A Little Heartbreak

There is a French translation of this essay.  You can also read this article en Francais.

Yesterday I was at a park with Stella and my son Cary, who is five years old. There was another boy there, perhaps a year younger than Cary, who wanted to make friends. He was there with his grandparents. His grandmother had been following him around, hovering over him, issuing him warnings and instructions on how to play. The grandfather was with his little sister. He yelled at her when she slipped off the swing herself instead of waiting for him to lift her off. She was two.

Cary is outgoing and charismatic. Soon the boy was running all over the playground with him, free now of the grandmother, who couldn’t keep up. They played for about half an hour, now rough-and-tumble, now holding hands. Sometimes the sister joined in, in a group hug. Abruptly, the grandparents decided it was time to leave. The boy was disappointed. “You can play with him again next time,” they lied.

Exuberant and mischievous, the boy held the lever shut on the gate exiting the playground. He so wanted to stay! His grandma couldn’t pry his fingers loose. As the grandfather stepped forward menacingly, I coaxed the gate up and the boy started running around the parking lot, irrepressible. The next instant he tripped and sprawled hard onto the pavement, his forearms breaking his fall. “Good!” The word exploded from the grandfather’s mouth. Quickly they hustled the sobbing boy and bewildered girl into the car and drove off.

This incident cast a shadow over my heart, trifling though it may seem compared to Reaper drones blowing up school buses, paramilitaries torturing indigenous environmentalists, and the genocide unfolding right now in Cameroon.

The events in Yemen, Guatemala, and Cameroon are in some sense theoretical, impacting me mostly via stories. I have not witnessed those events. Instead, I am shown a little boy, hurt and shamed by the people he is biologically inclined to trust the most. Through him, I can feel a whole world of hurt because all of these phenomena are part of each other. Alienated, traumatized, damaged little boys grow up to be the kind of men who launch drone campaigns and genocide. A world where small children experience a violation of their sovereignty is inevitably a world where the rainforests, whales, soil, and water suffer a similar violation.

I saw that boy, his tenderness and openness, his perplexity at the seemingly random violence from those he loves, his valiant attempt to understand why he is not trusted and why playtime is so short. So small he was, doing his best to make sense of a wrongness far beyond his ken. I peered into his future of classrooms and doctor’s offices, ADHD prescriptions and anxiety meds, addiction, and self-blame. What will he become when his dismay and perplexity turns to depression? When his depression turns to rage? When his rage turns to entitlement?

Maybe someday he will become a perpetrator in his own right. Maybe he will be like Brett Kavanaugh, a drunken frat boy shoving his penis in women’s faces.

Hold on a second.

Did you notice the dehumanizing slur, “frat boy”? It is socially acceptable to dehumanize the bad guys, isn’t it. Because you and I are on Team Good, fighting Team Evil. Humanize them, and you render aid and comfort to the enemy. We must screen out any redeeming qualities or exculpatory history so that we can arouse maximum contempt for those we must conquer to achieve a better world. Such is the mentality of war.

To humanize the enemy truly does hamper the war effort. If we hope to solve climate change by inciting hatred for the greedy, lying, climate-denying assholes in the fossil fuel companies, then it does not help to point out that in their world, they are the good guys, operating in a corporate culture and political subculture that validate what they are doing. It does not help to point out that the economy and industrial system they serve is addicted to fossil fuels. Nor does it aid the war effort to observe the imperative for endless growth in consumption in a money system based on interest-bearing debt. Besides, these conditions admit no easy solution. Better stick with fighting the bad guys.

Better stick to shaming the frat boys. Better stick to calling out the bigots and misogynists. Better stick to locking up the criminals. Better stick to building walls to keep out the immigrants. Better stick with controlling the behavior. Better stick with punishing that little boy.

I wanted to help him. I wanted to tell the grandma, “By hovering over him all the time, you communicate to him, ‘You are not trustworthy.’” I wanted to tell the grandpa, “By dominating and punishing him, you are teaching him to dominate and punish.” Certainly, the boy’s pain evoked a deep pain in myself, from which I wanted to dominate and punish the grandpa, to shame him, to make him feel as bad as the boy did, as bad as I did.

