fun, which is important too. But not so exciting, in the end.

If you believe that youth are shallow, then those are the sorts of things that will need to be used in order to excite them. But if you think of them as people who are just gaining a broader and deeper perspective of the world, who are gaining new degrees of independence but are uncertain what to do with it, who spend their school days forced to do every kind of work but work that actually has an impact on the world … exciting could mean something different. It certainly did to me.

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc

letter d

Connecting with other people is scary business, and never more so than in middle school. When reputations are fragile and insecurity is the name of the game, being genuine is a truly dangerous step.

There are two things I can do about this, as an animator:

  1. I can alleviate the danger. I can build a micro-community in which trustworthiness is the norm, in which goodness and enthusiasm and truthfulness are admired, rather than exploited as weakness.
  2. I can help the youth to rise to the challenge. To accept the danger inherent in our culture, and develop the courage, strength, and detachment to live good lives in spite of it.

Of course, there’s always option three: pretend, like most adults do, that the danger doesn’t exist. Because the work that needs to be done to counteract it is itself frightening.

It’s a dangerous business, opening yourself up to caring about other people. Being an animator means learning to be brave.

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc

letter b

It’s easy to think of beauty as an extra, something nice but unimportant, when you’re doing meaningful work. But an ugly solution is only ever a band-aid, because it doesn’t inspire. The effort ends with the initiators.

I can’t work with young people without some kind of art. For some reason, the concept of learning + effort = improved results comes naturally to people when the goal in question is beauty, moreso than for science, or community, or anything else. Once they have the experience, it’s easy to point to it as evidence that it could work in other areas of their lives as well.

Whether we’re talking about 5-year-old children with coloring pages, junior youth personalizing their workbook covers with Sharpie markers, youth writing poetry, or adults copying quotations in calligraphy, there is a willingness to strive for beauty that seems to exist in everyone, regardless of skill.

It would be foolish to ignore this gift in the name of efficiency. Where were you planning on getting so efficiently, anyway? And why would you want to stay once you’ve arrived in an ugly place?

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc