COVID Claims Another Victim

We all know about the many individuals (and families) impacted by the two years of COVID19.  We also know about its harmful effects on some of our cherished business firms and  institutions.  Public schools and colleges and their students and teachers, because learning is enriched by the presence of one another. Team sports. Hospitals.Governments. Nursing homes filled with frail and elderly people isolated in pandemic-induced lockdowns.  The travel industry. Restaurants.

There is another critcal group of social institutions that have been largely suffering in silence.  They are what sociologists call “mediating structures”—voluntary and nonprofit organizations that thrive on direct human contact and wither and die in a virtual world.  Faith communities, civic organizations, and volunteer-dependent nonprofits have all withered and decayed during the era of Zoom.  In fairness to Zoom, it has also empowered participation by those who can’t get out to be physically present, a gain that will continue into the post-pandemic era.  Fueled by COVID, Zoom has also powered networks across distances and enabled the creation of virtual communities, like the statewide working groups on specific issues (health care, environment, public education) that I have been mentoring on behalf of the state League of Women Voters. But on balance, there seems to be more loss than gain.

My faith community, despite two years of increasingly creative virtual services and innovative ways of engaging families with children, has lost members, attendance, and financial support, and many of those lost are unlikely to return after two years.  That is true of many congregations, which are sustained by bonds of mutual support that are nurtured by direct contact and chance encounters at worship, a potluck, or other gatherings that bring people together in one room.  I am also a member of a lifelong learning community and a civic community, both of which have relied on virtual meetings and have experienced steadily declining attendance and members.

I have long been fascinated by the somewhat obscure statistical concept of Type I and Type 2 error.  A choice to play it safe and minimize risk (Type 2 error)  is by default a way to increase the likelihood of missing good outcomes (Type 1 error). That set of choices lies behind the confusing and ever-changing signals from the CDC and others about how to keep both safety and community alive during a pandemic. Most choices are not binary, but more nuanced, finding the right point along a continuum.

I am a cautious risk taker. I am fully vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask in groups, prefer open-air encounters or small groups of the also-vaccinated. But when offered a choice of how to attend a a worship service, a committee meeting, a social or organizational gathering, or a class, I almost always opt for the in-person version. My physical presence will make a difference to others and their physical presence matters to me. As the pandemic wanes (it will never disappear entirely), please consider what social institutions you need and that need you, and promise to return. These organizations are an integral part of the social fabric in which we affirm our need for personal encounters and mutual support. Go to church. Coach a team. Volunteer at a food bank. Take a class in person. 

My daughter Carla, a singer-songwriter, wrote a funny pandemic song about how the patriotic thing to do was to sit on you a__ and do nothing.  There was a time for that. Now it is time to carefully rebalance safety and community, and the task is  urgent.  Stay safe. Be present.  If you are vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask, and pick your venues, you can do both. You, our communities, and our nation will be enriched and strengthened by your active engagement.

Be Proud of Your Humility

For a long time, I thought that there were just four virtuous attitudes, or habits of the heart (hope, faith, love, and gratitude), that  would guide us to the course of right action.  And then I had an epiphany (just in time for the season, since January 6th is the Epiphany with a capital E). If Pride, or as it was previously called, Vainglory, is the queen of the deadly sins, then it must have an opposite, a virtue that holds it in check. That virtue is humility. Humility is the hardest of all virtues to cultivate, because it requires owing up to your shortcomings and limitations.  It’s also the most liberating, because it means that not everything is your responsibility. Lacking all of Superman’s powers, you are not called on to exercise your superpowers 24/7 on behalf of all those in need or aid, wisdom, or sustenance. That awareness frees you to do jigsaw puzzles or watch ESPN or the new season of Bridgerton without guilt,  knowing that you have done the best you could with the gifts and skills that you do have.

If you are a bit late on your list of New Year’s resolutions, let me suggest that cultivating humility might be a good addition to the list. Humility is a partner with gratitude for the gifts and good deeds and kindness of others in making up for our deficiencies or coming to our aid in times of need—which, humbly speaking, we do all experience.

