The Power of Prophecy

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As a teacher one of the things that I hated to hear from a student was, “I’m no good at math.” Even worse was hearing such a sentiment reinforced by a parent who insisted that nobody in the family had ever done well with numbers. I knew that such thinking created a self-fulfilling prophecy whose hold on the mind of the student was difficult to undo.

If we or someone who knows us convinces us that something, whether good or bad, is true about us we tend to react in ways that reinforce the thinking. In education it’s often called the Pygmalion Effect. Researchers consistently have found that it is possible to affect outcomes merely by continually making particular comments to individuals or groups. If that happens to be about a lack of math skills, for example, it becomes more and more likely that mediocre success or even total failure will result. As humans we tend to give up trying when we believe that our efforts are futile.

I have a grandson who is doing quite well at Texas A&M University where he is studying computing in the engineering department. His classes are quite challenging but when I recently asked him how he was doing he immediately stated that his expectation was to make all A’s and perhaps one B in his courses. I was pleased to hear that he has set up a positive challenge for himself which he believes that he has the capability of achieving. Even if he sent a curve he understands that he has what it takes to nonetheless be ultimately successful. Because all of the people around him also believe in him, his faith in his abilities is reinforced. The interesting thing is that success bears the fruit of more success and the prophecy comes true.

Most of the time I encountered just the opposite effect with far too many of my students. Somewhere along the way the teachers and other adults in their lives had convinced them that they were academically doomed. They would relate stories of educators who had called them lazy and insisted that they would be lucky to graduate from high school much less a college. By the time I got ahold of them they were beaten down and unwilling to believe that I might help them. I had to work very hard to convince them otherwise.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are not just about academics. We are capable of convincing ourselves that we are klutzes or even that we are unloveable. I had a friend who became certain that she was only attractive to abusive men, and so she quit dating altogether after a few tries at meeting men seemed to prove her point. Someone who is told that he/she is ugly eventually gazes into the mirror and sees only horror. I’ve heard parents telling their children that they were losers, and then they wondered what had happened when those same kids began to exhibit defeated behaviors. We are the product of all that we hear and think about ourselves. If the negativity is repeated often enough it becomes the insight that we use to judge our personalities, our appearance, our intelligence and even the way the rest of the world sees us.

For these reasons it is critically important for all adults to monitor the things that they say to young people. If an entire class is told again and again how lazy and lacking they are, they might just give up and play the role of which they have been accused. If a young person makes a mistake he/she feels bad enough, but when those blunders are brought up again and again by the people who are supposed to care, a whole new personality of defeat begins to form.

When I was in middle school I was not yet five feet tall. I remember a PE teacher setting up the equipment for track. She brought out hurdles and measured distances for running. The first time she asked me to perform a task it was to jump over the obstacle. In reality I was no doubt too small to leap as high as I needed to be to clear the bar. Instead I slammed into the frame, toppling the entire apparatus and slamming my face into the dirt. The teacher’s reaction was not to coach me or demonstrate how I might do  better next time. Instead she simply barked that I was the most nonathletic, uncoordinated person she had ever encountered and shook her head in disgust.

Hers was a prophecy that went into effect immediately. From that day forward I avoided athletic pursuits like the plague. I explained to anyone who would listen that I was an blundering klutz and every time I was chosen last for teams my feelings were summarily reinforced. It was not until college when a kindly coach kept me after class for private lessons in every imaginable sport that I realized that all I had ever needed was for someone to show me what to do. I never became an athletic star, but I at least felt less subconscious of my abilities. I did fine until I joined a volleyball team at a school where I was teaching, and in a competition one evening one of the members of our group yelled at me just like the middle school coach had done and all of the old angst came flooding back. It paralyzed me with fear of any kind of participation in a sport. Old prophecies are difficult to overcome without help and understanding.

It is important that we see development for what it is, a gradual progression that moves at different paces for different individuals. We are all fully capable of learning how to succeed at most things, but our rate of improvement will vary widely depending on the totality of our genetic makeup and the environments in which we live. If we are surrounded by adults who understand such things and then provide us with optimism and expectations that we will ultimately succeed we are likely to reach our goals.

