I wrote in a recent entry about "growing up." For some reason, that has been a metaphor I have found helpful lately. When I was a child, people thought I was terribly "grown up" for one so young. Ironically, now that I am supposed to be an adult, I realize how little I understand about what being "grown up" really means!
What is newly crystallizing for me now is learning how to live into a role.
Richard M. has been writing about integrity. My discussion connects with his.
I used to think that integrity meant being fully my one true self in every situation: being human first of all, and being "professor" or "chair" or other roles only secondarily.
And while I still agree in a way, something is shifting in my understanding of how to live true to my roles with integrity. Our identity, after all, is complex. The roles we take on do change us.
My first breakthrough was to realize that the way people react to me is often not about me at all but about my role. For example, I learned fairly quickly that the sullen students who sit in the back of the classroom with arms folded and hats pulled down hiding their eyes are not responding to me-as-me, but are acting out their habituated response to "teacher." A lifetime of experience has shaped their response. The fact that they behave this way on the very first day of class is proof that it has nothing to do with me at all. It reflects something of their current way of being in the world, in relationship to anyone who happens to occupy this role.
This was quite a powerful and liberating thing for me to realize, as it eased my own self-consciousness, and I realized that I could creatively intervene, for example, by deliberately disrupting their preconceptions about "teacher." This is not about me-as-me. Therefore, surprising ways I could let out non-teacher aspects of myself, helping them to see that I am an individual and not just another version of that same Teacher they have had over and over again, could catch them by surprise and could change their own habituated responses, bringing us into more authentic relationship.
If I had not realized this when I did, I probably would not have lasted as a teacher.
My second breakthrough is to realize that not only is it sometimes impossible for me to bring my fuller human self into a role, it can actually be inappropriate to do so. Often integrity's call is to be your best teacher-self and to hold back from trying to be any more or anything else than this.
To give a specific example: my full human self tends to want people to like me. But sometimes in my role as teacher, I have to let people not like me. I have to let our relationship be stressed when my students encounter the inherent discomfort of aspects of learning. I have to trust them to come to terms with this, and I have to realize that the best thing I can do is hold strong in the meantime. Sometimes they come to understand and are grateful in the long run. But other times they never do -- at least not that I ever see. But even so, I must hold strong.
It is especially in my role as chair of my department that I most frequently find myself called upon to have to make and uphold decisions that are not only hard on me, but that I realize I absolutely cannot explain to those I may most want to console. An earlier version of myself would have been torn apart by this sort of thing. I would have wanted to quit. I would have interpreted it as a violation of my own integrity.
But I'm in a new place. I see clearly the greater good that is being accomplished, and while I am sorry for the disappointment that others may feel, I also do trust that way will open for them -- that their disappointment now is part of their journey that is theirs to process and deal with. I too have been disappointed similarly in the past, but found new ways forward. In this, I find that where I am now is strangely redemptive for me. Now that I see what it is like on "the other side," I can forgive those who disappointed me in the past. I see now that from their perspectives, making the decisions that adversely affected me was probably hard, but they saw things that I didn't see, that I couldn't see back then. This does not mean that all such decisions are right. The truth is, we are never really sure. But we do the best we can; and, anyway, disappointment is inevitable for everyone.
I also am learning that there are times when, because of my role, I have to be the one to absorb the outrage or misunderstandings. There are times where it all stops with me. There is nothing more that I can say or do, and so it is up to me to be the target of anger. Sometimes I have to take this on to protect others.
I used to worry that "developing a thick skin" meant becoming less sensitive. To lose my sensitivity felt like another betrayal of my integrity.
Now I see that "developing a thick skin" does not have to mean that at all. Now I take "developing a thick skin" to mean "accepting my role." The "thick skin" is the role. The way I can stand strong in the face of anger or disappointment is to realize that the anger or disappointment are not, in fact, directed to me the person, but instead are directed to the role I uphold. And so that role becomes a lightning rod, letting the negative energy discharge into the ground without damaging me.
Sometimes I even realize that their disappointment and anger are justified. "Yes," I tell myself. "Teacher" or "Chair has had to take this stand in this situation, and it is unfortunate." As the lightning rod that is my role channels the energy into the ground, I send it forth with a prayer, because that ground is God, and in God there is redemptive power. I do not know when or where the healing of that redemptive power will come; I do not know if I will have the privilege of witnessing that moment, but I know that it is there.
In these ways, I am finding my way to the deeper trust I have been seeking.
I enter this new world with some trepidation. The world of roles is a world of power. Roles operate the way they do because of their connection to the socially-constructed institutions that structure and govern our communally shared lives. In our roles, our selves do become constricted and narrowed; ironically, it is the constriction that gives these roles power. The constriction is the focus that hones efficacy to precision and power.
If we wear our roles like shells detached from the core of our true selves, we become vulnerable to fragmenting ourselves -- the opposite of integrity, and the root of unethical behavior: the root of acting out our roles irresponsibly. And so all that I have described must be taken carefully and with utmost humility. We must make our decisions as carefully as we can. We must constantly question and refine the ideals we try to uphold in our roles. We must make sure that the decisions we make do not in fact violate the ethics of our whole and complete selves, or do damage to our compassion. We must have the humility to realize that, even in doing the best that we can, we might be getting it wrong: and yet, we must stand strong in our decisions anyway, unless we genuinely become convinced that we were wrong. Then we must apologize and change course.
All of this is important for ourselves as well as for the sake of those whom our decisions impact. Like I said before, our roles do change us over time. The more we do to keep our complex identities integrated, the more likely it is that the effect of our roles on the deepest core of our being is positive instead of negative. If we start to sense that the ideals we are supposed to uphold in our roles are not consistent with the ideals that matter to our truest, deepest selves, then it is imperative to question whether we are right to stay in those roles.
But if the ideals of a given role harmonize with the ideals that matter most to our core selves, then the journey of living into that role becomes an important part of our general spiritual journey.
5 years ago