Be the change you wish to see: Speech delivered in 2009

Be the change you wish to see

President and Mrs. Machtley, Vice Presidents, Deans, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, parents, sisters and brothers, friends, and of course, students whom we celebrate today. Before I begin my remarks this evening, I want to recognize the leadership of President Machtley and the larger Bryant community in bringing students like you to our campus. It is the president who imagines what a campus should be—what sorts of students should join our community and what sorts of educations we will afford them. To me, Bryant University is community of scholars where we all teach and we all learn from each other. Everyday students like you bless me with an education that is fuller and richer than one I could obtain elsewhere. I think we cheat ourselves of a great education unless we embrace lessons that students like you teach us. So, at the beginning, let me thank you the students for contributing to the education and betterment of the Bryant community.

I bring you greetings from faculty and staff.

In Swahili, Professor Kwesiga says,

Na Mungi awabaraki

In Italian from Professor Misuraca

Auguri

From Professor Jiang in Chinese

Gung xi ni men

In Spanish from Professor Gomez

Buena suerta para el future

In Portuguese from Dee Viera

Parabens!

And in Sanskrit from Professor Beldona

Namaste

In these greetings, we congratulate you and wish you well. If I have inadvertently asked, “Please, Mister, could you bring me my horse?” I apologize. As many of you know, it is a challenge and great advantage to speak in a tongue other than one’s own. I wish I had more of those gifts.

You do me a great honor in asking that I share remarks with you this evening. Your accomplishments are impressive; they are hard won. Only you truly know what sacrifices you have made, what challenges you have overcome to be here this evening. What I believe defines our best students is a curiosity about the world, ready to meet its challenges and eager to learn how to equip themselves to meet circumstances and opportunities that we at this moment can hardly imagine. We are here tonight because many people have come before us, leading the way, sacrificing their lives in some cases, deferring their own dreams so that we might have better opportunities. We should recognize that our achievements are as much to their credit as they are to our own hard work.

I will keep my comments brief tonight and aim to connect them directly to theme of this celebration, Be the Change you wish to see, a quotation attributed to Mahatma Ghandi. Ghandi, the man who gave to the world a powerful social movement, that claim that change could come through nonviolent means. This proposition suggests that all of us have a role and a calling to change the world for the better.

Change is one of those cover words that we employ as if we all understood what it meant but we may not. The change I want to talk about is not change that we ache for because we are bored. And it is not change that aims to alter the leadership of an organization or community expected that if we change the leader that everything else will change. But, it is a delusion to believe that if we change the captain, the direction of the ship will change. It may not. Real positive change doesn’t work that way. It takes more than one leader. It takes all of us.

The change we are alluding to this evening is change that we can dream about and work to create. Change that makes the world a better place for more of its citizens. Change that evens out the chances for more us to have a run at the good things in life. I don’t mean here just a nice home, a fancy car, the latest iPod and the newest cell phone with all the coolest features. I mean change that liberates more of us, that means freedom from hunger and from violence, freedom from fear, freedom from neglect and freedom from needless suffering. The change we wish to see is change that reflects all that is good and honorable in human nature. The change that makes us kinder to one another. The change that makes us curious about how the way we live affects other people, maybe those halfway around the planet, maybe in that poor community down the street. The change that starts with me and with us, connects us with others, and allows us to be inspired and to inspire others with our combined dreams, our shared hopes and the blessings of our talents and our virtues.

When I was in your age, just graduating from college, we faced a world in turmoil. Three years before I graduated Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Robert Kennedy met the same fate just two months after King. Nelson Mandela was in prison. The Berlin Wall divided East and West Germany. We were fighting a contentious war in Southeast. The population of the world stood at 3.7 billion people. We hadn’t heard of global warming. The personal computer hadn’t been invented. Fast forward to this moment a few decades later and we have elected our first Black president. We are concerned with climate change. In the time it takes me to complete this sentence, we will have welcomed one new American baby, four Chinese babies and five Indian babies to our planet joining a population already close to seven billion people. If that sounds hard to wrap your mind around, someone suggested that it is easy. Just think of yourself, your dreams, how much your life means to you and the people who love you, and multiply that by seven billion. Got it? We have emerging economies where the next generation of innovation and invention will most likely arise. And now, we find ourselves in an increasingly interconnected complicated world where ideas, people and products race around our planet with accelerating speed. One billion Google searches a day. Researchers are wondering how if we lived our lives, B.G. before Google. To whom did we address all these questions? You students may wonder how we lived our lives without cell phones, without the Internet, without text messaging and without 24-hour entertainment. Trust me. Trust your parents. It was not that hard and, in some ways, life was quieter and less packed with distractions. These distractions can take us way off course.