That deep-rutted habit of solving a problem by fighting rarely serves its intended purpose. It might have felt gratifying to tell them off, thinking that I was “defending” the boy, but what would have happened when they got home? Would I have changed any of the conditions behind the grandparents’ actions? What pain were they acting from, exacerbated perhaps by the fear we were judging them for not controlling the children, and the mute discomfort of interacting with strangers in a public place. They were hurting people.

What were they feeling and thinking, and what hurt? Those questions are the genesis of creative response beyond confrontation. In the absence of understanding, fighting or inaction are the only choices. If you can win, fight. If you can’t, retreat. But then, the strong and the violent rule the world.

I didn’t have the presence to ask those questions. It all happened too fast. I replay the scene. What could have I said or done had I been more present?

Well, I did nothing. I can only hold him in my heart and wish a miracle for him. I know I will have more chances to help him – help him by proxy. You can help too, any time you are in a difficult scene with a child. By upholding the sovereignty of one child we further the sovereignty of all children and all beings.

I would like to invite you to join me in a prayer for that boy. Properly understood, a prayer is not a request for supernatural intercession in the affairs of the world. A true prayer is a declaration of willingness. When we pray for someone’s health, what God hears is, “I am willing to respond to an opportunity to serve that person’s health.” When we pray for the health of the Amazon, what God hears is, “I am willing to respond to opportunities to serve the health of the Amazon.” The opportunity will show itself, whether directly or by proxy. You probably won’t meet that boy, but there will be a child, maybe your child. Because of your prayer, you will remember not to shame her, not to shout at her, not to punish her, not to speak fake words to her, not to manipulate her with conditional approval. Maybe you will remember patience. Maybe you will drop the judgments upwelling from your own pain. Maybe you will inquire, what is it like to be here in this moment? Acting from this place, you alter the morphogenetic field of the world and help the little boy and all traumatized beings. You will have done what is yours to do.

The boy can’t know you’ve done it, but in some mysterious way, he will know – in a time outside of time he will look at you with grateful eyes.


  1. I don’t know, Charles, about the deep reluctance I sense you feel when it comes to the direct condemnation of and confrontation with apparent evil. Yes, there is evil in all of us, and yes, condemnation and confrontation can be counterproductive and lead to violence, up to and including war. And yes, also, our tendency to tribalize and demonize must be continually resisted. Yet while I’m attracted to your work and find wisdom in it along these lines, what’s ultimately missing for me is some component in your philosophy akin to the great prophetic (and sometimes combative) tradition of Judaism, in which Jesus also stood. Envisioning a world in which good and evil are not inherently juxtaposed and in perpetual conflict, a world in which good and evil are rather reconciled in yin/yang fashion or work themselves out in some sort of karmic process, strikes me as well-meant but wishful thinking. Perhaps this is what lies at the core of the division between the great Eastern and Western religious traditions. Anyway, I hope I would have had the guts to tell those grandparents, in no uncertain terms, that they were acting like assholes–especially when the grandfather shouted “good” when his grandson fell hard on the pavement. Several years ago, I wrote a short holiday essay about this same subject matter, and for those interested in an alternative position, here it is:


    • I agree, but to me it seems that the most important thing is where the action is coming from. That makes all the difference in the world. It is possible to stand up to something that we feel is wrong, but to so without hate in our hearts and without judgement. Just an understanding that this person has been led to this action by many factors in his/her life, and that for him/her, this seems like the right action to take in this moment, based on all the previous conditioning and traumas (just like it seems for us to be the right action to stand up to him/her based on our pervious conditioning and traumas). And he/she is not an evil and bad person because life has led him to these conclusions.
      To hate and judge him/her is a continuation of the same traumatic energy (and that energy will eventually lead us to do harm to others, while thinking we are doing good). We can stand up to what we feel is wrong, but do so with compassion and with an understanding that we don’t hold the full truth (and so, a curiosity and an openness to learn and hear their perspective too).

