Tag Archives: Relationships

Hints

I have just done a rare thing, which is why it bears mention: I have just made a second cup of coffee.

This is strange for me. My coffee drinking habits are pretty simple – a cup in the morning. Maybe a cup in the afternoon on the weekends if I’m reading or writing in a café, or if I’m meeting a friend. There were some mornings at my previous school where a coffee connoisseur department mate would offer me a cup and, depending on the status of my first cup, I might accept. He really did make delicious coffee. I’ve been on enough school trips to know that I’m just fine without it, but I so enjoy the ritual of a cup of coffee in the morning. And I just made a second.

I’m thinking.

I’m thinking about loss, about learning, and about where I might be getting things wrong even while I’m trying hard (maybe this is the problem) to do everything right.

I’m thinking about a colleague-turned-friend, and I’m wondering if that’s where I got it wrong. Maybe we remained colleagues. Maybe that’s where it ended. Maybe “keep in touch and don’t be a stranger” fell short of genuine. Or maybe not. Maybe life has gotten in the way, maybe there’s a long to-do list full of weightier priorities, maybe no one is counting weeks except me because it’s my world that has changed.

Or maybe I just can’t take a damn hint. There’s that possibility, too. Maybe I went wrong somewhere and unresponsiveness is a tap on the shoulder. I haven’t ruled that out.

This leads me to once upon a time, over four years ago now, when I was (according to me, at least) abundantly explicit about a specific set of choices. And I know someone who was clearly shocked when I proceeded to do exactly as I had said. Maybe I hadn’t been as clear as I thought, or maybe actions and words were misaligned, or maybe I was that clear. Maybe I did do the right things, and maybe the message just wasn’t received by someone who didn’t want to receive it.

The mind and heart must remain open if we’re going to understand what others have to say, even if we don’t like it.

The brain is protective. It hides us from things we don’t like, especially those that threaten our self-esteem. It makes extensive use of quick, intuitive thinking (System 1, for fans of Tversky and Kahneman) to get us through most situations. We get into trouble when a specific set of circumstances actually requires slower, more rational thought than our brains, wired for efficiency and avoidant of hard work, are willing to give it.

So I made another cup of coffee. I am trying to slow down and think. (We could address the irony of this substance – a stimulant – as a means of slowing down to think, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

The danger of thinking, in this case, is overthinking. Am I thinking too much when the best way to be is to just be and let life unfold? Am I thinking too much because I don’t want to get this wrong, because I don’t want to feel sad, because I don’t want to be in the position of wondering how, with the information I had, I could have understood differently? Maybe. I haven’t ruled it out.

In some ways, impulsivity has been beaten out of me. This could be an effect of age or experience, and is likely a combination of age and experience (they are, after all, positively correlated). But my sister has long cautioned me against my tendency towards over-caution and in this sense, I think she’s right. Numerous inspirational quotes spring to mind here but a simple question suffices: “What do you have to lose?”.

If being who I am raises eyebrows, I’m not going to gain anything by being someone else. If trying, with the best of intentions, to be honest about that is objectionable, at least I’ve given it a chance. It’s hard to be someone else; I’ve tried.

With the coffee almost done, I can report that I’ve concluded nothing. But I can also rest assured (at least, according to my brain that is designed to protect me) that I have acted in the best ways that I could. And if that’s not good enough, or if that’s not preferable in the given context, there is nothing else I would have honestly done. To act differently would have been a lie. It is possible I made a mistake, or two or twenty, but that happens. That is bound to happen. Mistakes come from trying and while I might not like the result, at least I have tried.

Weimar, Germany – August 2021

Better

Be the better person.
Be the bigger person.

Must we compare?

Is it not enough to be better than I, myself, thought I could be?
Is is not enough to be better in order to
be who I thought I could be.

Want to be.

To be the better person means to look at the other and think,” There is a reason you are doing this. You are insecure, inadequate, selfish, self-righteous, lost, hurt, afraid.”

To be better means to grow internally, to choose me over you.
To be better means to do what is right because it is right
and not because you have put me there.

To be better is to act;
to be better than is to react.