But, for a moment, let’s go back to a time that characterized most of our lives as humans on this planet. Historically, parents could pass on what they knew about the world to their children because the world changed much more slowly than it does now. We remained in our communities from our births through our deaths; we encountered less difference than we do now; we knew less about the larger world; parents could hand down their professions and their crafts to their children and expect that that those skills could last them for a lifetime.

But all this has changed. The Department of Labor reports that the jobs that will be in greatest demand in 2010, next year, didn’t even exist in 2004. They also observe that we are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist—using technologies that haven’t yet been invented—to address problems—challenges and opportunities that we don’t yet know exist. In a world of such rapid and accelerating change, how are we to find and make our way? How do we find an anchor in this running torrent of transition and dislocation? I believe that values and character and courage must serve as our compass.

My father passed away unexpectedly when I was just fourteen years old. Maybe, some of you have been similarly robbed of an anchor in your life. By that time, he had passed on to me mainly through example his kind and gentle way of encountering the world. All my life I have come back to the lessons that he and my mother and my teachers have blessed me with—caring for the world, wondering if I was doing enough, trying to develop and apply my talents to the work in front of me and most importantly, to find important and meaningful work to do.

I think that is the task ahead of you. Finding important work to do, and having a dream that sustains you. I urge you to embrace a dream that embraces others.

In his address to one quarter of a million people on the Lincoln Mall, delivered more than forty years ago, Reverend Martin Luther King did not deliver The I Have a Complaint Speech. Nor did he deliver the I Have a Suggestion speech. Neither was his speech entitled the Please May I have some of what you have for me and my children? No, as you all know, he presented to the nation and the world his I Have a Dream Speech. A Dream that was momentous and ambitious, a dream that challenges all of us to be judged by the content of our character, a dream that lifts up all of us, no matter where we come from and who we are or what privileges or deprivations characterize our backgrounds.

What does it mean to be judged by the content of our character?

To understand this, I would like to propose an analogy. Today, we hear a great deal about our carbon footprint. This is a measure of the impact that we have on the planet. It helps us to understand how we are all connected to each other, to appreciate the burdens of our lifestyles on the planet we all inhabit.

I would like to propose that we also consider developing a Character Footprint—a measure of the impact of our character on the planet. Do we see the world full of problems or full of opportunity? Do we see the world as one of diminishing chances or a world where the opportunities to make a positive change have never been greater nor more important? Do we believe we have a responsibility to make the world a better place or we are content to assume that this work is someone else’s job? Do we clearly understand and appreciate the impact we are having on the world? On those who come from communities that seem remote from us but whose lives are intriguingly connected to our own? And on those whose generations will follow ours?

At every turn, we need to remember that we are part of a long march of history. We are here because our parents, and their parents, and social reformers, and soldiers have paved the way.   Our responsibility then becomes to bring others along, people like us, and those not so like us but just as deserving.

In closing, I would like to leave you with two quotations. The first is from Adlai Stevenson whom you may not know; the second from Nelson Mandela, a hero to many of you. Speaking at a college commencement, Stevenson said the following.

The privilege and the penalty of your education and the position you hold in your community is that over the coming decades, as in the past, you will be the pacesetters for political and social thought in your community. You may not accept this responsibility but it makes no difference, it is inescapable. If you decide to set no pace, to forward no dreams, and to have no vision, you will still be the pace setters. You will simply have decided there is no pace.

 Mandela’s advice is more personal but no less important.

There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.

 Thank you for your kind attention and now on to the most important part of our event, the reason we are gathered here tonight–to recognize our students!

Delivered at the Senior Awards Banquet organized by the Intercultural Center at Bryant University, April 4, 2009.

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Dodging silver and other bullets

Today, I nearly walked into the path of a car that was entering traffic from a parking lot. The driver was edging into the road and had carefully scoped out his exit. I am certain that he had looked up the street and down. I was the surprise—a blind spot—in his field of vision. He was moving south; I was headed east. One half-second earlier and I would have gone sailing over the hood. I am a small woman, somewhat fit and maybe athletic. I saw myself arcing in a gymnastic tumble, except, unlike those tiny bouncy teenagers who would land on their tiptoes, I imagine that my head would have hit the pavement first, a non-sanctioned Olympic move called The Double Concussion Flip and Fall. Moby’s Wait for Me was playing in my earphones and I was over-dressed on this sixty degree spring day.

To break my fall, I stretched out my hands. This failed and my chest hit the hood of the car; my head whiplashed back. I tried to resettle myself: What was I doing before I slammed onto the hood of this car? Where were my thoughts?