      And furthermore, it seems to me that any real and lasting change in their behaviour will not come out of our hate and judgement towards them, but out of compassion and willingness to listen to their pain and trauma. (that makes them act the way they do)

    • Have you never wanted to play longer? Have you never been tired & had to manage an unruly child?

      What I love about Charles’s writing is that he highlights again & again: we are the bad guy; we are the good guy; there is no good guy or bad guy – there is only us.

      When we are all the players in this story there is no “standing up for right”. You can’t draw that line in the sand, no one can. We can only do better. We can only stand up for ourselves, to ourselves.

      My heart aches for that little boy because he is me, he is you, he is all of us who deserve better. My heart also aches for the grandpa & grandma because they are all of us who can do better.

      We have to see love in action to know how to show it. Far more effective (and difficult!) than standing up against or drawing lines in the sand is just showing love and seeing love in each other – and ourselves.

  2. In your treatise about the little boy and his grandparents I see judgement and lack of empathy. How about that the grandparents are acting out of great love? How about that they don’t understand developmental child psychology the way you do? How about approaching THEM with love and compassion and assisting them in building their understanding of the potential impact of their protective behaviour?

    • You seem to have missed this part of the essay that talks about the grandparents:

      “What pain were they acting from, exacerbated perhaps by the fear we were judging them for not controlling the children, and the mute discomfort of interacting with strangers in a public place. They were hurting people.

      What were they feeling and thinking, and what hurt? Those questions are the genesis of creative response beyond confrontation.”

      This shows a lot of understanding for their behavior. Furthermore, this essay is speaking forgivingly of the “frat boy”, in other words a person who is mistreating other people badly. It is simply observing the cycle of violence and other types of mistreatment.

      Honestly, I don’t know of a person less judgemental than Charles, but in this world, confrontation is impossible to avoid – whatever you say, you will get a backlash from someone…

  3. I see love and a willingness to speak the hurt of your heart, acknowledge the hurt in the hearts of grandparents, and I have tears in my eyes when you describe your conception of prayer. Thank you, Charles.

    Also, really interesting reading you referencing a masculine deity with a capital G. I like that you praise Gaia, and God. Always interesting. Thank you for what you do, always.

    I am smiling as I read the opposite-seeming reactions of Delphine and Newton Finn. They both reflect valid points… and I feel like they are both addressed already within this essay. And I feel like maybe they’re not as in opposition as they appear on the surface…

    Thanks for putting your work out there in such a way that comments are enabled. It’s definitely interesting to read how people respond to you.

    I always really appreciate your ability to call us out when we use language that dehumanizes those who are performing cruel actions. When I look at the things I did in my youth as a “blonde sorority girl” I’m dehumanizing myself, too. Understanding is the key to forgiveness.

    To Newton, I’d say, having the “guts” to tell someone they’re being an asshole rarely changes anything (see essay). And it sounds like you’re stuck in condemnation, separation, and punishment rather than forgiveness and understanding. I’m wondering if you’ve read anything else Charles has written on “the story of separation”. What you’re describing here about good and evil–your attempt at explaining eastern philosophy–I think what you’re ultimately saying is that it’s wishful thinking to say that good and evil are not as cut and dry as we think. And that viewpoint is part of “the story of separation.” It feels like you’re more interested in reading things that reaffirm your own religious tendencies and promoting your own blog… I’m glad you found this essay… and I’d encourage you to read “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible”, available free on this website. It addresses further what you’re saying here.

    To Delphine, I’d say did you read the full essay? I definitely get a sense of compassion here, not condemnation. And the tone of your comment–that feels like the very attitude you describe. Food for thought.

    Peace. Grateful Charles’ work is being read by more and more and more and more and more and…


    • Dear Laura, I’ve read most of Charles’ books and essays, learned much from “Ascent,” loved and recommended “A Beautiful World,” eagerly await diving into “Climate,” and visit this website on almost a daily basis. Like I said, I find wisdom in Charles’ work, but there’s also a piece that’s missing, at least for me, which I tried, however inadequately, to put my finger on. But who among us can ever grasp the entire picture of being human in this perplexing world?