A choice?

Not really.

A statement, always.
To me, a statement.

No one else is listening.

Put Together

“Miss, at what age did you feel that you had your life together?”

I had to smile and it’s a good thing I was wearing a mask. I have been asked this question over and over since I started teaching at the tender age of 21. At that time I felt as though I knew nothing about anything, and some days that was true. Now, I like occupying the space between young enough to be relatable and old enough to be wise.

My answer has always been the same internally – What? Me? Put together? – but I’ve gotten better at articulating a message. It’s important to appreciate the intent behind such a question, which is not to find out about my life. Rather, these students want to know how to manage their own lives. They are uncertain and want to know that there is hope for a time when they will not feel uncertain.

I’ve been given the honour of speaking at graduation and I think the speech will include a part about the uncertainty of one’s life path. But when I was talking to this student yesterday, I answered her question in way that actually got me thinking and perhaps there’s something to that.

Context is important here. The student who asked me this question has been in my Advisory for the past two years, and while I haven’t taught her in a class, I am privy to her difficulties managing time, getting along with teachers, and living away from parents. I know that she has had a hard time; she was the happiest I’ve seen her when she spent our online learning period in her home country. The other two students in the room were also not students I have taught, but who I know a little bit about. They were listening as I answered, especially the quiet young man in the back of the room who even raised his face from his laptop for a moment. I looked over at him and he knew I knew.

“Miss, at what age did you feel that you had your life together?”

“Well, I guess the question is what it means to be together. We only see what people show us externally, right? We don’t know what’s going on inside. And I think a lot of the time we put on an external face but inside, we’re in pieces.”

“But how are you able to do that?”

“To appear like everything’s fine?”

“Mhm.”

“I think that’s something we learn to do. We all have coping mechanisms, right? You know when you’re having a bad day but I might not. And sometimes you just put that bad day in your pocket and go about your business until you get home and then you can fall apart. But I think we forget that other people are doing the same thing because we don’t see them like that. We only see what they show us, so that’s all we know of them.”

“Hm.”

Perhaps not the answer the student was hoping for, but the most honest one that I have. This is a student who is obviously struggling and doesn’t see, when she looks at everyone around her, that she’s not the only one. And so she feels alone. I know this because we have talked about it.

For me, this raises a few questions about cultural context and about social media. My school is highly westernized, a pervasive problem among international schools. (Danau Tanu’s book Growing Up in Transit is a stunning exploration of this and it led several colleagues and me to a crisis of being earlier this year.) The way a student might have been enculturated to respond to problems, then, quite possibly does not match the dominate narrative of our school, which leads to further confusion. Additionally, social media is highly westernized, and social media in American English presents a dominant narrative of what “okay” and “not okay” look like. (I am indebted to Lisa Feldmen Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made, which I’ve mentioned before. I cannot recommend this book enough.)

Putting this together, it is no wonder that this student is struggling to cope. She belongs to a culture that has a different mental health narrative than the educational climate and social media context in which she spends her time. This might seem a bit abstract, but I think this problem is clear in a very concrete way in social media narratives. Overwhelmingly, social media does not portray people who are not okay. We’re supposed to be happy. And we’re supposed to post photos demonstrating that we are happy. And we’re supposed to “like” or “love” or “react” to other people, whether we know them or not, to reinforce how happy we are that they are happy.

This is clearly not healthy. And so I have more questions. What was the world like before social media took over? Were people more open with each other? More honest? Did young people have a more realistic sense of what real life was like? Were young people actually in the world instead of hidden and sheltered from it?

I suspect that in some ways, questions like these have always been asked across generations. And young people have always grown into functioning adults. I just hope that the conversations we have with them, and the way we treat their concerns, help them grow in ways that are adaptive rather than giving them a false sense about what it really means to put our lives together. (Hint: There is no celebratory medal announcing that we’ve got it right.)

So when I did I have my life together? I’m not sure what “together” looks like. But I know I am living my life and that, in and of itself, is enough.

For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. . . . So treasure every moment you have and remember that time waits for no one. – Alfred D’Souza

Maribor, Slovenia – January 2020