The driver waved his hands in apology; I waved back. It was like a silent movie. All gestures, no talk. I wanted to dance a bit, maybe skip in front of the car as I left the scene, just like Charlie Champlin would have. It was a magic moment. A minute before we had been invisible to each other; now we separate with a little memory, a shared story, and maybe a wee lesson, depending on our temperaments.

This encounter put my mind on the path of other near misses—a series of events that could have led to some serious trouble. I have sped through a stop sign late at night, distracted and tired. I have twice driven the wrong way down a busy street at twilight.. Earlier in that day, I would have without doubt faced a series of quickly moving cars, zooming up the hill. I would have been like a little cat facing the running of the bulls. We could all have been seriously hurt.

I have been in cars that have spun out, flipping on their heads in slick Alabama clay. I have been held up in Texas on a little walk in the good part of town. The man who did this looked upset enough to hurt me. I have dodged so many medical scares, that I am pretty certain that my health insurance company thinks that I messing with their premium calculation algorithm. I have had so many tests and been diagnosed with so many wrongly accused major illnesses,there must be a office pool somewhere betting on my demise. I could go on and on here but it seems with every incident I recount here, I am feeling both dizzier and bolder. With so much good fortune, a karmic calculation would have me dead pretty soon. As they say, I may be running out of good luck. Or maybe in that cosmic computation, or my good fortune comes at the costs of another’s unearned bad turn of chance.

Which gets me into the meat of what is really on my mind. Earned and unearned good fortune. the movie Funny Girl when Fanny Brice finds early renown, she says to her lover and supporter that she can’t be famous yet because she hasn’t suffered enough. I understand this feeling. It is that sentiment that much of what we have is unearned. I have unearned good health, undeserved energy, unnatural optimism. I don’t know if others feel this way about the gifts they have. I think we mainly focus on what’s missing.

It seems to me that most of us have experienced good fortune we have neither earned nor merited and of course, the reverse is true. The Just World hypothesis suggests just the opposite, that what we get is what we have earned. People are rich for good reasons, not trumped up excuses. People suffer in poverty because of bad choices. When we think about who is rich and who is poor, who enjoys good health and who falls to early disease, we frequently resort to this idea. We typically see great justice in the way of the world. It is comforting and somewhat cruel to believe that we get what we deserve. This is especially true if we believe in the power of individuals more than we do that of systems and structures. If we believe that through individual pluck and drive that the poorest child who has gone through worst schools can make it to Harvard and lead the world, we tend to be judgmental when they don’t. If we cannot see the advantage that birth and family and neighborhood bring to us, we probably believe that we are playing on a level playing field.

Twentieth century philosopher, John Rawls, suggested that in considering systems of justice, we imagine that we don’t know where in a social system we may stand. When we are making rules for running the world, we should evaluate them outside of our own interests. We should create systems that don’t favor or disfavor individuals because of race, gender, social class, national origin, cultural differences and so so. If a thought experiment like this were possible and if it could influence social policy, we would have be to convinced that we actually could stand in someone else’s shoes and represent their position fairly and respectfully. Hale doubts this can be done because of what he calls the veil of opulence—the blindness that we all have to the privileges of birth and position. We fall victim to the comfort of believing that if we fell on hard times, we would work our way out of it. The veil of opulence works like the Just World Hypothesis. It creates that delusional narrative that we are self-made, deserving human beings whose unearned good fortune insulates from caring more deeply from others who we see as not as worthy or deserving of what we have. Lots of us dodge bullets thinking we are lucky and blessed; not imaging that the cards are stacked in our favor.

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Jews, Jesus and encounters at the front door

Sociologists and political scientists are worried about us—all of us and some of us a lot more. Part of their compensation package is based on how many people they can convince to share the same worry. And, if that worry turns into a social movement, that is even better and actually miraculous. As a few of them might conclude about such a development, such progress would be “an unanticipated and not well predicted outcome given the variables under consideration and the logic model imposed upon the data.” Huh?

 In any case, they are worried about the way we live our lives, especially compared to our previous settlements and interactions. For example, they report that our children used to play with the neighbor’s children; now children are matched up with like-minded and like-classed others and sent far away to the develop their talents, no matter how weak those gifts really are.  Play dates are increasingly like arranged marriages.

