Shortly before coming back to the U.S. for a mid-service vacation, I read the book Cesar’s Way by Cesar Millan, the famous dog trainer from the show “The Dog Whisperer.” I don’t agree with all parts of Cesar’s philosophy. I think he associates dogs too much with wolves (they are, after all, distinct species, even though dogs did descend from wolves of centuries passed). And I think he’s a little too, I don’t know, primal about the whole thing. Like when he talks about getting up at 4 in the morning to run with a pack of dozens of dogs through the mountains. Who does that?? Nevertheless, he clearly has a way with animals and a natural intuition about behavior that most of us are completely out of touch with.
One of Cesar’s key points is about balance. Every dog, he asserts, requires exercise, discipline, and affection – in that order – to be healthy mentally. If you give them too much of one and not enough of the others, you’ll put them out of balance and cause stress. He attributes most dogs’ behavioral problems in U.S. households to owners giving too much affection and not enough discipline or exercise. People too, need some measure of all three, and I would also add other things like work and relaxation to the mix. Work clearly overlaps with discipline and possibly exercise, but relaxation merits its very own time slot in our lives.
Being in Minnesota was nice. Friends, family, food – all in abundance. It took a nightmarish time in and between airports (involving all manner of airline and customer service malfunction), but I did eventually make it home last month to spend a few weeks on vacation. I spent the first week at a family reunion in the Brainerd Lakes Area – something my dad’s side of the family has done almost every summer for the past 25 years or so. We catch small fish, grill in the rain (though it was sunny this year – a miracle!), and play passive aggressive Scandinavian Taboo (in which we debate every point then say “oh, but we’re not keeping score.”)
After the reunion, back at home, I spent much of my time eating (and gained 7 pounds by the end of the vacation). I also became addicted to Downton Abbey. My mother is to blame for that. “It’s like Pride and Prejudice – for hours!” she exclaimed when we sat down together to watch the first episode. My younger brother was slightly less enthused. “Oh goodie,” he said, “All our favorite English actors in a whole TV series with a mildly depressing theme.”
There was not much balance during my short vacation at home. It was quite heavy on the fun and leisure side of things. All that socializing and relaxing as a short-term event served its purpose well, but had I continued on that trajectory much longer, I would have actually become quite stressed. In fact, by the end of it, I’m afraid I may have already begun getting crabby with people. But vacation is vacation. Next time I return to the U.S., it won’t be vacation, it will be moving back home, so things will be different. This was my intermission during Peace Corps service.
I didn’t have the time or energy to do as much or visit with as many people as I had hoped, but I unexpectedly learned a lot. There were certain things I had been puzzling through in Benin – things that didn’t make sense to me for so long until I saw again the contrast with American culture. I think I understand now, for instance, why children are treated the way they are in Benin. It used to seem to me that parents in Benin didn’t really love their children. Kids are yelled at, beaten, and made to work, and as babies, they are routinely force-fed in what must be a horrifically frightening experience. I have lived in Benin for a year, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a parent playing with their kid. And while this is still disturbing to me, I realize now that this may just be an example of parenting that’s out of balance – all discipline, very little affection. It doesn’t mean the parents don’t love their children, but in Beninese culture, sensitive or nurturing behavior is generally seen as weak. Discipline is strength; affection is weakness.
On the other end of the spectrum, in the U.S. we are more likely to nurture too much – to tell every child they are oh so special and perfect. To kiss their every boo-boo and softly caress their egos when they’ve had their feelings hurt. But it’s hard to see one’s own lack of balance when everyone around is out of balance in the same way. It would be great then, wouldn’t it, if we’d look outside our own culture more often to see things from a different point of view? Wouldn’t it be great if more parents in Benin could see how affection does in fact promote strong, healthy development, and if more parents in the U.S. could see how stricter discipline can build life skills and character? (I am not, by the way, advocating for the type of physical punishment I see often in Benin, but I do think most kids in the U.S. could benefit from stricter, non-abusive discipline.) But all this is only possible when you realize that on the whole, parents in Benin and parents in the U.S. do both love their children very much.
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If the time I’ve already spent as a Peace Corps volunteer were on one side of a scale and the time I anticipate continuing to spend as a Peace Corps volunteer on the other, the scale would be level. Balanced. It came at a good time then – my vacation home. It gave me the chance to recharge for year two and reaffirm the value of two of Peace Corps’ three main goals: cross-cultural exchange. As volunteers, we tend to focus on the technical aspect of our jobs, but it is equally worthwhile to be encouraging empathy through a better understanding of cultural differences in societies around the world.
So here’s to hoping for more balance and harmony in our world. One year down, one to go.