Monday, October 28, 2013

Food for Thought

Apologies in advance. I'm not in a joking mood. These thoughts are more on the serious side.

We have been blessed by whatever creative force we believe in with a brain and the ability to think. It is a weighty responsibility and too often, we either take it for granted or simply shirk it. Maybe we are possessed of an uncertainty -- when should I think? I would like to present some advice about when to think (besides "always," as that doesn't seem to work for everyone, IBM employees notwithstanding).

The fact is, we are split in two. Religiously, we call the tendency to go against the urge to go against our moral code the yetzer harah or "evil inclination." A more secular mind might just call it a lack of conscience. This idea, that people have two parts which strive is not new. In fact, one could look in Genesis 25:23. Rebecca was told that she had 2 nations in her womb and that 2 regimes which would split off were vying within her. In the next verse, she prepares to birth "and behold! twins!" Why would the text have to say "behold"? Because the prophecy regarding the two nations and two different natures could have applied to a single child, racked with a mature sense -- a positive inclination, and a less mature one, an evil inclination and the two polar opposites would be constantly fighting for dominance within the individual. Imagine how tortured she must have felt until that moment of birth, thinking that her singular child would ultimately lose this battle of conscience and the younger, less mature sense would ultimately win out. At least when she had twins she knew that they would be separate and not have the incessant internal struggle for dominance. It must have been a relief and a frightening thought at the same time.

But we are not twins (except those of you who are). We have those two nations within each of us all the time. We have the capacity for incredible goodness, to create a world, a regime, a nation based in kindness and propriety. We also have the inverse potential for evil. Aside from those few truly righteous or truly evil people, we are constantly torn. If knowing this resolved when to think, then all would be fine and no one would ever be able to claim "I didn't think about the consequences." But that isn't the case.

As a separate issue, we also make connections to other people and we invest some of our identity in how others deal with and think of us. We aren't hermits. We, to varying degrees, allow ourselves to be completed by people whom we respect or fear or whose judgment means something to us. When that person is disappointed, it matters. When someone else is disappointed, we couldn't care less.

When we lie, we are creating a mask, a second self. In the moment when we choose to hide something we create a false front because we want people to think one thing even when we know that the truth is elsewhere. We have established the inwards and exterior man and we hope that we keep the two separate.

So here's the bit of advice: when you are faced with any decision which would require the creation of a false you -- any choice you have to make which will split your identity into a secret one and a public one think about how you would feel if someone you respect or fear were to find out about the secret one. That's your moment of thought. It isn't driven by theological machinations but by your own personal sense of how someone whose opinion of you, you value. Does this mean that this person will certainly find out? No but that isn't the question. Decide how you would feel IF that person found out. Think about that potential -- THAT is when you think. And don't think about the "consequences" of the behavior -- we justify things by saying "no one will get hurt" or "the punishment won't be that bad." That thinking won't help. Instead, think about that person you respect, whose view of you matters.

If you come to the conclusion that IF that person found out, you would be unhappy with that consequence then you should have enough sense to stop. If you truly care about that other person's opinion then knowing that the creation of a separate, hidden identity should be avoided. If, instead you continue the act then your decision to continue, even after that thinking, signals a real problem inside you. You do care and yet you don't. You need to get that fixed. That would be like knowing before the fact that putting your hand in a meat grinder will hurt but doing it anyway because you want to. You are an idiot - if that external judgment of your character doesn't sway you then it never really did and you are cutting yourself off. You deserve whatever consequence you get.

If, after thinking about it, you decide NOT to act, then you are protected. You have used thinking to drive your behavior and to stay safe. If you think about it and realize that that other person would not be troubled by the behavior (and you are being brutally honest with yourself about it...lying to yourself is a horrible thing to do) then your decision to act is perfectly reasonable and have a good time.

But remember, this is only for behaviors that would require that you hide something. If eating a sammich isn't a matter of hiding anything or lying about it, then go right ahead. But if the action will require any sort of subterfuge, you have only a moment to think. You have a brief window to stop yourself and simply think about the way someone else would react if he or she found out about the behavior. Sure, it would be nice to think about the behavior itself and use good judgment to decide how to act, but if that isn't working, then THINK about how someone else would react if he knew you lied or his some behavior.

So clearly, this isn't about having to think all the time about every action and decision. It is about identifying key moments when your choice to hide something or lie about something would be looked at unfavorably by someone whose voice you find important, and it starts with "to thine own self be true."

Monday, October 21, 2013

Connecting, please wait

A dear colleague and friend of mind recently posted on Facebook that he wanted connection. I won't give his name. Not because I don't know it, but because it isn't important. You can go search Facebook for anyone who wants connection and figure it out.