 They also note that where we live—our address in a specific community—has fallen victim to the “big sort.”  If on Memorial Day weekend, we look to houses on the right and to the left, chances are everyone is cooking on the same type of grill and eating the same menu. We are organized by social class and hardly meet or interact with others who are living other circumstances. When I was growing up very working class, the dentist next door would always borrow our lawn mower, not because he couldn’t afford one but because my father was more “handy around the house” than he was and could keep a lawn mower running no matter what the challenge was. This allowed us to trade that favor into pretty good dental care.  In academic circles, this is referred to as “social capital” and is as valuable as other forms of capital, only harder to commodify and certainly nearly impossible to put in your wallet.

 They also complain that we are increasingly isolated and privatized.  We don’t visit with our neighbors. We don’t drop in at each other’s houses.  The world is so digitized and segmented and that the old days of people coming to your door without a pre-arranged mission are long gone. You could with great justification greet someone at your door these days with a salutation like “Did you NOT check my online calendar? Did I seem ready to accept visitors?”  Now, when the doorbell rings it is for a special function—the UPS man, the cable guy, or people you’ve invited for a dinner you’ve Doodling, texting and Googling about for weeks on end. When those earnest signature collectors come from Clean Water Action is an exception. They are too young to know they are breaking some big rule.  And, of course, there are the Jehovah’s Witnesses who must have special training to employ rejection as a source of connection to salvation. I admire their inability to know where they are not welcome.

 Two weeks ago, on a busy Saturday morning (another observation by the sociologists—even our leisure time is way over-programmed) the doorbell rang. When I first heard it, I thought, “Do I have a text?” “Is the laundry done? “Is the smoke alarm battery calling in to let me know its days are numbered?” Yet another observation by another researcher, the average American adult hears 150 beeps/blurps/chirps/bings every hour, most of which he ignores, just as he should. Some days, when my electronic devices seem to all call out as if it is their mating season, I feel like a dog in a Skinner experiment, raising my little ears and salivating for no good reason. These days, like mothers of yore, our smart phones rings and we can call out “That’s my phone; I’d recognize its ring tone anywhere!” I think all primates, birds and even worms recognize these calls for attention.

So, the doorbell rang I made my way downstairs We don’t have any way in our house of checking out who’s on the front stoop except by running outside and seeing, which really blows your cover. So, I simply opened the door to find an elderly man and a younger one. I deduced that they were together by their outfits, neither dressed like the FedEx man. Initially, I thought, “Encyclopedia salesmen” but then I remembered there were no more encyclopedias and selling Wikipedias door to door seems sketchy. And, besides these men were more Fuller Brush than Face Book types. I gave them a quick look over and thought they posed no terrorist threat, so I opened the screen door as well and gave them a little smile and asked, “Can I help you?” 

 “Well, good morning, Ma’am. Isn’t it a lovely spring morning!” 

 I stuck my head out the door, looked around and agreed that it was.

 “Ma’am, I am minister Bradford from the Calvary Baptist Church up the street and this is a parishioner from my church, Petey.” Petey couldn’t stop smiling and raising his eyebrows.  They seemed nice enough so I let him continue his introductions.

“Ma’am, do you know Jesus as your personal savior?”

 Gosh, the swarm of snarky replies that swept into my conscious brain was almost overwhelming. I have never ingested a really serious illegal drug but I imagined this was like that rush. Part of the problem of being a professor is the employment of quibbification as a tool of combat and partee. Quibbification, as defined the Professor’s Handbook, is the tendency to question every word and argue as long as breath will allow to answer questions that no one but you and another remotely quoted scholar has raised. So, when this nice man asked this question, I wanted to jump into a discourse about the disappearance of mainstream churches, the attraction of me-centered theology, the development of drive-in churches, God as a merchandising brand and so on.  My brain spun on.

“I don’t know Jesus as my personal savior but I bet you don’t know Megan, my personal trainer or Siri, my personal assistant, either” was my second thought. That sounded like it evened the score but it had a taste of meanness to it. My third possible response followed.

“I don’t know Jesus as my personal savior; our relationship is more spiritual. I consider Him less a friend and more of a benevolent overload. Sort of like one of the heads of the Hogwarts school, but with an appeal process.”  That kind of reply sounded like it could have launched a long conversation about schisms in the church and the changing character of religious faith. This pastor may have read the same sociological journals as I did and given his seriousness of purpose may have known the literature a lot better.  So, I passed on that response, as well.

I simply replied, “Actually Reverend Bradford, this is a Jewish household.” 

A light fell over his face, like rapture.

“My gosh, we love the Jews!” He nodded to his colleague, “Don’t we, Petey?” I think Petey nodded but mostly I think he was surprised at the turn the conversation took. Or maybe, he could just read my mind.

Then, he rolled out in quick order all the reasons why Jews such a gift to him.

“Ma’am, did you know that Jesus was a Jew?”

