April 2018

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Unasked for advice

Now that I'm a student again—after 27 years in the educators' role—I often want to give my professors pedagogical advice. However, I know that unasked for advice is generally perceived as thinly veiled criticism, so mostly I manage to keep it to myself. Sometimes, I can't seem to help it, and I share my thoughts. I imagine this may be irritating, but professors have mostly nodded nicely and ignored my advice. I find that irritating, but I can't blame them.

A year or so ago, a church friend emailed me with unasked for advice. I don't remember the advice. I don't even remember the topic. I do remember that I was furious: steam coming out the ears furious. I was so mad that I could not reply civilly. Ann was generous and replied for me, saying that I was too angry to write. 

Much to her credit, this friend emailed me to ask what had made me angry. I told her that I hear unasked for advice as criticism. I remember saying to her, "I think most people do." And yet, here I am, doing it myself. What this says to me is that I still have miles to go along the road to humility. In this, I am perhaps like my father. 

When Dad was a pediatrician, the nurses in his office gave him an embroidered cloth with one of his favorite sayings on it: "It's hard to soar with the eagles when you're surrounded by turkeys." It hangs, proudly in its frame, in his office at home. Another of his favorite sayings is, "It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am."

Speaking for others is another way that we Americans tend to puff out our chests without even recognizing that we do it. In the meditation class I took this summer, the teacher taught us to use "I" language. Often someone would use more expansive language without even knowing it. I remember one woman saying, "I struggle to accept myself for who I am, to turn off the critical voice inside me. I think we all do." The teacher stopped her and reminded her to speak only from her own experience.

More often, people in the class used "you" when they meant "I". One might say, "When you struggle to hold in anger about your disease, you take out that anger on the people you love." 

I believe this is a cultural tendency of ours not to claim ownership of our experiences and our thoughts and to speak about others as our mirrors: We think, “If I'm like this, everyone else must be, too.”

I remember teaching Shakespeare's Hamlet in the first school where I taught. One student was talking about Hamlet's anger with his stepfather, and at some point this student started talking about herself without realizing that she had switched her pronouns from "he" (as in he, Hamlet) to "I" (as in me, myself, and I). 

Perhaps in this language, instead of self-aggrandizing, we are actually just making our world and our role in it smaller, when it seems to me—when I give myself time to think about it—that we are glorious and so is our world: miracles all. It is in humility that I can see myself as this wonder. How did such a piece of work as Mary happen?

Perhaps we need to become both smaller and bigger to see ourselves and our world as too wondrous to harm.

Poets from all over the world—our seers, our wisdom speakers—see our connection to all that is bigger than we are:

Tennyson writes from the Roman hero Ulysses’ perspective, saying, "I am a part of all that I have met." In one of my favorite lines, the Australian band Fruit sings, "We are ancient inside. We have intravenous skies." The American poet Walt Whitman begins “Song of Myself” proclaiming this expansiveness: "I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." Furthermore, in the poem "Sunset," the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rilke writes, "One moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star."

Poets from all over the world notice how much a part of the world—of the universe—we are, but I don’t think that’s what we’re doing when we confuse “I” and “you.” I think in this semantic habit we are making our world smaller rather than recognizing with humility our expansiveness, something some folks call a soul. We are small and we are big, and we confuse our language so that we notice neither.

Why do we do this? Is it the same reason that we hurry from task to task, not slowing to recognize the crinkles in a turtle’s feet? Is it the same reason that we guzzle alcohol and caffeine, trying to get away from who we are? Is it the same reason we collect as much as we can, locking it all away in houses as big as we can afford?

Meditation gurus say that we are not aware of the present moment. We are in the past and in the future. We are outside of ourselves. We are disconnected from all that roots us. And we need time to find ourselves again.

But in our speediness—cars, the world wide web, and texting—we race past ourselves.

For me, the gift of moving slowly with my cane has been the gift of these brain tumors and their treatments. I am learning to be with myself and my world, to notice the miracle of it all. So here’s my unasked for advice for my world: Slow down.

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