Choice Reflections

30 03 2017

When I was in college, I had a job in the student accounts office. Every afternoon, it was my responsibility to reconcile the day’s receipts – to make sure that the total of cash and checks in stacks on my desk matched the ledger of payments made. It was meticulous and systematized work. And it had to happen every day. It was inexorable: I knew that every afternoon I would clock in precisely at 3:00 and spend the next two hours with my pencil, adding machine, and a stack of account ledgers.

One spring afternoon, late in my junior year, a friend convinced me to skip work in favor of a trip to the park. This was completely against my sense of responsibility. It took a lot of cajoling and needling on my friend’s part to convince me to be truant. Once I agreed, however, I felt something akin to the spring sap in the trees coursing through my own blood stream and I was lost to the glee of the moment. I had no excuse, so I didn’t call my boss to tell her I wouldn’t be in. I just didn’t show up.

We had a great time at the park – I felt a bit guilty at first, but that soon gave way to the exhilaration of playing with abandon. In that world before cell phones, no one knew where we were, no one could reach us with sober responsibilities: we were free!

Returning to campus later, everyone I saw asked where I had been. “Mrs. Peacock was looking for you. She was worried when you didn’t show up for work.” It seemed that every student on campus had reason to stop by the student accounts office that afternoon, only to be questioned by a concerned Mrs. Peacock about whether they had seen me.

I spent the next day with my stomach roiling from a soupy mess of anxiety, dread, and regret. I had no idea what would happen when I arrived at work that afternoon, but I felt certain that I deserved whatever consequences Mrs. Peacock served  up. A tiny part of me resented that this awful feeling was the price of one carefree afternoon. I  felt remorse about causing concern and extra work for my boss, along with a generalized shameful flush of self-loathing: I was a bad person for shirking responsibility – people of character don’t just skip work to have fun.

All these years later, it doesn’t really matter what happened when I was finally face-to-face with Mrs. Peacock.  Obviously, I survived.

This could be a story about learning to accept responsibility, about showing up when you’re counted on, or about facing the consequences of your choices. OR, it could be a story about throwing off the shackles, making the best choices for yourself regardless of censure from others, choosing to live life fully in the face of pressure to conform to rigid social norms.

It could be a story about one perfect, pure afternoon of sunlight and laughter at Flora Park: a last gasp of childhood before fully facing the realities of the adult world.

It might be none of those.

That is the gift that time bestows on our choices: we can reflect upon them and see them from a variety of perspectives. Many of life’s stories can be crafted with multiple meanings, constructed as metaphors for a wide range of life lessons.

It is infinitely harder to construe meaning, much less multiple possible lessons, from the choices we are living with right now. We make choices and we live with those choices. Often, we must live with those choices regardless of how stressful or difficult or unfulfilling they turn out to be. In a world rife with inspirational quotes and “blame yourself” memes (“Everything you do is based on the choices you make. It’s not your parents, your past relationships, your job, the economy, the weather, an argument or your age that is to blame. You and only you are responsible for every decision and choice you make. Period.” – Wayne Dyer) we learn that it isn’t ok to be unhappy with the consequences of our choices. Suck it up, buttercup – or make a different choice.

But what if it isn’t that simple? Just yesterday a friend commented, “…things are more stressful than I would like. And I see no way to change the choices we’ve made.” What if the choice is right, but the consequences, what we live with right now, are painful? What if, regardless of whether we chose rightly or wrongly, choosing differently now is out of reach financially, or prohibitively impactful in the lives of others who depend on us (children, elderly parents, etc.)?

Sometimes, the resources required to change the choice you’ve made are not simply inner resources – they are real resources you don’t have – like money, time, or knowledge. Lack of those resources might be insurmountable in this moment. What now?

These are the places where we get stuck, and there are no easy solutions for getting unstuck. Since there are no easy solutions, perhaps it would be best if we merely tried to withhold judgment – of ourselves or of others. From the outside, life might look static, like we are simply living inside the painful choice we’ve made. But on the inside, what if it could feel like we’re proactively holding space for what will emerge? If we replace self-loathing (the roiling stomach of anxiety, dread, and regret) with self-loving-kindness, with compassion, for the flawed, human person who made these choices?

Eventually, someone will emerge from the painful choice-cocoon we’ve constructed for ourselves. There will be time, then, to craft meaning and construct metaphors and life lessons; to articulate how our choices helped define the someone who emerged. Clarity tends to come upon reflection rather than in the immediacy of now. And because the attribution of meaning is one of – if not THE – great gifts of time, we have to wait for it. It can’t be rushed.

 

 

 

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Demarcations

5 11 2015

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Demarcation: the action of fixing the boundary or limits of something.

When I worked on a college campus, I was responsible for addressing problematic student behaviors. Often, a student’s behavior violated generally accepted community standards while not directly violating a rule (for example, we didn’t technically have a rule against turning your residence hall floor into an indoor slip-n-slide, but we did consider it to be non-compliant with community standards). When this happened, there were always people quick to suggest writing a new policy or adding the specific behavior to an existing policy. I learned quickly that giving in to the pressure to spell everything out in this way would have meant having the longest and most convoluted code of student conduct ever. Not only that, though. It would have meant attempting to box students in with rules, to prevent them from freely experiencing choices and their consequences. Every interaction we had, then, would have been about rules, about proof of guilt or innocence – rather than about what it means to be a community, about the common good, and how members of a community are expected to regulate their own behaviors toward that good. As an educator, I tried to make the judicial process about the life of the community.