How do we cultivate humility? It was pretty easy growing up with parents, siblings, teachers, coaches and sometimes preachers to remind us of our deficiencies.  I may have been an academic superstar in elementary school, but I got C’s in penmanship, and I discovered my limited ability to visualize in three dimensions in courses like solid geometry, engineering drawing, and third semester calculus.  I was pretty sure that I was rhythmically challenged when I struggled to learn to type, a deficiency confirmed by flunking my rhythm test in freshman PE in college.  But once we have gone through the discovery process of figuring out what our gifts and talents are and which ones we lack, and been through an employment experience or two that helped us to define what we were and were not, we are left on our own to practice and cultivate humility.

An inventory might help.  Start with a list of things you do well, and those that you don’t do well but admire in those who can. I am good at leadership, writing, and teaching. I am not good at most sports, or art, although it helps me to reinforce humility by participating in both. I am an adequate singer and cook, and a struggling gardener with much to learn. I have lots of outlets for lessons in humility. It is too easy to spend all my time doing things I am at least pretty good at, and avoiding those I am not. Sometimes that’s a good thing. When I was musing one day about how I could help as a volunteer at our nursing home across the street, I thoughts I might be able to help in the dining room. My friend Cynthia, who knew the limits of my patience, said”Do the old folks a favor. Don’t help in the dining room. Find something else. She was right. I now happily engage in fund-raising efforts for the volunteers to provide additional experiences and services for the residents. Other times I resist that challenge to my self esteem. On one of those occasion I complained to my daughter Carla, who offered two great words of advice:”Stretch, Mom!”

I treasure the story my late friend Bob, who was a very talented bridge player but musically challenged, told about his attempts to stretch. He had good rhythm, lousy pitch.I have the opposite challenge. As an adequate but not particularly talented member of two church choirs, I managed to do not too much damage to the alto line One day Bob decided to join a local band in a nearby town and learn to play the trumpet. He was awful.  He gave it a good try and then returned, duly humbled,  to his quest to become a bridge life master. It was good for his balanced sense of self to affirm what he was good at while struggling to master something he wasn’t. I take my New Year’s challenge of learning to draw as a memorial to Bob.  I am certain it will offer a lesson in humility. 

Hibernation Time and the New Year

My family departed for home Christmas Eve night and Christmas morning, so I have been in hibernation mode since 9 a.m. on the 25th.  These seven post-Solstice, post- Christmas days  (my family always celebrates on the 24th ), are my wintering time.  It is when I, like TV specials and pundits, reflect on the year past, but it is also the time when I set my course for the year to come.

My wintering or hibernation (the noun winter is German, but hiver is the French word for winter)  is about rest and renewal, about letting go and taking on, about reflecting on the departing year and planning for the new one.  I mostly stay at home, using up the Christmas leftovers and undecorating the house, reading my Christmas books and doing one of my Christmas jigsaw puzzles. I write in my journal with a focus on the year past and the year to come, including New Year’s resolutions, which I have been doing since elementary school.  ( I remember when I was ten, I resolved to learn to light the gas stove. It didn’t have a pilot light, so it involved  a match, and I found it scary. To this day I am an electric range person.)

Over time my resolutions have become more abstract and complex. They all involve self-improvement. Even at 80 there are improvements to be made. I am deeply engaged in virtue ethics, so my guides to living wisely and well are the four attitude virtues of hope, trust, lovingkindness, and gratitude , and the behavioral virtues of self-care, prudence (practical wisdom), simplicity, and  mindfulness.  The arenas in which those virtues are played out are lifelong learning, vocation (write-teach-preach-lead-serve), and cultivating healthy relationships. My daily journal is the ongoing record of my intentions and my performance. 

