Handed Our Own Lives

When I was a junior in high school, my creative writing teacher, Jean Gill, asked us to read nature writer Annie Dillard’s essay “Handed My Own Life,” from her memoir An American Childhood.

In it, little Annie Dillard begs her parents for a microscope, and they give her one for Christmas. She investigates all sorts of things over the winter, but she is dying to see an amoeba. In late spring, after the thaw, she is finally able to gather some mucky pond water, prepares a slide, and sees one! She scrambles up the basement stairs to the breakfast table where her parents are drinking coffee, and asks them to hurry, before the water dries, so they can see it too.

Mother regarded me warmly. She gave me to understand that she was glad I had found what I had been looking for, but that she and Father were happy to sit with their coffee, and would not be coming down.

She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself.

I had essentially been handed my own life. In subsequent years my parents would praise my drawings and poems, and supply me with books, art supplies, and sports equipment, and listen to my troubles and enthusiasms, and supervise my hours, and discuss and inform, but they would not get involved with my detective work, not hear about my reading, nor inquire about my homework or term papers or exams, nor visit salamanders I caught, nor listen to me play the piano, nor attend my field hockey games, nor fuss over my insect collection with me, or my poetry collection or stamp collection or serious rock and mineral collection. My days and nights were my own to plan and fill.

Other people might have viewed her parents’ laissez-faire attitude unfavorably, but not me. The story blew my mind. My microscope had come with strings attached: a brass plate engraved with the title of “Dr.” and the family name. My piano lessons too: the promise of a rhinestone-studded piano if I could learn to play like Liberace (I quit after my teacher moved away). When I got straight A’s, my father took me to Baskin-Robbins to share a banana split with the chocolatey-est scoops of ice cream and gooiest toppings. When I didn’t do well, I was reviled and made to suffer.

Young Annie’s life couldn’t have been more different from mine, and I knew it. Taking a creative writing course had given me a taste of freedom; my father, who ordinarily oversaw every single aspect of my academic life, was mysteriously disinterested in my writing until I got published in the literary magazine.

I did not know then what a motivation researcher was, but Annie Dillard planted the seed of my becoming one. I loved her writing, and the way she reimagined the simplest of occurrences to make them profound, but what I think I loved most about her was the way she laid bare the contrast between what my life was and what my life could have been.

Don’t let anyone fool you: even research in seemingly the most objective of fields has a story like Annie Dillard’s, or like mine, behind it. Research is never neutral: who we are and what interests us shapes how and what we choose to investigate.

Starting when I was a teenager, I’d done a lot of reading about Buddhism and other religions. I’d done counselling courses, and gotten a degree in psychology. But when, as part of my graduate studies, I took a motivation course and learned about self-determination theory (don’t let those words scare you), I found my amoeba.

Used under Creative Commons license from Picturepest’s Flickr feed.

What is the self (according to self-determination theory, anyway)? The (true) self isn’t a thing that you can point at. It’s a process. It’s the drive to grow and to glom onto all sorts of things — values and interests and capabilities and so on — and make them our own.

Deep down, my self and your self are the same self because they’re the same process, even though they may glom onto different things, depending on what’s been made available to us. But the self is impersonal! Isn’t that cool?

Our selves are fed in three different ways, all of which are necessary: by being loved and cared for no matter what (relatedness), by being handed our own lives (autonomy), and by feeling capable (competence). These are psychological needs, just like food, water, and being protected from the elements are physical needs that have to be satisfied for us to survive, grow, and thrive. If they consistently aren’t met, we can do some funky stuff and feel some funky ways, but that’s just the self starving and eating Twinkies because they’re the only thing around.

Self-determination theory says, simply, that you want your self in the drivers’ seat, determining your behavior, rather than abandoning the self to answer to the whims, wants, and demands of other people.

The self always knows what’s up.

Giving Yourself an A

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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW8BDgLpZkI]

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?

Owning the Classroom

A couple summers ago, I took a course in Engaged Philosophical Inquiry at UBC. We met in the Sauder School of Business in a posh classroom entirely unsuited to our purposes; it was a small lecture hall, with tiers of long tables with modesty screens, and what we really needed was to be able to rearrange ourselves in a large discussion circle. We created the best lopsided oval we could.

During one student-led discussion on embodiment, the conversation turned to the ways in which our environments shape our behavior. We talked about the room we were in, and classrooms in general.

“What if,” I asked, putting my leg on the desk, “we consciously chose to use the space differently? Can we try that?”

My friend Claire agreed, and moved from sitting at the table to sitting crosslegged atop it, and eventually lay on her belly with her chin resting on her hands, knees curled. This is one of the reasons Claire and I are friends.

I couldn’t convince anyone else. We talked about the discomfort keeping most of my classmates in their chairs. I was stunned.

It was then that I realized I had a different relationship to the classroom than most of my colleagues, all of whom were graduate students in education and some of whom were already practicing teachers. I have always felt like I belonged in the classroom, and that the classroom belonged to me. It is probably the reason why, even dressed in my customary hoodie and jeans, I was sometimes mistaken for an instructor during my undergrad.

Reading George Leonard’s book The Way of Aikido, I realized I had stumbled upon the practice of Owning the Mat, except I was owning the classroom. He recounts his teacher’s advice:

Why don’t you try this? When you step on the mat, say to yourself, “This is my mat.” Be expansive, generous. Look around at the other people on the mat. Be glad they’re here. Welcome them. Welcome them to your mat. . . Are you willing to take responsibility for this mat, to own it? That doesn’t mean it isn’t everybody else’s mat, too. If you’re big enough to own the mat as yours, you’re big enough to let it be theirs, too.

Leonard suggests doing this in all sorts of situations: a restaurant, a lecture hall, a business meeting, or a courtroom. To this I would add virtual spaces, like sitting down to write a blog post, or writing in a journal. Or crafting the dreaded job application.

In her article “The Empty Chair: Education in an Ethic of Hospitality,” Claudia Ruitenberg writes of extending Jacques Derrida’s ethic of hospitality to educational spaces. “Hospitality, for Derrida, is an unconditional gift given by a host who is aware of her or his indebtedness to the guest. . . An ethic of hospitality. . . is not about the social convention of welcoming, but about responding to an other who arrives and who confronts the host with absolute otherness.”

Leonard echoes this sentiment. Speaking of a tennis match, he writes,

Be especially welcoming to your opponent. He or she is your guest, someone who has come to help you play the game. The better the opponent, the better your game. If by some chance this opponent tries to intimidate you, don’t intimidate back. There’s no need to, for only one who is willing to be intimidated can be intimidated, and you’re in an entirely different position. Your opponent, no matter what his or her demeanor, is a welcome guest who is there to help you play a better game, and thus is always to be treated in a gracious manner.

Photo used under Creative Commons license from Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu’s Flickr feed.

How different education would be if we could own our classrooms in this way, and see even the student Claudia describes as “fundamentally ungraspable” as someone who is not in need of “domination, identification, understanding, or even care” (Todd, as cited in Ruitenberg), but as a guest who helps us play the game of educating at our best.