      • Newton, thanks for sharing. I learned a thing or two, about my own assumptions on your agenda, my own judgments, and, rereading your post, I am thinking I missed your point altogether. You recognize that you fundamentally disagree about the nature of good and evil, and you are elaborating on that.

        To which I want to say, man, I still feel that condemnation of things as evil is just part of the separation story. It reminds me a lot of the whole Christian-infused morality storyline I had been fed growing up of some things are evil, some things are wrong, and some things are good. It’s this infusion of conflict into how we see the world that causes us to condemn and judge rather than seek to further understand. I think the latter is the path will ultimately lead to wholeness, unity, understanding, and forgiveness… And the wild part is it inherently has to include and not condemn the former… ✌????

  4. I was in a similar situation last weekend. The fraught relationship been a mother and 3 year old daughter left me heartbroken. I talked with the mum and suggested reasons for the child’s “annoying clingy ” behaviour, I mentioned anxiety and such and the mum told me that she (the mum) will be getting treatment for it. I could feel the potential of a healthy and rounded person slipping away as the mother passed on her pain and difficulties like a hereditary disease to her poor child. I touched both the mum and the child, somehow wishing I could send the power of acceptance and understanding through my fingertips. Somehow wanting to embrace them though I was overwhelmed by the sense of loss and despair for them… for all of us.
    The same day while waiting in a queue for a children’s activity a mother was adamant that we in our group had taken her child’s place (only 8 kids can attend at a time). My 5 year old was apprehensive about attending and was unhappy in the crowd so I volunteered our place. I could have defended her right to give it a try, I could have reminded the women that the kids learn more from us mother’s than they do from an activity and that her kid had just learnt that she can get her way by being rude, overly assertive, uncompassionate, uncaring for others and well. …basically stroppy. The place we were in had a fake sky fresco ceiling, my daughter looked up and said “mummy, I can’t even tell if the sun is still up… can we please go outside!?” So we left early out to the real sky.
    Being aware and empathic is exhausting … I rarely go to such places among crowds because such things are everyday. When I do I have to mentally prepare myself before and calm and console myself after.
    Having our children grow up aware, connected and in empathy is our most important duty. But how to get all those wounded parents to be fit enough to achieve this?

    • Thank you Jodi. I feel your love and your pain. I know it’s hard. Our society is deeply traumatised and unconscious (and so, violent). It’s not easy living with an open heart in this world. But what other option do we have? To close up and join the current of pain and aggressiveness?

  5. Charles, great stuff, thanks for sharing. i think there probably is a skillful way to intercede, in real time, in such real-life situations, a kind of non-threatening but clear and effective approach. Your article has me thinking about what that might actually sound like in the scenario you described, but maybe it starts with we adults having the courage to introduce ourselves to the parents or grandparents of other kids with whom our kids are playing. It feels weird to sidle up to strangers because of our social conditioning, but we have to start acknowledging and facing our own conditioning, fears and demons–to start showing up differently ourselves–if we’re interested in being catalysts for change in other people’s behaviors.

  6. I love the deep compassion that shines through your work Charles and I also feel an edge when the solutions you offer confine themselves to personal behaviour change without actively addressing the political.
    We can ask ourselves why people act with violence towards each other, even towards the people they love. Yes they may have a personal history of being on the receiving end of violence and are acting out unresolved pain. However this personal pain is part of a systemic pain that requires a political response alongside the personal. When services that support families and carers are cut, when economic pressures force people to work 3 jobs, when due to race, age, gender or sexuality a person’s sense of safety is undermined etc, then it becomes harder to be patient and compassionate and not perpetuate violence. Not impossible, but harder. This means that in addition to praying for someone who is experiencing violence we can also campaign, volunteer, vote, protest and make use of any new number of civil actions to create systemic change. Pray AND protest.
    Thanks for your work, Charles. I wish you well.

