View From Glen Hill: Living richly in community

You can find insights of this season in unexpected places.

Michael Fowlin Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, actor and poet. He has spoken before school groups and in other venues around the country on discrimination, inclusiveness, and personal identity. This past week at the invitation of Principal Bob O’Donnell, he spoke in two 90-minute assemblies to every student in Wilton High School, filling both times the entire Clune Center Auditorium.

With brilliant, often witty, and always insightful characterizations and constant interaction with his audience — who were thoroughly engaged in his presentation! — he conveys great truths in ways that really drive to the heart of the matter — and to the heart.

“Hurt people hurt people — some are walking time bombs,” Fowlin said. Clinical psychologist and Wiltonian Dr. Beth Baker Fuller put it especially well recently: “Hatred is directly proportional to the helplessness people feel.” Fowlin’s prescription:

“If someone is cruel to you, then find a way to be kind to them,” and he told the story of the bully who accosted him at school every day and stole his lunch. So young Michael Fowlin asked his mother to pack him two sandwiches every day, and each day, he gave one to the bully. The two eventually became best friends — turns out the boy had a dysfunctional family and basically ate only what he could steal from others; no one else had ever shown him compassion. So Fowlin encourages, “Take your pain and turn it into something positive. … What do people 90 and older say is their chief regret? ‘I wish I’d done more things that will live on after I’m dead.’”

Fowlin adds, “If we are all different from each other, why do we hate differences?” He quoted the words of a college senior’s commencement address: “We’re in this together; let’s make it the best.” He continues that we should celebrate others, take joy in their accomplishments, laugh with them, help them through their sadnesses. “Know that the kid next to you with the best grades may be the most anxious kid in school, feeling constantly, ‘Will I be able to keep this performance up?!’”

So after saying, “What you see is not always what you think you see” and “What you hear is not always what is being said,” we see Fowlin acting out a series of characters with vivid life stories whose outward appearances do not reflect who they really are inside. They are seen by others as stereotypes, yet their actual life experiences reflect the diversity of all life. He drives home that “my pain is my gift and it is uniquely mine.” With it, we can find ways to better comprehend how others are hurting and help them.

Fowlin observes that the things you will remember throughout your life with profound regret are the times you could have reached out with compassion but did not. And lo and behold, not even a day later one of my closest friends told a group of us over lunch about the autobiography he is slowly writing for his kids, covering so far only his youth. He said he remembers vividly two times, one when he was only a five-year-old and the other in middle school, when he could have helped others being attacked at school for their ethnicity and their race but didn’t. Over a half-century later, his regret is as vivid as his memory.

In the parking lot at Middlebrook School this past week, a car displayed on its rear window, attributed to Dawn Lafferty Hochspring, “Be nice to each other. It’s really all that matters.”

And it is especially fitting that Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukah fall on the same day this year. The foundational truths of both faiths are grounded in love and express it in reaching beyond oneself to help others: The powerful Jewish Talmudic precept “He who saves one person saves the world” is based on the Hebrew Bible’s injunction to “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” And Christianity has within its foundational teachings Jesus’ own story — offered in answer to a questioner’s follow-up inquiry, “But who is my neighbor?” — of the Good Samaritan stopping to care compassionately for a grievously injured person unknown to him lying by the roadside after others had passed by, heedless of his desperate need. The moral: Our neighbor is everyone.

As we experience this season of lights and enlightenment, it is well to remember who we are and what it is that leads to the greatest fulfillment in life.