I am thinking, “Well, that’s the way the story goes but why was his last name, Christ?” I let it go.

 “And all the apostles were Jews.”  I nodded my head; I did know that.

 “And, the Jews gave us the Old Testament.”  Quibbification raises its head.  “Gave?” I wondered. Maybe not exactly gave. Maybe, left it hanging around like a library book that gets read by lots of people. And, I didn’t want to get into the complications here with authorial attribution and the lost Gospels and the DaVinci code, so I let that go, as well.

 I smiled in recognition of his kindness and openness to me and my faith. Of course, it should be said right here that I was raised a Catholic and live with a partner who is Jewish. So, quibbling again, we are not exactly a Jewish household but my claim to him that we were seemed like an easy enough way to not have a long conversation on the steps. I wanted to be kind and respectful.

 “Well. Reverend, in this household we embrace all faith traditions and respect yours, of course.” I thought, gosh, it is so easy to sound inauthentic.

 “I hope you have a good day and best wishes in your ministry.” I shook their hands and they left with a little wave or maybe that was a blessing.

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To me or not to me.rev 3

Me.rev.3

I am learning the lessons of social media. Not only do I have a time-limited embodied life that keeps me busy enough—respiring, digesting, ambulating, interacting with others in real time and real places, and other tasks—I need to have a digital presence. As the young digital acolytes warned in a social media workshop I was made to attend by my employer, “If you are not on the web, you don’t exist.” I am not certain that these social media types are the students who majored in Philosophy; that seems like a different crowd but I am taking their advice to heart, however, fickle that heart is. If Rene Descartes were living today, instead of writing “Je pense, donc je suis” or “I think, therefore I am”, he might have penned, “Je clic, dons je suis” or “I click, therefore I am.” Or being French, he may have simply enjoyed a glass of Beaujolais and waited for this new fad to pass.

Being way too American and old enough to feel that I better keep up with the newest technologies lest I betray my age and foggeyness, I launched into an intensive self-improvement plan. So, the first step was to assess my digital presence. Who was I? What traces was I leaving? If I Googled or Binged myself, who would I find? The first results were a little shocking. Googling my somewhat unusual name (Sandra Enos, Ethnic Azorean, simplified at the border when we migrated here), I found lots of matches. I found myself as professor (good news for me) and I also learned that another me had recently died in Vermont and yet another me had been indicted in Virginia. You can imagine my confusion and dismay. Because I am so new to the etiquette of the web, if there is such a thing, I didn’t know if I was expected to send a note to the deceased and a cease and desist order to my felonious namesake. Suppose some remote contact was trying to find me on the web and didn’t have enough information to discern among the multiple me’s? I mean how is one to approach these things? Lots of indelicate situations can arise; I am certain of it.

Googling for web hits was one thing. I could also birddog my presence in photos and videos. Again, sort of shocking. I found images of myself that I never posted and didn’t recognize. I don’t have a press agent or a publicity team so I am not certain who is making me famous. In fact, I may not want a digital presence. Shouldn’t we have some rights to not have our bad pictures posted? This whole experience reminded me of that awful day when the high school yearbook came out and you learned two pieces of very bad news. First, you are so unattractive that other people cannot tell a flattering picture of you from an awful one. One photograph looks as unappealing as the other to the editor of the yearbook. Second, among all the stupid photos, inside jokes and lame stories, your pithy comments and brilliant insights about your fellow students didn’t make the final cut after all. The web seemed like that day in high school. I was stuck with two uncomfortable feelings—a disconcerting sense of loss of control and a bitter taste of revenge—just like in high school.

Given these early experiences, I was committed to setting things right. I figured that my web presence should be very much a matter of my invention. I wanted to be creative, cutting edge, entrepreneurial, integrated, all natural—whatever would make my digital presence cooler than my real presence. I mean creativity and innovation are all the rage now; they are the cat’s pajamas which given our recent over-the-top seduction by our house pets sounds like a perfect niche to explore. (Gosh, I am already feeling entrepreneurial.)  So, my webself will be taller, more clever, more generous, more flexible, and more centered. And as a distinguishing marketing pitch, I will also suggest that while many twenty-year olds can multitask, that I can uni-task–do one only thing at a time and get it done.  A uni-tasker is like a unicyclist. We don’t win races; we have amazing balance and we can do our tricks on a tightrope. Try that you thumb wielding texter, you!