Life is a combination of nature, nurture, hard work, and beliefs. The thoughts that we have and that we hear are perhaps the most powerful forces in determining our ultimate fates. For that reason it would behoove every single adult who is in contact with others, not just the young, to think before speaking. Those words and attitudes will either create genius or destroy potential. We have to always remember that making mistakes is as much a part of learning as mastery. When someone falls it is up to us to let them know that we still have faith that they will one day overcome. The prophecies that we speak should always be filled with optimism and positive expectations even when progress is slow.

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There Is No Better Way

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When I was still rather new in my profession of teaching I took a Myers Briggs test during one of the faculty meetings at my school. It turned out that I was an INFP which translates to someone who is introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceptive. I remember being a bit stunned by the tag of introversion because I assumed that it meant that I would not make a particularly strong educator. After all, a teacher is on view all day every day and to me being an introvert meant being someone unable to deal with other people. I soon learned that my homespun definition was totally inaccurate. Instead the idea describes how I unwind, come up with ideas, find peace. It seems that I am one of those individuals who finds inspiration and comfort on long solitary walks or inside the walls of my home. When I am feeling down I don’t want to go out on the town. Instead I need to recharge my soul quietly.

I have taken different versions of the same test many different times and get the same results again and again. I recently played a Facebook game for fun and ended up being described as a unicorn with my INFP characteristics. It seems that only four to five percent of the population earns that tag. I laughed as I realized why I have sometimes felt like a oddball in life, but it also helped me to realize why I seem to have a gift for understanding people, a talent that worked well with my teaching profession. In many ways I’m just one big gooey mix of emotions that from time to time drive my husband and other highly rational people insane. I greet the world with feelings and intuitions rather than a well thought out rational plan. I’m one of those people who quickly grows weary at planning meetings, which is ironic because a during my working years I frequently found myself guiding such events.

I had a dear friend who was impish and willing to go wherever the winds blew in a social setting, but when it came to more serious matters she planned with a vengeance. I soon learned that our relationship was glorious as long as it was all about fun. Whenever we worked together it went south. She was a person of outlines and scripts, while I preferred to quietly think for a bit and than go with the ideas brewing inside my head. I  corrected on the fly as needed and grew anxious with her need to plot and plan and fill notebooks with written descriptions. I suppose that we drove each other insane in our few collaborations, and so we ultimately abandoned all efforts and simply enjoyed each other informally.

We each have certain preferred ways of meeting the world. I’m not a psychologist so I don’t know if these are innate traits or learned or a combination of both. What I do realize as someone who has worked with thousands of people is that there is no one best way of doing things. We each learn and work and find joy in ways that feel the most comfortable. The person who is the life of a party may not necessarily be the most likely leader, but our styles may determine how those with whom we interact perceive us and how we see them. As a society we often place great value on particular traits thinking that they are the best way to do things. We often judge people by our own characteristics rather than understanding that each style of interaction has its merits.

When I begin ranting and my emotions are in high gear it makes those who are more attuned to rationality and structure feel uncomfortable. I learned over time that I had to curb some of my tendencies and provide more written documentation for my ideas than I might have been inclined to do. What few people knew is that I did not begin with outlines, but rather with ideas from which I worked backwards to create outlines and such. As I worked with my colleagues I found kindred spirits and those who needed more structure from me. I realized that some of my bosses needed little more than evidence that I was doing my job well and others wanted hard copy documentation. I had to learn how to comply with the needs and demands of everyone that I encountered even when it became irritating.

I used to assume that everyone hated meetings, and plans, and goal setting because those things were so abhorrent to me. I soon realized that for many people they are as necessary as breathing. My vague descriptions of the thoughts in my head were not enough for them, and so I found ways to comply in processes that I knew that I would never personally use. I taught my students in similar ways. I knew that some of my pupils were eager to simply jump from a cliff to test their wings and others wanted detailed instruction and practice before attempting trial runs. So too I worked with teachers whose lessons were crafted with the briefest of descriptions and others who wrote out their plans almost word for word. I allowed both versions of planning from members of my faculty as long as I saw good results.

We humans are far more complex and diverse than most of us imagine. It’s why we have liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. It’s the chief cause of our misunderstandings. We tend to see the world through our own lenses and feel confused when we observe someone who is so different from ourselves. Some of us are tidy and others are messy. In truth neither one or the other is necessarily best. The world is as exciting and productive as it is because of our differences, not our sameness. We learn from each person that we meet.