What about surprises? There are always plenty of those. In 2021, COVID changed my travel plans.  I rethought some of my volunteer commitments and rearranged them to better it my lifestyle, especially that part of my lifestyle that involves sleeping from 9 to 5 and driving after dark as seldom as possible.  Self-care surprised me with an unplanned but very rewarding journey with NOOM to lose 25 pounds. I lost a cat, a dog, and most sadly, a brother.  I lost friends, some to death, others to relationships that no longer worked, but was surprised to acquire two new ones (one to hike with, one to travel with) and strengthen the bonds of several old friendships. Man (and woman) plan, and God laughs. Like Columbus, I set my course for India and found a new world along the way.

So, I invite you to a few final days of hibernation and reflection before returning to the daily round. What was your year 2021 like? What did you learn and change, gain and lose? What are your hopes for 2022, personally and collectively? What are you grateful for, concerned about, desirous of changing? As the days begin to lengthen again, and the signs daffodils and crocuses appear, may you be rested and renewed, armed with faith, hope and good intentions for the year that begins in just three days.

Tyranny of the minority

When South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, US Vice President and Secretary of State, wasn’t busy running his South Carolina plantation, he gave a lot of thought to political theory.  His biggest worry was the threat to the South from tyranny of the majority, which would allow them to ability to impose their will on a minority that did not share their values and priorities.

The Tenth Amendment and states’ rights was the strongest defense against that ‘tyranny.”  While invoking the Tenth amendment was most often used to defend slavery, Calhoun first used it against the 1828 tariff bill.  The North, with emerging manufactures, wanted protection for their infant industries against competing English products.  The South, a major agricultural exporter, preferred the less expensive products of European producers and European markets for their indigo, cotton, tobacco and rice.  Calhoun invoked the Nullification Doctrine against what he labeled the Tariff of Abominations. Nullification was the supposed right of any state to refuse to enforce a federal law with which it disagreed–in this case, in the port of Charleston. (Leading political thinkers in the Texas legislature have revived that doctrine with their novel vigilante approach to suppressing abortions.) Eventually a compromise was reached in 1833 and civil war was averted for another 28 years. It was perpetuating slavery, an institution that allowed the tyranny of the minority of mostly white southern slave owners against the enslaved people and their supporters in the rest of the nation, that eventually led to the civil war—which has yet to end.

The shadow side of protecting us from the tyranny of the majority is to enable society and government to fall victim to the tyranny of the minority, a situation toward which our nation is moving at dizzying speed. Knowing that some of the states were fearful of a strong central government, the authors of the Constitution took great pains to protect the minority, inviting compromise, dialogue, and middle ground solutions. The U.S. Constitution is full of compromises between the will of the majority and the protection of minorities.  Permitting slavery.  Two senators per state regardless of size, giving the makeup of the senate a strong bias toward less populated states. Creating the Electoral College for selecting a president, which also has a bias toward less populated state.  The Tenth Amendment, reserving undefined broad powers to the states, or the people.  One person, one vote, was not part of the guidelines for the authors of the original Constitution.Other tools that empower the tyranny of the minority have been created since the Constitution. Lifetime appointments for Supreme Court judges. The filibuster in the Senate. Substantial but not total delegation of the running of elections to the states.

These protections for minorities have enabled the prospect of overthrowing democracy, which is more fragile than many of us realize. It depends on good will, good intentions, and mutual respect, all of which are in short supply. An alternative vision of how government should be run is increasingly articulated by a substantial minority of Americans who have tried democracy and found it an wanting. It is  not suited to promoting their worldview, a stratified society in which men outrank women, whites outrank people of color, indoctrination trumps genuine education for critical thinking,  and religious freedom is used as a weapon against change in some cases and a way to impose a particular religious viewpoint on the majority at other times. This angry, vocal, and often violent minority refuse to accede to the  will of the majority, using the tools provided by the constitution and the weapons of social media to stir up anger and confusion.

Both the sustainability and resilience of the earth and the resilience and sustainability of democracy are at risk around the planet. Now is the time for all good people to be engaged, involved, and active in reversing the threats that we face.

Inclusive History, Anyone?

Warning to my readers, this is a polemic.