I tried to do that in the microcosm of the residence halls on one small college campus because I believe that is how we are called to live as citizens of our civil communities and as members of the wider human community.

I look around me these days and see so much that is troubling…

…In this election season, candidates are freely applying the most heinous comparisons, to Nazi Germany for example, to actions or decisions with which they disagree. They liberally pepper their speeches with made-up “facts”. Donald Trump, whose rhetoric consists mostly of calling other people names (stupid, boring, ugly, loser) and making self-aggrandizing statements (“I have one of the highest IQs”, “I’m rich”) is hailed as a straight-talking response to political correctness.

…In today’s climate, if I speak out against police brutality and racial profiling, I am told I am contributing to lawlessness and anarchy, to police deaths. If I speak out against the negative rhetoric and tactics of protesters or those who use the protests as a cover for illegal activity, I am called a racist.

…Refugees from conflict and war seek peace and safety while many of our countries cower in fear of terrorists or erect razor-wire to stave-off perceived scarcity, using dehumanizing tactics to make these choices appear reasonable.

…Don’t even get me started on what happens if one speaks compassionately about either side in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Or abortion. Or any one of a host of other divisive issues.

We are so busy making up ways to demarcate who is with us and who is against us that there is no room left for the voices of those who believe that both #blacklivesmatter and #policelivesmatter – for those who believe that all lives matter but who respect the truth that at this point in our history hash tagging that is disrespectful to those whose life experiences have been discrimination and marginalization.

I personally don’t use the term “political correctness” because it is most often used as a bludgeon to attack people on the left who stand for sensitivity to others. But while there is no one-size-fits-all term for the left to use, they still manage to find a variety of harsh and hurtful words to bludgeon those on the right whose views differ from theirs. And because of all this bludgeoning in our rhetoric, no real dialogue takes place. One political candidate went so far as to suggest last week that his party’s candidates should not be expected to participate in debates moderated by persons who had never been members of that political party. So, rather than seeking dialogue, we are going to lay down another line of demarcation – in politics, we only speak to those who already agree with us?

Where in all of this, I wonder, is the common good? Once we’ve marked our territories, outlined our many divisions and subdivisions, where is there ground identified as neutral territory? Where is the ground on which people of good will but differing perspectives can meet?

Again, I find myself thinking about the situations I worked with in university student life. One of the biggest challenges was mediating roommate disputes. Here’s how it typically went down: one student would come to see me, sharing the atrocious, cruel, thoughtless things their roommate had done to them. The student would often cry, hands shaking, telling me of how deeply hurt they were. My heart would go out to that student, my sense of justice would be engaged, I would want to take on the role of advocate for him or her. Then I would bring in the roommate and hear a different story, varying in particulars, yet resulting in another deeply hurt individual. When I brought these two hurting souls together, each firmly entrenched in the belief that their roommate was an evil, horrible, thoughtless person, my first effort was to get them to share their feelings. Often, once they opened up about feeling hurt or disregarded or disrespected, tears, hugs and apologies followed. The two would then want to leave my office, feeling better and assuming that we were done. But what followed next was the more difficult part – actually going back to the root causes of their differences and looking for new ways to address them in the future. Looking for ways to get both of them thinking about the common good in terms of their room, their interpersonal relationship, and within the larger context of their residential community. Without that second piece, the two would soon be back, crying over the same issues as before – often after having turned their residential floor into a Civil War re-enactment, sides enlisted, battle flags planted.

I was thinking of all of this the other day, as I walked the land at Prairiewoods. When I saw the tree, photographed above, I noted how it stands in a place of demarcation between the prairie and the woods. The tree appears to have its own leanings, its branches clearly reaching towards the woods, with only one or two stunted arms stretching toward the prairie. Yet, while I couldn’t get it all in one photograph on my cell phone, the trees roots were visible as well – and they were strong and vital, reaching in all directions. Woodlands and prairies are quite visually different from one another, yet each is a vital ecosystem with equally good characteristics to recommend it. I couldn’t imagine declaring, “The woods must suffer so the prairie can thrive” or “I stand with the woods against the prairie.” I couldn’t imagine choosing one and turning my back forever on the other – no matter whether one “agreed” more directly with my heart.

The wisdom of creation is the wisdom of communion. It is the wisdom of interconnection, interplay, collaboration and cooperation. It is the wisdom of the common good. In my life, I need to strive to be more like that tree: I have my leanings, of course – my values, beliefs, ethics, my politics. But I also have roots that push outward, that explore the territory beyond all demarcations. I have the gift of a voice that can be raised in dialogue and questioning, of ears that can do greater things than hear – they can actually listen. 

I have a heart whose natural state is open.

What’s more, I believe we are each endowed with these gifts. I believe that we are entrusted by the Universe to make the most of these gifts in service to the common good. They say desperate times call for desperate measures – so I’m calling us all to these measures:

  • talk to people you don’t have to;
  • attend another party’s political forum and meet the human beings there;
  • read a book with a title you disagree with or a magazine that you feel has idealogical leanings away from yours;
  • step into new territories and discomfort zones.

Let’s act as if we haven’t been infected by our current cultural need to demarcate every line and label one side “us” and the other side “them”. Let’s use our voices to ask questions and express compassion; use our ears to hear AND to listen. Let’s allow our hearts to stay open. And, as may be likely, if our hearts are closed, let’s allow them to break open again – for our common good.