Mayhem Monday: Why We Should Be More Understanding

“I can’t tell you what’s in this folder” she said tapping the file on her desk.

“But just trust me when I tell you that even the expression on your face spoke volumes.”

The disabilities coordinator was explaining to me how my perplexity at a student’s question had caused an explosion. The creases in my forehead were a live wire that ran straight from my brain to her trigger and lit the fuse.

I wanted to defend my response, but I realized there was no defense. Nothing I could say would change the student’s perception. Whatever I said or didn’t say was wrong. It was enough to make her feel inadequate. She had left the room defeated and heated.

I replayed the scene several times in my mind and wondered how I might have done it differently. It’s so much easier to find the right words after the fact! But in this case, it wasn’t even as much about what I said as how! The reality is, I might have spoken the exact same words in a different way and there may have been a different outcome…

Hmmm…

How often have I heard someone say, in their own defense, “I don’t know what the problem is, all I said was…”

I thought about her words: “I can’t tell you what’s in this folder.” The contents of that folder are protected by privacy laws. They contain the details of the student’s past experiences. Her medical history and all the things that would likely explain the inner workings of her mind. Yet they are protected by her right to privacy and would only be revealed if the student were to discuss them with me. As I reflected on this, it occurred to me that this student isn’t the only one.

We all have a file.

It may not reside in a metal cabinet or be managed by a disabilities coordinator, but it certainly holds all the details of our past experiences and history that would explain the inner workings of our minds. Those who interact with us don’t have the privilege of knowing what’s in our files any more than I did when interacting with this student. The best that we can do is guess as we interpret each other’s words and actions. Yet, how much are our actions and reactions the result of our own past experiences? How much do our own sensitivities come from the files each of us has that determines the lens through which we view the world? Our perceptions are always skewed by our files. We register every experience according to the experiences we’ve had before. We judge every new relationship according to our personal card catalogue of previous relationships. We recognize verbal cues, facial expressions and physical gestures because of those we filed away in our memory bank of painful or pleasant engagements. So when we see or hear them again, we respond accordingly.

“What, am I supposed to be a mind reader now?” was my sarcastic retort.

She smiled.

“Not at all. We simply need you to be aware that she’s not like every other kid. You have to be a little more considerate of her feelings.”

It’s all about consideration and accommodation. Thinking about the other person’s point of view first. What might she be thinking? Rather than standing apart from her I have to try to stand under her—literally understand.  It’s an intentional act that requires intention and forethought. It’s not something that will come naturally, but I feel like it is something that could be transformative.

If I can learn to respond to people—not just my special students–with an attitude of accommodation, assuming that there’s something in their file that I can’t see which causes them to say or do things that I may not understand, perhaps I can at least delay judgment.  Perhaps I can avoid conflicts and frustration.  Because, if I could see inside the file I might have a different perspective on their behavior. I might not judge at all. I might even understand them. Not knowing what’s in the file, I should at least give them the benefit of the doubt.  At least.

So, the word for today is understanding—to stand under—because  everybody has a file that you don’t have permission to see.

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Photo by Amanda Bear on Unsplash

Wait for It…

They say patience is a virtue. But, it’s not a virtue that I naturally possess. When I want it, I want it now!  Yet, immediacy and present action has been more of a wish than a reality for me over the years. For example, my plans to move immediately after I graduated from college dissolved into a settlement in my present location.  My intentions to launch directly from school to a shining career have dragged through a meandering road of unexpected detours and traffic delays.

Yet, I’m told by the wise man that “for everything there is a season” …so I should not see these digressions as stumbling blocks but stepping stones. It’s just that when you’re a person who struggles with that patience virtue, it’s hard to conceive that the extended delay at the stop light is in any way a benefit to reaching the destination.

So, what is it with waiting? What is it about that pause, that is so helpful for the future?

And what about you creatives out there? Do you struggle with waiting?

When you sit at the canvas…

at the piano…

at the keyboard and wait…

for something:  an image, an inspiration, a melody? a breakthrough?

Waiting can be hard.  Yet, waiting does something…

It allows for preparation. If you’ve ever been in that weird space in between, you may remember what you learned. Just think back to middle school—that awkward educational, emotional and developmental space after elementary and just before high school. For some of us it may bring back nightmares of embarrassing moments, bad hair days and acne, but it was also a time of discovery. When the world was opening up, when we began to recognize ourselves as individuals and to establish our own sense of self. Granted, it was the beginning, but that safe space in between allowed us to prepare for the subsequent steps which would be more demanding.

Each phase of our lives is really a space between the previous one and the next which allows us time to learn from the past and anticipate the future. While it can be awkward, it is also comforting because we can take advantage of what we know while enjoying the freedom from what we don’t know.  Let’s face it, sometimes the best part about middle management is passing the buck! (“Sorry, I’m not authorized to make that decision, you’ll have to ask my supervisor!”) Yet, watching what happens at the next level, keeping our eyes and ears open to what goes on at the front of the line allows us time to think about what works and what doesn’t.