    • Well said Inez and fully agree with you, although from my experience, most protest these days seems to be fuelled by a lot of anger and hate and as such does not contribute for any real heart-based change, it seems to me. I think it would be really revolutionary is if the pain we feel could be expressed authentically in its raw form without being turned into hate and blame and violence. I think that has the potential for bringing about real change. A “protest” that is the raw authentic expression of our heart, of our pain. Of course, that sort of protest requires inner understanding, great tenderness and great courage.

  7. Thank you Charles for your effort always to walk the talk even when it is really challenging and to share your feelings and challenges with the rest of us. It feels a bit like holding hands to get us all across a fast moving stream… each of us supporting the other when we slip and tip. You model humility and humbleness to me – and us all – something I think we don’t see much. We see and express lots of self-righteousness but rarely see raw, honest humility in others. Thank you for that service to us all. You are such a blessing. I have to say you have had such a profound affect on my life since I first read The More Beautiful World. And this weekend I am stepping out to make the attempt to pass it on in some way with an event meant to be the beginning of a group that will work to imagine that more beautiful world and encourage each other to do what we are each inspired to do to create it. Not sure where it will go but “nothing ventured- nothing gained…”

  8. This is painful to read. I have been researching and exploring the connections between our children, our culture, and our lack of connection to Earth itself. What happens in a culture of unnurtured persons, bereft of the care, the abundance of sustenance, the gratitude that comes from growing up with both love and correction, close to abundance, connected to Earth and to community?
    It is my premise that we are a society with a culture of un-nurtured children who become un-nurtured adults. I think that our lack of nurture is deeply connected to our lack of connection to the Earth herself, and that un-nurtured adults are in turn aggressively un-nurturing themselves, possessed of a greed and ache, narcissism, collapse, and unfathomable cruelty toward each other and the more than human world. This un-nurtured and un-nurturing culture is unable to respond to the suffering of Earth or of others, and instead exhibits a rapaciousness that is devastating the Earth and threatens our own existence. I believe part of the solution is to allow ourselves to be re-nurtured by Earth herself- she who has never changed and who sustains all of us. It is in understanding our inter-being in and with Earth and each other that we come into true connection, understand abundance, and reverse the culture of scarcity. Simply being in nature, I believe, allows us to develop a connection in inter-being with the more than human world that reminds us how full life is. Learning of deep time instills an understanding and perspective that is healing. Learning to listen to Earth with all our senses can re-develop our intuition and allow Earth to mentor us back to a sense of belonging.

    • Beautifully said Katharine, though I am not sure if “just” being in nature (which is definitely profound and necessary) is enough for everyone to undo and heal the deep trauma that most suffer from in our society, though it is definitely an important component of it. Some might need (besides being in nature) also the energetic and heart-based support of another human, to learn how to love and trust again (preferably experienced in close connection with nature, of course).

  9. What you’ve given to Cary, he gave to a little boy in the park for a half hour. To us it’s such a short time, but to a child of that age, that is to be blissfully alive in an eternal afternoon. Doubtless that felt memory will be buried heavily in his body as the years pass, but don’t underestimate the power of a seed planted at the right time and place. And to have his sister join in!

  10. Several times now I have read Charles’ remarks on the importance of not giving children our conditional approval. I was wondering if anyone could share with me some books for further reading and deeper understanding of Charles’ views on parenting mentioned in this article. Thank you!

  11. Simply beautiful. Thank you, Charles, for your work and your perspective. You put into words so much of what has been trying to form itself in me recently. You are an inspiration.

  12. Thanks Charles. You reflect in words scenes most of us have witnessed at some point, and at times we ‘interjected’ in some way and at other times we ‘let it go’ and really let it go, and other times we ‘let it go’ in the moment, made our observation, and then took that observation with us for an hour, a day, a week or in some cases for years, we still carry a scene with us. Through curiosity, we wonder not only the elements that we are observing, but also why are WE experiencing that. Why is THAT scene coming into OUR VIEW ?