If I understand the workshop leaders correctly, I needed to take charge and manage by web self.   I need to Tweet. I need to Facebook. I needed to Reddit. I needed to blog and reblog. I need to Instagram. I need to do things that aren’t even popular yet. I need to be an influencer. I need to be an aggregator. I needed to have a webpage with a clear compelling design. Most importantly, the workshop leader insisted that I needed to drive eyeballs my way. Sounds like a cattle drive to me with cowboys and reluctant cows. It is brings up one of those creepy drawings of

One important question that the workshop leader failed to address at all, a deeply existential one to my way of thinking. What if your digital presence and your real self begin to drift apart from each other? What if they go their separate ways? What if your digital self finds better work? What if your digital self gets beaten up and bullied on the web, which I know is a real danger? How much does your real self feel that pain?  I am thinking a great deal which I think may mean doubling the cost for therapy but maybe not for medication.

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My diminishing superpowers, mattering and the summoned life

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about my transformation into Tech Girl, a mature woman who would swoop in to rescue digitally challenged elders who were being attacked by electronic personal assistants and harassed by poorly designed log in routines.  And, while I am still looking forward to that superhero assignment once I retire and have the time I need to become a proper superhero–wardrobe, branding, licensing and insurance coverage—I am increasingly concerned that I am actually losing other superpowers.  Actually, what seems to be to be superpowers at age 66 were talents I took for granted a few decades ago. These seem to be simple enough tasks but it should be remembered that even a genius like Siri can’t do these things very easily so I should give myself a break as well and not be too concerned with these changes.

These superpowers once in hand no longer easily accessed include:

The Begats.  Keeping the names and the progeny of friends and family members straight and remembering without effort who gave birth to whom and in what order. Like the Old Testament in Genesis with all those begats. This contemporary version is harder because it seems back then everyone had his own name and you didn’t have to keep straight all the many Mallorys, Melanies, Melissas and Madison who are in your life.

Old dogs: no tricks. Adults are often surprised beyond reason when they hear a toddler speak perfect French. Well, maybe not like the French majors at the Sorbonne but French that is better than mine despite years of adult effort. While learning algebra or verb tenses seemed to be a normal part of growing up, learning some things grows harder as you age. It seems the memorizing part of your brain diminishes and the area of your brain some idiot designed for forgetting swells up. This is like saving something special in the refrigerator for lunch and having your partner pitch it in the trash (over and over again.)

Disappearing acts. In my earlier days, I could cavalierly reject the advice from Benjamin Franklin or Felix Unger—a place for everything and everything in its place. I could find things no matter I misplaced them. I had a great memory. My bathing suit? At the bottom of the swimming pool. My driver’s license? In that pair of pants I wore last summer. My keys? Somewhere in the house. None of these things were really missing. Just temporarily not in my possession. Now, I am seriously constrained. I spend way too much time putting things where they belong. The ease of the spontaneity has gone. Now, I have a Container Store mentality—I can’t not worry about storage and filing and I hate it. Now, when I lose things, I know right away that they are seriously lost. There is no mystery or hope or wonder.

Mindlessness. There is a lot written about the brain’s executive function. As I understand it, this is your brain’s control center. Like an air traffic manager, this function manages thoughts in and out; it lines up activities. It is a big to-do list maker, directing everything from brushing your teeth to ordering your bigger priorities. I used to leave this function to operate itself. I was confident in the management of my brain. In fact, I would be happy to give it a outsized salary and stock options; it was that high-performing. However, after a decade of disappointing results, I mounted a hostile takeover of operations. Never mind, I grumbled, I’ll do it myself. Now, I spend more time managing things—to do lists everywhere in every format. I write them over and over again. It is weird, no doubt. It is like ordering yourself to do work, like a memo from a manager who doesn’t want to deal with you face-to-face. I have moved from the pleasure of automatic pilot to to-do list automaton. I miss the mindless me.

A tale thrice (or more) told. There is no question but that I was blessed with a reliable memory. Not only could I remember a personal story, I could also recall when and with whom I had shared the tale. Now, when I am about to make a point with that story, I preface the presentation with, “I may have said this to you before” only to have the other party nod as quickly as they can so they don’t have to sit through another rendering. Not only is this embarrassing because it appears you have no recollection of this important conversation you had with your colleague, it is also makes it virtually impossible to lie effectively. To be a great liar, you have to keep track of your tracks and if you can’t do that, you need to be careful with your truth. Maybe, that is why the very young find their grandparents so lovely. Children sense that these elders are not as scheming as their parents because they can’t be. They don’t have good enough memories to cook up an airtight tale. They do, however, have enormous powers to make up things because the facticity of things seems to matter less.

In any case, all these powers came very easily to me in an earlier version of myself and now that they don’t, I am thinking I should make plans to cover my deficits and move onto to some important work legacy-like work. And, in fact, I think the powers that I will discuss below are sufficient compensation for any of the superpowers that I have lost.