I’m not sure when state legislators around the country and particularly in my home state of South Carolina started thinking they were curriculum experts.  Despite the fact that few of them have any training or experience in teaching kids, they think they know what public school pupils should learn and when and how they should learn it.  So far, they’ve pretty much left math and science alone (except for their superior expertise in matters of public health, like masks and vaccines).  But when it comes to teaching history, they know which version they prefer. The whitewashed, sanitized virtue of America’s greatness, without any reference to uncomfortable truth, like, say, slavery, extinction of native peoples, Vietnam….  

Their argument is not historical but psychological.  Knowing the facts of American history (for instance, that it is  always has been governed primarily by and for old rich white men) might make children feel guilty. Or ashamed of being white, or male, or from a wealthy family.  That’s the construction they put on what academics have been calling critical race theory.  In the war of labels, let’s begin by calling it what it is, inclusive history. Here are some South Carolina people I would like to include. Eliza Pinckney and the development of indigo as a major cash crop by a woman.  The Stono Rebellion (look it up) and the Denmark Vesey plot (look that up too). The Cherokee and the Trail of Tears.  The abolitionist Grimke sisters, daughters of a South Carolina judge and slave owner. The capture of a Southern navy ship by Robert Smalls and his fellow enslaved companions, who safely delivered it to the blockading Union navy in Charleston harbor. Jim Crow laws and underfunding of public education in areas where African Americans were in the majority that limited the ability of  former slaves to become full members of society.  Organized and often violent efforts to prevent these same formerly enslaved workers from leaving Southern states for opportunities in the North. The long battle for women’s right to vote. Maybe telling those well-documented true stories without judgment would help African American, Native American, and female children feel that they are a part of our history.

The Civil War (NOT the War Between the States, because they had all signed on to the Constitution that made the USA a single nation) was fought over slavery.  Of course, it was fought over states’ rights and the Tenth Amendment, but they only right that Southern states were really interested in preserving and protecting in 1961 was the right to own slaves, as their own secession documents make very clear.  (Modern Southern states have added the right to own guns and the right to keep other people from having abortions, but that’s another story.)  Legislators’ right to tell teachers how and what to teach shouldn’t be protected either; I’m pretty sure their heavy-handedness in exercising control and their miserliness in adequately funding education plays a role in the 1,000 teacher shortage that the state is experiencing right now. (That, and low teacher pay and excessive paperwork).

The rationale for this obsession with “critical race theory”  (translation: :inclusive history) is , as I mentioned above, that teaching the actual facts of state and national history may make some students feel guilty or ashamed to be white and/or male.  It shouldn’t, and no self-respecting teacher (who has been trained to understand child psychology!) would allow that to happen.  Perhaps an accurate reading of the facts of history makes legislators feel that way, but that might be a good thing. Children are not personally accountable for what their ancestors did, but they do be aware of the impact of slavery, patriarchy, segregation, and discrimination on formerly enslaved people to the benefit of others.  After Reconstruction, white Southerners turned to what they called Redemption, which was to say, restoring the status quo ante.  True redemption would be working toward a equal society with opportunities and support for every person.

History is messy.  It is written by the winners in most places, except the American South. Facts are facts, but facts have context and interpretation. South Carolina has an elected Superintendent of Education whose job it is to determine what children need to learn and at what grade level.  There is a State Board of Education and an Education Oversight Committee and 79 local school boards who are all trying to look after our children so that they have the skills and knowledge they need to function in adult society as consumers, workers, and citizens.  I trust their judgment about what to teach and at what grade level more than that of 170 people elected and regularly re-elected from largely noncompetitive districts who need to get their priorities straight.  Health care, housing, infrastructure, education funding—those issues affect all of us and our children.

One of my granddaughters started her public school teaching career this month.  For her sake , for the sake of her fellow teachers and the children in their care, please let them teach.  If I have to choose between trusting a teacher and trusting legislators to ensure that our children learn the critical thinking skills needed to function in a democracy, it’s a no-brainer!