While you’re waiting for inspiration to come, what can you learn from what you already know?

It facilitates maturation.  You may not like being in middle school or “middle management” because, the other reality is that you’re often reminded of what you “can’t” do! You’re old enough to “know better” not old enough to have the keys.  You have just enough power (knowledge or skill) to do lots of work, but not enough to get much credit for it. Those around you call the shots, make the decisions and hold your future in their hands. Waiting for your day is like watching grass grow!  Yet, as those of us who survived middle school know, the years in between mark a period of significant change, growth and development. Our bodies and minds matured so much during that time that family and friends hardly recognized us by the end of it! The time of waiting may feel long, but it is necessary to facilitate this maturity. If our parents gave us the keys when we were 12, disaster would have certainly followed. But, within 4-6 years, we matured from those awkward middle stages into more mature (though still maturing) teenagers capable of greater responsibilities and independence.

As adults, moving from middle to upper management–or from novices to masters in our fields–may feel like a work of futility, but the work that we’re doing, the small steps we are taking, every task we complete is part of our maturation. We don’t notice it while it’s happening because the changes are imperceptible, but over time, the accumulation of every small effort—even unintentional ones—is contributing to our development until one day we’ll look up and, perhaps, not even recognize ourselves!

It builds anticipation. Then, when you’ve been in that middle zone long enough to see how it works, long enough to watch what’s next, long enough to study and prepare, you’ll feel that preparation welling up. What may have started out as fear will transform into energy.  When you were a middle-school kid, you may have felt out of sorts–uncomfortable in your own skin. Maybe you worried what other people thought about you and cared what others said.  But during the waiting you’ve had time to settle in. You’ve had time to observe the cycles, to see that people talk about what they admire and camouflage their jealousy with disdain. You understand leadership—that blind ambition clouds judgement, but humility covers a multitude of sins.

You’ve grown and matured.  Now you’re ready for your shot.

You’re ready to take your place at the front of the line–to step out onto center stage.  The time spent waiting is like wood stacked for a fire and the anticipation is a simmering cauldron on an open flame ready to explode!

This is your moment. When preparation meets opportunity, you’ll know it, you’ll feel it and you’ll be ready. “Despise not the day of small beginnings”. Be patient…it’s coming…just wait for it!

 

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Special thanks to Anaya Katlego on Unsplash for cover photo

In Defense of the Invisible Writer

We see the world through an odd-shaped lens.

We are observers, watching and waiting for moments of significance that we can connect to concepts and form into new realities.  Yet we are often unseen.

Sometimes it is because we escape to a secluded place in order to do this work–the irony being that in order to capture the essence of lived experience we must remove ourselves from it.

Yet, even when visible we remain unseen as conversations inevitably turn to writing as grammar and punctuation, writers as mere trivializers of experience and writing itself as mere trifles. A conversation with a young math and science scholar reveals the devaluation of all things English. “Science,” he says, “is useful. We can learn things about the body, about the physical world, but in English classes we only talk about words and ideas. It is a waste of time.”

Really?

How else would scientists discuss the body and the physical world if not through language? How else would history and psychology be studied and understood if not verbally or in writing? Beyond that, how else would individuals know how to express their thinking on these subjects clearly if there were no discussions about writing and thinking?

Too often intellectuals, in a hurry to get to their destinations, disregard the vehicles that carry them there. Yet, I suppose, if those vehicles broke down they might miss them and, perhaps, then take note of the craftsmanship that made those vehicles run. The same is true of writing and the mastery of language. They are the vehicles by which knowledge is both generated and shared. The study of writing and how it is produced and perfected is not a waste of time, but a science in and of itself. Certainly it will not interest everyone, but neither should it be dismissed as unimportant. We use language everyday. We rely on it to conduct  our business–it is not relegated to the classroom and neither are the principles that are learned there.

Yet, the invisible writer is not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that writing is taken for granted may also be a credit to the skill that is employed by writers who produce such good work that they disappear! The slogans on your cereal box, the catchy phrases splashed on the wall at Zaxby’s, even the clever little phrases on the Taco Bell hot sauce packets were the work of an invisible creative mind. The application forms you fill out for employment, the instructions you rely on to assemble your new gadget, the news you follow on social networks–all the work of a writer you will never know. When the writing is bad, the vehicle breaks down and you wonder about the craft, but when the information flows there’s no thought to the work that went into every jot and tittle.

But believe me, it is work. The words don’t appear magically. It is by blood, sweat and tears that the vehicle is constructed. It is not only in coal factories that work is done, but also in coffee shops, in quiet corners, at raggedy desks in lonely buildings once students have fled and janitors are sweeping through the hallways. Invisible writers tap away at keyboards reflecting on the world they’ve observed, trying to make sense of the chaos, hoping to reshape meaningless moments into objects that can sit in the mouth like peppermint—sweet, refreshing, enlivening—and leave a pleasant, lasting impression even after they disappear.

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Photo by Alexa Mazzarello on Unsplash