I am thinking about the next stage of my life and what I need to leave behind. Erikson’s theories of development suggest that in the last two stages of development that adults are first directed to fashion accomplishments that will outlast them. These efforts are often directed to some work or activities that result in a positive impact for others. The final stage of life is a reflective one where a feeling of fulfillment and contentment may surface if one feels satisfaction from earlier stages.

To guide me in this important work, I draw upon two reservoirs of wisdom: first, the theory of mattering and second, the idea of the summoned life. Mattering is a social psychological concept developed and tested by Professor Gregg Elliott at Brown University. Of all the reading I have done in this field, the appeal of mattering stands out in its power and simplicity. Elliott’s work focuses on adolescent development and mattering explains much in a few empirically tested premises. Three elements are at play here. First, does this child feel that it matters to others that he shows up? Or does he feel invisible when he enters a room? Second, does she feel that other people are invested in her success? Do they indicate that they are on her team? Will they take an extra step for her? Will she feel that she is the object of their special attention? And finally, does the child understand that others can rely on her? That they depend on her to take care of them in some way? Does she appreciate those qualities that she has that others recognize but may be invisible to her?

In my read, mattering works in two dimensions: Am I important to them and are they important to me? Elliott proposed that for children, the former can balance out an absence of the latter. In other words, a child can be neglected by his parents (or the opposite—subject to the object of too much of the wrong kind of attention) yet feel as if he matters if he feels his little brother is relying on him for protection, if his aunt can trust with him to complete his chores, or if a teacher understands that this child will protect more vulnerable children and the child acknowledges that her faith in his goodness.

Although designed to help us understand the treacherous waters of adolescence, mattering has significant practical appeal at each stage of our lives. As an older adult and faculty member, I use every opportunity to help my students understand that they matter. I offer investments and interest–Can I write you a letter of recommendation? I missed you in class on Monday; are you OK? I help them to recognize their strengths, as I understand them. You have such strong analytical abilities, I say. Have you thought about graduate school? Or, I saw how upset you seemed by that comment from that other student. You showed great restraint and did a wonderful job returning our class discussion to a more productive exchange. That takes real emotional maturity. We are lucky to have you in this class.

 I think about a younger generation of colleagues and the challenges they face in moving up and finding their place in the world. For someone with my career trajectory—finding my calling at age fifty—I am a good example of someone who has led a life of experimentation and ‘try and see’. But things seem much more serious for this generation I consider all the messages they receive about how to value their lives. E.E. Cummings once wrote, “To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

That sense of constantly working towards who we are is a profound recognition of the second source of wisdom, lessons about the summoned life to use the term coined by David Brooks. On the surface of it, the summoned life appears to stand in direct opposition to living to execute one’s passion. Brooks suggests that there are two paths of living one’s life. The first is to drill down and find one’s passion and direct one’s energy toward fulfilling. This path seems to be the chief and only commandment adopted by career guidance services and admissions offices in colleges. We will help you put your passion into practice. You will never be happy until your passion aligns with your actions. But, the truth of is that we can move through many stages of development in our lives and that the individual who knows his passion early on may be the rare case.

The alternative path is the summoned life where contingencies and circumstances call you to action. We may be without a driving dream but we do have an integrity that is so strong that others seek to engage it. We may lack passion because we are divided among multiple interests but someone sees that we find connections they elude others. We are the sort of people who integrate ideas not dice them into tiny bits.

Like being inspired by mattering, I am likewise energized by this idea of the summoned life and the sort of work I want to engage people in. I would like to create flight plans for enrolling others in the summoned life and in embracing daily practices of mattering. I believe these are important tools for legacy making, not in grand gestures but in generously and lovingly passing along our belief and confidence in generations to come. Both help us understand and activate Erikson’s concept of generativity—the concern for making a mark, for co-creating a desirable future, and for making a sense of optimism about the future grounded in purpose. Maybe, these are super-powers that can only be granted if we are willing and able to forego others.

Bibliography

Brooks, David. “The Summoned Self.” New York Times, August 2, 2010.

Elliott, Gregory, Suzanne Kao, and Ann-Marie Grant. “Mattering: Empirical Validation of a Social Psychological Concept.” Self & Identity 3 (2004): 339-354.

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Coffee, class and culture: Airport consumption patterns as a measure of globalization and status hierarchy

Coffee, class and culture: Airport consumption patterns as a measure of globalization and status hierarchy.