I guess that that is part of the entire experience of life (and the underlying plea of Facebook users), to want connection. And I fear that the basic flaw is in the belief that everyone else HAS it and we are in some way missing out. The fact is (as far as I can see it and proclaim my personal read on life as fact) we all, or at least most of us crave connection. We are social animals. And while some of us are content to seclude ourselves in the woods and live on our own terms, we still want to connect. Think of everything you have read about individualism and self-reliance. Why was that even written? Because the Emersons and Thoreaus of the world wanted to feel that they connected with a reader to communicate an essential understanding. If someone really didn't want to connect, he wouldn't write.

And we don't just write because we have ideas that spill onto paper. Sure, some is like that. I have a shoebox in my closet with all sorts of stuff I have written and while I claim that my collection of poems, jokes and angry paragraphs is just so much venting, I secretly hope that my heirs discover it and I become the next Emily Dickinson. Dash, so there. In fact, I have made the printing of my collected works a requirement in my will so it isn't as much a secret hope as much as an overt attempt to force myself on the world.

Outside of writing (which I am doing right now, and hoping for readers so I will self-promote, all in an effort to connect with people), we all also want to connect. And we look at others and assume that they connect often because they have the trappings of connection. It could be a membership in a club, a spouse, a position as a nexus in a community, a poker game, siblings. Whatever it is, they have and I don't. But even those positions and what appear to be natural connections are all illusory. I know plenty of married people who are cripplingly lonely, plenty of sociable folks who always have a plan who feel isolated. Donne, as much as he was right, was also wrong. Every man is an island, constantly drifting (well, islands don't drift, but the image of every man being a dinghy isn't nearly as evocative) and constantly reaching out to latch on, however temporarily to other island/dinghies. [I don't think that before this, in my 44 years of life, I ever wrote the word "dinghies."]

As I see it, no one has connections. People only make connections and then remake them on a daily basis. I lived with a roommate in college -- same room and all that. Did we have a connection? Only in that we saw each other every day. When we didn't there was nothing. That isn't a criticism. That isn't a complaint. It is a fact. How many people are we ridiculously close with because we work with them or live next to them, and then we distance intervenes, we drift apart. This is life. People don't simply stay in love -- they have to fall back into love every day. That's why relationships are hard work. Friendships are exactly the same. If you don't hit F5 daily, the page grows stale, weary and flat.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't bemoan not recognizing connections. Most of us don't. we don't see the effect we have on others when we aren't there. We don't hear when they quote us when we aren't around or tell a story about us. We don't keep track of how much they miss us when we don't show up some where. But it all happens. We have more connections than we know and have to make more connections than we often have energy for. So we spend our lives often empty, but filling up the lives of others.

If it helps, you have made many connections, and ones which won't disappear even after they stop giving you the sense of wholeness that we all need and feed off of every day.

God, I hope someone reads this.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Forget me yes

I used to think that the worst thing in the world was to be forgotten. I used to feel crushed when I ran into a former student and he didn't recognize me or remember my name. Gosh, I thought, I had 25 students in your class last year/five years ago/fifteen years ago, and yet I remember you (to some degree) and at the time, you seemed to enjoy my class. How could you forget me?

I was walking through the hallway this morning next to another teacher and a knot of students approached us, all smiles. I recognized the group -- we had had a really successful class last year, full of laughter, rigorous thinking and innovation. A great year; they all performed well and were proud of themselves and the class. One spoke up and said, "You are my favorite class!" To a teacher, that makes sense. I was about to say something when I realized that the student was talking to the teacher next to me. My heart fell. I thought I was the best. I thought my class would be the one which left that indelible mark. And here I am, replaced by October.

My gut says to lash out. Frailty, thy name is student! O heavens! There isn't hope a great teacher's memory may outlive his class half a year. [wow...that Hamlet play is really useful.]

But then I pushed ego aside. I tried to grow up. This schooling thing isn't about me. It is about a student's positive experience. I don't WANT him to remember me because I want him to be so overwhelmed with great teachers who inspire and entertain, teach and guide that I want it to be impossible to remember me amidst the throng of fabulous educators. If I am the favorite then that means that all the other teachers don't match up and I know that that isn't true. I want students to move ahead and make connections with new people, to get excited by other classes and not to be stuck in their old experiences. I think the best thing I can see is a student whose eyes light up when other teachers walk by and who, when they see me, smile and nod politely.

Sure, it is nice when a student from years ago says "I have had 50 teachers since you but still, you are the tops" but when it doesn't happen I won't see it as a failure for me, but a success for the educational system and that student.