Being flexible and understanding of the people around us is a necessary aspect of our existence. Extroverts are not better than introverts, just different. Democrats are not better than Republicans, just different. Rational thinking is not better than being emotional, just different. When we put all of the various personalities together and truly value them we create a society capable of doing great things. We truly do need everyone because there is on one better way.

Decency

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I was a young twenty something when Richard Nixon was president. I never liked the man, and used my vote to register my contempt. My emotions toward him were admittedly base and immature. I’d flinch at the very sight of him, and I managed to extend my dislike to his wife and children. I realize now that my disdain was often irrational because in retrospect I have taken the time to learn more about him and his time as the president. In that study I see that he actually did some very good things for the country, but back in the day he could do nothing right in my eyes. I even cringed when one of my favorite entertainers, Sammy Davis, Jr., supported him.

I watched the Watergate investigation with a certain level of glee and celebrated Nixon’s darkest hour when he was forced to resign his office. I watched him leave the White House will nothing less than exuberant self satisfaction. In my mind he had earned his  too long in coming humiliation. I gladly wiped him out of my mind and was overjoyed that he decided to live out the rest of his life rather quietly out of the public eye. I had no desire to hear from him again.

When Richard Nixon died it was a newsworthy event in spite of his transgressions. The airwaves were filled with images of people honoring him and his family. Being a person who is interested in such things from an historical perspective I watched the proceedings with little emotional attachment. After all, this was a man whom I had never liked even though the passage of time had warmed my heart to him a bit more than when I was still a very young adult. Nonetheless, I recall feeling disgusted when I witnessed one of Nixon’s long time friends and allies breaking down in a fit of emotion and tears at the funeral. I sarcastically poked fun of the man only to be chastised by my husband Mike in a manner that he rarely uses with me. He derided me for lacking sensibility at such an emotional time. “His friend has died!” he reminded me. “Show some compassion for the people who have lost someone that they love.”

I was shocked because Mike had never been a Nixon fan either, but I understood in that moment that I was exhibiting a lack of basic decency. There are lines of decorum that just don’t need to be crossed, and I had gone too far in my criticism of Nixon with my churlish commentary. He was dead and the funeral was a time for those who genuinely loved and respected him to demonstrate their feelings. After all, his daughters insist to this very day that he was always good father. Friends admired him and loved him. Who was I to poke fun at their genuine emotions?

I am still not a fan of President Nixon, but I have studied him and his administration enough to understand that while he had many imperfections he also did some very good things. His insecurities and fears ended up ruining his reputation, but he was more of a tragic figure in the Shakespearean sense than a truly evil man. There were very good things that he did like opening up relations with China and brokering peace in the Middle East. In fact it was he who ended the Vietnam War that I so loathed. As a young person I was far too generally incensed to take the time to parse his good traits and separate them out from his bad. In the end he allowed his own demons to overtake his reason, but that did not make him a totally evil man in the sense that I judged him back then. He was merely a human filled with both good instincts and glaring imperfections.

I’ve thought about the intemperate insults that I hurled at the people who were grieving the loss of President Nixon as I’ve listened to the immature and unnecessary rantings of President Trump regarding John McCain. While I too have been guilty of hyperbolic criticism of people I would like to think that those in high office might be more circumspect in their utterances, particularly once a person is dead. At this point there is little reason for Trump to continue to stew over the differences that he and Senator McCain had. If nothing else a sense of decency should lead him to let go of his anger.

Sadly our nation is engaged in a long winded and petty brawl in which anyone is fair game for insults and jibes. Almost every politician is sorted and categorized into narrow estimations of character that mark him/her as good or bad depending on point of view. There is no room for considerations of the continuum of reality in which we all exist. In truth the idea of either totally vilifying or adoring any individual is absurd, and leads to illogical assessments of important decisions. It might be a natural trait of exuberant youth to be more emotion driven, but we all need to grow up at some point and learn how to think without melodramatic outbursts. Right now those who show moderation are often thought to be without ideals, and yet it is likely that they are the true adults in the room. Perhaps that is why someone like Senator John McCain is a conundrum not just to President Trump but to most democrats as well. He was a man who considered each issue on its own merits, not from the perspective of a set of values frozen in concrete.

