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  • Writer's pictureCassie Janisch

GET IN THE ARENA


How many people do you know who live life tentatively? Always keeping one foot out of the door ready to move on when there is the slightest sign of discomfort? This is an essay about the value of a community like ours. Community building is slow, messy and sometimes uncomfortable work. A healthy community is not one that never experiences conflict or challenges, it is one that stretches into the discomfort and grows in response to them. A healthy


community is one that is prepared to do whatever it takes to grow stronger. Teddy Roosevelt made a famous speech in 1909 called “Citizenship in a Republic,” which would come to be known as “The Man in the Arena”:


“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”


As the founder of Misty Meadows School, and its director over the last 11 years, I have witnessed the highs and lows, joys and struggles of community building. I have seen how many people dip their toes into this experience and then step away, always with a good excuse about why this school is wrong for them. What I have come to realise, though, is that one community is probably as good as any other – the point is not to strive for a perfect utopia where nothing ever goes wrong. The point of community is to get in the arena and participate, and to use the feedback from the members of the community as a mechanism for personal growth. When you grow, your community grows, and when your community grows, you grow. The human equation is as simple as that.


What we have at Misty Meadows is a beautifully diverse community of individuals who are in the arena of life together. Sometimes it looks pretty messy in this arena: uncomfortable truths get told, behaviour is not always impeccable, conflicts occur, and sometimes it feels a bit like absolute chaos. The point I am making is that being in the arena of life does not mean eternal ease and comfort, it means that you are growing through your participation, and finding the strong parts of yourself that you didn’t even know you had. Often, when we find ourselves having to deal with challenges, the easiest option feels like leaving and going somewhere easier. Many people leave relationships for this reason, or they immigrate, or they keep changing schools, or take their children out of school altogether. The problem with these solutions is that they made the problem outside of the self, and what often happens with this approach is that you end up just replacing your last problem with a new problem in an ongoing cycle. One of the things I am coming to believe quite strongly is that we need to learn how to stay in community through our discomfort, and to find our authentic voice and share it with each other. We need to seek harmony through our participation in the arena called life with a group of others, not by sitting on the sidelines.


BENEFICIAL ADVERSARIES


I have been down a Jordan Peterson rabbit hole over the last couple of months. I know he’s not everybody’s cup of tea, because he has a lot of very strong opinions about a lot of different subjects. I have found that I really like a lot of what he says, particularly about children and learning. One of the talks I listened to was entitled: “This is how to prepare your children for the world”. As someone who is deeply fascinated by this subject, I was interested to hear what he had to say.


Peterson argues that what children need most in life are “beneficial adversaries” – people who push them enough that they grow optimally without being destroyed. He argues that all children want optimal partners in play (not doormats or tyrants), because optimized play optimizes their development. I have watched enough hours of frisbee at the Polo Club to have observed that children enjoy the game so much more when the match is close. Every child I know would rather win a frisbee match 15-14 that 15-0. And when the match does go to 15-14, they actually don’t even really care who won in the end, because they felt thoroughly challenged and engaged by the process of playing the game.


So, Peterson argues that the point of life is not for children never to be challenged – the point is for that challenge to be at just the right level for it to be most beneficial to their development. This is what elders, siblings and peers (a community) are actually for. They provide the beneficial adversaries that children need in order to develop optimally. An optimal learning environment is therefore one that honours the spirit of reciprocal play with beneficial adversaries, and supports and enables children to get better as staying within an appropriate range of reciprocal engagement, so that all of the participating parties optimize their growth and development, and nobody optimizes their growth at the expense of another. This sometimes looks quite wobbly and chaotic on a day-to-day basis, as individual children hit boundaries and make mistakes and have to recalibrate and try again. The journey towards sustainable, optimal group harmony is the goal – not to arrive there, but to continue journeying in that direction always, in all ways.


I would suggest that the goal for all humans should be to be likeable enough that they can optimize their own growth and development, whilst also pushing others to achieve their optimal growth and development. Nobody is attracted to a pushover the way they are attracted to someone who pushes them to stretch and grow. We do not want obedient children who roll over whenever they are challenged. We want children who know how to stretch into a challenge, and are developing the coping skills to handle an increasing range of challenges… even if this means they sometimes get it wrong, or challenge us, or make us feel very uncomfortable as they grow even beyond where we feel comfortable.