The Art of Appreciation

While there are a few skills and talents in which I am proficient, there are lots of them that I am not.  A good enough for a small church choir singer. An I-can-make-it-to-the -end-of-the-pool swimmer. I am a decent quilter but without the artistry of some and precision of others.  I have tried my hand at printmaking (hated it), flute (not enough breath support), basket making (okay but not great), and a variety of other skills and crafts.  In the process, I discovered something I’m pretty good at. I am an appreciator, an audience, a fan.  And so, I expect, are you in most things.

Great musicians, athletes, actors, writers, gardeners,or painters usually have some inborn inclination and natural talent that were transformed into skills finely honed by regular effort and practice, practice, practice. They have a dedication to their craft and often a limited range of other interests and skills.  And then—there are the rest of us.  Interested, attracted, give it a try. Can I draw? Not really, but my daughter the artist assures me that I can learn.  Can I dance? Yes, but not well. Can I play softball? Put me at third base and late middle of the batting order and I will try to do as little harm as possible.

Many years ago, when I was struggling to learn to pick out the alto line from the accompaniment, I read an article that claimed that people we used to call retarded, but now describe inmore compassionate terms like slow learners, or developmentally delayed. The writer claimed that they could learn anything anyone else us could learn.  It just took them longer, so they couldn’t reach a high level of attainment in a lot of different skills.  But they could become proficient in a more limited number. Aha, I said to myself, I am a retarded musician. I got pretty good at picking out the alto line, but it took me longer than someone with more natural talent.  My singing “career” was further hampered by a rather limited sense of rhythm. I learned about that flaw when I flunked my rhythm test in college freshman PE and then I understood why I was such a terrible typist.  But there was more hope for getting the pitch. Like most of my family, I could pick out a one fingered tune from listening to the notes in my head.  (My late husband, who had excellent rhythm, could not pick out Mary Had A Little Lamb on the piano without sheet music.)  While I sing in the kitchen, or the shower, or the car, and sang for about 25 years in a church choir, my main achievement is that I have become at least a moderately competent appreciator.

How did I learn to become an appreciator of music, athletics, quilting, basket making, and even the dreaded printmaking?  In some cases, I set out to learn enough about how these things are done.  That effort enabled me to appreciate the complexities, the precision, the practice it takes to make a skill or a product look easy.  I can appreciate a good basket or a good quilt because I took the trouble to try my hand at it and learn from others about the art I was observing and the effort it took to create something beautiful. I was never a good dancer, but 23 years of Jazzercise has improved my sense of rhythm and has helped me to understand how the body learns things like how to ride a bike, sail a boat, or throw a ball, which made me more appreciative of athletes and athletics.

Being a good audience is not passive.  It too requires skill and continuous practice and learning, although less intensively than the actual actor, singer, artist or athlete. When I used to go to sporting events, there was one cheer that particularly spoke to me: “Two, four, six, eight, whom do we appreciate?” That’s why we are there , to appreciate, encourage, and support.  It is no small contribution to offer to those who need witnesses to their accomplishments and comfort in their stumbles in order too keep on truckin’, to get up and try again.

As we athletic appreciators say over and over in Clemson, on good Saturdays and not so good ones, Go Tigers!

The Shadow of Competition

Last Saturday I attended my first live college football game in 38 years. I used to attend them when I was president of the Faculty Senate because I got free tickets in the president’s box and was expected to go.  But this time it was different.  Clemson University, where I taught for fifty years, and has long been a football powerhouse but not so much this year. They played my alma mater, the University of Connecticut, which never was nor will be a powerhouse.  UConn came in with a 1-8 record and left with a 1-9.  But it was fun. 

This football game reminded me of my love-hate relationship with competition. Football is the ultimate team sport, each member with a defined role to play. With few exceptions, the athletes handle competition much better than the fans.  The athletes compete to do their best.  The fans just want their team to win, their only required effort being their presence, their purchase of tickets, and their yelling and screaming. Me? I wore a UConn sweatshirt and cap and sang the Clemson alma mater (which I knew by heart from attending many graduations) and cheered for both teams. For me, it just was live theater.