It was once said of me that I am capable of finding good in everyone, even an evil person like Charles Manson. That is indeed true of me because I have learned that every person who lives is an amalgam of both good and bad. Some learn how to tame their ill natured tendencies and others are defined by them. Perhaps the route that each of us follows is formed by the ways in which people see us and we then see ourselves. Our humanity is complex and who we ultimately become as individuals is determined by a million different things. Perhaps the good in us wins out because people are willing to see it, just as the bad sometimes seizes the day because our negative traits are the only things that define us in people’s eyes. 

If we have any hope of being a nation of integrity, then we must begin to publicly acknowledge good acts when we see them regardless of who is performing them. We need to stop the practice of turning people into incomplete caricatures of themselves, and instead admit to both their positive traits and their flaws. It would also do us well to return to adherence to a bit of decency befitting of logic and compassion.      

Turning the Other Cheek


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Think of someone who has hurt you badly. Remember the feelings that their actions caused you to feel. Now try to visualize forgiving them, offering them mercy for their wrong doings. In some cases it is an almost unimaginable thing and yet we are told the eye for an eye of the old testament was replaced by the turning of the other cheek in the new. Jesus told us to love one another unconditionally, even those who have wronged us. It’s an idealistic state of mind that is so incredibly difficult to achieve. We think of monsters whose actions were so egregious that it is impossible to feel anything other than loathing towards them, but I suspect that Jesus was talking less about such instances and more about the everyday encounters that we have with people who hurt us in small ways. Most of the ugliness that we endure is more in the realm of misunderstandings that pure evil.

I don’t believe that we are ever asked to be generous in our thoughts of people who knowingly and maliciously inflict emotional or physical harm on anyone, but rather to attempt to understand those who annoy us or to at least accept those whose differences confound us. We all agree that we dislike bullies and yet we sometimes unwittingly take on the characteristics of such boorish individuals when we ostracize someone because we don’t like or share his/her beliefs. We may complain about those who judge on the basis of the many isms and then classify someone in terms of characteristics rather than character.

I’ve often found that my initial impressions of people based on little real evidence have been very wrong. That rich snooty looking girl in my class was exceedingly nice. The older woman with whom I worked turned out to be tons more fun than many younger folks. That man with grease under his fingernails and a tough exterior on his face was kind and generous. The class clown was hiding deep hurts. The mom who cussed me out was deeply worried about her child. The newly released convict with a shaved head and tears tattooed all over his face became one of my greatest protectors and allies. The guy with Make America Great Again stickers plastered all over his car was doing more for those in need than any die hard liberal I have ever known. In other words we often see only the surface of a person and then feel anger or aversion toward them. I think that our command to love them is a command to know them before shutting them out of our lives.

I have a nice circle of friends and acquaintances. They are all good people as far as I can tell. I’ve been lucky enough to have had few encounters with ugliness, but when they occurred it was difficult to even consider the idea of forgiveness. I don’t think that we are ever expected to just lie down and endure the pain that comes with some people. We can and should walk away from them. It is unhealthy to submit to evil. They key to the kind of love that the Bible speaks of is to forgo the same kind of hate that has been inflicted on us and to be open to the idea of possible redemption.

I often think of the the examples that Jesus gave us. He forgave one of the thieves who hung on a cross next to His but did not ask the other thief to likewise beg for mercy. In other words we don’t have to deal with those who have no remorse for their horrific actions, but we also should not descend into the same kind of hate that they spew forth. Turning the other cheek sometimes means just removing them from our lives or at least keeping them at bay.

I am still working on having a forgiving spirit with a couple of people that I have known. One of them hurt my mother and the other hurt my daughter. I think it might have been easier for me to show them kindness and mercy had they aimed their barbs at me rather than two people that I loved. My protective instincts made me want to answer their ugliness with mine. Instead I removed them from my life. I’m still working on quelling the anger that I feel toward them. My Mama Bear instinct looms large, but I’ve come close to reaching a point of just pitying them for being so broken in spirit that they felt the need to tear down another person to feel better. Perhaps one day I may even feel some kindness toward them, because that is certainly the ideal way to be, but for now just keeping their evil away from me and those I love is the best that I can do.

