Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
excerpt from "Song of Myself, 51" by Walt Whitman
I am not a fiction writer. For me, writing is not creative; I guess I’m boringly reality-based (and perhaps somewhat self-centered). I started this blog to recount what’s going on with me and what I’m thinking about, describe subjects that interest me, and reflect on who I am and how I got this way. Probably due to the many English literature classes I took in high school and college, I tend to fall into analyzing my past and present, discerning themes and threads of connection that help me make sense of myself. Two personal tendencies I have become aware of in the past few months are humility and hubris. Though contradictory, both threads are woven into my fibers.
I tend to anguish internally at times. Some of you have had the dubious privilege of seeing and hearing me do so in person. I’m so grateful that you have responded with love and reassurance. I have found since starting this blog that the act of writing and posting, especially wrenching ones, is therapeutic in the same way. When I’m living with some kind of internal angst, I now feel an urgency to not just dwell in it [where I used to halt and wallow], but to examine, interrogate and write about it, post it, and then…let it go. Relief and a sense of lightness follows.
Those of you who know me in my current psychological/emotional incarnation may not know that in my childhood, I was extremely self-conscious and confused. I felt awkward, out of step with the world. I put a lot of effort into trying to do what seemed to come naturally to others. I observed people around me and those on TV and in movies, using them as models, trying to fit in, not sensing any value in just being myself.
The poem “Desiderata” was ubiquitous in dorm rooms when I went to college. At that time, the poem was not attributed to an individual. Instead, at the bottom of the the poster were the words “FOUND IN OLD SAINT PAUL’S CHURCH, BALTIMORE, DATED 1692,” which, though fascinating, was untrue. It was not found in 1692, but written in 1927 by poet Max Ehrmann. [Here’s some interesting history involving copyright confusion, if you care.]
Anyway, the point of bringing up “Desiderata” is that the first time I read it at age 17 or 18, when I got to the words, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here,” I burst into tears. The only way I can think of to explain that reaction is that, until that time, I had not gotten that message. Looking back, I know that I was loved as a child, but my parents’ own childhoods had been imbued with the same implicit messages that they imparted to me. What I did not hear from them (and what I imagine they didn’t hear from their parents either) was that I mattered, that my presence in our family was precious and important. I don’t blame them, I blame John Calvin.
Trying to articulate what messages I heard from Ralph and Dorothy, I suspected they might have had a Calvinist mindset, so I Googled “Calvinist parenting” and found an article entitled “Calvinistic Child-Rearing” from “The Pastor’s Press,” a publication of the Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church in South Carolina. Alarmingly, this was written only five years ago, so the tradition continues. A few excerpts:
The single most important fact about humanity when dealing with little people as well as big people is the doctrine of original sin....
When they refuse to lie quietly in bed at bedtime; when they demand food when dinner is soon to be served; when they interrupt adult conversation, the word no is salutary. A dozen times a day they are thereby reminded that they don’t come first and that all the world doesn’t exist to serve them...
Is original sin the only truth that needs to be understood? Of course not. Still, a large part of parenting involves restraining our children’s idolatrous impulses.
OK. I agree that children need consistency and structure, but when the starting point is belief that children are bedeviled by original sin and the constant refrain is “No!” where does that lead? And, by the way, what are “idolatrous impulses?” I believe that my parents grew up in environments that made child-rearing on such principles second nature; they weren’t thinking explicitly about original sin or stifling our impulses, but they were hard-wired to say, “Put a lid on it” in a way I took way too literally, generating self-doubt and insecurity.
Incidentally, my Schechter uncles (my mom’s brothers) would often ask little kids, “Do you think you’ll ever amount to anything?” [It was generally asked of boys. I don’t think they thought there was a chance in hell that a girl would end up amounting to anything except being a wife, housekeeper and mother.] Though it was a light-hearted question, hidden in it is the message that you don’t amount to something as you are. I can’t imagine how some parents these days would react if someone dared to ask that question of their little ones. We now encourage self-esteem in our kids, sometimes to a fault. Not so much in the past, at least in my family.
As awkward and self-conscious as I was as a child, I was an early reader. I can only guess that I picked it up simply from looking at the text while my mother or older brother read to me. I was fascinated by words. I remember sitting on the bottom step when my mom was doing laundry in our basement, chatting to her about the mysterious power of silent e. She was bemused, but as I recall, she kept up her end of the conversation.
When we visited my maternal grandparents in Jetmore, Kansas (yes, the Jetmore, Kansas) when I was four or five, I remember visiting friends and relatives and performing my first (and only) party trick: reading aloud whatever was handed to me. Popular Mechanics magazine is the specific example I remember.
I started kindergarten at age five, shy and nervous. The first day, the students were coloring when a table neighbor pointed out that my coloring left too many white spaces. I cried. I cried often that fall, feeling out of step with the other students, assuming that they knew “what’s what” and I didn’t.
However, a few months into the year, my teacher left the room for a minute or two and when she came back, I was reading to the class, holding the book like she did so everyone could see the pictures. I was pulled from class shortly thereafter by the person I now know was the school psychologist. All I remember from the testing was the draw-a-person portion and the number sequence part of the IQ test. The psychologist betrayed surprise when my drawing included shoelaces, and again when I could recite back a group of random numbers in reverse order. Her telling facial expressions and comments were against protocol, since the examiner is supposed to remain impassive, giving nothing away, but I now understand how she felt. When I was teaching and gave academic tests, I couldn’t help “breaking character” by giving encouraging feedback, and I even laughed in surprise at times. (See the anecdote below, one of many I remember from tests I gave.)