Competition is, of course, at the heart of market economics as an incentive to do better. Produce a better product, listen to your customers, take good care of your employees, and above all, make a profit for your shareholders. The shadow over competition is failure, of being second-best, or worse yet, a loser.  In order for some people to have success, acclaim, fame and wealth, we need some others to be losers. Losers do learn from their failures, but in football there is only one winner in a game and only one national champion, and UConn had already learned the lessons and replaced its coach–and lost another game. For the Clemson University students and administration, every win, even over UConn, carries extrinsic rewards.  Every win matters, and an occasional national championship (two in the last few years for Clemson) spurs a spike in applications for admission and a lot of money for the University.

Robert Frank and Philip Cook wrote a book, The Winner Take All Society, about the very low ratio of winners to losers in our market system. There is only one Miss America and a lot of runner ups, only one national champion in every sport, only one best actor, best picture, best actress, only one best party school in America (that isn’t either Clemson or UConn).  In my homeowner’s association, there is even only one yard of the month, apparently to encourage competition among residents for having the loveliest lawn.

Don’t get me wrong. Competition has a role to play.  But a good athlete, actor/actress, cook, professor, CEO is not solely motivated by competition and not a failure at being #3. Or 10. Or not having a number at all. People are also motivated  to excel at what they are good at and find satisfying,  not just a bunch of blue ribbons and trophies.

The team part of competition is good.  The chance to develop and use one’s skills as part of a group effort can build character, responsibility, appreciation of the contributions of others, camaraderie, and a sense of community.  The rankings, the score, the blue ribbon can actually distract from those good outcomes.  In the study of motivation within the discipline of ethics, there has been much written about intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.  Extrinsic rewards include money, recognition, power, fame, and being number one for your fifteen minutes of fame.  But depending on extrinsic motives tend to displace the more valuable and lasting rewards of a job well done, a skill well mastered, or making a difference in the lives of others.  For a university, success in football can both enhance and detract from its core missions, which is equip its students with the skills, experiences, knowledge and wisdom that will see them into successful adulthood.  Learning to be a good team player is one of those skills. Finding your gifts and passions and shaping them into a vocation is another. Neither of these is measured by the morning after quarterbacking that rank teams, coaches, and players at individual positions like wide receiver or quarterback on a weekly basis. Or for that matter, rank in class, a criterion for admission and an honor bestowed on those who graduate as valedictorian.

We all need to be the best we can be.  A little competition can help, but too much can stifle the developing  young people from discovering, honing and practicing their particular skill and passion and misleading them into focusing on extrinsic rewards.

No applause, thanks. I write for the sheer joy of writing and the hope that it will be meaningful to my readers.  I do not aspire to be the number one blogger, just one with a unique point of view.  May you too find your niche, your passion, your gifts, and practice them for the joy of being and doing, and hang the applause.

Lifelong Learning

My family is in the midst of many graduations. My #2 granddaughter just earned a BA in elementary education and is excited to be in the classroom. In May, my oldest daughter will receive her MBA and her daughter will graduate from College of Charleston. In June, my oldest granddaughter will finish certification as a pharmacy technician and her youngest sister will graduate from Aiken Scholars Academy and head off to college. It seems like a good time to reflect on learning.

About 30 years ago, the provost at Clemson University where I was an economics professor  asked me to be the speaker for August graduation.  Eight minutes was the allotted time.  Lifelong learning, he suggested, would be a good topic.  That invitation was like throwing the academic rabbit into the briar patch.  I could do this.  Lifelong learning lies the core of being an academic and most other professions and skilled trades as well.

I started my inspirational message with a story about my daughter Carla. When she was 15, she was keen to get a driver’s license. She passed the written test and practiced on the road, passing the road test on the first try. But, the test-giver warned her, consider this a license to learn. Many bumps, dents, and close calls later, she was a pretty good driver.

I told the semi-attentive graduates in waiting, consider your diploma a license to learn.  You have demonstrated an ability to learn under the increasingly relaxed supervision of others as you progressed from kindergarten to college senior.  Now you take charge of your continuing education.  It is both a privilege and a responsibility to continue to let your body, mind, and spirit unfold and change with new experiences, challenges, and opportunities.

