As I turned on my computer for the day I chanced to glance at a message from the Dali Lama on my wall. “Follow the three R’s: Respect for self. Respect for others. Responsibility for all your actions.”
Before starting my normal writing routine I quickly scanned newspaper headlines. Immediately the headline, “Men ‘too ashamed’ to report sex attacks,” jumped out at me. I then saw a story about an 11-year-old girl who had given birth after years of sexual abuse by a 30-year-old friend of her grandparents. This was not a good way to begin my day, I decided.
Yet only two days ago a similar story began my day. This time it wasn’t from a newspaper. I had been awakened at 6:00 a.m. by the sound of a truck’s air brakes and got up and quickly dressed to witness the delivery of a house onto a very steep block, curious to see how they would accomplish this seemingly impossible feat.
One of the builders chatted to me while hydraulics lifted and lowered wheels in a caterpillar-like creep down the steep descent. He spoke of the ‘unnatural’ order of events in his life. In particular, he was distressed that his eighteen-year marriage had ended in bitterness. He said he could never figure out his wife’s strange behaviour. Later he discovered that her father had sexually abused her on the nights her mother went out to play bingo.
By now you are probably wondering what all this has to do with the Dali Lama’s three R’s. If these three R’s were the most important part of children’s education, it is my belief that we would live in a vastly different world.
A few years ago I taught at a school where the bullying and playground fighting was so bad that it not only made the children unhappy, but it interfered with their learning as well. Perhaps you have already guessed it. Yes, I used the Dali Lama’s three R’s to address the problem.
The children showed little respect for themselves, each other, or me. And they could not take responsibility for the fact that their actions inflamed their unhappy situation in the playground. They practiced a “payback” mentality that created a never-ending cycle of fighting. This was highlighted in one of their drawings, and I used it to teach them about the ripple effect of their actions. Simultaneously, I also used created creative drama and art to create self-transforming experiences that would enable them to begin to learn to love themselves.
From my experience counselling people with a history of child abuse, I knew that by learning how to love themselves, they also learned self-respect. With self-respect they learned to respect others. And by respecting others, they learned to take responsibility for their actions by considering their impact on the big movie screen of life.
To demonstrate to the children the ripple effect of people’s actions, I used the example of the events leading to the First World War and how they ended up creating such a huge ripple effect that millions of people fought in that war – even from New Zealand – resulting in 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded.
To bring this war closer to them in reality, I read to them each morning a chapter from Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, a story of the First World War and what it was like fighting in the trenches, seen through the eyes of a horse.
It was a sobering experience for a little class of children ranging from eight to twelve-years-old, yet it set the scene for them to learn to become responsible for how their behaviour impacted others.
So now let’s backtrack to this morning’s headlines. The first sentence in one reads:
“A Hamilton man accused of abducting, stupefying and sexually assaulting two men is likely to have attacked other victims who may be too ashamed to come forward, police say.”
Right here there is a ripple effect happening. It is not the beginning of the ripple effect, however. The article goes on to say that the two victims of his crime were “traumatised and upset”. The ripple effect of this is that it could lead to future mental health problems within these men. Depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are possible outcomes, for rape is the highest risk factor for developing PTSD. Ripple effects can then go on from this to impact every aspect of their lives, including their relationships.
I know this because a male friend told me about a maths teacher who sexually abused him when he was five years old while at a boarding school in Sydney during World War II. This is the ripple effect it had on his life…
On leave from the Korean War, he was hitchhiking in Australia and a man stopped, pulled a gun on him and told him to get in the car. The man drove to secluded place and anally raped him.
My friend married a woman who was also sexually abused as a child, but the marriage broke up because his wife could not reconcile her trauma. They had one child whom his wife refused to let him visit.
While at a diner in Sydney, someone drugged his coffee and he awoke on a train with his underpants stuffed in a pocket, and feeling that he had been pack raped.
He married again and had three more children. The marriage broke up after his wife became a prostitute. When she remarried, her husband repeatedly sexually abused my friend’s daughter, who was just 12 or 13 years old.
The story does not have a happy ending.
Although my friend is a gentle man and never hurt or abused anyone, there are some who want to harm others because of their abuse. Years ago I counselled a 24-year-old man whose father had anally raped him at three when his marriage broke up. His anger was so intense that he felt like doing to little boys what his father had done to him. Thankfully he was able to work through the anger that threatened to derail his life and sabotage his new career.
However for many, the shame and pain of sexual abuse usually prevents them from seeking professional help. While some turn the anger against themselves, creating a vicious cycle of struggling to survive when they should be thriving, others will do unto others what was done to them. And if they don’t, they may turn to child pornography to revisit their own abuse (often unconsciously), yet never integrate it.
We know nothing of what happened in the childhoods of the young men described in the headlines today. Somewhere in their past lies a ‘cause’ for the ripple effect of abuse they are creating today. For instance, one study of 14 juveniles condemned to death for murder in the US in 1987, revealed that 12 had been brutally physically abused and five had been sodomized by relatives as children.
Perhaps no one knows about this ripple effect better than Andrew Vachss. While he was working as an investigator for the U.S. Public Health Service’s syphilis task force, he came across a man with a lacerated penis. Upon further investigation, he discovered he’d injured himself while molesting his own infant child. Vacchs said in one interview:
I thought I’d met Satan. Who else could do this? But then, when I saw that there were people who were not only like him, but that they were friends of his, and when I found there was money to be made, that you could traffic in it – yeah, it fried my nerves.
This so affected Vachss that it created another ripple effect. His anger and disgust over what he saw propelled him into law school to become an advocate for abused children. This is what he has to say about the ripple effect of abuse after years of representing children in law courts.
“The maltreated child cries, ‘I hurt!’ If we don’t listen, and listen quickly, the same cry for help will turn prophetic: The unanswered plea for help will evolve into a deadly pattern. Only a tiny percentage of abused children actually die from their torture, but the survivors are the recruits for an ever-growing army of predatory criminals. Today’s victim is tomorrow’s predator.
“Does this mean that every abused child will grow into a monster? No. But when the monster does emerge, the fallout is incalculable.”
So perhaps it is time to add another “R” to the curriculum at every school: Ripple effect. And for children to have such a sound understanding of it that they will learn to think before they act, knowing that there is a ripple effect of good, bad, or evil for every action they take, for which they are ultimately responsible.
By learning to respect ourselves and others, the ripple effect is positive, as it was for the children I taught. In their own words, here are some of the outcomes they appreciated during our time together.
“Out in the playground I think it is great. We all play happily together.”
“The most important thing I learned would be simple ways to do maths and how to be happy without making someone else unhappy.”
“A thing I found pretty important this year was probably maths and behaviour, not only in the class but outside too.”
“I appreciated that there’s no fighting and yelling at people.”
“My greatest achievement is in my behaviour. I have been more appreciative and caring.”
“Salf asteem because when I first came here I didn’t know it.”
“The most important thing I learnt was to appreciate more, discipline myself and respect others as well as myself.”
“Out in the playground I have stopped arguing so much and started playing and including people in games.”
“The important thing I learnt was how to care for people and to have a high self-esteem.”
So what did I learn? That having Respect for self, Respect for others, taking Responsibility for all our actions by being aware of their Ripple Effect, can not only dramatically change the tone of a school and the children’s level of happiness, but also have a positive impact on academic achievement.
This is what we need to think about: Do we want schools to continue to turn children into cogs for the machine of economic growth, which shows no respect for them as human beings? Or can schools educate children to grow into caring adults, able to work co-operatively for the highest good of all?
Perhaps it is time to start thinking about the Ripple effect of our actions (and inaction) on the generations to come.