    The final paragraph about prayer was sweet, because whether we call it prayer or intention or visualization, I too believe we affect the ‘fields’ within and around us. I wanted to share quickly what I started doing several years back which is like a prayers, but in some ways for me feels more grounding. I grew up learning to pray ‘up and out’ so to speak. Up into ‘the heavens’, or ‘out’ into the universe. Nothing wrong with that, but once I started connecting more with the power of the planet Earth, I started bringing my prayers ‘in’ to my soul/heart/being and ‘down’ into the ground. To my delight, this ‘prayer’ technique feels very grounding and trusting. I’ve used it for intentions for protection, or safety or well being of my son at times from a distance of many miles, and I sort of put the intention into the ground like a conduit of energy that then can be felt by him up through his feet and into his being because he’s on the earth and in a body. I suppose by even our attempts at good will for all people, we are like a race of adolescents, experimenting and feeling and resisting and feeling our hormonal shifts all the while. Perhaps one day science will catch up with this, but first, we must slow down, observe, see, feel and notice what is happening around us and within us, and discovering the strength of a love-filled heart.

  13. Earlier on this thread, I took Charles to task for what I sensed was his reticence to take a bold prophetic stance against apparent evil–in this case, to openly confront an abusive grandfather who hollered out “good’ when his exuberantly disobedient grandson took a hard fall on pavement. Now in the midst of my third reading of Charles’ latest book, “Climate: A New Story,” I feel compelled–and overjoyed–to eat my words. Just one quote from this extraordinarily wise, vitally important, and, yes, incisively prophetic book should suffice to explain my change of heart and mind: “A world in which babies are separated from mothers at birth, in which children are medicated to make them pay attention in school, in which we drain swamps and discharge toxic waste, in which human-trafficking runs rampant, in which animals are confined in feedlots, in which punishment is mistaken for justice, in which wealth concentrates in ever fewer hands, and in which people hate each other because of the color of their skin, is necessarily a world where the climate is spinning out of balance. And these are not just signs, they are causes.” In case you haven’t already done so, please dive into “Climate,” swim in its new story about nature and our destiny within it (should we choose to embrace it), and then help to spread the word about the life-changing gift that Charles has been given…so that he, in turn, may give it to us.

  14. This scene Charles describes is so familiar to me, a father with a 3.5 year old boy. I celebrate and enjoy his innocence, curiosity and naked expression of emotion. What sense is there in judging one expression good, another bad or evil in this child (or potentially evil if not corrected now)? He demonstrates behaviors similar to those grandparents. Such worry for a parent, almost all of which arises out of familial and cultural conditioning. It is much safer to listen deeply into the moment, respond from that listening (also known as love) and allow for the upswelling of thoughts and feelings, both in myself and in my child. I might as well offer the same to older children, teenagers and even adults. It isn’t always easy. I watch parents, grandparents or other adults who act with what I regard as reactive, fearful and conditioned actions. I see toddlers and children who seem to lack awareness and grab for what they want, express with temper tantrums and stubbornness. I see also see children who seem to have an innate, pre-conditioned tendency to observe, act tenderly (though not excluding the full range of childhood expressions). Anyway….in similar situations I have spoken out gently before, watched and kept my mouth shut, complemented parents for demonstrations of patience, love and skillful responses to difficult moments. It arises in me, or doesn’t. Hindsight and hypothetical can be useful to gain more skill. Each moment as it arises is greeted in the moment. Will I say something to those grandparents — will it arise to act in the moment? Will I be able to greet that moment with enough expanse to feel compassion for all involved, accept the suffering, welcome the opening of hearts, look for what is worth supporting? Can I listen deeply enough to see the fundamental goodness beneath any appearance, and recognize the love, or call for love? Sometimes, just being present to suffering is what is called for, nothing more. I appreciate the story, the reflections, and the comments which have followed. Last thought, these kinds of scenes have played out over and over throughout the millenia, I assume. Support for that assumption is that beings such as Buddha, Lao Tzu, Jesus offered insight a couple thousand years ago. It must have been needed then, as it is needed now.

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