The outcome of the testing was that partway through kindergarten, I was suddenly placed in first grade. I was then even more a fish out of water, even more socially backward, but in my back pocket was reassuring sense that I was smart. I didn’t hesitate to help others with their work whether they asked me to or not, and it was that year when I first corrected a teacher. She was gracious about it, but not all teachers to follow were. Over the years, I learned to read the room and occasionally curb the impulse.
Unfortunately, once I was finally reassured that, at least in one way, I “amounted to something,” I developed a inner sense of… well, not omnipotence, but perhaps arrogance. When I was in fourth grade, however, I was identified among 48 kids who tested as “gifted.” (I have a visceral objection to that word, having seen gifts in virtually every kid I ever taught.) We entered 5th grade in two different schools, 24 in each class. I soon realized that I was not the smartest student in the world, and definitely not in the class. Terry Taylor, for instance, when we were given a week to memorize the Gettysburg Address, came back the next day having it down cold.
We 48, with a few exiting and a few entering, were together through high school — one big, dysfunctional family. It was good, I guess, to be challenged academically, even though it seemed to weaken what I saw as my one strong point. The best result was that it took some of the starch out of my arrogance. I have been aware ever since that there are many people who are more intelligent than I. That’s a comfort. It takes the pressure off. I don’t have to know everything.
I started this “hubris/humility” blog post in December, four months ago. After the introduction, I had decided to end the post by listing all the painful events in my life that I attribute to one of these characteristics. I plunged myself into severe introspection, even staying awake at night sometimes, dredging up memories that can still evoke an inward (sometimes audible) moan when called to mind. I won’t do that here. I’m determined to leave the past where it belongs, but hubris and humility continue to guide my thinking far too much. Perhaps listing general examples of how they can knock me off-center will allow me to recognize them before they get me into trouble.
Manifestations of hubris: 1) believing that I can do many more tasks in a given period of time than is humanly possible; 2) taking on leadership positions and, because I think I can do everything better than anyone else, not delegating; 3) being hyperaware of others’ grammar and pronunciation errors, feeling inwardly critical of the person who makes them; and 4) on a practical note, imagining that I can carry way too many things, often leading to dropping one or more, or worse, tripping over something and sending everything flying. I was playing viola at our congregation one Sunday with a 20-year-old friend, Tristan (who uses they/them pronouns, which is very hard for this old dog to get used to). They rode with me, and when we arrived, I told them to take in several items, and I would take several more. They just stared at me, then calmly reminded me, “We have trips.” I have done 50 more years of living than Tristan, and yet have much to learn from them.
[I think I caught all the pronouns. It takes great concentration, but I believe in honoring people by pronouncing their names correctly and, however awkward it currently feels, using the pronouns they prefer.]
Manifestations of (excessive) humility: 1) beating myself up when I fail to perform as my hubris has told me I should be able to; 2) not giving myself credit for successes; and 3) still feeling out of step and uncomfortable at times, especially when I have to dress up. (I always have the uneasy sense that I’m cross-dressing. I simply don’t feel like myself.)
An instance of #3: For my daughter Katie’s wedding to Wayland McQueen in 2016, I shopped for a dress and didn’t find anything I liked, so I pulled an old dress out of the closet and convinced myself that it was perfect. It wasn’t. To add to my humiliation, I was in pain because I had my then-long hair styled into a braid that required many pins that stuck into the back of my head. The wedding was great, and the photos of it were beautiful, but I can hardly bear to look at the ones I’m in.
Twenty years ago, the list of situations that led me to a feeling of self-abasing inadequacy would have been much, much longer. I guess I’ve learned something in my incipient old age. I like myself much more now.
Only tangentially related, I recently opened an email from the New York Times with the subject line “Hubris and humility.” It’s about the hubris some NFL owners display when drafting players, a subject about which I have no interest, but the lessons drawn from it also apply to the hiring process in other businesses and, unexpectedly, to the predictions that led to bad decisions in response to Covid. I’m not alone in having hubris get me into predicaments.
from the mouths (and pencils) of kids
John Shields was a chubby, quirky 6th-grader. He was definitely on what we now know as the autism spectrum. I adored him. He was very advanced academically. I’m not even sure why he was in my special education classroom — maybe just because he didn’t fit in with the other kids? Anyway, the first day he was in my class, I was giving him an individual academic assessment, using an easel-type book. On his side of the book was an illustration, in this case a pie chart. My side showed the question I was to ask: “The Browns monthly income is $400. [This was in 1977 and the test kit was probably at least a decade old.] If they spend 25% of their income on food, how much do they spend on food each month?”
John’s answer (in his robotic voice): “$100, and I would call that a meager existence.”
Oh, another story about John. One day, he was in my classroom during lunch, chatting with me. I was busy grading work, and since he was up, I asked him to get me something from the top drawer of the file cabinet. He walked over and gave the drawer several vigorous tugs, not aware that there was a thumb catch. When I came over and showed him how to do it, he said, “Ah… the rule of thumb.”
[By the way, I took the photo at the top when we were in Greece in 2018. The space between the buildings and the play of shadows caught my eye.]