So, if humans develop optimally when people challenge us, we shouldn’t be so quick to remove all of the challenges in our children’s lives. We want to help our children stay in the optimal range of beneficial challenges, and to find this range they need to keep participating in the arena of life. Even when days are hard and it feels like a hopelessly bloody battlefield, we have to learn the lessons and integrate them, so that we don’t end up getting the same lesson over and over again in different forms. We also don’t want our children to remain children needing protection from adults forever. Peter Pan is a story about children not wanting to grow up. Jordan Peterson says that there is “a sacrificial element to maturation”. Childhood is pure potentiality. Growing up you have to sacrifice pure potentiality for the actuality of a choice. Who are you going to be? And who do you have to stop being in order to be that? He says “an old infant is an ugly thing. The sacrifice is inevitable, but at least you get to choose it”.


At this school we aspire to harmony, and to finding harmonious solutions to challenges, rather than polarizing to good/bad or right/wrong too quickly. Seeking harmony does not mean avoiding conflict or struggle, it means learning to navigate the conflict and struggle, so that even the conflict and struggle is, in essence, harmonious, and ultimately leading to our optimal growth. We also aspire to supporting children to make good choices about what to sacrifice, and what to develop, on their own unique paths to adulthood.


Many people have arrived at Misty Meadows over the years expecting to find utopia, and then been bitterly disappointed by what they have encountered here, and left. Many of those people keep moving on – the next school fails, and then the next one too, and some decide to homeschool. The reason I personally reject homeschooling as a high-quality choice for children is that, whilst it is certainly easier never to face the adversities of a more complex ecosystem, never to be told you are wrong, and to live in a comfortable and safe bubble, as I have already mentioned we have to learn to rise to challenges, and to embrace and transcend some discomfort to grow optimally. No doubt some people incarnated on planet earth to find the easiest ride and avoid all confrontation and discomfort along the way, but I doubt that is true for most of us. This community works best for the families that are not seeking “the perfect school”, but rather seeking an environment for their families to grow into their best, most integrated and self-actualised selves, through the right balance of comfort and discomfort.


Misty Meadows offers a community of adults as committed to their own personal growth as to that of the children they mentor and facilitate, a diverse community of peers for children to rub against, play, explore and grow with, a wide range of curiosity catalysts and experiences that help children develop physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social, muscle; as well as many models of behaviour that both work, and don’t work, effectively. As someone who hangs out in this community every day, I can tell you that it is where I feel most fully and authentically alive in my life. I think many of the other regulars at Misty Meadows will agree.


THE CHILDREN ARE ACTUALLY FINE, ITS US ADULTS THAT NEED HEALING


I recently met up with an ex-Misty Meadows parent who took her children to another school because she was worried that they were going to be left behind academically at Misty Meadows. Not only are her children absolutely flying academically at their new school (to her surprise), but she also confessed that she has started to notice how her daughter’s general behaviour has improved as she (the mother) has worked on herself. This was such honesty from her, and I admired her deeply for recognizing it. I see this all the time – children are the embodiment of their family struggles. It is never as simple as the problem being ‘out there’ (one we can run away from, or demonize). As we open up to our own authentic selves, warts and all, and stop making excuses and making others (the opposite gender, other people’s children, teachers, school, South Africa, other races and income groups) the problem, the problems miraculously transform, and sometimes they even disappear altogether.


What I have come to realise from all these years running Misty Meadows is that maybe school is not actually about the children at all. They are just our society’s mirrors, and it is us adults that really need the healing. As we heal ourselves, our children thrive more. I see it all the time. Yes, Misty Meadows is a school for children, but it is also a healing center for us adults to find and reconnect with our most authentic selves. I would like to invite more parents on this healing journey with us. Get in the arena and grow with us – come and spend time at school and get to know our community better. But please jump in with both feet and don’t keep one foot out of the door for a quick escape when it gets a little uncomfortable. We all thrive when we all figure out how to thrive together. Bring your warts.

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