Yes, bodies.  Bodies learn to ride bicycles, dance, play instruments, adapt to physical limitations,  recognize symptoms and treat them, and grasp and respect one’s biorhythms and food sensitivities. Last summer, I had both kinds of body learning experiences while vacationing at the beach.  It had been a while since I last kayaked, but the rhythm quickly came back.  Learning to ride a three wheeled adult bike was much harder, because it meant abandoning the balancing habits of decades riding a regular bike. My body was unwilling to unlearn the habits needed to switch from two wheels to three.

The spirit learns to be present, to be mindful, to connect and relate and care and be cared for, to be at home in the universe. Sometimes spiritual learning is experiential, while at other times it relies on the guidance of a mentor or other companion along the path.   Mind learning takes familiar forms—workshops, lectures, continuing education, short courses, reading.

Body, mind, and spirit all learn from both formal instruction and direct  experience. My exercise class has helped me identify what muscles I am using and how to care for them, but I also learn by my own regular practice. Direct experience of mystery and wonder is supplemented by being part of a faith community that attunes me to the care of the spirit. My mind is always open to the stimulus of stimulus of travel, good conversation, and a good book.

As the years pass, you may find yourself becoming a teacher of some sort. Teaching is a good way to grow, because it requires us to become aware of what we have learned. I never felt a fully mastered a skill or a concept unless I could successfully teach it to others. Like learning, teaching takes place in many formats, not just in classrooms. Parents, youth leaders, coaches, and extended family members offer plenty of informal teaching of skills, values, and ideas.

Some things get harder to learn as we age. Technology is one. Foreign languages are another. But age also brings a certain amount of wisdom learned from decades of making mistakes, listening, observing, and processing. Sometimes we can share wisdom to help someone navigate obstacles in the wisdom process. Other times, we must let our friends and loved ones acquire wisdom from their own painful but growing learning experiences and be there to offer caring and comfort when it happens. Whatever learning challenges and teaching opportunities may lie before you, Yoda would say, may the force be with you.  May the journey be challenging enough to help you grow in wisdom but not so challenging that you give up in despair.  May  you find be joy in your lifelong search for truth and meaning.

A

One of my favorite quotations is from G. K. Chesterton: “A man must be orthodox in most things, so that he has time to practice his particular heresy.” I’m not particularly orthodox religiously, so I do spend a lot of time practicing my particular heresy, but that thought has so many applications beyond religion.  It’s too easy for the conscientious among us to acquire such a long list of daily and weekly “must do’s”  that none of them get the attention they deserve and that you want to devote. It’s not just about orthodoxy and heresy, but on managing one’s time, attention, and energy so that there is enough of these three ingredients to spend on what really matters to you, where your gifts and talents meet your passions.  

In the last seven months I have been on an eating and exercise regimen that requires more of my time and attention.  Where was that extra hour every day going to come from? That challenge forced me to rethink my priorities and shed a few activities where my presence made little difference to others while my absence meant a great deal to me. One of those changes was to minimize evening events, because my natural biorhythm is early to bed, early to rise. Another was to be more selective about attending meetings.

When someone questions my lack of civic attention to meetings about the future of our city, I simply say, “I trust others who care more intensely and have more knowledge to take care of that.”  My civic energy is devoted to my work with the League of Women Voters and to policy work in taxation and education funding.  Someone else can take care of city growth management, public health (yes, I’m fully vaccinated and wear a mask), or foreign policy with my full support but not too much of my time and attention. I am happy to engage in conversation, but I don’t want to attend contentious meetings where people make impassioned speeches about matters that are not really at the center of my universe.

I’m not particularly pleased with the management of my homeowners’ association, which has moved in a highly regulatory and detail-focused direction. I listen sympathetically to others’ complaints. After having duly served as president for two years, however, I choose not to attend meetings, leaving it to those who care passionately to make critical decisions about paint colors, common property maintenance, and planning social events.

