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  Sunday December 21st, 2014    

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Lessons learned (05/10/2009)
By Janet Lewis Burns
Proverbs impart wisdom to ponder. I found this Chinese proverb on a ginseng green tea bag: “One generation plants the trees and another gets the shade.” I wonder, who will be quoted from our era in the centuries to follow? What current, clever insights will be relevant and worthy of passing along decades from now? Like a domino effect, one thing leads to another as we live and learn.

It’s very possible that I saved my own life. Smoking cigarettes made me dizzy and extremely sick to my stomach. Back in the ‘60s it was the cool thing to do. The guys had their packs rolled up in their tee shirt sleeves and headed out for a smoke as soon as the bell rang. Some of us girls took to puffing without inhaling. The acrid scent put me in a funk.

If not for the adverse effects, I could be one of those pathetic addicts today, hanging out in deserted doorways with other societal outcasts, or shaking from frigid winds whipping around the corner of an office building, returning to work reeking of eau do cologne of tobacco.

Allowing our children and grandchildren to make mistakes, the ones that don’t hurt others or cause serious harm to themselves, is an impacting occasion for learning. “You’ll know better next time,” is a silent prayer their elders offer. Learning the hard way is more dangerous than ever. It seems like children are being stifled, by grownups’ fears, from feeling secure and simply being children. Heaven knows kids are forced to grow up fast, to compete more self-assertively in the arena of the employed, and to be more worldly than ever before. It’s all about “success at any cost,” “watch your back,” and “surround yourself with aggressive achievers.”

“Dare to fail” seems more reassuring. A very famous individual addressed a graduating class at Harvard last June with that message. She was once an unemployed, poverty-stricken, single mother, nearly homeless, who had given up her dream of writing novels. During this rock-bottom time she realized she had a wonderful daughter to care for, an old typewriter, and what turned out to be one brilliant idea!

Her success story can be found in May’s Reader’s Digest, in “The Bounce Back Chronicles.” She says, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which you fail by default.” “You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.”

This mystery lady is one of many Americans who are fearfully facing failure in this depressed economy. Anyone who hasn’t heard of Harry Potter must have been out for a very long lunch. Author J.K. Rowling is that gutsy writer who realized fame by approaching failure with confidence and belief in her abilities.

Another article, in the February Utne magazine, caught my eye. “The People’s Professor,” an interview by Courtney E. Martin, is a tribute to 70-year-old Professor Dennis Dalton. With his trademark sneakers and baggy jeans, Dalton had taught in the political science department of Columbia University in Harlem for 38 years, encouraging outsiders to slip into his powerful, unconventional lectures.

Dalton believes that “everyone is deserving. Everyone is capable of becoming the person he or she was supposed to be all along.” For the folks of Harlem, the professor added structure to their lives, “a man who filled their heads with theory, but no less than he filled their hearts with love.”

The most poignant statement Dalton passed on is, “We don’t need more intelligence. God knows we’ve got enough on this campus. What we need is more compassion.”

Professor Dennis Dalton has sown the seeds of diversity, human dignity, justice, and self-worth. Sadly, he retired, imparting these farewell words: “We must see that we are part of one another.” J.K. Rowling and Dennis Dalton “connected” with the masses in diverse, yet impacting, ways.

Our background and upbringing may have influenced who we are – but we are responsible for who we become.

Janet Burns lives in Lewiston. She can be reached at patandjanburns@emarqmail.com.

 

 

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