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Few things are black and white

July 27, 2015

“Only you can prevent forest fires.” I remember it as something said by Smokey the Bear, but apparently it’s just “Smokey Bear”—who will be at Alpine Park Wednesday at 10:00 a.m. for story time. Don’t miss it. Every generation should meet Smokey.

It’s not Smokey “the” Bear. Many people don’t have middle names these days. It’s also one of those mistakes like saying Woolworths for Woolworth. Or Walmarts for Walmart. Which was first incorporated as Wal-Mart, but it’s hard to pronounce a hyphen.

And now, Smokey says, “Only you can prevent wildfires.” The point is, it’s a lesson in karma.

I don’t mean a complex mystical accounting of merit by which your next life is assigned, but rather the understanding of cause and effect, of one’s responsibility in an infinitely interconnected world, and of the true power in one’s intentions.

That’s a lot to put on Smokey, I know, but he’s tough. And it’s good to attend to how and what young children learn. You may have noticed a recent report of an impressive study made over two decades in which social ability in kindergarten was strongly associated with certain measures of success in adulthood.

If you hear teachers talk of “social-emotional” skills, this is where their concern lies. In the study, kindergarteners who by nature or training were helpful and inclined to share and resolve conflicts were much more likely to have finished college and been employed by age 25.

Few things are black and white; the study doesn’t conclude “this equals that.” But there was a very strong, impressive correlation that supports looking for social-emotional struggles early and providing help.

Children change fast, so we might as well help them change well. And the fact is, everything is changing, and fast, including all of us, but we imagine ourselves to have reached some stasis in adulthood. (Thank goodness this isn’t true.)

If you’re curious about the idea of karma, the library conveniently has a new book titled “Karma: what it is, what it isn’t, why it matters.” It’s by Traleg Kyabgon, a Tibetan tulku who was also well-schooled in western philosophy and, conveniently, fluent in English. The book makes a fascinating examination of karmic theory for Westerners.

In part, the book is aimed at Western Buddhists, who tend to ignore the ideas of karma altogether because of the baggage of reincarnation. This author has the expertise to explain the history of these ideas, the difference between rebirth and reincarnation (something akin to a Christian notion of an enduring soul and life after death), and the power in the ideas of karma—which involves our connectedness and the fact that we cannot act without consequences.

There are simple circumstances, such as the cluelessness of the guy in the Steamboat Springs library (where I wrote this), who walked by a very obvious sign “Please respect the silence” with an image of a cell phone Xed out, but who loudly recited his credit card number, and host of others, to customer service somewhere.

His cell phone was loud enough for all to hear the replies 40 feet away. I should have recorded the numbers so I could show him the potential consequences of his actions, but would I have been doing it out of kindness? Not at the moment I first thought of it … which creates a more complicated karmic circumstance.

Appreciating the complexity of our connectedness, our intentions, and our actions is a lifelong endeavor. There’s a certain large truth in Smokey’s words: Only we can prevent wildfires.

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