"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Passing down stories — and life’s lessons

By on August 28, 2018 in Columnist with 0 Comments

June DarlingBy June Darling

Recently our entire family — my husband and I, our sons and their wives, and their children — took 11 days to experience Tennessee together.

I was raised in Tennessee and my mother still lives there. It was billed as a generations and roots trip. Four generations of us, from all over the country, all together.

The teacher in me cares a lot about what everyone, especially kids know. I wanted to make sure the grandkids knew how to line dance and how to sing the Tennessee Waltz, On Top of Ole Smokey, and Rocky Top. We visited the Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, ate at Cracker Barrel, saw Rock City, hiked the Smokies, and brought in fresh eggs from the chicken coop.

After the trip, as I looked through a few of the pictures, I began thinking more earnestly about what I wanted my kids and grandkids to know so they can live the good life and contribute to making the world a better place.

There’s so much stuff out there calling for their attention — know this, be this, do this. Philosophers, psychologists, theologians, economists and basically every Tom, Dick and Harry has an opinion on what kids should be learning.

Here’s how I would strip it down.

My good life curriculum, for the generations who come after me, would not be all about visiting Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, although that might be a part. It would be fuller… the stuff not only of “head,” but also of “heart” and “guts.”

I’m not the first one to think of it that way.

Dorothy’s pals, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion who traveled with her along the Yellow Brick Road on their way to meet the Wizard of Oz had the idea first.

Researchers, like Robert McGrath and Ryan Niemiec at the VIA Institute on Character, have also used that analogy while promoting the broad importance of caring, of inquisitiveness (curiosity), and of self-control for a flourishing life.

Caring about others is about the heart the Tin Man wanted so badly. It consists of all those things that have been valued for hundreds of years in every society. Kindness, love, compassion, gratitude, fairness and forgiveness are all about caring for others.

Inquisitiveness and curiosity are about developing the head, the brain that the Scarecrow valued so highly. It’s about engaging with life, turning rocks over, looking at life from different angles, traveling to new places, listening, observing and being eager for new learning.

Self-control is about the guts it takes to challenge yourself to do scary, or boring, or difficult things. It’s about the courage the lion wanted, it’s about internal fortitude — managing impulses, it’s about perseverance, grit, hope, determination and resilience.

Caring, curiosity, self-control, that would be a big part of the curriculum for a successful, happy life I’d want to pass on, but how would I teach it? I can’t see myself standing around on street corners preaching. I doubt that would be effective anyway.

Modeling is a much more effective method of teaching than preaching. There’s that Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you’re saying.”

If I want my children, my grandchildren and all the children of the world to learn the head, heart and guts curriculum; I need to be able to model curiosity, caring and courage. Scary thought.

I’m fairly inquisitive, but not a paragon of caring and self-control. I could sometimes use a heart and guts myself.

For a moment, I was in a funk about not having a heart and guts until I thought back to the story of The Wizard of Oz. The Scarecrow realized that he did have a brain, the Tin Man found he had a heart and the Lion recognized his valor.

The idea I got from that story — and it’s backed by researchers like David Cooperrider — is when we shift our attention to what we are doing well, somehow it seems to grow – almost like magic.

When we notice our small and large instances of caring, curiosity and self-control, we increasingly become those things we long to be.

First goal, then, is to remind myself to notice and acknowledge my own and others’ head, heart and guts behaviors when I see them.

Another way we learn easily and powerfully is through sharing stories. I am on the lookout for head, heart and guts stories.

I’ve always liked the story of The Blind Men and the Elephant that has been around for hundreds of years. It’s a great head story.

Then there’s the Christian story of The Good Samaritan for great heart story and the Cherokee tale of Two Wolves for guts, as well as the Christian story of David and Goliath. These stories are easy to find.

Sharing our own personal head, heart and guts stories are also powerful ways to teach and learn.

During our Tennessee trip, as you might imagine, we had a conflict or two. Kindness and caring were needed. I remembered a personal heart story of kindness that led to a life-long friendship.

I remembered when I was 10 years old. I was the new girl at Manley Elementary School in Morristown, Tennessee. I was scared as I walked into the cafeteria. My hair seemed too curly. I felt I was too thin. My teeth were too crooked.

Everyone sat by their friends. Where would I sit?

As I looked around, trying at the same time to keep my shaking hands from dropping my tray of food, I spotted the star of the girls’ basketball team. She smiled broadly and waved.

“Come sit here with us,” she said.

That little story of kindness opened the door for a long, valuable conversation among all the grandchildren. They talked about times people had been kind to them, when they had been kind to others, and how friendships work.

September is a great month to metaphorically travel the yellow brick road to The Good Life together. Along the way, we can do a little line dancing and sing The Tennessee Waltz.

More importantly, we can make sure to notice instances of caring, curiosity and self-control. We can share stories of kindness, wisdom and courage. That’s how we leave a legacy of brain, heart and guts.

How might you move future generations up to The Good Life by teaching caring, curiosity, and self-control?

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