what if people told you terrible things about yourself not because the things were true, but because they knew you would believe them?
— barefootwriter (@bfwriter) March 8, 2016
Not long ago, I posted this to my Twitter and on my Facebook, where someone cheekily suggested I needed better friends. In reality, I thought to myself, I needed better parents –parents who didn’t do these kinds of things – but you can’t just swap those out.
Personal history aside, part of what had gotten me going was this video. A high school student gets her classmates in front of the camera and tells them “I’m taking pictures of things I find beautiful.” She says she didn’t set out to make a societal commentary, just an art project, but just watch their reactions.
I’d had a couple friends around the same time say similar things to me – that I was hot, cute, or gorgeous – and I thought, especially about the last one, “What planet are you from?” But then I thought a little harder about it. What would change if we walked around feeling this way – feeling beautiful? We’d stop striving and grasping for all the wrong reasons, and maybe that would give us the headspace to find some of the right ones. How many people’s exercise programs, diets, weight-loss surgeries, and makeup regimens are based solely on the questionable premise of not feeling beautiful? Who stands to gain from telling us repeatedly that we are not beautiful yet? Certainly not us. Look at the way most of these kids light up and soften when they are told they are beautiful. Until it wears off, they are going to be happier and more magnanimous people – more beautiful people. Has telling people they are not beautiful, or even ugly, ever had that effect?
In The Art of Possibility, a book he co-authored with his wife Rosamund, conductor and music teacher Benjamin Zander writes about a practice he calls “Giving an A.” He wants to abolish grades, but he knows he can’t do that, so at the beginning of the course, he tells his students:
Each student in this class will get an A for the course. However, there is one requirement that you must fulfill to earn this grade: Sometimes during the next two weeks, you must write me a letter dated next May, which begins with the words, “Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because. . .,” and in this letter you are to tell, in as much detail as you can, the story of what will have happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade.
“I am especially interested,” he goes on to tell them, “in the person you will have become by next May. I am interested in the attitude, feelings, and worldview of that person who will have done all she wished to do or become everything he wanted to be.”
After a few weeks, he asks his students how it feels to start the semester with an A. A student raises his hand to speak.
In Taiwan, I was number 68 out of 70 student. I come to Boston and Mr. Zander says I am an A. Very confusing. I walk about, three weeks, very confused. I am Number 68, but Mr. Zander says I am an A student. . . I am Number 68, but Mr. Zander says I am an A. One day I discover much happier A than Number 68. So I decide I am an A.
As Zander points out, “The Number 68 is invented and the A is invented, so we might as well choose something that brightens our life and the lives of the people around us.” Or, as the tagline for the improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway? goes, “everything is made up and the points don’t matter.”
You can watch Ben Zander talk about the practice of Giving an A here
This all sounds like some sort of positive thinking, Pollyanna pop psychology, but it’s not. This is the heart of a stance we in the social sciences call social constructionism. It’s about being skeptical of our assumptions about how the world works, because a lot of things are made up and arbitrary. You need only look at beauty standards over the ages and across cultures to see that it’s all made up. To be Rubenesque used to be highly desirable in European cultures and now thin is in. Sir-Mix-A-Lot, on the other hand, don’t want none unless you got buns, hon. There is no objective standard. Seriously, look for one. You won’t find it; it’s historically and culturally bound.
Some cultures have always honored a multiplicity of gender expressions. Western society, until recently, has considered gender a binary, but now that’s changing. If you think about it, trying really hard to suspend your assumptions, there is no such thing as gender that is inherent in a human being at all. There was also a point in time at which A’s and other grades and even educational and academic institutions didn’t exist. We socially construct, or make this shit up together, all the time. That means we can also unmake it up at any time.
Transformative learning relies on the fact that we socially construct our realities. Jack Mezirow describes this as a process of recognizing that certain things we assume and expect and believe and “know” are limiting us, and that assuming, expecting, believing, and knowing differently might give us more possibilities and better outcomes.
The Buddha knew this. He might even have invented the practice of Giving an A when he insisted that we are all already Buddha.
So what are you waiting for, beautiful?