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It takes a village to raise us all

Sometime you hear a phrase so often that you want to offer a reward to the person who doesn’t refer to that same quotation in a speech or commentary, even when it makes perfect sense. I believe that an individual who can reach into her collection of choice quotations and not fall on the easiest pick deserves recognition and praise. So, today I want to leave that praising for another occasion and simply suggest that we all take a rest from employing the African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child. We don’t need that break because this aphorism doesn’t reflect the truth but instead because it needs, as the academics would argue, to be unpacked.

In repeating this proverb so casually, we assume that those villages actually exist for all children. I can make an argument that for the most privileged of our children, that their parents can and do, in many cases, build that village by themselves around their children. They can buy tender and nurturing childcare; they can organize communities to support their children. T19926095-heart-shaped-many-houses-icons-realty-concept-vector-eps10hey can fashion every sort of safety net to make certain that their child doesn’t have to rely on services supported by taxes and donations. It may be too strong a statement but we can suggest that the richest families among us have privatized villages, taking care of their own, of course, and depriving our public spaces of their support and engagement. Take schools, example. It is true that in some areas where there are lots of private schools that public schools are not very good. What sort of relationship is that? Do the parents that can afford to do so get their kids out because the schools are bad? Or do the schools get worse because the talented students and their parents with resources have left them?

If children attend schools where there is a concentration of poverty, research suggests that academic achievement will be low. The segregation of Americans by income, culture and other dimensions, the great sorting out in Bishop’s terms, has been further investigated by Robert Putnam and Mark Dunkleman. They have examined the disappearance of middle-range ties, those connections that bridge income and opportunity classes. This, they suggest, hollows out community and leaves us concerned only about our own, because we don’t have encounters with others who are different from us, face different challenges in participating in the American dream and have worldviews that may challenge our own. It is here where I want to make the connection to those villages that are supposed to be raising children.

I am reminded of the story—more a parable—that is often told to college students and congregants where the teaching objective is to get them to consider the root causes of social problems. The Babies in the River story tells the tale of an individual who quite unexpectedly sees a baby floating in the river, and, of course, rescues him. Another baby comes down the river; another rescue ensues and so on and so on until our hero has to enlist others to help her care for the children. More and more babies arrive and pretty soon, a sizable community is needed to care the needs of these infants. Not only are we pulling them out of the water, we are also comforting them. We are seeing if they are well; we are feeding them and fashioning ways to keep them warm and safe. And, we are continually organizing and re-organizing ourselves. Not only do we need caretakers; we need supplies and resources. We need some assurance that these children are ours to care for. We need someone to make certain that these obligations that we are taking on can be supported by our community. And, we need to rely on people who are just as motivated as we are by this mission to save and nurture these children. Imagine today, if your community—you personally had accepted the responsibility of helping to support an unknowable number of infants. Imagine what you would need to get this done.

But, in the telling, that is not the end of the story. The moral of the story is that someone should travel upstream to see how these babies are coming to travel down the river in the first place. Who or what is creating this humanitarian crisis and what can we do to address this? In whose interest are these babies landing in the river? Is someone benefitting from such an arrangement? The lesson here for students is that we shouldn’t get so focused on immediate needs of those we care for that we neglect understanding and addressing roots causes. This makes obvious sense. If we eliminate a disaster, avoid suffering, that is all to the good. But, I think there is another important point that is not often made.

What has made it possible for that community to organize itself on behalf of the babies in the river? What made it impossible for them to walk away from the river in the comfort that certainly this mission was someone else’s? Or that these children or their parents made this misfortune on their own and that released them from obligation? What made it possible for there to be a match between the needs of the children and those who gathered around them? Where did these resources—time, talent, and compassion—originate? This sort of community making doesn’t emerge out of thin air. And finally, what came before, what human connections, communities of caring, trust and concern had evolved in earlier settings and were activated in this one?

Villages require connections and what some call social capital. People bring resources, which are connected to other people; or they know people. Others know how to get things done; they k20498242-cityscape-sketch-seamless-pattern-for-your-designnow when to call City Hall and demand action. Others know when we need some new ideas. With other talents, some know how to tell a story so that our hearts are fired up and our cynicism melted. All this can be enlisted in the building of our village. To use Paul Light’s term, all are drivers for change and without these, no village is complete enough to care for its children.

Certainly, some of us can pay or move our way out of these sorts of obligations but that is not the sort of society that assembles when there is a need nor it is the sort of village that asks for truth when we seek the source of suffering.

And, as Rasmussen would suggest, we ought to look into our own souls, to see if the problem we aim to fix is one that we may have made.

thIn summary, not only does it take a village to raise a child. It takes a village to raise us all up to become members of a community where we contribute our best and which we can turn to when we ourselves are in need of its care and kind concern.

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