Knowing what matters to you and what you are committed to makes it easier to know when to say yes and when to say no.  Each of us needs to seek and implement a reasonable balance among the many claimants on our time and attention.  Chesterton might well have said, “A woman needs to pay only moderate attention in most things, so that she can give her full attention to those for which her engagement makes a difference to her and to the community (or the world).

What matters to me? Time with friends, time in nature, family time, clearly defined kinds of civic engagement, building community in nonprofit organizations, teaching ,learning, writing,  travel.  What matters to you, and where are you wasting time and energy that could be redirected to more meaningful pursuits?

What’s In It For Me?

When I was in seminary, I was in a degree program that gave me a lot of latitude in designing my program.  I decided to ask two of my professors to engage with me in an independent study.  The first one I approached was an ethics professor, because ethics was my main interest.  I proposed meeting with him one hour a week for one or two credits.  He didn’t say yes, and he didn’t say no. He said, What’s in it for me?  I simply asked, what do you want?  Turned out he was interested in expanding his understanding of economics as a key piece of social justice ethics, and he knew that I was a semi-retired professor of economics. We wound up doing two semesters of a fruitful and rewarding reciprocal tutorial, both suggesting and requesting areas where each of us needed to learn more.  The most fun question I got from him was when he asked me to explain money. We wound up doing a second semester of mutual independent study.

The other professor was my adviser, Steve.  I felt I needed to get some New Testament in my program in addition to the required two semesters of Bible, which I had already fulfilled with Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures as we were taught to call them. But what about the New Testament? I didn’t think Revelation belonged in the Bible, and I wasn’t fond of Paul, which left the gospels.  The most interesting part of the gospels to me has always the parables, the teaching stories which were a rich tradition in Judaism. And I knew Steve taught a class in parables for preachers.  I asked if he would, in essence, supervise me as a student teacher of the parables.  I was in seminary in Atlanta, but my class would be back in Clemson, about eight women, in a class we would call Wine and Parables.  We would meet every Friday late afternoon over wine to discuss the parable for the week. 

Like my ethics professor, Steve asked, What’s in it for me? I responded as I had before, what do you want? He wanted contemporary examples of the parables in literature, film, music, and other places. I carried that proposal back to my friends, and they agreed.  It was an amazingly rich experience, the mysterious Steve always in the background where he and I discussed the upcoming parable and the previous week’s encounter with my class, including their offerings of examples. My favorite offering was the song  Return of the Prodigal Daughter by Michelle Shocked.

After the shock wore off again, I realized that it was a good and appropriate question.  I had my agenda, they had theirs.  How could we provide mutual support and guidance to one another?  I know we are an individualistic society, and that’s a very individualistic question to ask, sometimes a hard one to answer. But the very question suggests an openness to saying yes if there is some mutual benefit.

A few years back, I was asked to be treasurer of my homeowners’ association.  I was an okay treasurer, but it was rather dull.  When my two year term was about to expire, the nominating committee asked my friend Sandi to be the next president, presuming that I would serve two more years as treasurer.  Sandi said no, but if Holley will be president, I will be treasurer.  I had been president at least nine organizations, and she had an equal track record as a treasure, being a retired business manager of an all-female real estate firm. My round peg was redirected to a round hole, and she fit her square peg comfortably in a square hole.

A near miss occurred in my congregation when the Nominating Committee invited a small businessman to become president-elect.  He said no.  That ended the conversation.  It was only when he told a friend who got word back to the Nominating Committee that he was patiently waiting to be asked to chair the Finance Council.  A more perceptive nominating committee had a very busy member turned down the office of treasurer, but she was willing to serve on the Audit Committee.

Whether you are asking a favor or recruiting someone for a task or a leadership role for some kind of commitment,you should be prepared to answer that question of what’s in it for me—even if it isn’t asked directly. Ask what would make that task or role or commitment attractive and meaningful, and suggest reasons why you asked him or her rather than someone else for that particular role. Be prepared to explore that question and, like me,  expect to be surprised by the answer!