Searching for the greatest gift
Wednesday, April 05, 2017
The Summer Day
By Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean —
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Behaving as UFC contestants, millions of Americans savagely attack and brutalize each other on Black Friday as they make their best efforts to snatch, grab and seize the gifts they demand for themselves and those on their Christmas lists.
Along with the daily overdose of violence that envelops us — whether in our home, our neighborhood, our city, our country, or in homes, neighborhoods, cities and countries far away — at the "holidays," we see extra shots of the worst of what we arrogantly call "humanity," by way of 24/7 news and online video sharing sites.
We can try to tune out, but save for living in a cave or in a remote area of a remote land, we can't escape. Even remote areas of remote lands have the Internet these days.
And no sooner are the gifts unwrapped than millions of Americans head back to the stores or to the long lines at the post office or shipping companies to return the gifts they've been given. UPS, which has for several years declared the first Thursday in January "National Returns Day," notes that nearly 6 million packages will have been returned during the first week of January 2017.
I am certainly not the first, nor will I be the last, to confront with dismay the issue of what the genuine "reason for the season" is; but my question — one others have pondered — casts a wider net: What is a gift?
I am increasingly sure that my question is rooted in my mother's early death. She developed cancer when I was a small child, battled it nobly for 13 years and died of it when I was 20.
I am increasingly sure that my question has been nurtured by father's health battles and his untimely death. On the eve of my GREs, he suffered a heart attack, had triple bypass surgery on New Year's Day, recovered moderately well, developed cancer two years later and died six years after my mom.
At 26, I had buried both parents. Did gifts even exist?
My answer has advanced and retreated, has developed and devolved, has evolved and matured. It has been formed by the noble and necessary lives and work of Elie Wiesel, Viktor Frankl, Arnost Lustig and Anne Frank. More recently, it has been informed by Sheryl Sandberg's open letter about navigating her grief emerging from the sudden death of her beloved husband, Dave Goldberg, who died suddenly at age 47.
Never has my answer been as crystallized as it is now, ever since viewing Stacey Kramer's "The Best Gift I Ever Survived," a staggering three-minute-and-17-second testament to perspective, motivation, gratitude and what really matters.
Kramer's best gift? Her brain tumor.
I used Kramer's TED Talk for a class of 10th and 11th grade students whom I taught at Moscow's School #1253. I was invited to teach three classes to three groups of 10th and 11th graders, and with each class, I used a short TED Talk as the foundation for my lessons. Though the TED Talks differed from one another, they shared the theme of succeeding despite and because of obstacles and challenges and recognizing value where we see none.
Here is my lesson:
Begin by asking students, "What is a gift? What are examples of gifts?" Students brainstorm, and the teacher creates a mind map of their responses on the board. Discuss their answers.
Introduce the TED Talk and ask them to take notes to use in the discussions that will follow the video. Ask them to note vocabulary with which they are unfamiliar; spelling doesn't matter (my list: vitality, acquaintance, adoration, admiration, recalibrate, redefine, gem, "the gift that keeps on giving," alter).
This is a good lesson for reviewing noun-verb derivations, prefixes, catchphrases and slogans, sarcasm and irony, figurative and literal language, and homophones.
Following the video, have a large group discussion with students based on their responses to these questions:
- Who is the speaker?
- What is the gift she talks about?
- Why does she title her talk, "The best gift I ever survived"?
- What did she learn?
- What vocabulary are you unfamiliar with?
For the next part of the activity, have students work in pairs or small groups rather than in a large group, because — as I've noted in previous articles — I've found students are more apt to share in intimate settings rather than large groups when they are drawing upon personal information.
- What is the most unusual gift you've received? Who was it from? Why do you think it was unusual?
Ask if students want to share their answers with the class. The teacher should feel free to share as well.
Next, ask students to individually write their answers to the following questions; the teacher should write with them.
- Write about a time when you were not grateful. Why weren't you grateful?
- What did you learn from watching this TED Talk?
Ask students if anyone wants to share their responses, and the teacher should feel free to share as well.
Next, give students the following story starter and have each student finish the sentence. Then, have students pass their paper to the student to her left or right and continue the story, with each student adding one sentence. When students have written at least a paragraph, have students volunteer to read their stories to the class.
Story starter: Rosalyn remembered the most unusual gift she was ever given. It was ...
Discuss the stories.
Finally, ask students to create and illustrate posters enumerating how to practice gratitude, optimism and motivation. Hang the posters around the classroom and direct students to them throughout the school year.
More than 2,000 years ago, Roman philosopher Cicero asserted, "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others." And more than two millennia later, we continue to find value in Cicero's insight. LDS Elder James Faust has observed, "A grateful heart is the beginning of greatness."
Indeed, the field of positive psychology, "the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive," is "founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play" and is "focused on researching things that make life worth living."
Among other topics in positive psychology, researchers have investigated how to "boost well-being" using interventions and have examined "gratitude and adolescents' subjective well-being in school."
Emmons and Stern, who research gratitude and its efficacy in treating mental illness, affirm, "Gratitude practice can be a catalyzing and relational healing force." Froh, Sefick and Emmons found that "Counting blessings seems to be an effective intervention for well-being enhancement in early adolescents." The University of Oregon College of Education solicits students' thank-you messages, which are displayed on a large screen during the graduation ceremony and are connected to a webpage for later viewing; the page includes gratitude videos.
At the conclusion of my School #1253 lessons, a 10th grader approached me. Nastya told me how she had been worried and nervous about upcoming tests, but having participated in the lesson, she was encouraged.
"You can do it! You can do it!" I reassured her.
As she left the classroom, she looked back at me, and with a broad smile and raised her arms. She said, "I can do it!"
Late that night, when both Nastya and I should have been sleeping, she sent me an email:
I'm sorry if I pronounced your name wrong:(( I'm Nastya M. from school 1253(10 "L" grade) I hope you still remember me:) I again want to thank you for this amazing motivation that you gave me today. I've never had such a cool English lesson in my life. You're funny, aussome and very emotional(as me;))
Hoping to see you again:)"
Consider presenting this lesson near the December school vacation, as I did, when many students' and parents' minds are on the excesses of the holidays and not on one's "wild and precious life."
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