Each of us is imperfect. We have weaknesses that show forth from time to time, but most people really do try very hard to be loving and kind to everyone. It’s not a bad goal to attempt to achieve. When we have a lapse perhaps we need to remember to be forgiving of ourselves as well and then try again. That’s really what all those words about love that Jesus spoke are all about. It’s not up to us to do as much judging as just remembering that we all make mistakes and have flaws that we can work on together rather than at odds. As we approach the Lenten season perhaps taking the time to better understand someone that confounds us is a more worthy sacrifice than giving up sugar or staying away from Facebook. In fact, perhaps a lovely thing to do might be to hold out an olive branch to someone who annoys us. This is what I believe was meant by turning the other cheek.

Building Bridges

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Our ability to think and to communicate is the great gift of our humanity, but it can also be the source of our most horrific misunderstandings. We are each products of a unique set of circumstances blended together into a complex a stew of heredity and environment. The way we view the world and its people is the product of hundreds of interactions in our personal lifetimes. A single word or statement is interpreted through a lens of DNA and experiences that twists and turns what we believe we are hearing. Two people in the same place at the same time may walk away with entirely different interpretations of the same utterance or idea. Unless we take the time to hear the rationale or emotion behind another’s thinking we may misunderstand them in ways that lead to schisms between us.

We live in a world of almost unending words and talk. At every turn of modern life we see, or hear or read of events and commentaries. We are inundated with facts and opinions. How we interpret them depends on the totality of our life’s journey. How we use and decipher certain words is determined by our individual circumstances. A single utterance may be subject to a multitude of translations in the minds of those who witness it.

Words have power and there are those who have a gift for using them to bring momentous change. Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used such talent for the benefit of humankind. Tyrants like Adolf Hitler used speech to create a nightmarish world. We are continually being tempted with words that reach into our hearts and cause us to hope, but what inspires some is abhorrent to others.

“Make America Great Again” means hundreds of different things depending on who is hearing that phrase. For some it is a reminder of a time when our country fought for the very life of a world overtaken by evil. To others it is a call for a return to injustices wrought upon members of the Black community. There are those who think it means having jobs and security and serenity. Still others insist that it is meant to deny freedoms to those escaping harsh conditions and hoping for better lives. Some even hear it as little more than a slogan designed to entice us, but having little or no actual effect on our realities. In other words like a gigantic game of “telephone” we hear many different versions from the exact same words and then we imprint our own translations onto our judgements of the people around us who are making their own determinations. In fact we are most likely running the risk of grossly misinterpreting what each person’s thinking actually is.

What most people want is quiet. They have little or no desire for debates and discussions and too much information. They prefer to fill their lives with pleasant images and thoughts. They want to hear about happy things. They wish to keep their lives as uncomplicated as possible. They have enough problems on the personal level that they don’t really have the time or the energy to deal with the complexities of the world. They simply want things to run as smoothly as possible.

While there may have been a day and time when people lived and died without feeling the impact of anyone much farther away than a few miles, today’s world is indeed a kind of global village. When a butterfly flaps its wings in the Middle East we hear it and feel it. The oceans that once seemed to insulate the United States from the problems of the rest of the world are no longer effective in keeping us out of the fray. Walls neither real or virtual will ever be able to turn back the clock and provide us with a sense of security because the global genie is out of the bottle. Technology has linked us with words and images and the means of destroying each other. We are being forced more than ever to find ways of communicating our needs and working together for the sake of all of humankind. We may not like that this is so, but it is part of our new inescapable reality. Because of this increasingly our communication with one another will become ever more complex and subject to misinterpretation.

So what can we do if we don’t want to descend into a tower of babble that continually tears us apart? How do we learn to live with our new normal without shattering our relationships? Perhaps the answer is to be found in quieting our minds so that we will be able to finally discern what others are attempting to tell us. Maybe we need to investigate the idea of compromise and understand the power of making deals. Perhaps some of the old platitudes from the past that so abound exist because they actually made sense. If we take away all of the gilt of our progress and listen only to the wind and the beating of our hearts we may find that our desires are not as different from one another as they may at first glance seem. It may remind us of our need to work together and to get along.

There are a few saintly individuals who are so good that they almost seem to be devoid of the imperfections that plague the rest of us. There are evil individuals whose black hearts make us cringe but they are definitely in the minority. For the most part everyone else is about the same regardless of our superficial differences. We may have a variety of ideas about how to make the world a better place, but our intentions are generally aimed for the good. It is only our solutions for problems that may differ. Perhaps its time for us to quit arguing and begin building bridges of understanding starting in our own families and communities and moving ever outward from there.